Insider opinion: NZ 2010

(by peter & susie)

2008: the tipping point

In 2008, various factors conspired to make an annus horribilis for the New Zealand wine industry: a mediocre vintage, over production, downward pressure on prices by big retailers and a global financial crisis being prime among them.

The country needs to take the hard lessons learned during 2008 and use them to its benefit rather than ignore them to its detriment.

One key issue that needs addressing is yields: the habitual over-cropping, especially of Sauvignon Blanc, gives wines that are often lacklustre and sickly, beefed up as they necessarily are by residual sugar and other winemaking contrivances.

The yield issue also has a direct bearing on the overall image, not to mention profitability, of the industry. New Zealand has built an enviable reputation for premium-priced quality and it needs to hang on to this at all costs; once lost, such an asset is very hard to win back (as the Ozzies are currently finding). Loath as we are to encourage high prices in wines, sometimes things are worth paying for – as long as quality can be guaranteed.

The New Zealand wine industry needs to take a long, hard look at where it wants to sit in the market, and then act on that. 2008 can be either a valuable lesson learned or a sign of things to come.

Let’s hope it proves to be the former.

(And, in the meantime, our advice is to avoid many of the 2008 wines, especially reds, unless from top producers – the result is often weedy and decidedly lacklustre.)

Alcohol: less is more

Some fascinating visits to the likes of Dry River and Neudorf shed interesting light on the alcohol debate.

As regular readers will know, in our household, high alcohol wines (usually anything at 14% or over) struggle to find favour, largely because we find them hard to drink in any decent quantity, hard to match with food, and hard on the head in the morning.

High alcohols are a common affliction of many warm climate viticultural areas including southern Europe and most of the New World. But in New Zealand, the combination of fierce sunlight together with often moderate temperatures and fresh winds, gives winemakers the chance to make complex wines at lower alcohol levels than many New World competitors.

Dry River is a particular case in point. Quite stunning Pinot Noir and Syrah from this tiny Martinborough producer weigh in at 12.5%. As winemaker Poppy Hammond explained to us, it’s down to meticulous canopy management and ensuring proper light exposure in the bunches from early in the growing season, in order to promote the ripening of flavour rather than the accumulation of sugar.

Simple, no?

Well, apparently not. Given the increasing focus on health issues, not to mention excise duty rates around the world, making properly ripe but lower alcohol wines in a natural fashion is the holy grail of many New World producers, but few manage it (many New Zealand producers included).

It would be good to see more initiatives like those at Dry River. In the meantime, we’ll be applying to their allocation list – and looking out for more to join.

Birds, nets, sirens and bangs

Travelling round New Zealand at this time of year, you might be forgiven for thinking an army of giant albino spiders had been hard at work cocooning the nation’s vineyard in silken thread.

In fact, it’s anti-bird netting, one of the many measures to counter what is one of New Zealand’s greatest natural pests: feared for their capacity to damage grapes and thus spread infection and rot just as much as their voracious appetites.

Spending time in the vineyards, it’s common to hear the regular popping of gas guns and sirens, to see reflective ribbon fluttering in the wind – even skinned rabbits and possums on posts to attract hawks and other predators.

It all makes for quite a sight – and sound. Ready those shades and ear muffs…

The 2010 vintage

Dismal January weather has had many producers up in arms, but we can attest to the brilliance of the late-February and early March conditions, returning as we are, freckled and thoroughly sunned.

We had nothing but strong sun, pleasantly warming and breezy conditions on our trip: hopefully this will prove a beneficial Indian summer for the industry and inject a bit of life into the 2010 vintage.

Watch this space.

A final thought

We’ve been privileged to visit some of New Zealand’s finest producers over the last few weeks, including Te Mata, Craggy Range, Dry River, Ata Rangi, Villa Maria, Dog Point and Neudorf.

It’s been exciting to get to grips with regions we hadn’t properly understood before (Martinborough being a prime example) and producers that were new to us (Dog Point, Fromm).

It’s been refreshing to be given frank, forthright and often painfully honest feedback by the winemakers and viticulturists we’ve talked to. All too often in the wine world it’s a case of smoke and mirrors: obfuscation and hype dressed up as honest talk. But the Kiwis clearly have the gift of honest self-evaluation and a propensity to work together – these rare talents will serve the industry well in the future.

It’s been great to re-evaluate our perspectives on varieties like Sauvignon Blanc (many more anti-establishment wines than we’d thought existed) and Syrah (some outstanding examples are being made here, especially from the Gimblett Gravels and Martinborough). Chardonnay could do with more work in our view, with too many wines still suffering from a sickly-buttery character that jars with the high acid and bright citrus fruit – but a few high quality wines clearly show this syndrome can be overcome.

We leave New Zealand convinced that it has a very bright future, and we will be drinking its wines for a long time to come.