The State of NZ Wines

Of all the wine shows out there, there are just two that are owned by NZ Winegrowers: the Air NZ Wine Awards and the lesser known little brother, the Bragato Wine Awards. Historically lost a little behind the Air NZ Wine Awards might (likely due to the exposure opportunities the $ of the sponsorship brings), the Bragato Wine Awards play an important role.

Named after Romeo Bragato, the New Zealand Government Viticulturist from 1902 – 1909, the Bragato Wine Awards champion Domain wines – where grapes are coming from owned vineyards and single vineyard sites. In addition, the lower minimum quantity requirement (than the Air NZ Awards) results in many smaller producers being able to enter. As the first show after new vintage releases start hitting the shelves, it’s also a good gauge of how the vintage is looking.

I had the opportunity to join the judging again this year, which took place in mid August. Great to be able to see such a wide variety of wines and judge with such a talented team. The results will be out by the time this is published and the award winning wines are well worth hunting out. The individual results are not what I wanted to share here, but more some observations I walked away with from the judging and the colourful discussion.

An absolute highlight was the Cabernet dominant class. We were blessed with the vintages on the table this year ‐ 2013, 2014 and 2015. It’s been widely reported that 13 and 14 are exceptionalvintages for Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke, being the two regions that Cabernet dominant wines love.

The 2015 vintage though showed exceptionally well and is right up there with the preceding vintages; something very rare indeed, three excellent vintages in a row. I am guilty of not having tasted a lot of NZ Cabernet of late, with my recent travels taking me to Bordeaux to taste new vintages there. I was super impressed with the overall quality, the results when out will highlight this further; do hunt out the award winners in store, they are well worth taking a look at.

The Pinot Noir category as you can imagine was large and diverse, the quality unmistakable; there’s a reason the rest of the world are standing up and taking notice. The very best of the Syrah flights were super and would leave many a Rhône producer speechless.

Within the White categories, Sauvignon Blanc (whilst not everyone’s favourite to judge, particularly at 8am) showed why NZ Sauvignon is such a distinctive and unique style. Pinot Gris was so much more consistent than I’ve seen it in the past, a clearer sense of a NZ Pinot Gris style emerging.
Chardonnay, as you would expect, created the most conversation amongst the judges, the differing faces of Chardonnay pushing boundaries, which I believe is a good thing.

All in all, two days of intense judging and it’s clear that the NZ Wine industry is in good shape. Do taste for yourself though; this month at Glengarry we take a regional road trip around NZ and explore this great country of ours.

Kumeu River Versus White Burgundy

Last night Michael Brajkovich MW presented to a full house in Auckland his 2013 wines paired with white burgundy. The tasting was put together to look at the 2013 new releases from Kumeu River and we were delighted that Michael agreed to taste them alongside a range of Burgundies we import.

In presenting the tasting last night, Michael talked of the Burgundies being wines that he aspires to, though noting that they are not trying to emulate Burgundy. It’s the quality and expression of place that Michael aspires to in making wines that are of course New Zealand Chardonnay. More specifically Kumeu Chardonnay from specific vineyards sites.

The 2013 Kumeu River release has a number of defining characters; in September the vineyards were hit with severe inversion frost, the Brajkovich family tried to fight the front with helicopters though were not successful. The next morning, the vineyard looked decimated. The vineyard did come back from this and produce a crop, though only half of the normal crop size. The result was highly concentrated fruit of excellent quality. This also led to a higher acidity – tartaric acid specifically that unlike malic acid, which softens during malolactic fermentation, does not soften and is evident in the final wine. This acidity, for me, leaves the wines with a drive and precision that is a hallmark of the entire range from 2013. All of this resulted in a very small production of exceptional wine.

Add to this a tasting in the UK, at merchants Farr Vintners, of 4 Kumeu wines with 4 Burgundies, tasted blind by a number of influential wine writers and critics. At this tasting, in three flights the Kumeu wines tasted blind rated at the top, in the other, first equal. This tasting made headline news in all publications around the world and has driven up demand on production of half its usual size.

The pairings last night were fascinating. We started with the Kumeu River Estate 2013, a wine that comes from 6 different vineyard sites around the Kumeu area. This was beside the Domaine Bellene Savigny les Beaune, an excellent wine, with tension and drive, from a village more known for its red wines. The commonality was in the chalky character, interesting given that the soil in Kumeu is heavy clay and Savigny chalky limestone. These two wines would make a great pair for a debate on whether you can taste the soil in a wine. Next up was the Coddington 2013 with the Alex Gambal Puligny Montrachet. An excellent pairing; Coddington is super concentrated this year, always the full throttle Kumeu wine, this year more so. Then on to Hunting Hill paired with the Domaine Chartron Puligny Montrachet Clos de Pucelle, a monopole of Jean Chartron in the middle of the famed Pucelle vineyard in Puligny. The wines were a delight to see side by side, both sharing a charm, drive and precision. The final pair of the night was the Kumeu River Mates 2013 with the Bonneau du Martray Corton Charlemagne 2010.

It was clear from Michael’s opening to this bracket the admiration he has for Corton and the pleasure the family takes from having their wine served alongside the Corton. When tastings of this kind are prepared the world over, this is a pairing often made. You can only imagine how proud Michael’s father Mate would be today to see the quality of these wines and have them presented in this company.

Taking good care of history

Heading down to Gisborne to judge at the Gisborne Wine Awards, my first stop off the plane was Matawhero. Kirsten Searle kindly collected me from the Airport and it was not long before the question I’d dreaded came up – ‘When was I last in Gisborne?’, you see, it was in fact my first time to Gisborne. Given it’s NZ’s third largest wine producing area, that’s somewhat of a disgrace.

Kirsten and Richard Searle took over Matawhero from Denis Irwin, somewhat of a local and NZ winemaking legend. I must admit wondering at the time what I would do if I was in their position, taking on a winery with such a reputation. It’s something that those joining me in Gisborne for the Wine Awards also pondered and a subject of much conversation. Denis Irwin made at Matawhero, one of the finest Gewurtztraminer, in it’s prime, it was legendary.

Kirsten took me for a fantastic tour of the property and through thier current releases. I’m delighted to report, there’s clear direction and I believe – in the right way. Rather than dwelling too much on the past, although you do get a clear sense of respect for it, Kirsten and Richard are aiming to showcase the very best that Gisborne as a region can produce. To do this they have partnered with some very smart Gisborne growers, many of whom’s wine I’ve sold for years but never met, including Peter Bryant and Paul Tietjen. It was a delight to meet them and take a tour around their vineyard sites.

Part of highlighting what Gisborne does best involves a fair amount of trial and they are well positioned for it in Gisborne. Riversun nursery is the pre-eminant nursery to the NZ wine industry, and at Matawhero they have had excellent success with some new clones of Pinot Gris.Plus and a wonderfully aromatic Chardonnay clone that they bottle as Chardonnay Musque – often used as a blending component in top Burgundian wines.

I had a delightful afternoon with Kirsten at Matawhero and an educational drive around the region, which set me up nicely for the full day of judging ahead.