If you can remember the 1960’s then, they say, you weren’t really there. If, however, you can remember the 1990s then you were probably one of the very few that didn’t overdo it on the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
At the time, its sudden ubiquity came as a surprise to pretty much everyone. Up until then, the Sauvignon Blancs of the Loire Valley had been seen as unassailable classics, generally regarded as the very peak as to what could be achieved with the grape.
Then came Cloudy Bay, an interloper from the Marlborough region of New Zealand’s South Island. The winery, only established in 1985, had somehow managed to stumble across a style of Sauvignon Blanc that sort of resembled the Loire wines, while being fruitier and more acidic. It was less subtle, but it was certainly different and boasted strong immediate appeal.
For a while, production couldn’t quite keep up with demand. New Zealand growers, keen to emulate Cloudy Bay’s success, were soon planting Sauvignon Blanc in every cultivatable space they could find. Almost overnight, it became the country’s signature grape.
Writing of the Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs of the time, Oz Clarke, the renowned British wine commentator, grandly dubbed them: “arguably the best in the world.” For many, this was an extraordinarily casual dismissal of generations of finely-crafted French wines.
Eventually – and perhaps inevitably – the euphoria wore off. Today, hardly anybody would endorse Clarke’s view. Not even most of the Kiwis themselves.
The great Sauvignon Blancs of the Loire Valley have now been restored to the high regard that was traditionally theirs. And the grassy, herbaceous, gooseberry-flavored upstarts from New Zealand? Sadly, they are now routinely dismissed as dull. Generic even.
Even Cloudy Bay – acquired by LVMH in 2003 as a natural extension to it’s luxury brand portfolio – has lost much of its cachet. While production has increased in volume terms, many critics believe the quality of the wines has dropped proportionately. It’s more likely, though, that their very immediacy somehow masked an particular underlying lack of complexity.
The Sauvignon Blanc boom, however, did establish that the country was capable of producing wines that are well able to appeal to the wider world. With a number of other grape varieties now coming into their own in New Zealand, some even see the possibility of a “Second Coming.”
Today New Zealand’s red Pinot Noir wines – which are actually far more interesting than its Sauvignon Blancs ever were – are widely and justly acclaimed. Indeed, their quality has inevitably, prompted comparisons with the wines of Burgundy. The styles, though, are quite different and the comparisons are ultimately unhelpful. It does raise, though, the question as to why, if Burgundy’s signature red grape can fare so well in New Zealand, do we hear quite so little of Kiwi wines made from its signature white varietal?
Chardonnay has, of course, been planted in New Zealand for many years. Cloudy Bay, for instance, produces both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It is the focus on Sauvignon Blanc as an export wine, however, that has somewhat overshadowed all other varietals.
That is changing – at least according to Michael Brajkovich, the head winemaker at West Auckland’s Kumeu River Wines, a family-owned operation dating back to 1944. Tellingly, back in 1989 he was the first New Zealander to qualify as a Master of Wine (MW). Today, there are 13 such masters.
Assessing the changing face of the New Zealand wine industry, he says: “As a company, Chardonnay has been very important to us for a long time and we’ve been pretty successful in that category. Along with Pinot Noir, it is really on the up and up. Wine makers and consumers are really getting into it. In Australia, too, it is also racing along in terms of quality. In terms of volume Sauvignon Blanc is still the most important grape in New Zealand but, in terms of quality, Chardonnay is way ahead.”
According to Brajkovich, it has taken some time to identify just the right terroir for Chardonnay in New Zealand, as well as to understand the special characteristics of individual parcels of it.
“Some 30 years ago we started out in the Chardonnay business and we wanted to make one really good wine. In order to do that you have to blend from a lot of different vineyards but, while doing so, you still need to keep those vineyards quite separate. Ultimately, you start to see some of the individual characters that come back, year in and year out.
“What you are seeing is terroir and it’s very exciting. It takes decades, though, to identify it, isolate it and start to appreciate it. Clearly, we haven’t been around anywhere near as long as Burgundy, so we don’t know these things until we try them out.”
Along with an understanding of the local terroir characteristics has come a more thoughtful and restrained approach to producing Chardonnay. Brajkovich sees a similar thing happening in Australia where – thanks to his MW status as well as his track record as a winemaker – he is much in demand as a wine show judge.
He says: “Actually, it’s been changing for some time. I’m chair of the judges at the Royal Adelaide Wine Show, and we’ve seen huge improvements in the quality of Chardonnay. While there’s still a constituency out there for those big, buttery alcoholic Chardonnays, they are actually harder to find these days.”
In Brajkovich’s view, the better quality Chardonnays in Australia and New Zealand are tending to come from the cooler climate areas, regions where subtler wines can be produced.
Highlighting this, he says: “The better quality wines are much more elegant in style, while the oak used is much more restrained. We’re also seeing other characteristics coming in. There’s a lot of talk about the “Mod Oz” or the New Zealand Chardonnays that are much more reductive.
“Our Chardonnays have always had a flinty character – Hunting Hill in particular. It is actually much more akin to what you would find in a white Burgundy. There are now a lot more similarities to that international cool climate style of Chardonnay than there have been in the past.
“We’re also seeing a general rise in the quality of other takes on Chardonnay – not necessarily the oak-driven barrel-fermented styles. We’re now seeing a lot more wines made in other containers – stainless steel or concrete – and in much bigger volumes. As long as they are made properly and aged for long enough, they can still develop quite a striking character.”
The wine master also believes that Australia and New Zealand are actually more in touch with the modern international preferences for Chardonnay than a number of other regions, notably California. He says: “In America, they seem to be too rooted in the past. They still produce a lot of those big buttery, more oaky and more alcoholic styles of Chardonnay. Over the past five to six years, Australia and New Zealand have both moved away from that format quite significantly.”
Despite this, he still believes it may take time for the wider world to catch on to New Zealand Chardonnay the way it has to Pinot Noir. Acknowledging this, he says: “Pinot Noir is right up there. I’m the chair of judges for the Air New Zealand Wine Awards and the most competitive category in terms of Gold Medals and overall quality is always Pinot Noir. It does well from a number of different regions. It’s encouraging, though, to see that Chardonnay is also starting to get up there.”
A fine example of the best that New Zealand now has to offer comes courtesy of Kumeu River wines, with its range now available in Hong Kong and China through Northeast Wines and Spirits Ltd. It is currently available in three tiers – an easy-drinking Village Range, analogous to Village Burgundy; a more expensive Premium Range of wines, all blended from different vineyards; and a Single Vineyard Range, with Northeast offering the Coddington, the Hunting Hill and the Mate’s Vineyard Chardonnays.
The Premium and Single Vineyard range wines are all of impressive quality. At a recent Hong Kong tasting Brajkovich’s Premium Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris went down well, though the Chardonnays clearly remain the estate’s strongest suit.