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New Zealand’s finest

New Zealand has been experiencing wine surplus since its record harvest in 2007, meaning a lot of its product is being sold in bulk and at low or below cost prices.

wineSo it’s been a tougher market for New Zealand over the last few years. Growers were told to restrain production in 2009 and, by heck, they pulled out all the stops. Everywhere was aggressive shoot trimming, bunch thinning, grape plucking, carefully managed irrigation. The result? A harvest which, at around 285,000 tonnes, was nearly as large as 2008 but of much better quality. Favourable weather and an extra 2,000 hectares of vineyard had thwarted the cutback policy; only Central Otago managed a sizeable reduction of 38%.

What to do? Well, for consumers it’s terrific. They will enjoy quality wine at generally lower prices. For growers, there’s the task of finding a market for an estimated 40 million litres of surplus wine, leading to an increase in bulk exports, historically at around 5%, to 20%. No wonder the sheen was taken off the news that for 2009, total New Zealand wine exports had reached the NZ$1 billion watershed.

According to Joe Stanton of Constellation NZ, the need to clear surplus will continue this year. Worst off are producers who failed to move enough of their 2008 stocks and then had too little space for the next vintage. A few were forced to leave 2009 grapes still on the vine – a tragedy when the quality was so good. The 2010 vintage will begin soon and it’s certain that yield control will be sterner than ever if New Zealand is not to lose that precious price premium.

Turning to wine styles, sauvignon blanc is still the most important at 68% of total production and 81% of exports. Chardonnay is next but its hectarage is less than 20% of that of sauvignon blanc. Sales of pinot gris grew by 62% in 2009, from a small base but marketing of this grape is tricky. Fresh pinot grigio styles could simply cannibalise sauvignon blanc offerings, with richer pinot gris versions likely to remain a niche market. The lack of success by the wine press in persuading drinkers of the merits of riesling was shown yet again, as sales of this variety fell by 22%.

Among reds, pinot noir is getting increasing attention, with over six million litres being made last year. Syrah is still small at 115,000 tonnes but is developing a characteristically New Zealand style of fresh, plummy fruit and well-balanced alcohol. Bordeaux styles remain peripheral, with only 14,000 litres of cabernet sauvignon being produced.

Some industry experts have suggested that New Zealand may be over dependent on sauvignon blanc and, in the UK, on supermarket buyers. Certainly, the heavy reliance on sauvignon blanc could leave New Zealand open to a sudden fashion swing away from the grape. Some have advocated reducing chardonnay production, but that could be bad advice as it is a noble variety surely due for a return to favour in mass markets. Some extra promotion of the often very good reds, especially the easy styles of pinot noir from warmer regions such as Marlborough, could also pay dividends.

New Zealand held an Irish tasting lately and, given the familiarity of buyers with sauvignon blanc, we decided to focus on chardonnay and pinot noir. Prices are approximately retail.

WHITES

Esk Valley Hawkes Bay Chenin Blanc 2008 (Findlater €16). One of the wines of the day, showing all the classicism of Loire Valley but with a beautifully balanced ripeness. Elegant, well-priced wine for what you get.

Craggy Range Kidnappers Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2008 (Febvre €27). Fruity yet elegant with a lovely twist of citrus-laced tropical fruits. A treat, if pricey.

Ata Rangi Craighall Martinborough Chardonnay 2007 (Liberty €39). Nicely concentrated with a touch of tropical sweetness; but hard to sell at this price.

Two Tracks Marlborough Chardonnay 2008 (Comans €9.99). Good value at this price with decent citrus fruit.

Staate Landt Marlborough Chardonnay 2008 (Vineyard Galway €16). Lovely stuff, just beginning to evolve under its cork closure; classic, almost Burgundian style with just a bit of added ripeness. Delivers on price.

Oyster Bay Chardonnay 2008 (Cassidy €11.49). Easy, well-priced, enjoyable wine.

Cloudy Bay Marlborough Chardonnay 2006 (Dillon €31). Rounded and slightly warm in style, with citrus and tropical fruits, and reasonable concentration. This iconic label commands a price premium; whether you want to pay it, is up to you.

Villa Maria East Coast Chardonnay Marlborough 2009 (Barry Fitzwilliam €11.99). Citrus and pears palate makes for easy drinking at a fair price.

REDS

Newton Forrest Cornerstone Cabernet Merlot Hawkes Bay 2006 (James Nicholson €15). Lovely cherry fruit lift, with leathery spices and just a fleeting hint of coconut. Tasty but elegant and very good value.

Esk Valley Marlborough Pinot Noir 2008 (Cassidy €15.99). Good value; decent concentration and tasty summer fruits.
Babich Pinot Marlborough Pinot Nor 2007 (Ampersand €16). Decent, fruity stuff.

Wild Rock Cupids Arrow Central Otago Pinot Noir 2007(Febvre €24). Fresh but not green fruit and tasty berry flavours. Not cheap but not too bad in the value stakes.

Seifried Nelson Pinot Noir 2007 (Classic Drinks €19). Nicely balanced, varietally correct wine, which delivers reasonably on its price.

Two Tracks Marlborough Pinot Nor 2008 (Comans €12.99). Like its chardonnay, easy, decent and value for money.

Oyster Bay Marlborough Pinot Noir 2008 (Cassidy €13.99). Fairly priced easy drinker with some decent varietal character as well.

Montana South Island Pinot Noir 2008 (Irish Distillers €13). Tasty summer fruits in approachable style.

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