The New Zealand new releases tasting in London last week may not have had the scale of recent years, being held in the 67 Pall Mall club, but it was just as insightful. Apart from a slew of first rate wines from the 2019, 2020 and 2021 vintages, New Zealand Winegrowers decided to show how these wines can age. A masterclass, hosted by Peter McCombie MW, showed Sauvignon Blancs from as far back as 2003 and Pinot from 2008 onwards. It was a real eye-opening, transcendent affair, as David Kermode reports.
“I have moved on a bit, admittedly, but tasting Brancott Estate Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2022 was like being reunited with an ex and remembering what you fell for in the first place,” writes Kermode.
New Zealand’s latest vintages were undoubtedly on fine form at this year’s new release tasting, but it was the old timers that truly stole the show, with ten wines dating back almost two decades showcased by Master of Wine Peter McCombie.
The masterclass provided the perfect scene-setter for a tasting of 99 newly released wines from 32 producers, covering seven of New Zealand’s wine producing regions – including Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa, Marlborough, Nelson, North Canterbury and Central Otago – just over half of them from New Zealand’s hero grape, Sauvignon Blanc.
Kiwi Savvy Blanc has been in short supply of late, with the 2021 harvest down almost 20% percent on the previous year, forcing many importers to search elsewhere for supplies. Thankfully, there was no repeat this year, with official figures from New Zealand Winegrowers recording a crop of 532,000 tonnes in 2022, a fillip given the importance of wine to the country’s economy: export sales were worth more than $2 billion in the year to September, even though New Zealand accounts for just one percent of global wine production.
Those golden oldies
“Winemakers crave credibility and the production of ageworthy wines is really key to that,” said McCombie, as he introduced his aged release masterclass, “those wines should deliver more complexity and depth to give us a thrill … perhaps even transcendence.”
Fans of Cloudy Bay will already know to disregard the old adage that Sauvignon Blanc does not age gracefully. The oldest wine in the tasting, Cloudy Bay ‘Te Koko’ Sauvignon Blanc 2003, though lacking freshness, was serene in its dotage. Still surprisingly youthful, Villa Maria ‘Keltern’ Chardonnay 2010, from Hawke’s Bay, was a real highlight, with creamy lemon posset baked apple, zesty acidity and an elegant poise, while Pegasus Bay Riesling 2012, from North Canterbury was a contender for wine of the tasting, with its beguiling nose of lime marmalade and ripe greengage, the rich fruit on the palate balanced by an electrifying yuzu acidity, the finish waxy and long.
Among the aged reds, Te Mata Awatea 2013, from Hawke’s Bay was both poised and plush, with bright berry fruit, graphite, hints of spearmint and a lovely dialled back, almost dainty style. Felton Road’s Nigel Greening had generously offered two back vintages of the same wine: Felton Road Block 5 Pinot Noir 2009 and 2012. The ’09, from some of the last remaining bottles in the UK, offered a Burgundian nose, with forest floor and mushroom notes atop blueberry fruit, the palate silky, elegant and evolved. The ’12 was more tightly wound, slightly shyer and just coming into its own, with foraged blackberry, hibiscus, souk spice, seemingly seamless tannins and a delicious herbal complexity. However, those present for the afternoon session seemed unanimous that the standout wine was an incredible Pinot Noir, crafted by Hiroyuki Kusuda, a Tokyo-born winemaker who studied at Germany’s Geisenheim University before being mentored by Kai Schubert in Martinborough. Kusuda Pinot Noir 2008 seduced with a beguiling nose of fresh red cherries, pomegranate, ripe mango and a pinch of pink peppercorn, the palate offers delicate layers of the finest silk enmeshed in a punnet of perfectly ripe cherries. Elegant and classy, this was surely what McCombie meant, when he talked about transcendence.
The young guns
Though it sits firmly in the shadow of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling made an obvious place to start the new release tasting. Pegasus Bay Bel Canto Dry Riesling 2020 from Waipara Valley, was vivacious, with waxy lemon and tropical pineapple, balanced by zippy lime acidity, with a lengthy finish for a wine still in its infancy. Even younger, Two Paddocks Dry Riesling 2021 from an organic producer in Earnscleugh, Central Otrago, was lithe and zesty with white grapefruit and a lovely, subtle wet stone undertow.
New Zealand Chardonnay remains inexplicably under the radar, when it comes to global awareness, and I can never understand why… because it’s amazing. Among the highlights, Smith & Seth CRU Heretaunga Chardonnay 2019, from Hawke’s Bay, the creation of Steve Smith MW and Brian Sheth, a dynamic double act who apparently initially met over a glass of Chard’. Enticing reductive notes of struck match lead into ripe tropical aromas of fleshy peach and pineapple. The French oak is well integrated with toasty hazelnut and citrus brioche and there’s a wonderful creamy generosity to the fruit, through to the long satisfying finish.
Also showing well, Raparua Springs, ‘Bouldevines Vineyard’, Chardonnay 2020, also displaying reductive qualities on the nose, with generous stone fruit, vanilla pod and delicate spice, leading into plump fruit, bright citrus acidity and a lovely textural lees quality, through to the creamy lemon tart finish. The only downside: what felt like a heavy bottle.
So to Sauvignon Blanc, which accounts for well over two thirds of all the vines planted in New Zealand, most of it in Marlborough, which is itself six times the size of the next biggest region, Hawke’s Bay. Brancott Estate produces well-made, mass-market wines that I have not tasted for years. Once known as Montana, in the nineties, it was my introduction to the phenomena of Marlborough Sauvignon. I have moved on a bit, admittedly, but tasting Brancott Estate Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2022 was like being reunited with an ex and remembering what you fell for in the first place: powerful, grassy and fresh, this tropical citrus bomb is successful for a reason. A few notches up, Yealands Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2022 is equally generous, but with a leafier nose and more nuanced tropical fruit, a clean, glacial purity and a delicious mineral streak.
At the top end, Smith & Seth CRU Wairau Sauvignon Blanc 2021 is a textbook wine, from mature vines, offering a fresh, vivid nose of grapefruit, gooseberry and blackcurrant leaf and a juicy palate rich in fine textural detail.
Though whites dominated the tasting, the reds put on a strong show, mostly an even mix of the ’20 and ’21 vintages. Te Rehua Single Vineyard Pinot Noir by Escarpment 2020 offered a lovely expression of the Martinborough signature, with elegant plum and black cherry, dried rosemary, cedar spice and subtle wood smoke. Different in style and a personal favourite, Akitu A1 2020, screams Central Otago, with bright, bountiful berry fruit, crunchiness, sleek silky tannins and a lovely granite note. The biodynamic family of Felton Road wines were, as ever, showing well, with the highlight of the new releases: Felton Road ‘Cornish Point’ Pinot Noir 2021, with its ethereal wafts of raspberry, redcurrant, rose petal and dried thyme. Still tightly wound, the brooding berry fruit teases while a savoury delicacy tantalises, bringing to mind that word again: transcendence.