Sunday, August 17, 2008
DEFERENCE OR ACQUIESCENCE?
The New Zealand wine industry is based on varietals sourced from elsewhere. That is no surprise as we do not have native grapes in New Zealand.
We built our industry on importing these varietals, planting and growing them and then trying to produce similar wines as those made in the countries the varietals were sourced from. Usually the result was a poor imitation.
Over time, our viticulturists and winemakers learnt to; select best sites; match best varietals to those sites; and to make the best possible wine from the resultant excellent fruit regardless of what the 'parent' company produced.
From this new attitude we got New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that, to the chagrin of the wine world is acknowledged as the best performing and most acceptable style.
Add to that New Zealand Pinot Noir with freshness, lovely cherry characters and complexity without the associated crappy characters that the 'old world' can produce, plus New Zealand Chardonnay with true Chardonnay varietal character and freshness and zing (as long as the winemakers don't over-oak the wine)we have some world leaders in style even though we are not traditional in approach.
Now, after several false starts we have an emerging New Zealand classic - the Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc/Merlot/ blend which will get the world noticing us once they get over the snobbishness that is associated with this style of wine.
Years ago, New Zealand (and Australia tried to replicate claret - that great Bordeaux wine that has done more for interest in wine (and priciness of top wines) than any other style. Early attempts were to concentrate on the 'backbone' of claret - Cabernet Sauvignon. This hard-skinned varietal can, when growing conditions are right and site selection is ideal, make intensely coloured and flavoured wine with big tannic structure. When growing conditions are not right (too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry etc) and/or site selection is wrong (too shady, too exposed, too far North, too far South etc)then the result can be porty high alcohol soup on the one hand or green, vegetal crap on the other. Early New Zealand attempts were generally the latter. More recent experimentation has led to site selection (generally geographic as well as vineyard orientation) and a recognoition that great claret does not rely on Cabernet Sauvignon alone. Other varietals principally Cabernet Franc and Merlot with supporting Malbec, Petit Verdot and others add texture, flavour, elegance, colour, aroma and other contributing characteristics in varying degrees.
The modern New Zealand clatet style wine now best comes from Hawkes Bay and Waiheke Island. There are obviously variations in quality from these regions but the best have careful site section in mind coupled with the ability to blend the correct proportions (variable by vintage year).
Now here's the interesting thing. Whether it is due to the ordinary, herbacious offerings from New Zealand in the 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's, or to the comparatively big, gutsy, high alcohol offerings from Australia we have seen recently, there is a popular misconception that New Zealand 'claret-style' wines are light, thin and inferior to other countries similar styles particularly those from France and Australia.
Add to this the fact that we struggle when trying to explain this style of wine and generally refer to them as 'Bordeaux blends' because 'claret' as a descriptor has been bastardised over the years with the crappiest and cheapest Australian and New Zealand red wine blends being named 'claret' and it can be sen that we are not getting anywhere.
Bordeaux claret can be sublime in good years and indifferent and overpriced in others but when we (in the wine industry) describe our Cabernet Merlot blends we call them 'Bordeaux Blends'.
We need another meaningful descriptor, one that sums up the power and elegance that can be achieved with these red varietals in New Zealand and as I am convinced that this wine style, especially from Waiheke or Gimblett Gravels in Hawkes Bay will be the greatest wine coming from New Zealand it is important to name it propery without a "Thank ee Guvner" approach to the French.