The last ten years: New Zealand

Friday, 9. December 2016 - 11:00
How many times have you heard predictions of the imminent demise of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in the last 10 years? Yet consumers in both the UK and the US – New Zealand’s two biggest export markets – show no sign of tiring of its idiosyncratic Sauvignon style. Between 2006 and 2016, exports have grown in value from NZ$500m ($364m) to NZ$1.6bn. Less than 10m L of wine left New Zealand ports in 2006; today, that figure stands at 213m L. And most of that is Sauvignon Blanc – around 85% compared with 72% a decade ago. 
Growth and diversification
Plantings have risen from a little over 22,100 ha in 2006 to 36,100 ha this year. Inevitably, the 2006 record harvest of 185,000 tonnes has since been obliterated: 436,000 tonnes of plump fruit was picked over the 2016 vintage. And it wasn’t all Sauvignon Blanc nor Pinot Noir, which remains the most planted red variety by far. No, there was Arneis, Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, Gamay, Grüner Veltliner and many others that you might not normally associate with New Zealand. 
The vines that have been planted are inevitably getting older. While Bordeaux classified growths might not use vines in their first wines until they reach 20 or 25 years of age, Kiwis generally say they see ‘the change’ at 12 years. On this basis, much of New Zealand’s vineyard has reached maturity and the wines are shedding their fruity puppy fat. In collaboration with more mature winemakers and a better understanding of their vineyards, vine age has led to massive improvements in wine quality and style over the past decade. 
While the winemakers are getting older, the wines are not getting older with them. New Zealand wine has grown up in the strange Sauvignon Blanc-influenced culture of releasing and drinking wines young. It has created a race to market on the domestic front and cellar maturation does not have the respect it is afforded in Brunello di Montalcino or Rioja. As a result there’s not a great deal of library stock or availability of older vintages, but the wines can age – if only you could find them.
Patience required
After a couple of lean years in 2011 and 2012 (Central Otago excepted), New Zealand had a triple whammy of superlative vintages: 2013, 2014 and 2015, with reds that should be cellared. Kiwis were starting to sound like the Bordelais with their consecutive ‘vintage of a lifetime’ declarations (2009 and 2010).
But that’s where the similarities between Bordeaux and New Zealand end – there are no formalities in the land of the long white cloud, and despite the recognition its wines have received over the last decade, their feet (often bare) are firmly on their greywacke ground.
Rebecca Gibb MW