“Remarkable, quite remarkable. One would not have thought it would have kept this long. This really is quite good, there is not the slightest trace of acidity or vinegar. No sign of decay at all. A very mellow wine.”
These words were uttered by the French-born English wine merchant and author André Simon in 1964 when tasting Hawke’s Bay winery Te Mata’s 1912 red blend. More than half a century after it was first made – the same year as the sinking of the Titanic – the red wine was still very much alive, so why has New Zealand not developed a reputation for making ageworthy wines?
Two words: Sauvignon Blanc.
The New Zealand wine industry is dominated by a grape variety that is typically fermented and put into bottle within months – or even weeks – of being harvested. ‘Picked, pressed and pissed before Christmas’ is the life cycle of Sauvignon Blanc in some winemakers’ view. Why wait for Christmas when you can drink the wine before Easter? Moana Park winery has released a Sauvignon Blanc on April 1 and that was no April Fools. If the previous vintage has been small and stocks are running low, a few blocks might be picked early to produce a wine to bridge the gap between vintages, such as Villa Maria’s Early Release Sauvignon Blanc.
However, there are a growing number of smaller, quality focused producers that are holding back their Sauvignon Blancs before releasing, giving them time on lees and time in bottle. Having tasted some of Marlborough’s finest Sauvignon Blancs at seven or eight years old, drinkers need not be in such a hurry. Putting the brakes on wineries releasing wines doesn’t help their cash flow and with grape growers to pay and bank repayments due, accountants can overrule winemakers, putting the onus on drinkers to put the wines in their usually non-existent cellars.
It is partly a matter of wine culture: New Zealand does not have a long-standing tradition of making and drinking wine. Having rejected Prohibition in 1919, the country continued to operate under a cloud of abstemiousness, promoted by restrictive licensing laws. Until 1961, New Zealanders couldn’t enjoy a glass of wine with a meal in a restaurant. The 1960s brought licensing change with more and more restaurant licences granted, a rise in the number of wine shops while a rise in tax on beer and spirits in the 1958 ‘Black Budget’ gave wine an encouraging bump. The 1950s witnessed the birth of aspirational winemakers and pioneers seeking to move away from fortified wine and hybrids to quality table wine made from vitis vinifera, which gained increasing momentum, culminating in legislation outlawing a sugar and water culture and a state-sponsored vine pull in the 1980s. In the 1970s, regular wine columns had appeared in several newspapers, catering for an educated population who had done their ‘OE’ (overseas experience), travelling around Europe, experiencing wine and food culture. From just 174ml of wine per capita in the early 1960s, wine consumption increased to 5.3 litres by the end of the 1970s. In 2016, the figure stood at 20.2 litres but has remained stagnant for a decade.
Red wines in New Zealand, like whites, are all too often released early and consumed early, meaning there are few older vintages available to purchase and enjoy. There are relatively few wine collectors and fine dining restaurants with cellars and mature stocks of New Zealand wine and thus some wineries are starting to take responsibility for ageing their wines until they approach their drinking window. Judy Fowler, owner of Puriri Hills Vineyard in Clevedon, Auckland, which specialises in Bordeaux blends, has a Brunello di Montalcino approach to releasing her reds. “My late release policy is based on the fact that we attempt to produce Bordeaux-blended wines made in the longstanding traditions of Bordeaux. The great Bordeaux generally benefit from ageing five to 10 years or longer. Our wines are built to age well. However, we are a small, newer vineyard [established 1998] with perhaps another 300 years to earn the reputation for quality that the grands crus of Bordeaux have. As such, we do not expect our customers all to want to wait for five or more years to taste our wines at their best, so we do the ageing here at the vineyard before release.” While Fowler is not alone, most wineries don’t apply the release-when-ready-to-drink policy across the entire range, as it can leave suppliers wine-less and raise the prospect of delisting.
It is difficult to judge the ageability of New Zealand wines with so little precedent. In the past decade, young vines have matured, viticulture has evolved, winemaking has become more refined: a Pinot Noir produced 10 years ago from young vines by winemakers that were still getting to know their site will be quite different today than a current vintage opened in a decade’s time. When asked to provide drinking windows for a recent Central Otago Pinot Noir or Hawke’s Bay Cabernet Sauvignon, it is a case of pinning the tail on the donkey.
However, there’s no doubting the country’s best wines have the components to age gracefully: intensity of fruit, richness of ripe tannins, acidity (and pH), alcohol and magic all play their part in the development of a red wine. In whites, high levels of acidity and flavour precursors elongate their shelf life. There’s also a small matter of the closure: screwcaps are omnipotent in New Zealand. Although a small but significant number of producers continue to seal their top Bordeaux blends under cork (while putting the rest of their range under screwcap), it is likely that the wines will age more slowly, because of the lower rate of oxygen ingress compared with a natural cork.
What is clear, is that far too many New Zealand wines are being consumed before they are out of nappies. It’s time to let them grow up.
Rebecca Gibb MW
This is an extract from the newly-released Wines of New Zealand by Rebecca Gibb MW. You can find a copy here.