Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Is there more to New Zealand than Sauvignon Blanc?

Sauvignon Blanc – from anywhere, but especially from New Zealand – has been THE wine success story of the past couple of years. It seems we just can’t get enough of this variety’s crisp, lively, tropical fruit character. New Zealand winemakers must be rubbing their hands with glee you’d think.

Well yes and no. While it’s great being this year’s big thing, there’s nothing worse than being yesterday’s news. New Zealand winemakers know that wines, like clothes, can become out-dated. So they’re keen to let us know that they can do more than produce gallons of appetising Sauvignon Blanc, ready for the time when our tastes are moving on and looking for something new. So what do they have in store for us?

Aromatic whites
New Zealand’s climate of warm(ish) sunny days and cool nights makes it a great place to produce aromatic white wines. Be on the look out for wines made from Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, both varieties which originate in Alsace in France. Pinot Gris has a streak of spice along with vaguely peachy fruit and sometimes a hint of almond or marzipan. This variety is now the most rapidly growing one in New Zealand. If you’d like to see what they’re producing, Waitrose offers The Ned Pinot Grigio for £9.99. Gewurztraminer (or Gewurz for short) has opulent aromas of lychee and rose petal. Have a try of ever-reliable producer Villa Maria’s Private Bin Gewurz at £8.49, also at Waitrose.

Another variety to watch out for is Riesling – but it comes with a warning! The problem is New Zealand Rieslings have a bit of a split personality. Some are dry, with delicious lime zesty flavours and crisp acidity. Others are decidedly off-dry, with perceptible sugar levels. Each winery seems to decide which style they are going to produce, so, unless you’ve tried it before, or have a good wine merchant’s advice, you’re in the dark as to which style you’re going to find when you open the bottle. Buyer beware!

Red wines
New Zealanders are keen to show us that their skills extend to red wines as well as whites.

Mainly, but not exclusively, from the warmer North Island, they have been making Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for a number of years. There are some good ones, a very few great ones – but there are an awful lot which are just not that enjoyable. Even the North Island seems to be a little too cool in most places to ripen red grapes fully and the wines end up with a green, mean streak to them.

The big noise on the red wine front, though, is Pinot Noir. This grape has a reputation for being fussy about where it grows. Not too hot and not too cool - and healthy growing conditions are needed to prevent rot in this thin-skinned variety. Pinot Noir seems to have found its ideal home in New Zealand. It comes into its own in the relatively new region of Central Otago, deep in New Zealand’s South Island – the most southerly wine region in the world. Pinot Noir is the grape that makes red Burgundy, and it is a great antidote both to blockbuster new world reds and to tough, tannic Old World ones. Pinot is lighter in colour and tannin than most other red wines, but it packs a punch in terms of a harmonious balance of red fruit flavours, spice and perfume. In Central Otago you can practically smell the air the grapes were grown in, by the fresh, clean aromas of strawberry and raspberry.

What’s the drawback? The price: New Zealand is never going to be a low-cost producer and it costs money to make good Pinot Noir, so expect to pay upwards of £10 for a decent bottle. My absolute favourite is Felton Road Pinot Noir, made 100% organically and biodynamically (more on that in another column) since 2002. The wine combines denseness and depth of flavour with a light touch which makes it a complete pleasure to drink. From pleasure to pain: you can buy this wine at Guildford’s Les Caves de Pyrène for £21.27 a bottle, or from Imbibros of Godalming for £21.95.

If this sounds like a few quid too many, have a look for these lower-priced but still delicious examples:
Waimea Estate Pinot Noir £10.99, or £8.79 if you buy two bottles, from Majestic is from the Nelson region at the top of South Island. It offers a good introduction to the New Zealand style.
Waitrose stocks Wither Hills Pinot Noir at £14.99, from the Marlborough region, again at the northern tip of the South Island. For me, Marlborough Pinots have more power, but less in the way of clear fruit flavours than Otago, but you can pick them up a little more cheaply too.

At the moment, New Zealand is riding the crest of the Sauvignon Blanc wave, but it’s betting on other varieties to carry it safely to the shore without a wipeout.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Wine wishes for 2008

Wine wishes for 2008

January is not usually a popular time for knocking back a glass of wine, as many people resolve to give up alcohol for the month, or at least start out with the intention of eating and drinking less as part of a healthier lifestyle. With this in mind, I’m devoting this column to good intentions for the year ahead, as far as wine is concerned at least.

1. Shop around now for bargains
Many wine merchants have New Year sales, usually to clear the last bottles of the current vintage before they move onto the new one. Have a look around and see what bargains you can pick up. My top tip is to buy any Champagne you might need (if need is the right word) for the year now – prices are keen, and your wine will only improve with a few months’ ageing under the stairs.

2. Drink less, but better
It’s been hard to avoid the messages coming from government ministers over the past few months telling us that we need to keep an eye on what we are drinking and to stay within safe limits. There is no getting away from the fact that wine contains alcohol and that it is a large part of wine’s appeal – no-one at one of my wine-tasting evenings has ever said: “I love this wine – I just wish there was a low alcohol version of it.” What we like about wine is inextricably linked to its alcohol content. That said, if all we were interested in was the alcohol, then there would probably be just three or four wines on sale anywhere: a white, a red and a rosé, with no need to provide different taste sensations. Wine is more than just an amount of alcohol: it’s a collection of aromas and flavours. If you make a point of savouring each glass of wine that you drink, I can guarantee that you will get more enjoyment from it – and perhaps end up drinking less.

3. Spend more than £5 a bottle on wine
The average amount we Brits spend on a bottle of wine is just over £4. At that price, the most that can be spent on the actual wine itself is just under£1, once you take out the production and shipping costs and duty. If you pay £8 for a bottle, however, the total that can be spent on the wine goes up to around £4.25 – over half of the price you are paying in other words. I don’t expect every wine drinker to switch suddenly to more expensive bottles – but it’s good to be aware of the economics of any product that we eat or drink. This can also help with the “less but better” ethos.

4. Get to know your local wine merchant
70% of all wine in this country is bought at supermarkets – and why not, given the extent of their ranges and great discounts they offer. In the longer term, though, our choice as consumers will be enhanced if we continue to buy wines through a variety of sources. We are still very well served by local independent wine merchants – but we need to support these guys if we want them to stay in business. If there’s a merchant near you that you’ve never bought from, please make it your goal to buy from them this year. Independent merchants can’t offer the big brands and big discounts of the supermarkets, but they can do things that the big guys can never do: provide great customer service, knowledgeable staff and a fun shopping experience. Whether your local is The Vineyard in Dorking, Taurus Wines in Bramley or The Guildford Wine Company in Shalford or any one of the multitude of independents, please give them a try. They can get to know you in a way that the supermarkets never can – they’ll learn your tastes, your budget and could be a valuable ally.

5. Buy ahead of time
Instead of the last-minute panic of “Oh God, people coming for dinner, better grab some wine at the corner shop/local offie.”, be smug and ahead of the game by buying wine in advance. It doesn’t have to be grand – just keep track of wines you’ve enjoyed, then buy 6 bottles or a case next time. Independent merchants can be a great help with this, by the way.

6. Try something new
Apologies to Sainsbury’s – but it does sum up my final New Year wish. Wouldn’t it be boring if all wines tasted the same? Well if you drink the same wines over and over again, they do taste the same don’t they? If you’re stuck in a wine rut, make a break for freedom in 2008. Never tried a wine from Uruguay before? Are you a stranger to the Grüner Veltliner grape? When did you last try a German wine? Do you think dessert wines are not for you? You’ll never know unless you try!