Two thoughts typically come to mind when someone in the U.S. hears the term New Zealand wines: Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough and its wine industry’s role in making twist-off tops (screw tops) from quality wineries not only acceptable but preferred.
I was introduced to the screw-top crusade by Ross and Barbara Lawson, of Lawson’s Dry Hills Winery, during a previous visit in 2003. Ross was president of the Screwtop Alliance at the time, a trade organization promoting the benefits of the closure. More than 60 percent of the award-winning wines in the annual Air New Zealand competition that year came with screw-top closures. The number is now approaching 100 percent. Studies from the Australian Wine Institute have substantiated early industry claims that the screw-top closures are superior to all others in protecting wines. Other closures can be subject to bacterial contamination, leakage and ruining a treasured older bottle when the cork crumbles or breaks.
With the screw-top issue pretty well settled, let’s now move beyond Sauvignon Blanc and Marlborough to highlight the fine red wines emerging in greater numbers from Hawkes Bay and Napier (Bordeaux blends, Syrah) and Martinborough on the North Island (Pinot Noir) and Central Otago (Pinot Noir) on the South Island. We’ve been experiencing the advances over the years as New Zealand wineries increased exports to the U.S. and local merchants carried deeper selections.
The exploration continued during a recent series of tastings and winery visits to both islands in November 2015. Bordeaux varietals and Syrah are flourishing in the Hawkes Bay area of the North Island. We tasted some of the first vintages of Craggy Range during our 2003 visit. Today, with older vines and continued fine-tuning of all aspects of viticulture and winemaking, Craggy Range wines scored several points higher on average on their Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot blends. We enjoyed the Te Kahu Gimblett Gravels Merlot blend from 2013 (73 percent Merlot, 13 percent Malbec, 12 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 2 percent Cabernet Franc) and the 2011 (69, 9, 13 and 9). The Gimblett Gravels area, bordering a former river bed, is rich with different soil types and stones, which retain heat and help the Bordeaux varietals and Syrah to flourish.
In addition to Craggy Range, the highest scoring wines from the Hawkes Bay region included: Crossroads, 2013 Talisman, their secret blend from different Hawkes Bay vineyards; Moana Park, an impressive boutique, with a rich 2014 Merlot (70%), Cabernet Sauvignon (20) and Cabernet Franc (10); Seleni, the 2013 Triangle Merlot; Te Awa 2011 Kidnappers Cliff Syrah; Te Mata; Unison Classic Blend 2010, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah from Gimblett Gravels; and Vidal, 2009 Legacy Cabernet (76%) and Merlot (24%).
Next: Toast Martinborough and a barrel tasting at Ata Rangi.