Altered estates

03 May 2001
Altered estates

"Welcome to New Zealand's Chardonnay capital," says the airport sign. We have just landed at Gisborne, the most easterly city on North Island. Yards from the tiny airstrip, we could see Poverty Bay's beautiful white sandy beach - Captain Cook's landing place in 1769 - and, inland, vineyards stretching across a wide, flat plain. This was the start of our "tiki" tour (Maori walkabout) in search of New Zealand's "other" grapes.

"We don't grow Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir here," says Montana's Gisborne winemaker, Steve Voysey. Vines, kiwis, avocados and squash grow like triffids on rich alluvial silt. "It's so fertile, we have to grow chicory between vines to reduce vigour," he adds. Rainfall and humidity are high, so it's no good for vigorous varietals such as Sauvignon or rot-prone Pinot Noir. But, with Gisborne's abundant sunshine hours, it's a utopia for Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer.

More than half of Gisborne's 1,500 hectares are planted to Chardonnay. The big boys of the industry, Montana and Villa Maria, grow top Reserve wines here. But a lot of Gisborne fruit ends up in East Coast blends. Chardonnays have upfront, ripe luscious fruit - a stark contrast to the sleek Marlborough style. The style works well with carefully handled oak and lees treatment, as in the creamy, complex Ormond Estate Chardonnay.

Two growers, Geordie Witters and Paul Tietjen, have even named the 20km strip from Ormond to Hexton "The Golden Slope", with pretensions to France's Côte d'Or. Others are experimenting with new plantings at higher elevations - Villa Maria at McDiarmid Hill hopes to get more elegance and retain acidity, alongside Gisborne's luscious ripe fruit.

Gewürztraminer, from Gisborne's Patutahi and Saints vineyard, is another of New Zealand's best-kept secrets. "Sadly, it's a poor cropper, growers don't like it," says Montana's Jeff Clarke, "so we're planting Semillon instead." This is perhaps a response to world fatigue of Chardonnay, but the Semillon has confected aromas and green fruits, like over-cropped Sauvignon.

Meanwhile, neighbour Millton Vineyards concentrates on Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Viognier and Chardonnay - producing rich, complex intense styles from "organic" grapes - against all the odds.

Next stopover is the upbeat tourist mecca, Napier, a quick 40-minute flight down the east coast. Inland is the vast Hawkes Bay, once a wine industry backwater, but a recent billion-dollar investment bonanza has made it North Island's hub. It's also known as the "red wine capital" - although Chardonnay is good too (Esk Valley Reserve and Church Road). But it's not Pinot Noir which has attracted investors here, instead it's Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah and even Pinotage.

"It's the best place for Cabernet and Merlot in New Zealand," says Gordon Russell, confidently. He makes the country's most expensive red, The Terraces (£40 per bottle), a hand-crafted blend of Merlot/Cabernet/Malbec from Esk Valley's coastal terraces. "Sunshine hours are similar to Bordeaux," he says, "but we get less rain. It's ideal for late-ripening grapes."

It was CJ Pask's 1998 Bordeaux blend which first caught world attention. New appellation Gimblett Gravels, in central Hawkes Bay, has perfect drainage on stony soils and high sun radiation, according to Steve Smith MW at Terry Peabody's Craggy Range. He has high hopes for Cabernet at Gimblett Road and Tukituki Valley. At the stylish new £7m Sileni winery, winemaker Grant Edmonds believes thin-skinned Merlot will be the answer to Cabernet's inconsistent ripening.

Consistency (as well as price) is a problem with New Zealand's Bordeaux varietals - they can never achieve Australia's consistent blockbuster ripeness. Spring frosts can devastate, and Sileni has lost 80% of its 2001 crop. But in freak hot years such as 1998, Hawkes Bay reds are densely textured with beautiful rich flavours.

Heading south-west down North Island, Wairarapa's Martinborough first put Pinot Noir on our map. But it's not the only grape doing well - Dr Neil McCallum at Dry River, in his 21st vintage, has stunning Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Syrah - and his best is rich, honeyed, limey Riesling. His philosophy is to put huge effort into the vineyard to maximise each varietal's potential, to exploit Martinborough's gravelly free-draining soils and low rainfall.

"It is all about getting sunshine on to grapes," says McCallum. "We use leaf plucking at flowering to ripen skins, Scott Henry trellising, experiment with reflective matting usually used on apples and persimmons to aid grape ripening, and restrict to low yields [25hl per hectare]." His estate range is one of the most sought-after in New Zealand.

Our next stop is in South Island, at New Zealand's "other" most sought-after estate. Cloudy Bay, in idyllic picturesque Wairau Valley in Marlborough, is known for its juicy herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc, but little is heard of Cloudy Bay's other grapes. Most impressive is its creamy, concentrated, hazelnut-flavoured Chardonnay. Near neighbours in the Rapauru Road "golden triangle", Hunters and Jackson Estate, also make excellent Chardonnays.

Wairau's long dry summers and cool crisp winters are ideal for zesty Riesling (Villa Maria's Reserve and Seresin) and refined Pinot Gris (Kim Crawford and Seresin). If you look hard, you can also find Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, Sangiovese and even Montepulciano. Water is scarce and land prices escalating, so Babich, Villa Maria and Montana have headed south into cool southerly Awatere valley. Vavasour makes stunning Chardonnay, and Montana has high hopes for Pinot Gris - alongside its huge Pinot Noir investment here.

Another hot spot for Pinot Noir is Otago, around Queenstown. But Pinot is not Otago's only grape. The world's most southerly wine region now has 25 wineries, with cool climate varietals working well. Dry Riesling (Felton Road), rich concentrated Pinot Gris (Mount Difficulty), Gewürztraminer and minerally citrusy Chardonnay (Felton Road, Mount Difficulty) are worth searching for - but with tiny volumes from these boutique wineries, prices are high.

Hot, humid Auckland is in stark contrast to remote cool-climate Otago. Once it was the wine industry's heartland, but there are now only a few wineries scattered around the city. The best are on Waiheke Island, a half-hour ferry ride from the city harbour. Its 10 wineries grow a whole spectrum of grapes, the best being rich Cabernet and Merlot blends - but quantities are tiny and prices are very high.

New Zealand's wine industry is still young - and very progressive and well funded. It may be intrinsically bound in people's minds to Sauvignon Blanc (and now Pinot Noir), but it is still in its early days. Few wineries and regions specialise in just one varietal. There is more to New Zealand than just two grapes.

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