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The mantra that produces New Zealand’s latest Marlborough wines

Liz SaguesLiz SaguesTwice winner the Regional Wine Writer of the year title in the annual Louis Roederer International Wine Writers' Awards, recognised as the industry's most important, LIZ SAGUES provides an insight into New Zealand’s latest wines.

She has been tasting and writing about wine for more than 20 years, and as a member of the Circle of Wine Writers, she regularly travels abroad to taste wines in Europe and elsewhere.  Liz is also deputy editor of the Circle’s own acclaimed newsletter.

As New Zealand celebrates its largest-ever wine harvest, there’s a smile on the face of David CoxAs New Zealand celebrates its largest-ever wine harvest, there’s a smile on the face of David CoxCox, Europe director of New Zealand Winegrowers, is the man responsible for ensuring that the UK remains the top volume export destination for the bottles which will result from the 328,000 tonnes of grapes picked for the 2011 vintage.

Cox’s enthusiasm for the generous 2011 vintage may seem a little surprising give the over-supply problems of a year ago, when the widespread sight of £5 – or even lower priced – Kiwi sauvignon on UK retail shelves threatened to cut into the established quality image.

All that’s over now, he says, as figures show that New Zealand still heads the price-per-bottle league in UK sales, with the retail average at just over £6, around £1.50 more than the figure for all wine.

“Supply is back in balance,” he assured me as NZ Winegrowers showed the first releases from 2011 to UK trade and press. “Worldwide demand is increasing, we are no longer having to discount.

“Our mantra is to go back to a premium position, to sell for a premium price. New Zealand wine is worth it, and the 2011 vintage is good.”

Tasting through the 2011 Marlborough sauvignons on show confirmed that. They are certainly crowd-pleasing, soft yet crisp and generously fruited with the expected variety of flavours. The first should be on sale here soon.

Very nearly three-quarters of those grapes come from Marlborough, by far the biggest of New Zealand’s 10 wine regions and the one which put the country on the world wine map with its distinctive, exuberant sauvignon blancVery nearly three-quarters of those grapes come from Marlborough, by far the biggest of New Zealand’s 10 wine regions and the one which put the country on the world wine map with its distinctive, exuberant sauvignon blancBut as Cox emphasises, there is a lot more to Marlborough than generic sauvignon blanc. Regionality within the main area is being emphasised, with Awatere, the Southern Valleys and Wairau identified as key sub-regions.

Similarly, there is evolution of style, with more barrel fermentation and lees ageing, for example, resulting in more complex wines.

“We are seeing differences that come through in the glass,” he continued. “It is proof there is a place to go above entry level. New Zealand sauvignon, and especially Marlborough, still has legs to grow.”

That increasing variety stretches to the vine choice, too. Marlborough is also the most important region in New Zealand for pinot noir – just over 40 per cent of plantings, against 25 per cent in the cult region of Central Otago. The style is crisply red-fruited – think strawberries and raspberries – but there’s a decent tannic backbone in all but the simplest.

Cox also emphasises the importance of Marlborough’s classic chardonnay. “New Zealand chardonnay is one of the most exciting styles of new world chardonnay. There is lots of really nice clarity and minerality, particularly from Marlborough.”

And aromatic whites have a good future in the region: there are plantings of riesling, pinot gris, gewurztraminer, even a little gruner veltliner. Cox focuses on pinot gris, arguing that the previous broad and sometimes puzzling spectrum of style and sweetness has been narrowed.

“It will be a tertiary brand after sauvignon blanc and pinot noir.”

So what of the future for a country which has such a big name with UK wine drinkers, even though it is one of the world’s smaller wine producers?

Cox isn’t looking for massive growth, though he would love to see New Zealand jump from its current eighth place in the UK to overtake its nearest competitor, Spain. That’s rather a distant prospect – there’s currently a £120 million gap in sales income to bridge – and he is realistic about what is possible.

“New Zealand cannot and does not want to be all things to all men,” he said. But he acknowledges there are two gaps in its offering which Marlborough in particular could help to fill – serious, food-friendly rosé and good fizz.

“We could be the next port of call for people stepping up from prosecco and cava,” he suggested. “New Zealand could be THE new world producer of sparkling wine.”

There’s a prospect to toast!

NB: New Zealand Winegrowers is the national organisation for New Zealand’s grape and wine sector. It currently has approximately 1,000 grower members and 700 winery members. See www.nzwine.com for more information.

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