Well it's back to the keyboard after a voluntary break for the 'holidays' not that I went away, thank goodness, as the weather has hardly been what one would call perfect for a down under summer. Beautiful blue sky mornings - this morning no exception - simply relent to the clouds that invariably accumulate, bringing with them rain and cooling breezes. I even went down to the beach with a jacket on yesterday afternoon and wasn't the only one dressed up warm, though all the kids down there didnít seem to mind. However the view from my office is stunning, the pohutukawa in full flower against a blue sky backdrop.
The tuis are having a party, warbling and whistling as they imbibe on the nectar, staggering drunkenly from branch to branch them swooping in a preacriously low flight to the next tree.
But it's time to bring my attention back to the keyboard as I reflect on the year of New Zealand wine in 2006 and give out a few bouquets as well as a walloping great brickbat.
The New Zealand vineyard area just keeps growing and growing and 2006 saw 22,051 hectares of land produce grapes for wine, an increase of just over 10% from 2005. But the forecasters say there will be additional 3,500 hectares in production by 2009. Phew, that's a lot of grapes.
I hope that people planting out vineyards know where it is all going to go to.
2006 was a record vintage - as should be expected with the annual increase in vineyard land, and this year 185,000 tonnes of grapes were picked - that's 25,000 tonnes more than in 2004, the previous record. (2005 delivered less due to the effect frosts had on the grapevines due their budding and flowering period in the spring.)
Accounting for 40% of New Zealand's total vineyard area and almost 53% of the country's total production in 2006, there is plenty of sauvignon blanc to choose from, especially as we were consuming 2005 vintage savvies until the 2006's came along.
Last year my 'Sauvignon Blanc of the Year' was Saint Clair Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2005 and Saint Clair is back at the top again in 2006. I counted 10 Saint Clair sauvignon blancs this vintage, from the two large volume multi-regional wines - Saint Clair Vicars Choice Sauvignon Blanc 2006 and Saint Clair Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2006 - to the top of the tier Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2006. Throughout the range, which includes several 'Pioneer Blocks', there has been nothing but excellence.
However it was easy to pick the 2006 Sauvignon Blanc of the Year, because it is the one I actually enjoyed most for drinking. It is the scintillating, vibrantly aromatic and boldly flavoured Saint Clair Pioneer Block 6 Sauvignon Blanc 2006, made from grapes from two vineyard sites in O'Dwyers Road near Blenheim. And to put my money where my mouth is, this is the one that I actually bought to take out to share with friends for lunch, to share with family at Christmas and to even give away to a sauvignon blanc lover for a Christmas present.
I also have to mention the savvies that Matua Valley are producing, especially the Shingle Peak Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2006, the Shingle Peak Reserve Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2006 and of course their 'top of the tier' Matua Valley Paretai Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2006. Matua Valley takes the runner up position for Sauvignon Blanc.
Last but not least, there's the Dog Point Section 94 2004 - a funky alternative style of savvie that had 18 months in French oak barrels before release. There's Michelle Richardson's own label, Richardson Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2006 - it's going to become better and better with just a little age. Oh, there's the oaked Clayridge Excalibur Sauvignon Blanc 2005 too - a fantastic, big, bold, mouthfilling, oak-aged style.
Accounting for 18% of New Zealand's total vineyard area, pinot noir has taken the second spot from chardonnay in terms of land use but with 12% of total production, is still lagging in third place, behind chardonnay, which had 14.5% of the total in 2006.
I didnít find an emphatic pinot noir stand out this year, not like the Kupe by Escarpment Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2003 that was my 'Pinot Noir of the Year' in 2005. Nevertheless there were some very good pinot noirs tasted.
The delicious, seductive and oh so drinkable Delta Vineyard Marlborough Pinot Noir 2005 really hit the spot. It won two trophies, but nevertheless I actually preferred the slightly more expensive Delta Vineyard Hatter's Hill Marlborough Pinot Noir 2005. It has a little more structure, a little more savouriness and probably a lot more longevity.
Villa Maria really pushed my buttons again and the Villa Maria Reserve Marlborough Pinot Noir 2005 is right up there too. Love the savouriness that some of the Marlborough wines are now producing, and this one exhibits that savoury character so well.
Another to really show its potential was the Ata Rangi Martinborough Pinot Noir 2005 (tasted twice at tastings), deep coloured, savoury and gamey, very tight in structure but the potential is revealed in the layers of flavour that ripple across the palate. I'm sure if I had an evening to muse over this wine, it might well have come out in number one spot. The wine is in no hurry, that's for sure, so maybe the opportunity will arise this year.
A sample of the Neudorf Moutere Pinot Noir 2004 from Nelson also showed the complexity that can been garnered from old vines. Tasted in September, it was the third time I had tasted this wine and though fading in colour, the firm tannins and acidity will ensure a wonderfully long life.
From Waipara, it's hard to surpass the Pegasus Bay Prima Donna Pinot Noir 2003 - it's a wine of pure finesse with an alluring pinot perfume and fine silky tannins that envelop the mouth and excite the senses.
From Central Otago I was pretty excited about the Mount Michael Bessie's Block Central Otago Pinot Noir 2005 - specially when matched to duck, and tasted on the second to last day of last year, the Pisa Range Black Poplar Central Otago Pinot Noir 2005 pushed my buttons.
The heartening thing about good New Zealand pinot noir, however, is that it doesnít have to be super-expensive any more to deliver the quality that I like to drink. There have been some wonderfully expressive examples of affordable pinot noir in 2006, the bargain being the Delta Vineyard Marlborough Pinot Noir 2005 clocking in at just on $20 - if you could buy it as most went overseas, but also the super cheapie Villa Maria Private Bin Pinot Noir 2005. Tasted side by side with the Villa Maria Reserve Pinot Noir 2005, the Private Bin lacked nothing in savouriness and flavour, just lighter in body, softer in tannins, much much cheaper in price and reasonably available.
Villa Maria Private Bin Marlborough Pinot Noir 2005 is thus my Pinot Noir Buy of the Year.
Accounting for 17% of the national producing vineyard area in 2006, third behind sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, chardonnay's production will account for only 15% of the total by 2009 as sauvignon blanc's share increases and pinot noir stays static. However, as said above, chardonnay produced more volume in 2006 than pinot noir, probably because it can be cropped at higher levels.
Gisborne calls itself the 'Chardonnay Capital of New Zealand' and one of my highlights of the year was a visit to Gisborne in July. However, Gisborne has less producing area of chardonnay than Hawkes Bay and the forecast sees it set to stay that way for the next few years. Marlborough is the third largest producing region for chardonnay.
Oh how people love or hate chardonnay. Sometimes I love it. Sometimes I hate. No. Scrub that word hate - it's far too strong. I should say that sometimes I dislike it. It's a mood thing. But when a good chardonnay comes along, it's very hard to resist.
And I've tasted a few good ones in the year just past. But the best were those that were paired with food and when it comes to food and chardonnay, it's hard to surpass crayfish.
I never though that a lightly oaked chardonnay would be one of my favourite chardonnays of the year, but the Craggy Range C3 Chardonnay 2006 from Hawkes Bay is right up there. It was the crayfish, of course, that did it. A truly delectable combination.
Chardonnay can age too, as proved by the Saint Clair Omaka Reserve Marlborough Chardonnay 2000, tasted in December and it was still fresh and bright. But not all chardonnay ages well these days, simply because the wines are not made to age. They are made to be drinking well when they are released.
One that will age will, however, is the Dry River 'Amaranth' Martinborough Chardonnay 2005. This is super chardonnay from this lauded producer who has given it the 'amaranth' classification, which means it is of particular interest for cellaring.
However, Chardonnay of the Year goes to Kumeu River Mates Vineyard Chardonnay 2004 from Kumeu in Auckland. It was one of my contributions to the Christmas Day dinner and a worthy one at that. Straw gold in colour, quite pale for a chardonnay that is heading towards its third birthday, it's delicately smoky aromas lead into a clean combo of melon, fig and pear with an infusion of sweet citrus, subtle spicy oak and an underpinning of creamy, yeast-lees and barrel ferment flavours. Its well-defined acidity makes it a perfect pairing for seafood with a creamy sauce, while indicating there is plenty of life ahead of it too.
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and blends
Merlot comes fourth in the grape production stakes but only accounts for 6% of total production. It's commonly blended with cabernet sauvignon, which accounts for just 2% of the national vineyard total, clocking into 7th place behind riesling and pinot gris.
Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are eminently suited to Hawkes Bay, so it's not surprising a Hawkes Bay wine has taken top honours this year. It is Trinity Hill 'The Gimblett' 2004, perhaps the most outstanding merlot cabernet blend I've yet tasted from New Zealand although at $125 a bottle it is one of the most expensive too. It's deep dark red, opaque and bright with rich berryish aromas that integrate with cedar and spice box - so pure and fragrant it is tempting to just sit there and smell it all night. In the palate is full of concentrated red fruits, earth and liquorice with an underpinning of sultry tannins, a tarry backbone and a long, lush, creamy chocolate aftertaste with the liquorice and red berry fruits lingering with panache. A stunning wine that would stand its ground against any similar blend from Bordeaux. It costs $125 and is sealed with a natural cork.
I've said it before and Iíll say it again, there is no doubt in my mind that Syrah is the rising star in New Zealand. With less than 1% of the vineyard producing area in 2006, there were just 214 hectares of syrah in production - and over half of that came from Hawkes Bay. However the Auckland and Northland regions combined are firmly in second place and with the quality of the syrah that some of these areas are producing, the future looks bright. But Auckland and Northland wines are truly boutique status, so they are hard to find.
It is the wines from Auckland and points north that have captured my fancy this year, especially after a trip to the sunny north in early December, with syrah from all over leaving such a memorable taste.
One comes from Kerikeri - the Te Puna Kerikeri Syrah 2005 - and the only place to find it is at the New World supermarket in Kerikeri because the owner of the vineyard also owns the store.
However for top honours, it's a jaunt to Waiheke Island in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf. Syrah of the Year and also Wine of the Year for 2006 is Passage Rock Reserve Syrah 2005. It is the drinking of it that did it - to get to the end of the bottle and wish there was more.
I'm not sure is there was a Riesling stand out this year, the lower alcohol Waipara Springs Waipara Premo Riesling 2005, was one of the most memorable, however. Hang on, there was the delicious Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard Riesling 2006 from Martinborough that was rather exciting too.
Pinot Gris continues to be a challenge as I like a wine that is quite flavoursome on its own as well as with food, and many are just too neutral. Forrest Estate Marlborough Pinot Gris 2006, was one of the fruitiest and most sensuous that I tasted.
In contrast, Gewurztraminer provided plenty of delicious wines. But three wines from three different regions stood out. There was the Lawson's Dry Hill Gewurztraminer 2005 from Marlborough, the Askerne Gewurztraminer 2005 from Hawkes Bay and then there was the Vinoptima Gewurztraminer 2004 from Gisborne.
Vinoptima Gewurztraminer 2004 gets my vote for Gewurztraminer of the Year as well as Other White Wine of the Year.
As for the other reds, the title of 'Other Red Wine of the Year' goes to Fromm Malbec. Which vintage? Mmmmm. That's hard to say because at a vertical tasting in April they were all so deliciously seductive. But the one that was most drop dead gorgeous, after careful consideration, the Fromm Marlborough Malbec 2000.
Winemaker of the Year goes to Matt Thomson, who as well as having his own Delta label, is the winemaker for Saint Clair and various other labels, with input into Kim Crawford's wines too.
I've been pretty quiet on the Wither Hills / Brent Marris saga that filled up the newspaper inches in December. That could have been because I was away when the 'scandal' broke out. I also thought it pertinent to hear as many facts as possible before stating my views and wanted to hear the result of the Wine Institute's audit. After a rigorous audit, they cleared Wither Hills and Brent Marris of any wrong doing.
But the fact of the matter is - the wine that was carefully submitted into the New Zealand competitions - and the wine bought from a supermarket for comparison, were different. Scientific analysis confirmed this. Later it was admitted that a batch of wine from grapes harvested earlier in the season that the later bottlings, was submitted to competition. Other wineries would label a batch made from earlier harvested grapes and 'Early Release' or 'Limited Release' - at least we hope they would. It's food for thought for any producer of large volumes of wine - and not just here in New Zealand either.
Brent Marris, while your own reputation has been severely damaged and you have had to hand back your medals and resign as Chairman of Judges from the Air New Zealand Wine Awards, you still receive the Brickbat of the Year for the damage you have potentially caused to our wine industry's reputation.
© Sue Courtney
3 Jan 2007