The Great Leap From Sheep To Sauvignon
The first Sauvignon Blanc vines planted in New Zealand’s Marlborough region were sown in 1973. The foresighted, or reckless people who did this were the owners of the then family run Montana Winery.
By 1979 Montana had produced the first commercial Sauvignon Blanc and within a decade after that, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, from a standing start would overtake in prestige and in many markets, in sales too, the rest of the world’s producers, including the birthplace of great Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre and Pouilly Fume in France’s Loire valley.
The success transformed Montana and New Zealand, and Montana remains very proud of its pivotal roll in setting New Zealand on the road to Sauvignon Blanc world domination.
But there is a bitter-sweet element too, because very likely a bottle of Montana’s Sauvignon Blanc also laid the seeds of the creation of Montana’s great rival and today, despite a great deal of competition, New Zealand’s icon winery, Cloudy Bay.
Cloudy Bay is in fact a sister winery to Australia’s Cape Mentelle, makers of brilliant Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1983, some visitors to the Western Australian winery brought a few bottles of New Zealand wines including some Sauvignon Blanc. David and Mark Hoehnen, founders and owners of Cape Mentelle were so impressed they travelled to New Zealand within the year and decided to found a winery there.
They made their first vintage of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc in 1985, before they had a winery or a physical vineyard. They simply bought the fruit from the best available plots. The following year they bought the 350 acres that they named the Cloudy Bay vineyards and international praise and star status followed.
Montana Wines however continued to make Sauvignon Blanc in their own style and refused it seems to be seduced into adopting a cult wine making approach. Sales of Montana Sauvignon Blanc soared as did New Zealand wine generally.
In 1973, there were a hand full of vineyards and no Sauvignon Blanc, by 1995, New Zealand was on the world wine map with 200 wineries and exporting around 7 million litres of wine annually, by 2008, the last year we have figures for, this had leapt to qan export figure of 88.6 milion litres.
Wine has surpassed lamb as the more important New Zealand export.
It is that kind of growth that has seen multinationals snap up huge portions of New Zealand’s wine industry. So today Cloudy Bay and the Montana Group are essentially French owned, Pernod Ricard for Montana and luxury good Group LVMH, owners of Dom Perignon with ownership of Cloudy Bay.
Being at the helm of Montana, now New Zealand’s largest winery and therefore one of the most important jobs in the wine world is a great pleasure if not a little daunting, but last week, the new Chief Group Winemaker for Montana, Patrick Materman on a visit to Ireland seemed un-phased by his new responsibility.
This is to be expected, Materman has spent 20 years in Montana, working his way up from cellar hand to now, top of the corporate tree. The job that he has just left was as Chief winemaker responsible directly for the biggest selling Sauvignon Blabnc in the world, Montana’s Classic Marlborough Sauvignon with about a million bottle produced annually.
“It was a pressure, of course, but that’s the enjoyment, it is a core brand and a core product so making sure its right is of extreme importance.” Says Materman.
“What we want to do next, our new icon projects, reserve ranges and signature ranges these are the challenges that I am looking forward to now. It is exciting. The drive to do these things comes from the land, from the potential and of course from the people making these wines. Its there in our motto too, Let Nature Tell Its Story.
The Land of the Long White Cloud
The story of New Zealand’s natural habitat is of course a complex and interesting one.
The Moari, the indigenous peoples of New Zealand call it The Land of The Long White Cloud, which is another not to be overlooked climate indicator that would suggest that the typicity and fixity of New Zealand’s climate, a medium cool maritime region with soothing blanket of warming cloud has been evident for a couple of thousand years.
New Zealand is made up of dozens of islands, but the two large land masses, North and South Island are the most famous, what people consider to be New Zealand and home to its important and increasingly well known wine regions.
Essentially these can be broken down into the seven or eight best known wine regions, being Gisborne, Hawkes Bay and Wellington on the North Island and Marlborough, Waipara and Central Otago on the South Island.
The most important of which are Marlborough for Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, Gisborne for Chardonnay, Hawkes Bay for Bordeaux Blends and Central Otago for very high end, expensive Pinot Noir.
There is plenty more to New Zealand wine than these varieties and even within these large well known regions, as we have seen over the last couple of years with smaller tenderloin areas like the famed Gimblett Gravels sub-region of Hawkes Bay which has soils not unlike the Graves region of Bordeaux and is now producing some world class Cabernet Sauvignon from wineries like Craggy Range Winery.
New Zealand – Bigger Than You Know
Occasionally if I give a talk about New Zealand wines I find that the biggest myth that has to be dispelled is not that good wine comes from here, that is well understood. It is that New Zealand is big enough to matter.
New Zealand is much larger than Ireland for instance and the distance between the North and South Islands, between the cities of Wellington on the North Island coast and Blenhein on South Island is roughly 48 miles, that’s just ten shy of our, enormous 58 mile trip to Wales. Not forgetting that we can get that down to just 22 miles at the neatest point between Scotland and this island.
Secondly it is approximately 1000 miles from the top of North Island to the botootm of South Island, that’s a huge range of climates and soils on offer to wine makers.
Allowing for being upside down, if you will, Central Otago is as far north as Bordeaux or Hermitage in the Rhone if you prefer, while Auckland, home to excellent red wine makers like Babich Wines is on the same mirror latitude in the Northern Hemisphere as Algeria or at a pinch Spain’s Jerez.
So if we laid New Zealand on a map of Europe it would stretch from Champagne in Northern France to Jerez in Southern Spain.
This goes some way to explaining why so many winemakers from around the world are interested in New Zealand, add this kind of distance to excellent well drain soils and you have a smorgasbord of opportunity which we have only just begun to scratch the surface.
“I think the big story, for the future, for the next decade in New Zealand wine is going to be Syrah. There is a lot of planting and testing and the result are getting better and better.” Says Patrick Materman.
Before anyone scoffs we just have to remember that in 1980 New Zealand did not exist in the minds of the wider wine world, nor in thc commercial world, but 10 years later it was a player and today it dominates many markets.
Of course despite the latitude similarities of Auckland and Jerez, Otago and Lyon or Bordeaux, on the ground in reality there are huge differences due to one all pervasive element. The Ocean. The 2000 miles of sea that separates New Zealand from Australia encircles this Island nation on all sides and moderates the effects of latitude, turning Auckland into a cool, southern French climate region rather than a toasty sherry producing region and Otago is transformed into a moderate oceanic region saved from unproductive Clare like Atlantic coastal chill and rain by high mountains that create a unique micro climate of considerable year round warmth and cool evenings.
The constant Oceanic presence across New Zealand means that ripening and high acidity levels are always big issues rather than jam-like hot, high alcohol flab that troubles southern Australia and southern Europe.
Learning the minute variations of New Zealand’s landscape has been the task of the last 20 years for the best winemakers.
Last week, Oz Clarke in London, called for the introduction of a strict Appellation Controllee system for New Zealand, this followed a presentation last January, 2009, by Jancis Robinson in Otago about the need to adopt a Burgundian style appellation system.
I cannot think of any other location on earth where leading writers are demanding the local winemakers adopt a strong regulatory framework. It is odd and I wonder if it is really appropriate.
New Zealand has in just 30 years begun to identify its major regions, in another few decades this will all change again and sometime after that the minute inch by inch mapping that exists in Burgundy might arrive. It took Burgundy about 500 years, during which time there was plenty of trial and error, it seems ridiculous to nail down New Zealand to where they have reached today.
Otago looks set to become the Pinot Noir capital of the world and I am sure that world beating, more importantly Rhone and Australia beating Syrah will almost certainly be on offer within the next couple of years.
The brilliance of the New Zealand wine industry was that is was a delicious collection of happenstance. The UK joined the EU in 1973, cutting off New Zealand butter and lamb from its previous century old market. Empty idle stainless steel milk tanks and the skills in using them were adopted by a experimental wine industry giving fresh bright, oakless wines to a market just ready for them. Couple this with the ending of decades long semi-prohibition where a state monopoly ran and censored alcohol production and consumption and the wine business unexpectedly boomed.
For the moment, New Zealand wine remains, unpretentious even at its best levels, experimental and given its quality, under-priced.
Petrol prices, Carbon Footprint concerns and increasing praise will inevitably push these prices up, but for the moment, world recession, still relatively low oil prices and vigorous CO2 neutral policies by New Zealand make this a golden moment for Irish wine lovers to explore, these vineyards at the end of the world.
Some Highlights of the Land Of The Long White Cloud
Montana, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough Classic 2008 (88) around €12.95
Montana, Pinot Noir, South Island 2007 (87) around €12.95
Oyster Bay Pinot Noir, Marlborough 2007 (88) around €16.89
Astrolabe Pinot Noir, Marlborough 2007 (89) around €19.39
Wild Earth Pinot Noir, Central Otago, 2007 (91) around €32
Tinpot Hut, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough (89) around €17
Craggy Range Te Kahu Merlot Cabernet Gimblett Gravels 2005 (91) around €28
Kim Crawford, Pinot Gris 2007 (89) around €18.50
Montana Reserve Marlborough Pinot Noir 2007 (90) around €14.95
Montana Reserve Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2008 (90) around €14.95
Email the wine column at email@example.com