We love to tease our Antipodean cousins, but they’ve become a force to be reckoned with in New World wines. Ben Canaider reports
Sauvignon blanc. In the restaurant world, it’s all you have to say. Nothing else is required. It’s all understood. Kiwi savvy. The savalanche… To a generation of wine drinkers—maybe even two generations—sav blanc was the default position. At its peak, the variety represented 40 per cent of all white wine sold in Australia—and eight out of 10 bottles were from NZ. You had to have it on your wine list. Still do.
The economic boost for the NZ wine industry was enormous; there was a reverse effect here on local dry white wine manufacturers, however—some who reckon they lost 30 per cent of their sales to the Kiwi SB. Yet this wine also helped introduce a lot of people to wine. And it introduced people to New Zealand wine. And the opportunity this now represents to restaurateurs is very positive, because it is about premiumisation. Yes, wine drinkers all around the world are currently on a premium bender. They want better quality and therefore higher-priced wines. A neat example of this involves our NZ friends who have only this year outsold by value more wine to the USA than has Australia: $400 million worth, versus our $350 million. And this despite the fact we export more than twice the amount of wine into America: 17 million cases compared to NZ’s seven million cases. The Kiwis are doing smaller, better, more distinct wines. And being paid well for them.
Yet there’s a hurdle to get over when it comes to persuading a lot of Australian restaurant customers to choose expensive NZ wines over equally expensive Italian, Spanish, French, Austrian, or Australian wines. And that hurdle is the Janus that is discounted, cheap, ubiquitous sav blanc. It’s the fascinating logic of the restaurant customer. Holding a wine list in their hand you can hear them thinking: “Hang on, I can buy Marlborough sav blanc for $17 at Dan O’Flaherty’s, so what’s with this Central Otago pinot noir at $105? I don’t even know where Central Otago is!”
Once again, an educative wine list is the first step to becoming an influential, respected gatekeeper of NZ wine knowledge. Here’s how:
Give some determined space in your wine list to a NZ wine feature, say two opposing pages.
“There’s a hurdle to get over when it comes to persuading a lot of Australian restaurant customers to choose more expensive NZ wines over equally expensive Italian, Spanish, French, Austrian, or Australian wines.”
New Zealand has 12 wine regions, which many people are surprised to learn. Cut and paste a map on to one page of your wine list feature (google ‘New Zealand wine regions’—the perfect map comes up first thing), highlighting two wine regions on the North Island and two on the South. Focus on two wines from each region that satisfy the following parameters: they are wines that excel in the region; they are wines that have good LUC price points; and they are wines that you think will suit your customers’ current wants and desires.
Hawke’s Bay, around Napier, on the central east coast of the North Island. An old NZ wine region with a sunny disposition and climate, and a range of soil types that permit a wide range of wine styles. Bordeaux blends have been the thing here, and chardonnay, too; but syrah (shiraz) has in recent times wowed, with its poise, balance, length and fine tannins. It is nothing like a Barossan or McLaren Vale shiraz, and that’s the point of it—it compliments a wider range of food. As for a white, look to pinot gris, which, unlike a lot of Australian pinot gris, has a pert and upright acidity, making for a fresher, cleaner, slightly less glycerol texture. The go-to syrah is Craggy Range Appellation Series Syrah 2015, which is on-premise only and $21LUC. Very tempting. Or Satyr By Sileni Estates Pinot Gris 2016 $12LUC.
Wairarapa, just to the immediate north of Wellington, is home to the sub-region of Martinborough. From here come such names as Ata Rangi, Dry River, Martinborough Vineyard, and Palliser. The region was very much built on soil science—infertile, free-draining soils that makes vines lean but happy. The early soil geeks thought the region a lot like Burgundy. No wonder pinot noir is the champion; but some syrah has recently made an impressive impact. Sauvignon blanc is also worthwhile here, being a little less high-C than Marlborough’s. The region’s riesling is the real secret weapon, however. Ata Rangi Crimson Pinot Noir is a $20ish LUC entry-level wine that will suit summer; and Paddy Borthwick Riesling 2016 is $14ish. It’s just off-dry and suits more spicy, south-east Asian foodstuffs.
Marlborough, at the top of the South Island. To the entire wine-drinking world this means New Zealand. Because of, yes, sav blanc… Two-thirds of NZ’s total vineyards are here. The heightened, unmissable aromaticity of the region’s sauvignon blanc is the thing that made the reputation. The fact that you couldn’t miss the smell made every casual wine drinker an instant connoisseur. I’m not ashamed to say I still enjoy and drink the better examples, particularly in warmer weather. But the region’s pinot noir is my favourite. It combines an acidic tension with some riper fruit flavours. Rimapere (co-owned by the Rothschilds and Craggy Range) make both flavours: the sav blanc is $17LUC, the pinot noir is $22LUC.
Central Otago, near Queenstown, in the bottom middle of the South Island. They say latitude equates to attitude in wine, and gosh does this region demonstrate that. At 45 degrees south, it’s the southernmost wine region in the world. Yet it is surrounded by high mountains, which helps it lock in some heat over summer, hence grape ripening. Pinot noir is the point of this place: 70 per cent of the plantings. Tautness and intensity, but a certain suave silkiness that comes from long, slow ripening. Felton Road Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2016 $50ish LUC is one of the stand-outs, and will satisfy many Burgundophiles.