This is the tale of how social media changed my mind about New Zealand wine. I’d got a bit sick of them, you see. All those endless supermarket shelves of gooseberry-screaming Sauvignon Blanc, and those big, jammy Pinot Noirs that all began to taste the same. Which I guess is why they’ve become so popular in the UK. Rather like your favourite chocolate bar, you know exactly what you are getting every time you buy these wines. To price-conscious Brits, that’s manna from heaven.
But when I joined Twitter, a different world opened up thanks to all the New Zealand winemakers who have embraced social media. This was a world where regional variations in climate and soil play a huge part, where winemakers are producing hand-picked, low-yield wines using wild yeasts where possible. Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti big-brands when they produce well-crafted, tasty wines, which many of them are doing. However, it’s those big brands who’ve also helped create a perception that New Zealand is a two-tone country when in reality there are exciting things being done with other grapes as well.
Such is Britain’s love for Sauvignon Blanc – and really, we’re talking Marlborough here – that on a recent trip to New Zealand I was often greeted with: “Bet you’ve been enjoying lots of Sauvignon.” Er, well, no, not lots. Some, yes: mouth-tinglingly clean ones, tropical fruit ones and a stand-out richly-oaked one. But what I was also enjoying was the German-style Rieslings being made, especially around Marlborough and Nelson. Herby, spicy Pinot Noirs as well as soft, velvety ones. Honeyed Pinot Gris as well as lighter-tasting stonefruit ones. Bordeaux and Southern Rhone-style red blends as well as plummy, white pepper-flecked Syrahs. Merlot rosés. Both creamy and zippily fresh Chardonnays along with Semillons and Viogniers and some luscious late harvest beauties. In other words, I was enjoying New Zealand’s wine diversity inspired by what I was reading on blogs and from people I was following on Twitter.
In all, we visited 16 vineyards and two wine centres in five different wine districts. Some were for tastings, some were for tours and some were for lunch. Not only did we experience diversity in wine styles but also in the overall experience. Marlborough had the scenery, with snow-capped mountains surrounding the blocks of vines – but I was surprised at how plain and functional its two main towns were. Martinborough had the cute town centre and gourmet shops, to complement its boutique wineries – but few of these can cater for visitors, especially outside weekends. Hawke’s Bay felt more corporate in comparison, but it had nailed the winery restaurant business. It took us ages to decide where to eat. Waiheke Island was eclectic. We went to probably the best-place cellar door in the world, right by the beach. But we also went to the rudest. My sense was that Waiheke is geared up for daytrippers from Auckland who come over on the foot ferry and want to drink, not sample. And Nelson? Well, we only went to one vineyard en-route to the stunning Abel Tasman national park, so even I cannot generalise here. But we picked a great one – Neudorf.
Despite a tight schedule, I was keen to swing by and try some of Neudorf’s wines after watching owner Judy Finn talk about them and following her tweets. 30-year-old Neudorf’s philosophy is to produce wines that give a real sense of place by being as hands-off as possible and letting the grapes do the talking. Low-cropping vines, wild yeast fermentation, unfiltered and unfined are the sorts of phrases you’ll find on their labels.
It being a mid-week afternoon, the cellar door was pretty quiet which meant we got the full attention of Jackie who was running the shop that day. We tasted almost everything, skipping the rosé, the frisky, fruity Tom’s Block Pinot Noir (because we’d had a glass the night before with dinner) and a maybe a couple of others. The stand-outs for me (purely from a personal taste) were from the home vineyards around the winery – which all carry the name Moutere (which locals pronounce Moot-ree). The Moutere Chardonnay is regarded as the jewel in Neudorf’s crown and, although there were already lots of yummy lemony, bready flavours developing in the 2009 , it still needed – as Jackie rightly said – to ‘unwind’. So it was pointless buying it to drink on holiday. Better to do it back home and keep it for a while. But we did buy three others.
The Moutere Riesling 2009 is made in the German Spätlese style, compared to the more steely Brightwater Riesling 2009 which is more typical of the New World. You get a lot of taste for only 9% alcohol by volume (ABV) and what I loved most was the way the taste kept changing. First it was lime cordial, then there was some light honey and finally some sour red apple skins.
The Moutere Pinot Gris 2009 was a gorgeous mix of honey, juicy ripe pears, quinces, apricots, ginger, candied lemon peel with a lovely creamy weight balanced with refreshing acidity. Just divine.
Finally, the Moutere Pinot Noir 2008. On opening, there was a flurry of brilliant red cherries, freshly-milled black pepper and bitter herbs – it was all a bit intense. But the next day, it had softened considerably and showed the beginnings of a velvety future. Like the Chardonnay, we probably should’ve waited ’til we got home to buy this wine so we could keep it for a while. And you know, reader, I might just do that.