Tasting New Zealand with the Wine Writers’ Circle

I recently spent an enjoyable Sunday afternoon with some colleagues from the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada, tasting 60 wines from New Zealand. In many cases this was actually retasting, for the wines were “leftovers” from the May 2015 New Zealand in a Glass show presented in Toronto. Many thanks to Robert Ketchin, the point man for New Zealand Wine in Canada, for providing the wines.

I am fortunate to be able to taste and review New Zealand wines as they are released piecemeal throughout the year in Ontario, and I have been nursing three different “broad brush” thoughts or themes based on what I’ve been tasting, that relate respectively to Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Sitting down and tasting a large sample of wines in one go, strongly validated those themes.

Sauvignon Blanc: Starting with higher priced examples, but filtering down to all levels, I’ve been observing a dampening of the the screaming pyrezenes that have been such a trademark of New Zealand Savvy. These are the sometimes strident notes of “green”: certainly cut grass and bell pepper, but also tinned peas, asparagus, and, at times, the infamous “cat’s pee” aromas. But more often, now, I find that the bell pepper is more subtle, sometimes appearing as a more earthy jalapeno note, with far less of the tinned veggie character.

This tasting strongly supported my longer-term observations. In my notes I often wrote “lightly herbaceous”, and in a number of cases I first noted a citrus-grapefruit character, suggesting that the impression of citrus and grapefruit took precedence over the herbaceous character.

From my point of view, this is a pleasing refinement. It’s not that I’m an advocate for removing the herbaceous element from the wines — after all it’s an integral part of the character of the grape. But I find that a more subtle herbaceous component can lead to a greater harmony and elegance. To give just one example, it turned out by chance that my favourite Sauvignon Blanc from this tasting was one that I reviewed for the September 19 Vintages release. When I checked afterwards, I was happy to find that I had given it the same score, and my new tasting note said: ” … bright, fresh, vibrant … lovely grapefruit, slightly grassy, and on the palate the  herbal notes dissipate…”. My published tasting note is much in line with this, and is repeated here.


AUNTSFIELD SINGLE VINEYARD SAUVIGNON BLANC 2014, Southern Valleys, Marlborough, South Island

Vintages #663286 • $20.95 • 750ml. • WD Score 90/100
This is an excellent New Zealand Savvy. Vibrant (but not at all strident) herbaceous tones — earthy bell peppers, cut grass, delicate cucumber goodness — all nestle in a grapefruit, green apple and honeydew melon fruit cocktail garnished with white flowers. It sounds crazy, but it really works. The palate is dry, with high acidity, balanced alcohol, more focused on the fruit, with a grapefruit and mineral finish. Classy and quite delicious.
Tasted Sept 4, 2015 • DB WINE & SPIRITS INC. (Agent)Find it at your nearest LCBOShare Review

region-mapPinot Noir: New Zealand has perhaps become the benchmark for New World Pinot Noir: exuberant fruit, elegant floral notes, sometimes savoury and earthy, but always vibrant and pure, with brisk acidity and robust tannins. But in the past I have sometimes found alcohol levels rising into the 14.5% range, higher than I personally think works for elegant Pinot Noir.

A trend that I have started noticing in the last year or so, is that fewer New Zealand Pinots seem to be travelling down this road, and I was thrilled to confirm this with our tasting here. Only once or twice out of the sample of 16 Pinot Noirs did I note a buildup of “heat” on the palate.

To further support this, I looked through all the background notes and compiled the declared levels of alcohol for all 16 Pinots. Ten reported 13.5% or less, two reported greater than 13.5% and less than 14.0%, three reported 14.0%, and one reported 14.3%. The average reported alcohol level was 13.65%. Now, we all understand that reported alcohol isn’t always accurate, and is often understated. But first, my perceptions were in line with the reported numbers, and second, even if winemakers are under-reporting alcohol levels, they are apparently aware of the possible concern about high and too-high alcohol levels.

Syrah: My third theme is quite simple, and has been building as I’ve tasted more New Zealand wines: New Zealand can make some excellent Syrah! I always look forward to the few examples that find their way to Toronto at the annual New Zealand wine show. At this tasting the best of our four samples was an excellent example from Trinity Hill, their 2013 John Hancock Syrah, that still has some availability in Ontario. Here is my review from my notes on the September 18, 2015 Vintages release, that mirrors my tasting notes from this session.


TRINITY HILL SYRAH 2013, Hawkes Bay, North Island

Vintages #194274 • $22.95 • 750ml. • WD Score 90/100
This is a wonderfully drinkable Syrah from Hawkes Bay. Rich, intense blueberry and black currant fruit surrounds aromas of violets, black pepper and herbs. Crisp acidity and medium tannins frame the fruit on the palate, that builds with a light menthol-herbal lift over dry earth. The wine is fresh and lively with some depth and complexity. An excellent value indeed.
Tasted Sept 8, 2015 • CONNEXION OENOPHILIA (Agent)Find it at your nearest LCBOShare Review



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