Cabernet Sauvignon originated in Bordeaux and was first planted by James Busby in 1832 in Northland, but by the beginning of the 20th century it had almost been eliminated by phylloxera. It was resurrected in the mid-1960s in Hawkes Bay, and in the two decades that followed it spread to other regions. Though oak can be a major influence, it is climate that is the biggest influence. Cabernet is a late-ripening variety that is better suited to the warmer regions like Hawke's Bay and Waiheke Island although it can produce excellent wines in the better vintages elsewhere. Cabernet wines are renowned for their power, richness of colour, aroma, depth of flavour and tannic quality that makes them very long lived. More often than not, Cabernet is blended with other varieties like Merlot to soften and round off its aggressiveness. Traditionally it is put through a malolactic fermentation and barrel matured to give it a smoother, mellower texture.
Varietal characteristics: Purple red; Ruby; Garnet; Deep inky red; Brick red; Blackcurrant; Blackberry; Plum; Liquorice; Spice; Herbaceous; Leather; Tobacco; Chocolate; Coffee; Cedar; Cigar box; Toast; Vanilla.
Plantings of Malbec have leapt from 19 hectares in 1994 to 168. The total hectares planted in this old Bordeaux variety may not seem significant but its importance is the influence that Malbec has on Bordeaux-style reds. It is a variety that suits New Zealand's cooler climate although it is susceptible to rot in humid climates. It ripens early and shows little signs of herbaceous, characters even in poorer years. It is renowned for its deep colour and ripe fruity characters that can be very attractive in New Zealand it is used mainly as a blender but there are some straight varietals that are worth a second look.
Varietal characteristics: Dense inky red colours; Plump Olives; Pepper; Spice; Bramble; Ripe berries; Liquorice; Coffee; Leather; Prune; Rhubarb; Gamey; Meaty; Nutty; Toast.
Merlot was a relatively latecomer to New Zealand, arriving in the late 1980s, but it has made up for lost time and the number of plantings, now exceed those of Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot, too, originated in Bordeaux and historically it has been blended with Cabernet. It is definitely that variety's best friend, tempering its austere nature and adding its own plummy flavours and lush texture. Merlot ripens about two weeks earlier than Cabernet and is well suited to our cool climate but is best in the warmer regions. Its lower tannin levels and riper characters are qualities that have attracted many winemakers. It is no longer seen as a mere blender to support Cabernet Sauvignon but as the dominant varietal that can produce seductive reds to rival Cabernet Sauvignon blends.
Varietal characteristics: Purple red; Ruby; Crimson, Deep red; Blackberry; Blackcurrant; Mulberry; Cherry; Black plums; Turkish delight; Coffee; Spice; Leather; Tobacco; Toast; Cedar; Vanilla....
The great hope of many New Zealand winemakers is that Pinot Noir will do for New Zealand's red wines what Sauvignon Blanc did for the country's white wines. As can be seen from the hectares planted, it is by far the most widely planted red variety in the country. A great deal of it, however, makes up the blend of Methode Traditionnelle wines. Nonetheless, in the last decade plantings have nearly doubled and predictions are that they will double again within the next five. Regardless of the hype surrounding the variety, there is real potential for Pinot Noir in this country. The variety, which gained fame in Burgundy, is well suited to New Zealand's cooler growing regions. It is a frustrating variety - it ripens early, is prone to frosts and is a shy cropper. The attraction despite these difficulties is that is can produce incomparable wines of alluring quality.
Varietal characteristics: Pale ruby; Crimson; Deep garnet; Strawberry; Raspberry; Blackberry; Wild berries; Plum; Cherry; Violets; Chocolate; Coffee beans; Spice; Cloves; Liquorice; Pepper; Mushroom; Leather; Vanilla; Cedar; Cigar box; Toast; Earthy; Tobacco.
Syrah (Shiraz in Australia) originally from the Rhone, is not a new variety to New Zealand. It was being grown more than 100 years ago but the variety needs a warm situation to prosper. Since 1995 plantings have risen to 183 hectares restricted mainly to the warmer districts of Hawkes Bay. The variety by comparison to Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir is relatively easy to grow and is a better cropper. It responds well to oak and has the ability to age gracefully for long periods. Varietal characteristics: Blue crimson; Crimson; Inky; Brick red; Blackberry; Cherry; Currant; Black pepper; Spice; Clove; Cinnamon; Plum; Coffee; Chocolate; Leather; Bacon; Cedar; Smoke; toast; Tobacco.
Originally from France, Chardonnay has become the world's most sought-after white variety. In its homeland it is responsible for the legendary white wines of Burgundy and is one of the major components of Champagne. It was introduced into New Zealand in the mid-19th century but by the end of that century it had disappeared, a victim of phylloxera. It was reintroduced in the 1970s and is now the most widely planted variety in the country. It is planted in all the major wine regions and is responsible for a wide diversity of styles. Climate, soil, vinification techniques, the use of oak and maturation are the important factors which determine the flavour and character of Chardonnay.
Varietal characteristics: Very light greenish; Straw; Rich golden; Mineral; Apple; Apricot; Peach; Melon; Tropical fruit; Pineapple; Lime; Grapefruit; Lemon; Almond; Butterscotch; Nuttiness; Toast; Cedar; Spice; Yeast; Creamy; Buttery; Biscuity.
After a sharp decline in the mid-1990s this variety has regained some ground, and since 1998 plantings have risen from 85 to 210 hectares. Gewürztraminer origins are a little obscure but nowadays it is generally accepted that it is in the Alsace region of France where it gained its prominence. The variety is pink skinned and produces deep coloured and highly aromatic wines. Its distinctive aroma makes it, along with Sauvignon Blanc, one of the easier varieties to identify but the wines are quite different in character. In New Zealand it has been made both as dry and slightly sweet styles, with the latter being the more popular among producers.
Varietal characteristics: Yellow; Straw; Golden; Floral; Passionfruit; Lychee; Ginger; Cloves; Cinnamon; Turkish delight.
We have small plots of other varieties scattered throughout the regions. Such as the reds Cabernet Franc Cabernet Sauvignons shy cousin, invariably in its shadow and rarely shining on its own. Some Temperanillo is grown as will be seen occaisionally.
In the whites there are also Semillons and Chenin Blancs grown.
Heralded as "The Great White Hope", plantings of Pinot Gris have leapt from a mere 19 hectares in 1994 to 381, and more are in the pipeline. The bulk of the plantings are in Marlborough and Central Otago with pockets in Canterbury, Martinborough, Hawkes Bay and Gisborne. A distinctive looking variety, the grape skins can vary from blue-black to grey to pink.
The surge of interest by winemakers can be attributed to the variety's ability to produce quality wines that display spicy flavours, good mouth weight and have the ability to cellar well. It is largely fermented in stainless steel but, like Chardonnay, can cope with oak fermentation and maturation and is particularly good with a variety of foods.
Varietal characteristics: Pinkish tinge; Straw; Golden; Apple; Peach; Grapefruit; Lemon; Spice; Tropical fruit; Almond; Clove; Cinnamon.
Riesling has been present in New Zealand for a considerable time, but it was only in the late 1970s that it started to gather momentum and in the last decade plantings have more than doubled. Of German origin, Riesling is considered Chardonnay's greatest rival. A classic cool climate variety, it does particularly well in the South Island. About half of the country's plantings are located in Marlborough where it is traditionally cool fermented without malolactic fermentation or oak influence. Like Semillon, Riesling can produce impeccable, long-lived wines with intense aromatic qualities that range in style from bone dry to luscious dessert wines. Unlike many other white wines it can by high in fruit with refreshing acidity and low alcohol.
Varietal characteristics: Pale straw; Light golden; Golden; Floral; Mineral; Apple; Pear; Nectarine; Apricot Peach; Lemon; Lime; Peel; Tropical Fruit; Pineapple; Lychee; Honey; Spice.
This variety originated in France where it is responsible for the famous white wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. It is an important blending variety in white Bordeaux. It did not appear in New Zealand until the 1970s, initially in Auckland and later with spectacular success in Marlborough. It is the country's most widely planted variety, and has established itself as New Zealand's flagship wine the world over. Three-quarters of all Sauvignon Blanc is planted in Marlborough, followed by Hawkes Bay and Gisborne. There are also significant plantings in the South Island regions of Nelson and Canterbury and in the North Island's Martinborough. Most sauvignons are fermented in stainless steel tanks but a good portion is either oak fermented or oak aged. This together with climate and soils will affect the flavour and climate of the wine. The key factor however is ripeness and there is a marked style difference between the northern and southern Sauvignons.
Varietal characteristics; Very pale; Greenish; Light straw; Light golden; Herbaceous; Cut grass; Gooseberry; Capsicum; Lemon; Lime; Passionfruit; Pineapple; Tropical fruits; Smoky.
This is not a widely planted white variety in New Zealand but only Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Muller Thurgau can boast greater plantings. It has had a chequered history in this country. Ten years ago there were less than 150 hectares planted,, but new clones that supply riper grapes have encouraged new plantings that have now risen to 306 hectares. It is not a particularly fashionable variety around the world but it produces outstanding wines in Australia and magnificent Sauter
This once obscure Rhone variety is making an appearance in New Zealand and some exciting new styles are slowly coming onto the market. The cooler climate dictates less of the apricot and burnt flavours as in other warmer countries instead a very delicate aromatic wine is being produced by some of our talented winemakers.