Last week's column on Malbec focused mainly on Argentina, one of the two theme regions at this year's Winnipeg Wine Festival. Malbec remains far and away the South American country's flagship grape variety.
The other of the two theme regions at this year's festival is New Zealand, another country known mainly for one grape and region -- in this case Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. The most prolific Kiwi wine region (especially when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc), Marlborough is located near the north end of New Zealand's South Island. The wines tend to be crisp, lean and grassy, often sporting bell pepper, herbal and tart citrus notes. Some producers make it in too vegetal a style, and the wine starts to pick up acrid notes often associated with, well, cat pee (as the owner of two geriatric cats, I get the connection).
More so than Argentina, the New Zealand wine industry has successfully started diversifying its international offerings, promoting other regions and grapes beyond Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. While most wines we see on our shelves in the New Zealand section still come from this region, it's not just Sauvignon Blanc anymore. Other cool-climate wines like Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer (whites) and Pinot Noir (reds) can now be found from Marlborough.
Wines aren't only reserved to New Zealand's South Island these days. Located on the North Island, Hawke's Bay is the next-biggest wine-producing region, although its total number of hectares dedicated to vineyards is less than one-quarter of Marlborough's. While Marlborough's most planted grapes are Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, Hawke's Bay producers prefer to grapple with grapes that do better with more heat -- namely bigger reds like Merlot and Syrah.
Heading back to the South Island, Central Otago is flying its Pinot Noir flag proudly. Of the 1,786 hectares reported on the 2012 New Zealand vineyard register, 1,366 were dedicated to Pinot Noir. New Zealand's reputation as a spot to produce fantastic Pinot Noir continues to grow; as New Zealand's regionally driven marketing continues to increase, so too will the popularity of wines made from grapes other than their iconic Sauvignon Blanc.
Generally speaking, New Zealand producers have been quick to embrace sustainable winemaking practices -- ensuring the way they make wine impacts people, the environment and the economy in as minimal (or at least minimally negative) a way as possible. (If you're curious about sustainable winemaking, check out www.nzwine.com/sustainability for more.)
Like most Canadian producers, New Zealand winemakers have embraced what nature has given them, and aren't trying to make big, bold reds, for example, where clearly they should be trying to make cool-climate whites. While the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc explosion of the past decade has helped bring New Zealand wines a greater international presence, it's some of these wines made from other grapes that are the hidden gems. Look for them in the New Zealand section of the wine festival in two weeks.
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Double Cove 2010 Pinot Noir
(Marlborough, New Zealand -- around $18, private wine stores)
While most New Zealand Pinot Noir has cola and clove aromas to go along with the raspberry and cherry notes, this one delivers more earth and barnyard like a red Burgundy. It's light-bodied and brings intense red berry flavours on the palate, a hint of spice and vanilla (from oak) and a touch of sweetness to the fruit that places it decidedly back in New World territory flavour-wise. There's some acidity in there too that gives a bit of a pucker without going completely tart. It runs a bit against the grain, but I really like it. Grill up a Portobello mushroom burger and enjoy. 90/100
Tinpot Hut 2011 Pinot Gris
(Marlborough, New Zealand -- $18.95, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Pinot Gris has great potential from New Zealand -- not necessarily the lighter iterations sold as Pinot Grigio, but richer, more complex Pinot Gris wines like those made in Alsace. Case and point: the Tinpot Hut melds ripe peach, mineral, pear and chalky aromas with a hint of red apple and honey. It's a dry, medium-bodied white wine, with chalky mineral and pear flavours showing beautifully and tart peach and apricot fleshing things out. Try with most salads, mild cheeses, chicken or shrimp dishes. 88/100
Sileni 2010 The Triangle Merlot
(Hawke's Bay, New Zealand -- $19.95, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Bright plum and blueberry notes are telltale Merlot characteristics, and here they're joined by black pepper, milk chocolate and floral notes. It's a medium-plus bodied sustainably produced Merlot that brings plush blue fruit flavours as well as black tea and white pepper notes on the palate. The fruit's restrained and the tannin and oak are modest, making this a well-balanced red that would do well with prime rib, pizza or burgers. 87/100
Where to try
New Zealand wines
at the Winnipeg
Big Sky Party
Wednesday, May 1, 7 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
Qualico Family Centre, Assiniboine Park
Tickets: $40, phone 204-925-5633
or visit www.winnipegwinefestival.com
May 3, 7 p.m.-10 p.m.
May 4, 1:30 p.m.-4 p.m., 7 p.m.-10 p.m.
Tickets: $44.95 (Saturday matinee), $49.95 (Friday/Saturday evening), visit Liquor Marts or www.ticketmaster.ca