When you don't have two thousand years of history proving which grapes grow best in your soils, how do you decide what to grow, and how do you learn how to grow it well? And perhaps even trickier, once you've planted something, how do you decide whether you made the right decision?
These were some of the questions that went through my mind as I tasted some of the first Grüner Veltliners produced in New Zealand. Along with a few dozen other journalists and members of the wine trade, I attended the 2013 Nelson International Aromatics Symposium a few weeks ago to explore how the region (and how New Zealand as a whole) was doing as a producer of aromatic white grape varieties.
As a category, aromatic wines have no hard and fast definition. One wine lover's aromatic white is another's mineral-driven wine. Luckily, we spent no time at this conference attempting to create a taxonomy of such wines. Instead we spent our time tasting Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings side-by-side with benchmark wines from Austria.
The New Zealand Rieslings were good to excellent. The New Zealand Grüners were generally somewhere between insipid and lousy. These two grapes told very different stories at this point in their respective histories, and both were quite interesting.
Riesling came to New Zealand largely by way of Australia, where it emigrated along with German settlers who were among the island's early colonists. But it arrived in New Zealand quite late in the game comparatively, and only after a couple decades of impostor grapes like Müller-Thurgau being made at very low quality, very high quantity levels and pawned off on New Zealand consumers as Riesling. The first true commercial Riesling production in New Zealand didn't occur until the late 1970s and early 1980s, and perhaps like in America, where a whole generation's conception of Riesling was tainted by Blue Nun and Leibfraumilch, it has proven a pretty hard sell.
But New Zealand has been honestly trying to make decent Riesling for a couple of decades now. There exist vines with a decade or even three of age, and producers seem to have figured out where it works (Marlborough, Nelson, and Otago, primarily), and how to grow it to get reasonable results. Or, to my palate, even better than reasonable.
Grüner Veltliner, on the other hand is a new toy, with little to no precedent in the country at all. Apparently some vine stock made it through the country's strict bio-security fences a couple of years ago, and a couple of adventurous vintners gave it a try.
What I'm quite interested in is what the thought process might be for doing so. It's one thing to throw some new kinds of grapevines in the ground (or graft them onto some existing rootstock) and then just treat them like you treat your Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris from flowering to bottling. It's quite another to become a student of the grape and how it has been grown most successfully around the world.
While it is certainly too early to make definitive pronouncements, especially given the wines that I tasted were off vines that were only in their second or third year of life, it's clear enough that most producers are indeed treating the grape in much the same way they might Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc, from the crop levels to the ripeness at picking, to the yeasts used in vinification, and more. When I stood up at the conference to offer my (critical) thoughts on the wines, some producers present admitted as much.
So there's more study that needs to be done. A presentation by Markus Huber, of Austria's Weingut Markus Huber in the Traisental was a good starting point for many, and the source of at least one primary realization for most that their crop loads were way too high in order to achieve a balance of phenols and acidity.
But enough geeky words. New Zealand's Gruvee isn't groovy yet by a long shot. The question that no one can answer yet is whether it will ever get there. How can anyone tell? Presumably soil scientists could analyze the ground, and climatologists can analyze the climate and both can make their pronouncements. But Grüner and Riesling definitely both thrive in the same climate (although generally on very different soil types), so there's certainly a possibility that the variety could thrive in New Zealand.
Of course getting people to buy it is another matter. But every new grape needs to have its first vintage in the New World, and it certainly was fascinating to be at Grüner's Kiwi coming out party. I'm just glad there was some Riesling to wash it down with.
2012 Seifried Estate Gruner Veltliner, Nelson, New Zealand
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of fresh ripe apples. In the mouth bright green and golden apple flavors have a somewhat dull simplicity to them and a nice cool slickness to the wine. 12.6% alcohol. Score: between 7 and 7.5.
2012 Waimea Estates Gruner Veltliner, Nelson, New Zealand
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and a hint of pear skin. In the mouth flavors of pear skin, quince, and citrus with a nice minerality and bright acidity. Quince paste and lemongrass linger in the finish. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.
2012 Bannock Brae Estate "Marlene's" Gruner Veltliner, Central Otago, New Zealand
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and a hint of lemon. In the mouth, somewhat dilute flavors of lemon juice mix with a stonier note, but the wine has very little varietal signature. Could just as easily be Pinot Gris.13.2% alcohol. Score: between 7 and 7.5.
2011 Forrest Estate "The Doctor's" Gruner Veltliner, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of linalool and green apples. In the mouth somewhat candied flavors of green apple mix with stonier notes, and hints of lime in the finish. Could easily be a sauvignon blanc. 11.6% alcohol. Score: around 6.5.
2011 Konrad Wines Gruner Veltliner, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of baked apples and brewers yeast. In the mouth an overwhelming yeasty quality pervades the wine along with a honeyed sweetness that seems unbalanced. Not a pleasurable wine to drink. Off kilter. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 6.
2011 Saint Clair Family Estate "Pioneer Block 5 Bull Block " Gruner Veltliner, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of golden delicious apples and wet stones. In the mouth, flavors of golden apples and honey mix with wet stones and the hint of spiciness that one expects from this grape variety. However, apart from that barest hint, this wine could easily be Pinot Gris. 14% alcohol. Score: around 7.5.
2011 Mount Edward Gruner Veltliner, Central Otago, New Zealand
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of brewers yeast and quince paste. In the mouth somewhat yeasty flavors of baked apple, quince, and pear are nicely balanced with good acidity, but the yeasty note keeps me from enjoying the wine as much as I should. 14.1% alcohol.Score: between 7 and 7.5.
2010 Coopers Creek "Select Vineyard - The Groover" Gruner Veltliner, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of new oak and a hint of unripe pear. In the mouth the wine is exceedingly silky, with flavors of oaky vanilla and poached pear. A hint of Grüner spiciness creeps into the finish, but the wine has a confected quality thanks to the oak, and an oily character thanks to not enough acidity. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 7.
2011 Framingham "F-Series Old Vine" Riesling, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of ripe pears and wet stones. In the mouth a bright burst of lemon juice and pear flavor zings around on a shiny base of wet stone. Wonderful brightness and juiciness in a crisp dry package. Excellent. Dry. 140 cases made. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $30.
2010 Prophet's Rock "Dry" Riesling, Central Otago, New Zealand
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard and a hint of paraffin. In the mouth the wine is silky and offers flavors of creamy poached pear and green apple. Initially the wine seems to have softer acidity but it somehow creeps into the back of the palate and eventually leaves the cheeks puckered with a pleasant sour green apple quality through the finish. Not fully resolved as a wine, but with nice flavors. Probably technically dry, but has the tiniest hint of sweetness. 12.4% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $18 . click to buy.
2011 Greenhough "Hope Vineyard" Riesling, Nelson, New Zealand
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of a wonderful combination of green apple and mandarin zest. In the mouth bright, juicy acidity mixes with green apple and citrus zest character with just a hint of yeasty or barn straw character. Lovely, crisp, and electrically bright, I think this wine probably would taste off-dry were it not for the very high acidity which keeps very little if any sensation of sweetness off the palate. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $14.
2005 Greenhough "Hope Vineyard" Riesling, Nelson, New Zealand
Light to medium yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of petrol and paraffin overtop notes of candied lemon rind. In the mouth Paraffin and candied lemon rind flavors mesh with a bright stony underbelly to the wine. Excellent acidity, and while perhaps less profound than it could be, a fantastic example of what New Zealand can do with this grape. Slightly off-dry. 12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $14.
2011 Seifried Riesling, Nelson, New Zealand
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells beautifully of lemon blossoms and lemon zest with a touch of honey. In the mouth, bright candied orange peel and canned mandarin segments vie for attention along with deeper stony notes and high tones of white flowers. Fantastic acidity and wonderfully subtle sweetness round out the package. Excellent. Off-dry.12.9% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $15. click to buy.
2007 Seifried Riesling, Nelson, New Zealand
Light to medium yellow gold in color, this wine smells of marzipan, honey, and orange blossoms. In the mouth, slightly softer acidity than I would like brings flavors of mandarin oranges, honey, and white flowers to life in a subtle, silky way. I miss the electricity, but the flavors are quite nice. Off-dry. 12.2% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $15 . click to buy.
2011 Waimea Estate "Classic" Riesling, Nelson, New Zealand
Palest gold in the glass with a hint of green, this wine smells of green apple and green plums. In the mouth juicy green apple and a hint of star fruit flavors have a smooth silkiness to them, but without the zippy quality that would elevate them above just tasty. There's minerality there, too, but it doesn't feature deeply in the wine. Slightly sweet/off-dry. 12.2% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $10. click to buy.
2009 Waimea Estate "Classic" Riesling, Nelson, New Zealand
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of paraffin, green melon and lemon curd. In the mouth wonderfully bright lemon curd, lemon zest, and green apple flavors have a zippier quality to them. Gorgeously textured and silky in the mouth, this wine has a weight on the palate that belies its elegance of flavor and acidity. A wonderfully whole package -- mineral, fruit, and flower that emerges on the finish. Fantastic. Off-dry.12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $na.
2011 Neudorf Vineyards "Moutere" Riesling, Nelson, New Zealand
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of freshly broken honeycomb and beeswax mixed with a hint of marmite. In the mouth the wine offers moderately sweet flavors of honey, toasted nuts, and beeswax with a light tannic edge. Nice balance and acidity, this is an interesting, rather unique wine. 9% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.Cost: $25. click to buy.
2005 Neudorf Vineyards "Moutere" Riesling, Nelson, New Zealand
Light gold in the glass with a hint of green still, this wine smells of wonderfully salty candied lemon peel and mandarin orange. In the mouth bright mandarin and lemon zest flavors mix with deeper stonier notes. Just barely sweet/off-dry. 10.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $na.
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