The Next Big Thing
Written by Frank Corr
Monday, 19 March 2012
Could an obscure vine from eastern Europe be the ‘Next Big Thing’ for the New Zealand wine industry?

‘Well- maybe the next small thing’, says Matt Thompson , wine maker at Saint Claire Family Estate who visited Dublin in February.

He is among a small, but growing band of New Zealand wine producers who are experimenting with Gruner Veltliner, the signature grape of Austria,  but which is also grown in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and more recently in Australia’s Adelaide Hills.

The New Zealand growers are attracted to the grape because it can be used to make food-friendly wine, with its citrus and peach flavours and spicy overtones. So far they have planted only around 30 hectares of the vine, 80% of which are to be found in Marlborough, but interest is growing all the time and some of the big time producers are keeping an eye on developments.

Introducing nine different expressions of  NZ Gruner Veltliner,  Matt Thompson said that the grape retains its European characteristics, although it tends to be more aromatic than its Austrian cousin. ‘It tends to perform best where water and nutrients are plentiful’, Matt Thompson said. In that respect it is similar to Sauvignon Blanc which has been highly successful in New Zealand.’

‘We conducted extensive research before planting and what consistently came through from the Austrians was that Grüner needed reasonable vigour because it is a nutrient and water hungry variety, like Sauvignon Blanc’, he added.

The wines tasted at the presentation spanned Marlborough, Gisborne and Nelson but did not include examples of plantings in Hawkes Bay or Otago.

‘The Paddler’ from Marlborough, which is available here through Liberty Wines, had excellent acidity and a nice peppery element and this was followed by ‘The Groover’  from Coopers Creek in Gisborne, which the first winery to commercially release a ‘Gru Vee’ in 2008 from vines acquired from a nursery four years earlier. This is available from Musgraves. Seifried Gruner Veltliner 2011 from Nelson was elegant with prominent citrus flavours and is distributed in Ireland by Classic Drinks. The final three wines were from Marlborough- Hans Herzog GV 2011 which is not available here, Yealands GV 2011, a cool climate expression with a distinctive saltiness distributed by Liberty Wines and finally Matt’s own Saint Clair Pioneer Block 5 GV 2011 which is available through Findlater Wine and Spirit Group.

Matt Thompson spoke of some issues relating to the making of  Gruner Veltliner, notably the need for a very clean ferment and treating the thick-skinned grape carefully to avoid extracting phenolics.

It will be some time yet before New Zealand puts a major marketing drive behind Gruner Veltliner, but consumers are being advised to ‘watch this space.’

Matt Thompson’s masterclass was part of the annual New Zealand Wine Fair which has a tradition of pleasant surprises and innovations. This time around we could taste from four educational tables highlighting Riesling, Chardonnay, Sparkling Wines and Bordeaux Blends. In this part of the world we do not usually associate NZ with blended red wines, but the examples on the tasting table could stand their ground in any European company. New Zealand has been growing Cabernet Sauvignon since the 1800s, but Merlot is a relative newcomer dating only to the 1980s. Apart from Pinot Noir, which is produced as a varietal, most NZ reds  are Bordeaux blends with Merlot from the North,  predominating. Initially these wines were sold principally on the home market but exports of Merlot/Cabernet blends have grown by 83% over the past five years to 3.4m litres. Among the wines to catch the taste buds were Crossroads Talisman, Hawkes Bay 2009 (€23.99 Evergreen Wines), Vidal Reserve Series Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Hawkes Bay (Barry and Fitzwilliam) and Babich ‘The Patriarch’ Hawkes Bay (Ampersand).

No New Zealand tasting would be complete without its Pinot Noir and it was interesting to learn that ‘tannin structure and tertiary development’ are now the focus of many growers including Forrest Wines.

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