Geoff Kelly Wine Reviews
Independent reviews of some local and imported wines available in New Zealand, including earlier vintages.


[ This is a corrected but unchanged reprint from:  Handbook [ Programme ] for the Second International Cool Climate Viticulture and Oenology Symposium,  January 1988.  Mueller Thurgau adopted for Muller-Thurgau throughout the Proceedings. ]



Geoff C. Kelly
Division of Horticulture and Processing,  DSIR Mt Albert,  Auckland
Senior Judge,  Wine Institute of New Zealand
Guest Judge,  Victorian Wine Show 1984

1980 marked the turning point in the emergence of New Zealand wine onto the international scene.  By then there were enough of the appropriate varieties planted and bearing to indicate clearly where future strengths would lie.  In the same year the introduction of the first step of new and more restrictive food and drug regulations tightened up winery practice,  particularly with respect to water addition.  The yield of wine per tonne of grapes fell to 1265 litres for the 1980 vintage,  and has since fallen to a more desirable 770 litres in 1985 and 1986 (Wine Institute of New Zealand Annual Reports).

The beginnings lie much further back.  Late last century and into the early years of this one,  it is clear from contemporary accounts that fine wines modelled on European classics were being made,  notably in Hawkes Bay.  Cooper (1986) gives a full account.  A 1903 Wairarapa red made from Pinot noir and Syrah and tasted in 1985 was still in excellent condition  (Kelly 1985).

This great foundation was totally laid to waste by phylloxera,  Prohibition,  and the world depression.  By the end of that era,  few vinifera vineyards survived.  The criteria of the times became disease resistance and yield.  Labrusca varieties such as Isabella (and its famous local clonal selection Albany Surprise),  and hybrid varieties such as Baco 22A,  Baco No. 1,  and various Seibels became prominent.  Most of the production went to fortified wines.

The 1940s and 1950s saw a gradual re-awakening of interest in table wines,  well described by Cooper.  But it was also a time of austerity and import controls,  and the legacy of the hybrid era was not to be shaken off for another 20 years.  Although the quality of the table wines made from hybrids was perceived by some to be inferior,  nonetheless a generation of winemakers had grown up accustomed to high yields,  and unfamiliar with the flavours of the classic vinifera varieties.

Thus as the move back to vinifera-based table wines developed in the late 50s,  60s,  and early 70s,  initial emphasis was on heavily cropping varieties:  Chasselas,  Chenin blanc,  Mueller Thurgau,  Palomino and Pinotage.  Of these,  only Mueller Thurgau has emerged as a winner.

Early Milestones
Looking back to the table wines of the late 50s and mid 60s,  there were two public beacons.  For whites,  Alex Corban at Henderson was developing fragrant light Mueller Thurgau riesling styles.  They were not distinctly different enough however to dominate attention.  In Hawkes Bay,  Tom McDonald was developing a commercial red called Bakano,  which included some Cabernet Sauvignon.  There had been private lots of Cabernet made by both Corban and McDonald over the years,  but the release of Tom McDonald's 1965 McWilliams Cabernet Sauvignon foretold a revolution.  This wine made public to all with the tasting ability to recognise it that great wines of international calibre could be made in New Zealand.  Unfortunately however,  the industry was becoming preoccupied with bread and butter Germanic-style white wines,  and this message was not always heeded.  Also it must be emphasised that at that time more than 70% of all wine made in New Zealand was fortified.

Recent Developments
The 15 years from 1965 to 1980 were marked by a series of stylistic stepping stones,  some of them rather widely spaced,  as the fortified tide retreated and the table whites increased.  McDonald continued his Cabernet,  and also produced an outstanding Chardonnay from the 1967 vintage.  Again the importance of that achievement was not sufficiently perceived.  Corbans introduced a Pinotage in 1967,  and Babich followed with a Pinotage / Cabernet in 1970.  Nobilo in 1970 produced good ripe examples of both Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage.

Through the 1970s the pace quickened,  though still with emphasis on Germanic whites.  1974 saw overseas graduate winemakers come to the forefront,  with the introduction of Montana's Bernkaizler Riesling in the international fruity medium white style.  Mueller Thurgau had by now become the main variety for the popular "Riesling" label.  Finally quality wine was moving toward the people.

Montana also led the way into the South Island,  locating vineyards in the now established Marlborough district in 1973 / 74.  These vines were the first in New Zealand to be planted in a new region as a result of climatic and soil evaluation,  rather than family propinquity or tradition.  The following year Montana released their first two Cabernet Sauvignons from the 1973 vintage.  Up till then the good Cabernets had been almost impossible to buy off the shelf.

Though 1980 was the great divide,  1976 was an important marker year,  and an exceptional vintage.  There were the first Marlborough wines,  including a fine Mueller Thurgau and an exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon not equalled for a decade.  In Gisborne,  Irwin produced a remarkable Gewurztraminer,  the first of a line to make both Matawhero and New Zealand noted for the variety.  In Auckland Nobilo produced three outstanding reds,  from Cabernet Sauvignon,  Pinotage and Pinot noir,  plus a remarkable blend of all three.  These wines set the stylistic stage for New Zealand reds.  The following year he produced a Chardonnay which was of the same standard.

And then to 1980,  when Montana produced something totally new,  the exceptional 1980 Marlborough Sauvignon blanc,  and Cooks and MeWilliams each produced an outstanding Chardonnay.  Remembering McWilliams 1978 Chardonnay and Matawhero's 1978 Gewurztraminer,  these five wines made explicit the promise of the 1965 McWilliams Cabernet.

There could now be no doubt the future for world class table wines in New Zealand lay in French wine styles.  The shape of the future industry was now apparent.  That is not to say fine Germanic styles will not be made:  indeed our Mueller Thurgau is arguably the best in the world,  and there are many places still to be explored with Rhine Riesling and other German varieties in the South Island.  French wine styles will however command most attention.

In any review such as this,  only the high points can be touched on.  Many others made contributions along the way,  sometimes providing the foundation for others to build on.  The pioneering varietal work of the Spence brothers at Matua Valley is an example.

The 1980s are consolidating the achievements of those 1980 and earlier marker wines,  and filling out the range of both producers and styles.  The ratio of table wines to fortified has long since moved in favour of table,  the 75% value being passed in 1982.

Meanwhile,  McDonald's achievements with Cabernet in Hawkes Bay had not been forgotten.  1982 saw the first of a series of international-calibre Cabernet / Merlot blends emerge from the Te Mata Estate.  In the same year a St Helena Pinot noir from the newly established Canterbury district proved to be more Burgundian than any wine thus far made in New Zealand.  Noteworthy straight Merlot was produced in 1983 by both San Marino of Kumeu,  and Matawhero.  True Riesling came right in the same year,  with clearly varietal wines from Corbans and Montana.  Also in 1983 the first oaked or fumé version of Sauvignon blanc to be reasonably widely available was made by Coopers Creek.  The 1983 Cooks Chardonnay was a wine to dispel any lingering doubts about the future for that variety in New Zealand.  Suddenly everybody was clamouring for it,  yet the evidence had been available for 15 years.  1984 saw the Wairarapa district return to wine production,  after a gap of 75 years.

Though the best wines were now exciting,  and there were many more of them,  the quality of our wines overall up till about 1982 was still parochial.  By international standards,  the whites tended to lack dry extract,  and many of the reds were characterised by green and under-ripe smells and flavours.  That is now nearly history.  1985 saw a complete recasting of the National Wine Competition,  to bring procedures more into line with overseas (particularly Australian) practice,  as summarised by Kelly (1987a).  Coincidentally,  excellent vintages in 1985 and 1986,  coupled with a reduction in the litreage of wine taken per tonne of grapes processed,  assisted in moving our wines completely towards international norms for ripeness,  flavour and substance.

Riper is not always better of course,  and 1986 was the first year to produce many Sauvignon blancs which were too ripe,  and thus lacking the crisp red capsicum and honeysuckle aromatics needed.  Conversely the Chardonnays were outstanding.  Up till then,  the emphasis had been on sugar ripeness,  but flavour development is now of equal interest.  This is a fascinating change of emphasis.  Our wines had for some years been notable for their varietal bouquet,  but all too often it was the slightly penetrating character of immature grapes,  rather than the mellow complexity of fully "tree-ripened" fruit.

The quality of achievement now reached in 1985 and 1986,  just 20 years after that pivotal 1965 Cabernet,  has been fascinating to watch and taste.  Both whites and reds have blossomed.  The first fine examples of botrytised Riesling styles appeared.  Interest in producing methode champenoise wines increased,  though their full flowering is still to come.  Climatically New Zealand is well placed to make classic sparkling wines close in style to the international model.

1987 was not such an even vintage as the two preceding it,  but there are many good wines.  The October 1987 Air New Zealand national wine judging provides the detail of achievements in the last three years,  for those entering competitions.  The trends are summarised by Kelly (1987b).  Noteworthy steps forward were achieved in methode champenoise,  Pinot noir,  Riesling,  and Cabernet/Merlot blends.

The Future
Looking ahead,  a new generation of graduate winemakers is increasingly reshaping the industry.  Some are New Zealanders,  rather more are Australians,  and others draw their qualifications from California,  Germany,  Switzerland and France.  From that breadth of experience a stronger and more diverse industry will emerge,  spanning both islands of the country,  and fully reflecting the vast range of temperate viticultural climates to be found between Kumeu and Matakana in the north,  and inland Otago in the south.  These districts span 9° of latitude,  which is from the Mosel south to approximately Rioja or Tuscany,  and hence offer enormous potential by European standards.

At the premium wine level,  there is no doubt New Zealand will be producing Chardonnay,  Sauvignon blanc,  Riesling and Gewurztraminer which will command world attention.  As our Chardonnay makers gain experience with malolactic fermentation and the nuances of oak use,  and the wines become both more subtle and rich,  New Zealand Chardonnay has the potential to challenge the world's finest,  as our Sauvignon does now.

For reds,  our best areas have the capability to produce fruit with deep and complex ripe,  yet not overripe,  flavours. Already the best wines demonstrate that given skilled and sensitive bringing-up in cellar,  Cabernet / Merlot and related styles can achieve that power without weight which is the hallmark of the finest claret models.  For much of the country,  Merlot may well prove to be the better dominant variety,  however.  Similarly,  enough good Pinot noir has been produced to confirm that in a few parts of the country,  dedicated winemakers can produce wines conforming to international expectations for the style.  For this most demanding of all varieties,  however,  the best sites and clones in our geologically and climatically complex land remain to be planted.

Cooper, M.  The Wines and Vineyards of New Zealand.  Second edition.  218 p.  Hodder and Stoughton,  Auckland  (1986).
Kelly, G.  Lansdowne's rosy flush lasts 82 years.  National Business Review 16(13):  37 (1985).
Kelly, G.  Wine competitions in New Zealand.  Wine supplement to Cuisine 1:  95-7  (1987a).
Kelly, G.  Varietals to rock the world.  National Business Review 18 (145): 12-4  (1987b).