Posted on | March 28, 2012
Written by | Jim Clarke
New Zealand Branches Out with More Varieties
The word “complexity,” as used in the world of wine, usually belongs to a tasting note, or perhaps a description of German labeling law. So when New Zealand chose that name for its new campaign in 2010, they were clearly staking a claim in the world of fine wine that went far beyond well-priced, grapefruity Sauvignon Blanc.
Not that Sauvignon Blanc is doing poorly; it still accounts for eight out of ten bottles of New Zealand wine sold in the U.S. But competition has gotten fiercer: “New Zealand may have changed the game for Sauvignon Blanc in general,” says Simon Buck, co-founder of Tablelands Wine Co. “It’s changed the way other countries make Sauvignon Blanc.”
In any case, the Complexity program hopes to call attention to things beyond straightforward Sauvignon Blanc. “Complexity was formed by a group of wineries who felt their top and iconic wines were underrepresented in the US market largely due to a lack of awareness,” says Janet Pouchot, Complexity’s campaign manager. The program includes 20 producers from eight regions, and focuses on on-premise sales—high-end establishments in particular. In addition to courting and educating sommeliers and wine directors, “Complexity also partakes in a number of consumer events, targeted very specifically to ‘foodies,’” she says.
Neudorf, founded in Nelson in 1978 by Tim and Judy Finn, is one of the wineries participating in Complexity. Judy says the program faces a number of challenges: “In my experience many U.S. wine drinkers cannot conceive of fine wine coming from anywhere other than France and some cult U.S. wines, but they are always ready to listen and we hope to win them over with our elegant wines. Sauvignon Blanc has dominated the market and Pinot Noir is making some inroads, but aromatics are starting to be desirable. Sommeliers lead the pack and they are very powerful communicators.”
Reds & Aromatics Rising
In fact, many of New Zealand’s cool-climate, maritime regions (or in the case of Central Otago, cool but continental) lend themselves to aromatic, “Alsatian” varieties, and more and more wines made from these varieties are making their way to the U.S. “New Zealand Riesling is showing signs of growth” according to David Strada, the U.S. marketing manager for New Zealand Winegrowers, the country’s national wine and grape organization. “And as a way to promote this, Paul Grieco of Hearth restaurant and Terroir wine bars was in New Zealand in late January to celebrate the New Zealand ‘Summer of Riesling.’ As is being seen with other regions of the world, well-made Pinot Gris has an active place on wine lists and on retail shelves. Quality is the key. Although demand for Gewürztraminer from anywhere is limited, New Zealand has shown that its maritime climate is ideal for this varietal.”
And reds? Bronwyn Skuse, sales manager for Man O’ War Vineyards, says, “Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke Island dominate Syrah growing in New Zealand, the styles are considered to be cool climate and very different to what our Aussie cousins produce. The Syrahs we create on Waiheke Island tend to be more of an Old World style, more comparable to Northern Rhône.” Strada agrees, and notes that as styles pull back from over-extracted, high-alcohol wines, North Island Bordeaux-style blends are also well situated to step forward.
But Pinot Noir rules the red roost. Pouchot says that New Zealand has benefited from U.S. appreciation for the grape in general, and that the country’s Pinots come across as high quality and good value. Tablelands’ Buck isn’t so sure: “Marlborough Pinot Noir is maturing; there are so many better Pinots than five or six years ago.” But he believes overcropping and young vines have cut into Central Otago’s dominance, allowing Waipara and Martinborough to show their stuff. More importantly, he says, many come in at a price point—around $320-$360 per case, wholesale—that is rife with competition from California, Oregon and Burgundy. Those at the $160-$240 range, on the other hand, compete well and offer good value compared to the competition.
But the strong New Zealand dollar has made price points harder to hit for the country’s wines here. “While the U.S. dollar has been anemic, the New Zealand dollar has been artificially strong,” says Strada. “This has made it particularly challenging to meet the price expectations of the marketplace. New Zealand wineries and their U.S. importers who are committed to the U.S. have had to reduce margins.” Finn, however, says the strong dollar hasn’t been too serious a problem, since budget wines aren’t the core of New Zealand’s success in the first place.
Thinner margins are a challenge, but New Zealand has maintained its priorities, and as of the 2012 harvest 100% of the country’s production will be certifiably sustainable. While many countries have struggled to regain ground lost when the recession began, New Zealand has seen continuous growth. For many, Kiwi wine may be all—well, mostly—about Sauvignon Blanc, but that may change…or will Sauvignon Blanc change? Sparkling Sauvignon is all the rage in New Zealand and the UK; it could bubble over into the US market anytime.