Reds from the outer rim

, from Issue #103. May 23, 2022
Red wine poured into a glass

Think you know your tempranillo from your tannat? We go off the beaten track to explore New Zealand’s wild, wonderful and rare-as-hens'-teeth reds that fly under the radar.

It’s true that sauvignon blanc is the fuel that fires the engine of New Zealand’s wine economy and Central Otago pinot noir has become an international wine marketing colossus. Our chardonnays are lauded by Masters of Wine around the world and Hawke’s Bay’s reds even have their own roadshow. Yet out on the back field, past the bike sheds and the caretaker’s cottage, is where cool wines lurk. The ones with tattoos their parents don’t know about and actual record collections. They’re alternative and unusual, and for wine lovers who like to walk on the wild side, they’re completely fascinating. So as the cooler months creep in, we thought it timely to focus on those luscious, lesser-known reds New Zealand does so well. We asked to see locally produced barbera, cabernet franc, carménère, chambourcin, dolcetto, freisa, gamay noir, grenache, lagrein, malbec, marzemino, montepulciano, nebbiolo, petit verdot, pinotage, St Laurent, sangiovese, tannat, tempranillo, touriga nacional, zinfandel or zweigelt. And that’s exactly what we got – 43 of them, to be exact. To say we were impressed with the entries would be like saying Adele can carry a tune. Within the first seven wines tasted, our judges found four gold medals, and it’s safe to say that jaws were on the floor right til the very end. “The viticulture and winemaking skills were first-rate in pretty much all the wines,” said judge Ant Mackenzie. “Also, we were judging wines on a wine-by-wine basis rather than as a large flight of similar styles. This allowed us to dive deeper into the individual qualities of each wine rather than comparing each one to how it conformed/departed from a stylistic norm.” Judge Kate Radburnd agreed, saying having tasted local examples of some varieties very rarely, the tasting was a real treat, a huge eye-opener and incredibly enjoyable.

So why, in a country of 700+ wineries, are there not more of these alternative styles being grown? “Economics,” says Ant. “Producing alternative varieties requires lots of marketing effort and market investment. Most producers would have a core range and maybe dabble with alternatives on the side. If a producer has a cellar door, there’s more opportunity for these alternatives to be hand-sold to customers, but gaining market traction for new things is a slow process.” “It’s a reflection of our youthfulness on the global stage,” adds Kate. "But clearly wineries are branching out, exploring and experimenting, which is terrific. So I think we’ll see more companies making alternative varieties their niche.”

Niche rulz for Matakana’s Matavino, for example, with both their barbera and dolcetto romping into our top 10. Obsidian Wines on Waiheke are clearly masters of crafting crazy-good montepulciano, as both their ‘Estate’ and ‘Reserve’ releases from 2019 roared home with gold. Hawke’s Bay’s Decibel Wines have twice proven five-star pedigree with malbec and how excellent to see a Central Otago winery scoop top 10 status with a cabernet franc!

The last word goes to Kate. “I look at the list below, the breadth and depth, and marvel. What a solid line-up!”

Varietal Splendour

Does New Zealand have a good spread of alternative varietals? Yes, says Ant Mackenzie. “Wine producers are looking for new expressions alongside their more traditional varieties. Popular varieties (e.g., chardonnay, pinot noir) really only exist because of historical accident, not necessarily because they were the best thing that grew here... There are endless possibilities for what might end up proving to be better. We just need another 200 years to find out!"

Top of the Tasting

1. Church Road  1 Hawke’s Bay Malbec 2020, $120 - Gold Medal

 Church Road 1 Hawke’s Bay Malbec 2020

When it comes to crafting mind-warpingly great reds, Chris Scott is an absolute ninja. The trophy cabinet at Church Road has accumulated so much heavy metal since he took over, they’ve had to add extra support brackets. This malbec had our judges hooked. “Wow!” said Yvonne. “Inky-dark, lithe, youthful and loaded with lovely berry, cocoa and soy notes and smooth, muscular tannins.” Kate loved its generous fruit and harmonious oak integration, while Ant announced it simply "has the X-factor".

2. Matavino Matakana Barbera di Matakana 2020, $50 - Gold Medal

Matavino Matakana Barbera di Matakana 2020

With its bold, meaty nose edged with plum, raspberry and liquorice, this barbera was an instant hit with Ant, who loved its briny notes and beautifully balanced tannins. Kate called it "tarry and masculine and supremely age-worthy", and Yvonne loved its sarsaparilla and leather layers.

3. Te Kano Northburn Central Otago Cabernet Franc 2021, $55 - Gold Medal

 Te Kano Northburn Central Otago Cabernet Franc 2021

With a nose of fruit and nut chocolate and a palate packed with pepper and boysenberry notes, this rare Southern cabernet franc made a huge impression. “Vibrant, pure florals, blackcurrant and brine merge with chewy textures and fruit sweetness,” noted Ant. Kate loved its deep colour intensity and fruit concentration and felt it would cellar superbly.

4. House of Ball Waipara Pinotage 2020, $45 - Gold Medal

House of Ball Waipara Pinotage 2020

A heady lift of spice, herbs and florals gives this wine a distinctive perfume and the palate is super-smooth, noted Ant. “Divinely delicious, it's fresh, sweet-fruited, lively and beautifully balanced,” said Kate.

5. Decibel Wines Hawke’s Bay Testify Red  2018, $56 - Gold Medal

Decibel Wines Hawke’s Bay Testify Red 2018,

From a certified organic site in the Gimblett Gravels comes a malbec-dominant masterpiece. Yvonne praised its elegant lines, fruit saturation, peppery layers and supple tannins. “Graceful, compelling, well-textured and loads of sweet oak on the palate,” added Kate.

6. Decibel Wines Gimblett Gravels Organic Malbec 2019, $32 - Gold Medal

Decibel Wines Gimblett Gravels Organic Malbec 2019

Inky in the glass, this rich, fruit-saturated style well and truly wowed our judges with its hearty personality. “Spicy and vibrant,” added Kate, while Ant noted its nice oak handling and Yvonne loved its bay, tamarillo and tobacco notes.

7. Bushmere Estate Gisborne Malbec 2020, $28 - Gold Medal

Bushmere Estate Gisborne Malbec 2020

Yvonne adored the bright berries and youthful, spice-centric layers in this bottle of excellence from the East Coast. “Christmas cake spices, cherry, dark chocolate and richly delicious,” said Ant, and Kate agreed, noting “lifted fruit, luscious generosity and great style”.

8. Seifried Estate Nelson Zweigelt 2019, $20 - Gold Medal

Seifried Estate Nelson Zweigelt 2019

How the Seifried team managed to cram so much excellence into a bottle for just twenty bucks is beyond us, but thank heaven they did. Zweigelt is an Austrian cross between St Laurent and blaufränkisch and Kate loved its structure, acidity and berry density. “Smokers lollies, cinnamon and ultra-vibrant fruit aromatics," added Ant.

9. Matavino Matakana Dolcetto di Matakana 2020, $30 - Gold Medal

Matavino Matakana Dolcetto di Matakana 2020, $30

Pretty in the glass, with dark plum and pepper aromatics, vibrant acidity and serious length of flavour, this dolcetto was an instant hit. “Lovely balance and richness,” said Ant, while Kate noted its juiciness and great complexity on the finish.

10. Obsidian Waiheke Reserve Montepulciano 2019, $69 - Gold Medal

Obsidian Waiheke Reserve Montepulciano 2019

“Deep, brooding, dense and edged with powerful blueberry notes and chewy tannins,” was what pushed this into gold for Ant, while for Kate it was its robust earthiness, drying, masculine mouthfeel and chocolatey concentration.

11. Obsidian Waiheke Estate Montepulciano 2019, $46 - Gold Medal

Obsidian Waiheke Estate Montepulciano 2019

Glossy and gorgeous in the glass, it’s rich, spicy, highly complex and boasts huge tannins and great persistence of flavour. “Very pretty and highly fragrant, sweet-fruited and showing incredible berry structure,” added Kate. Yvonne was wowed by its muscular, elastic tannins, spicy spine and dangerous drinkability.

12. Mount Edward Central Otago Gamay 2021, $35 - Gold Medal

Mount Edward Central Otago Gamay 2021

An absolute star of a wine from whoa to go, this gamay (the grape of beaujolais) has made itself at home down at Mount Edward, turning out a perfumed, pretty style with pepper, blueberry and smoked cherry notes and zesty textures.