New Zealand’s best reds

Are you one of the many people who believes that New Zealand the best whites and Australia the best reds? Life’s not quite that simple although if you insert the word “value” into the equation you might be getting closer to the truth.

For the past four years I have been a selector and judge at a Sydney-based wine competition called The Tri-Nations Wine Challenge. Each year I select up to ten of the best of New Zealand wines I can find in each of 13 categories. At the same time fellow judges carry out the same exercise in Australia and South Africa. We meet in Sydney to taste our collection.

Australia and South Africa are better known for their red wines while New Zealand is more renowned as a white wine producer. Shiraz (known as Syrah in this country) is Australia’s signature wine. At best it’s outstanding and Australia produces masses of it. You’d expect Australia to romp home with Shiraz the way New Zealand does with Sauvignon Blanc. In fact New Zealand has won the Shiraz class in three out of the past four years. We’ve also come out top with a predictable clean sweep in Pinot Noir and a less predictable win with Merlot. Last year New Zealand produced the top wine in both the Cabernet Sauvignon and Blended Bordeaux Varieties classes.

Don’t write off New Zealand reds. The best are world-beaters.

I reviewed Pinot Noir in Taste a couple of months ago. The quality of this country’s Pinot Noir has never been better. We’re starting to make wines that are grabbing international attention. Now it’s time to look at New Zealand’s other red wine styles.

I invited the country’s winemakers to send me sample wines for what I guessed might be a mammoth tasting. 199 bottles were delivered by a constant stream of couriers who seem surprised to find me sober whenever we meet. I’m sure they think I’ve got the best job in the world.

Blended Reds – making two plus two equal five

The majority of wines submitted were blends of two or more grape varieties, mostly falling into the category of red wine known as “Bordeaux blends”. The southern French wine region of Bordeaux is permitted to make wine from all or any of the five grape varieties; Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Winemakers in that region planted a range of varieties to limit their losses if bad weather reduced or damaged their crop. Merlot, for example, ripens early while Cabernet Sauvignon is a late-ripening grape. If the Merlot got hammered by wet weather Cabernet Sauvignon might just escape the worst of it. Over several centuries winemakers have learned that Cabernet Sauvignon performs best in free-draining stony soils while Merlot really struts its stuff when planted in heavier clay soils. They’ve also learned to blend different grape varieties so that the final wine is better than any of its individual parts.

New Zealand winemakers have followed their example. The majority of blended reds today rely on the mellow magic of Merlot with a little help from rustic, spicy Malbec; delicately aromatic Cabernet Franc; and the austere, aristocratic Cabernet Sauvignon.

Various combinations of these grape varieties allow the winemaker to fine tune quality and add their own distinct signature to the wine. My top two wines are both outstanding reds although they couldn’t be more different in style. Puriri Hills 2005 Reserve (tastings) is a supremely elegant and complex blend of Merlot, Carmenère and Malbec grown in Clevedon. Tom, on the other hand, is a more blockbuster style made from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown in Hawke’s Bay. I should explain that although Carmenère is technically a Bordeaux grape variety it hasn’t been grown to any great extent there since the phylloxera epidemic in the late 1800’s.

Merlot – under pressure from Pinot

Merlot is proof that wine is a fashion industry. A decade ago Merlot was the hottest red in town. It’s an accessible and seductively soft red that’s very food friendly. Now it’s been given the elbow by an even more accessible and seductively soft red – Pinot Noir. Don’t give up on Merlot. The best are very good indeed and frequently offer better value than similarly priced Pinot Noir.

Cabernet Sauvignon – down, but far from out

Cabernet Sauvignon is a truly great grape variety. Like other aristocratic grapes it’s not easy to get the best out of a grape that grows like a Triffid and has a tendency to be green, grassy and astringent when planted in a less than ideal vineyard site. Cabernet Sauvignon has fallen out of favour right now but will certainly be “re-discovered” in the next decade. If you doubt that you need only taste one of the featured wines in my tasting.

Syrah – the next big thing?

Syrah is finding favour worldwide and it’s easy to understand why. It makes full-flavoured red in a variety of forms from the lush chocolate/mocha flavoured beauties of the Barossa Valley to the bold, powerful and spicy wines of Gimblett Gravels and the richly-textured, complex wines of France’s northern Rhone valley. The best examples age magnificently but can often be surprisingly accessible when they’re first released. Match a good Syrah with roast duck and you’ll be hooked for life.

Gimblett Gravels, an 800-hectare patch of stony soils in Hawke’s Bay is producing the lion’s share of this country’s best Syrah although Waiheke Island and other districts of Hawke’s Bay also show potential. The future looks bright for this exciting red.

Drink Red Wine – it’s good for you!

Forget the gym, give up the vitamins drink a couple of glasses of red wine a day and you’ll live longer, according to a growing mountain of evidence (on the other hand it might be better to stick to the gym and vitamins as well as drinking a couple of glasses).

I’ve just finished reading a book called “The Wine Diet” by Roger Corder. The book’s cover features the compelling statement, “Drink red wine every day. Eat fruit and berries, nuts and chocolate. Enjoy a longer, healthier life”.

Corder, states, “Apart from the increased risk of breast cancer in women, moderate wine drinking – by which I mean one to three glasses of wine a day, to accompany food – is generally associate with better than average health.” He bases that statement on a wide range of observations and studies including the study of various population groups that have a higher than normal life expectancy.

Corder believes that certain molecules in red wine have a beneficial effect in our blood vessels. The widely reported “French Paradox” where a population with a high fat consumption showed lower than expected death by heart disease credited a component in red wine, resveratrol, for helping us live longer. Corder is convinced that it’s procyanidins, not resveratrol, that are beneficial.

Different red wines have different levels of procyanidins, according to Corder. He tested many wines and predictably rated full-bodied, tannic reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec as having high levels of procyanidins.

When Corder looked at the wines of a region in the south of France called Madiran, he hit the jackpot. Madiran wines are based on the Tannat grape. They are dark, almost black, tannic wines. He also discovered that the region had double the national average of men over the age of 90.

Corder has become a big fan of the wines of Madiran which he believes offer more beneficial effect than any other wines he’s tested. He also recommends foods, including chocolate, that contain good levels of procyanidins. It’s worth reading the book to design a healthy, tasty and wine inclusive diet for a better and longer life.

A large range of Madiran wines are imported by Lifestylewines. You can order the wines as well as the book on the website which contains a lot more information about the beneficial effect of Madiran wines.

Red Wine Shopping List

I tasted, rated and described 199 wines to compile the shopping list below. The top wines (all are of silver or gold medal standard) are shown in categories and then in order of score. Where two or more wines have the same score I’ve put the least expensive wines first because they represent better value. Wines that score 85 to 92 points are of silver medal standard while those with 93 points or more earn a gold medal.

Blended Reds

  • 95 Puriri Hills 2005 Reserve Clevedon $55.00
  • 95 Tom 2002 Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Hawke’s Bay $120.00
  • 93 Sacred Hill 2004 Helmsman Cabernet Merlot Hawke’s Bay $59.95
  • 93 Mills Reef 2005 Elspeth Cabernet Merlot Hawke’s Bay $39.95
  • 93 Villa Maria 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Hawke’s Bay $51.00
  • 93 Esk Valley 2005 Reserve Merlot/Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon Hawke’s Bay $61.00
  • 92 Squawking Magpie 2005 SQM Merlot Cabernet Hawke’s Bay $39.95
  • 92 Vidal 2000 Reserve Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Hawke’s Bay $41.00
  • 91 Ata Rangi 2005 Célèbre Martinborough $32.00
  • 91 Puriri Hills 2005 Clevedon $32.50
  • 91 Squawking Magpie 2004 The Cabernets Hawke’s Bay $39.95
  • 90 Mills Reef 2005 Reserve Merlot Malbec Hawke’s Bay $22.95
  • 90 Hatton Estate 2005 Gimblett Road Reserve Hawke’s Bay $34.95
  • 90 Cottage Block 2004 Ruahine Cabernet Merlot Hawke’s Bay $36.95
  • 90 Mudbrick 2005 Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Waiheke $38.00
  • 90 Mudbrick 2005 Reserve Merlot Cabernets Waiheke $42.00
  • 89 Stockbridge 2004 Gimblett Road Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Hawke’s Bay $29.95
  • 89 Pegasus Bay 2003 Maestro Merlot Cabernet Waipara $43.95
  • 88 Mills Reef 2005 Reserve Cabernet Merlot Hawke’s Bay
  • 88 Coopers Creek 2005 SV Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Merlot Hawke’s Bay $28.00
  • 88 Cable Bay 2005 Five Hills Merlot Cabernet Malbec Waiheke $33.00
  • 88 Passage Rock 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Waiheke $39.00
  • 88 Terravin 2005 “J” Cabernet Merlot Malbec Marlborough $42.00
  • 87 Babich 2002 Irongate Cabernet Merlot Franc Hawke’s Bay $33.95
  • 86 Esk Valley 2005 Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec Hawke’s Bay $24.00
  • 86 Church Road 2005 Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Hawke’s Bay $24.95
  • 86 Alpha Domus 2004 The Navigator Hawke’s Bay $28.00
  • 86 Pegasus Bay 2004 Merlot Cabenet Waipara $28.95
  • 86 Redmetal Vineyards 2004 Mount Erin Merlot Cabernet Franc Hawke’s Bay $29.00
  • 85 Clearview 2005 Two Pinnacles Merlot Malbec Hawke’s Bay
  • 85 Saints 2005 Cabernet Merlot Hawke’s Bay $16.95
  • 85 Corbans 2004 Private Bin Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Hawke’s Bay $20.95
  • 85 Coopers Creek 2004 Gravels and Metals Merlot Cabernet Franc Hawke’s Bay $24.00
  • 85 Passage Rock 2005 Sisters Waiheke $24.00
  • 85 Clearview 2005 Old Olive Block Hawke’s Bay $33.00
  • 85 Hatton Estate 2004 Gimblett Road Reserve Hawke’s Bay $34.95
  • 85 Squawking Magpie 2005 The Nest Merlot/Cabernet Hawke’s Bay $39.95
  • 85 Te Whau 2005 The Point Waiheke $60.00

Cabernet Sauvignon

  • 93 Mills Reef 2005 Elspeth Cabernet Sauvignon Hawke’s Bay $39.95
  • 91 Church Road 2004 Cuve Series Cabernet Sauvignon Hawke’s Bay $39.95
  • 89 Vidal 2002 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Hawke’s Bay $46.00
  • 85 Mission 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Hawke’s Bay $23.00


  • 93 Villa Maria 2004 Single Vineyard Twyford Gravels Merlot Hawke’s Bay $55.00
  • 90 Wild Rock 2005 Gimblett Gravels Merlot Hawke’s Bay $17.95
  • 90 Esk Valley 2005 Black Label Merlot Hawke’s Bay $22.95
  • 90 Villa Maria 2004 Reserve Merlot Hawke’s Bay $39.95
  • 90 Kathy Lynskey 2004 15 Rows Reserve Merlot Marlborough $48.00
  • 89 Sileni 2005 The Triangle Merlot Hawke’s Bay $32.00
  • 89 Passage Rock 2006 Reserve Merlot Waiheke $33.00
  • 87 Hamish Jardine 2004 Pukera Terraces Merlot Hawke’s Bay $25.00
  • 86 Saint Clair 2006 Raupara Reserve Merlot Marlborough $24.95
  • 86 Kevern Walker 2004 Ther Lighthouse Premium Reserve Merlot Hawke’s Bay $30.00
  • 86 Mills Reef 2005 Elspeth Merlot Hawke’s Bay $39.95
  • 86 Kathy Lynskey 2005 15 Rows Reserve Merlot Marlborough $48.00
  • 85 Mission 2005 Vineyard Selection Mere Road Merlot Hawke’s Bay $18.00
  • 85 Waimarie 2002 Dartmour Valley Merlot Hawke’s Bay $20.00
  • 85 Ti Point 2005 One Merlot Matakana $34.95


  • 94 Vidal 2004 Reserve Syrah Hawke’s Bay $56.00
  • 93 Passage Rock 2006 Reserve Syrah Waiheke $50.00
  • 91 Church Road 2004 Cuve Series Syrah Hawke’s Bay $39.95
  • 90 Sacred Hill 2005 Deerstalkers Syrah Hawke’s Bay $59.95
  • 90 Trinity Hill 2005 Gimblett Gravels Syrah Hawke’s Bay $29.95
  • 90 Mission 2005 Reserve Syrah Hawke’s Bay $23.00
  • 89 Cottage Block 2005 Shiraz Hawke’s Bay $33.00
  • 87 Cottage Block 2005 Syrah Hawke’s Bay $34.95
  • 86 Esk Valley 2005 Syrah Hawke’s Bay $31.00
  • 86 Mills Reef 2005 Elspeth Syrah Hawke’s Bay $39.95
  • 86 Mudbrick 2005 Reserve Syrah Waiheke $42.00
  • 85 Mission 2005 Jewelstone Shiraz Hawke’s Bay $34.00

Other Grape Varieties

  • 88 Trinity Hill 2005 Montepulciano Hawke’s Bay $19.95
  • 87 Mills Reef 2005 Elspeth Cabernet Franc Hawke’s Bay $39.95

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Aug 2007.

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