Seeing red – New Zealand red wines reviewed

Pinot Noir has become the “meat and three veg” in the average Kiwi wine drinker’s diet. I confess that I, like many, have become so dazzled with the quality of New Zealand Pinot Noir that I am guilty of overlooking alternative red wine styles. Two good reasons to look for pleasures beyond Pinot are that a solid diet of anything can become boring and Pinot Noir can be expensive addiction.

I was reminded just how good New Zealand’s blended reds can be before I tackled this 130-wine tasting. Last year a group of Gimblett Gravels winemakers bravely staged a competitive tasting with six of the best from their region against six top wines from the French region of Bordeaux. Bordeaux makes the world’s best wines from the so-called “Bordeaux” grape varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The best of Bordeaux reds also command reassuringly expensive prices. The six Bordeaux reds in the blind tasting had an average bottle price of around $1300 while the Hawke’s Bay reds averaged $49.

Top wine was Blake Family 2005 “Redd Gravels” (tastings) (the 2006 vintage performed well in this review – tastings). Furthermore the top six wines in the tasting included four reds from Hawke’s Bay. An international panel of judges was lead by the Australian wine expert, James Halliday who commented, “This was no put up job. It’s hard to argue with the results which cannot be swept under the carpet”.

Buoyed by that success the Gimblett Gravels winemakers staged a similar tasting in London with some of the UK’s most noted wine critics. Different wines were used. This time it wasn’t such a clean sweep to New Zealand although there was general agreement from the critics that New Zealand is probably Bordeaux’s closest rival.

That’s a great boost of confidence for a wine style that has become less fashionable in recent times. It’s also a useful reminder to begin adding blended red wines to the shopping list.

If you need another reason to begin taking Hawke’s Bay red wines more seriously the 2007 vintage is the best for at least a couple of decades and, across the board, has produced the region’s best ever red wines.

Blended Reds – better than ever

Why blend grape varieties? The simple answer is that an effective blend of grape varieties will produce a wine that is better than any of its parts. Take the example of the popular partnership Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon is a truly great grape variety but it does tend to produce very astringent red wine needing lots of bottle age. Merlot, on the other hand, makes softer, more immediately accessible wine.

Put the two together and you get a red wine with some of the noble flavours of Cabernet Sauvignon but with a softer structure meaning it can be enjoyed sooner without compromising the wines longevity too much. The flavour profiles of each are not too dissimilar and, when blended, work well together. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers of the red wine world.

Blending also gives winemakers greater control over wine style as well as wine quality. They can juggle different blending options until they achieve a result that suits them. Blending gives the chance for a winemaker to add his or her signature to the wine.

In the past decade Merlot has become the dominant partner in most blending wines. Cabernet Sauvignon can taste a little too green and weedy in cooler vintages. Merlot is more forgiving and is capable of supporting its minority partner when things go wrong.

Things didn’t go wrong in 2007, a vintage that appears to have produced good to excellent Cabernet Sauvignon. Top wine, Craggy Range 2007 The Quarry (tastings), is 83% Cabernet Sauvignon.

My pick for best value wine is Trinity Hill 2006 The Gimblett (tastings) – a classy, mouth-filling red that’s delivers pure gold quality at a bargain price of $29. My top choice from the bargain basement of wines under $20 is Station Road 2007 Cabernet Merlot (tastings), an honest fruity red at the giveaway price of $13.99.

Merlot – poor man’s Pinot Noir

Merlot has fallen from the pedestal of high fashion. Search around the shelves and websites where heavy discounting abounds and you’ll probably agree that Merlot is now this country’s best value red wine.

Good Merlot can have the soft and silken charm of Pinot Noir at half the price. It’s very food-friendly as well as being a drink for all seasons. I like to drink light, fresh, slightly chilled Merlot as I stoke the summer barbecue and savour more intense and warmer examples in front of roaring winter fires.

Top wine in the tasting was Craggy Range 2007 Merlot (tastings) which, at $29.95, was by no means the most expensive wine in the tasting. This hearty, sophisticated red is serious Merlot – a favourite of mine during the winter months.

Top value is One Tree 2006 Merlot (tastings), another full-flavoured example that’s a snip at $18.99.

Other grape varieties – add spice to your life

Four grape varieties bred in four different countries have produced four terrific New Zealand made wines from four regions. You can’t get more interesting than that!

My top buy and favourite wine (by a narrow margin) is Trinity Hill 2007 Tempranillo $29.95 (tastings), a savoury red that’s won more than its share of gold medal and trophy awards.

The winners

Blended wines

Solid gold wines

97 Craggy Range 2007 The Quarry Hawke’s Bay $59.95

Intense and super-stylish Cabernet Sauvignon dominant red that will put a gleam in your eye

95 Craggy Range 2007 Sophia Hawke’s Bay $49.95

Soft and seductive Merlot dominant sister to the robust red above

95 Paritua 2007 “2112” Hawke’s Bay $65

Super powerful wine with a silken texture. No rush to drink this thoroughbred red

95 Blake Family Vineyard 2006 Redd Gravels Merlot Cabernet Franc Hawke’s Bay $80

Very limited edition red. Last year’s vintage topped a tasting that included some of France’s best

94 Paritua 2007 Red Hawke’s Bay $36.50

Serious red at a slightly more affordable price

93 Trinity Hill 2006 The Gimblett Hawke’s Bay $29

My top value wine of the tasting. Masses of flavour – a real bargain.

93 Obsidian 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec Waiheke Island $46.20

One of Waiheke’s classiest red wines with great density and a silken texture

93 Babich 2006 The Patriarch Hawke’s Bay $49.95

Cabernet Sauvignon dominant red with heaps of cellaring potential

Best Buys Under $20

85 Wild Rock 2007 Gravel Pit Red Merlot Malbec Hawke’s Bay $19.95

Rustic red with lots of ripe berry flavours. Good food wine at a great price

84 Morton Estate 2007 The Mercure Hawke’s Bay $17

Seductively fruit-focused red with a soft and silken texture

84 Saints 2007 Cabernet Merlot Hawke’s Bay $18.95

Easy-drinking, fruity red that’s in peak form right now

82 Corbans 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Hawke’s Bay $16.95

Light, fruity dry red with simple berry flavours

80 Station Road 2007 Cabernet Merlot East Coast $13.99

Berry, plum and wood smoke flavours. Terrific value

78 Five Flax Merlot Cabernet New Zealand $14.95

Soft, smooth and simply easy to drink. Good value

Cabernet Sauvignon

Top Wines

94 Mills Reef 2007 Elspeth Cabernet Sauvignon Hawke’s Bay $39.95

Classic Cabernet! Elegant and powerful wine which captures the best features of this noble variety.

90 Canadoro 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Martinborough $40

Dense, fruity wine in a strongly varietal style

86 Church Road 2005 Cuve Cabernet Sauvignon Hawke’s Bay $29.95

Smooth, rich red with a warming richness


Top Wines

93 Craggy Range 2007 Merlot Hawke’s Bay $29.95

The best vintage of one of my favourite Merlot labels

90 Sacred Hill 2007 Brokenstone Merlot Hawke’s Bay $64.90

Another “best example” from a great vintage. Power plus.

88 Kennedy Point 2005 Merlot Waiheke Island $42

Complex Merlot with a classic Waiheke texture

87 Church Road 2005 Cuve Series Merlot Hawke’s Bay $25.95

A little bottle age adds extra pizzazz to this fruity, complex red

Best Buys Under $20

85 One Tree 2006 Merlot Hawke’s Bay $18.99

Plump fruit flavours and spicy oak – quality at a great price

83 Bensen Block 2007 Merlot New Zealand $16.95

Chewy, slightly rustic Merlot with lots of flavour and character

78 Bell Bird Bay 2007 Merlot Hawke’s Bay $14.95

Berry, mint and wild herb flavours with a silken texture

Other grape varieties

88 Trinity Hill 2007 Gimblett Gravels Tempranillo Hawke’s Bay $29.95

Spanish red Gimblett Gravels style – a mix of floral and berry flavours

87 Fromm 2006 Fromm Vineyard Malbec Marlborough $45

French red Marlborough style – dense savoury wine that will age well

87 Weeping Sands 2008 Montepulciano Waiheke Island $34

Italian red Waiheke style – as good as the “real thing”!

87 Karikari Estate 2007 Pinotage Northland $46

South African red Northland style – beating them at their own game

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Sep 2009.

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