Kiwis star in Tri Nations challenge

Those pesky Kiwis have done it again. Trounced us in the Tri Nations again, I mean.

No, that’s not rugby; that’s wine.

It’s becoming a regular thing in the Tri Nations Wine Challenge. They were the most successful nation last year and this, and what really hurts is they’ve won the coveted shiraz trophy three years out of the last four (and last year was South Africa’s turn). This year they won six trophies to Australia’s five (and South Africa’s two), they won seven double-gold medals to our six (and SA’s four), and tied with us for gold medals – 40 each – while SA won 25.

The categories New Zealand topped were sauvignon blanc (oh really?), pinot noir (hmmmm), shiraz (damn!), aromatic whites, Bordeaux red blends, and other red varieties. Considering New Zealand’s wine industry is about one-sixth the size of Australia’s, how is it they’re doing so well?

This analysis isn’t about self-flagellation or paranoia: as with all judgings, a different panel on a different day might have come up with a different result. But even if we disregard the Tri Nations competition, now in its eighth year, it is still evident that our Kiwi cousins more than match us in quite a few vinous arenas. They punch well above their weight.

As the Australian representative in this competition, and hence the guy with the job of selecting the Australian entries in this by-invitation-only judging, I have done some soul-searching, and come up with some theories.

Let’s look at shiraz/syrah for starters.

Australia has probably at least 20 regions which consistently produce outstanding shiraz. New Zealand has one: Hawkes Bay. But they’re regularly winning this class. Why?

The answer is not hard to discover. Hawkes Bay (tastings), and within the region, the amazing Gimblett Gravels, produces all of the NZ entries. The Kiwi judge Bob Campbell doesn’t have to tear his hair: just pick his 10 favourites from Hawkes Bay. But Australia has a baffling array of shiraz from which to choose. Any way you like to view it, we have an extraordinarily rich diversity of regional and winemaker styles. There is no broader range in the world. What to select? Rich, concentrated, generous, warm-area styles from Barossa, Clare and McLaren Vale? Or spicy, cooler-grown wines from southern latitudes and high altitudes? Or a democratic mixture?

Last year I elected to be democratic; this year I favoured the cooler climes which approximate the Hawkes Bay style. Neither strategy was successful!

A similar conundrum exists with other varieties, such as riesling, chardonnay, sweet white and sauvignon blanc. Australia has a wider stylistic range of each of these than New Zealand. In sweet white, we have the opulent, forward-developed, mouthfilling Riverina botrytis styles, and at the opposite end, delicate, refined, subtle, less-sweet examples such as Tasmanian rieslings. In dry riesling, we have fully-ripe but bone-dry, traditional Australian styles from Clare and Eden Valleys, as well as beautifully aged examples of the same, plus more delicate and fragrant wines from cooler climates – some with a touch of sweetness. New Zealand has less diversity.

In sauvignon blanc New Zealand has the world-beater style from Marlborough. We lack an answering shot for those wines, but we do have a range of styles from herbal Margaret River wines and less aromatic ones from Adelaide Hills, to more minerally wines from the Yarra Valley and other parts of southern Victoria. Then we have more ‘worked’, more complex savoury versions of these with subtle use of barrel fermentation, solidsy juice and lees-contact. I agonise over a selection of these from all corners of the country; Bob Campbell simply chooses the most impressive and pungent Marlborough wines, and they romp home!

On the other hand Australia has its shoo-ins, though. We tend to win cabernet sauvignon decisively. New Zealand doesn’t make much straight cabernet that’s good; even Hawkes Bay is a bit too cool most years. The Kiwis are at least our equal with Bordeaux blends, though: the best Hawkes Bay cabernet is a much more complete wine when blended with merlot, cabernet franc, etc.

And, in the other white varieties and blends class, the other two countries have little with which to answer our Hunter Valley semillons at five years of age. Even the best pinot gris and chenin blanc tends to surrender when faced with a 2005 Brokenwood (tastings), Mount Pleasant (tastings) or Meerea Park (tastings) semi.

And here is the nub of the issue.

New Zealand has matched its grape varieties to its sites more precisely than Australia has. Much more. Merlot and cabernet sauvignon are pretty well restricted to Hawkes Bay and Waiheke Island; syrah to the above plus Central Otago, although Hawkes Bay is so dominant that the other two barely rate. Sauvignon blanc is grown in several regions but Marlborough rules in quantity and quality. Top pinot noir is confined to four regions, Martinborough, Marlborough, Central Otago and Canterbury. Chardonnay is grown in several regions but Marlborough dominates; riesling ditto.

Why has New Zealand suited its grape varieties to its regions so precisely? Answer? Its wine industry was reborn in the 1980s after muller thurgau was junked and hybrid varieties such as baco were uprooted. Pinot noir and sauvignon blanc were virtually unheard of before then, syrah arrived even more recently and chardonnay plantings didn’t boom till the ‘80s. Pinot gris and other fringe varieties are very recent arrivals.

When New Zealand replanted, it did so with a great deal of scientific insight. As in Australia, site selection was a phrase never heard until Richard Smart and other enlightened viticulturists started to hammer it in the early ‘80s. This has also had an impact in Australia, of course, but in New Zealand, planting since the late ‘70s had the luxury of an almost blank slate to work with.

And finally: New Zealand’s climates are cooler and less forgiving than ours. There’s less room for error. The variety must suit the region, otherwise the result is poor. Well done, those Kiwis.

A selection of trophy winners:


First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 28 September 2010. 

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