New Zealand’s best reds

A group of winemakers from the Gimblett Gravels district of Hawke’s Bay recently invited audiences in London, New York and Hong Kong to taste a small selection of their best blended red wines. In each case they included an equal amount of benchmark Bordeaux reds made from similar grape varieties in a comparable vintage. The major difference between the Kiwi and French wines was price. Most of the French wines carry a price tag in excess of $1000.

The wines were served blind. When the tasting samples were unmasked the audience in each country (mostly leading wine critics) was surprised and impressed by the quality of the New Zealand wines. The London critics pronounced that the New Zealand reds were closer to the Bordeaux benchmark than similar wines from any other country.

I recently tasted over 100 red wines to find this country’s best blended wines, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and “other red grape varieties”. I excluded Pinot Noir and Syrah from the tasting as they are evaluated separately.

The overall quality of the wines I tasted was higher than ever. A string of good vintages, greater vine age and more experienced winemakers is now producing truly great red wines by any international measure.

Best Blended Red

Only one wine in every case of 12 New Zealand bottles is a blended wine. We are used to buying wine with a single grape variety such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Merlot. Why confuse us by blending of two or more grape varieties?

The answer is 1 + 1 = 3. A good blend should be better than any of its individual blending components.

One of the most popular red wine blends is Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon is a powerful, classy wine but it can sometimes be a little too gutsy and astringent, requiring years of bottle age before the tannins soften and the wine becomes approachable. Merlot, on the other hand, is a softer, silkier wine but it can lack a little depth and complexity. Put both wines together and it’s possible to make a wine with the class of Cabernet Sauvignon and some of Merlot’s seductively smooth texture. It’s a wine that can be appreciated while it’s still fairly young but has the ability to age gracefully. That’s what good blending is all about.

Perhaps the world’s most famous blended red wines come from the Bordeaux region of France. It is extremely rare to find a red wine from Bordeaux that is not a blend of two or more different grape varieties (I’ve tasted several thousand red wines from Bordeaux but have never come across one made from a single grape variety). Five red grape varieties are grown in Bordeaux. They are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.

If a New Zealand wine is made from two or more of these five Bordeaux grape varieties it is often referred to as a “Bordeaux blend”. My top blended wine, Trinity Hill 2008 The Gimblett (tastings), is a blend of all five Bordeaux grape varieties. It is a cleverly put together wine that achieves much of its quality from its skilful blend. Blending wine is a bit like making a good sauce. The ingredients must be added carefully so that they work together and build a sauce that’s exciting to taste because it offers many subtle flavour nuances.

1st Trinity Hill 2008 The Gimblett Hawke’s Bay $35.00 [TOP VALUE]

A blend of the five Bordeaux grape varieties. Very classy red that offers great value. A very successful label from a vintage that Trinity Hill rates as its very best. – view on

2nd Babich 2008 Irongate Cabernet Merlot Franc Hawke’s Bay $34.95

Serious red with cellaring great potential. A dense, silken wine from the Gimblett Gravels district – view on

3rd Villa Maria 2009 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Hawke’s Bay $49.99

Elegant, spicy red that delivers impressive power with consummate subtlety – a Villa Maria trademark. – view on

4th Newton Forrest 2007 Cornerstone Hawke’s Bay $50.00

Cabernet Merlot Malbec. A dense and fruity red from a top vintage. This is elegance on a grand scale. – view on

5th Paritua 2008 “21.12” Hawke’s Bay $65.00

More power and structure than its younger brother “Red”. An intriguing and very classy wine. – view on

Best Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world’s greatest red grape varieties. It’s relatively easy to make good Cabernet Sauvignon but notoriously difficult to make great Cabernet Sauvignon.

The variety has a chequered history in this country. Many producers found the variety too challenging and as a result the acreage of Cabernet Sauvignon has declined significantly in the past decade. However, thanks to a hard-core of persistent Cabernet Sauvignon enthusiasts the variety is enjoying something of a renaissance.

New Zealand Cabernet Sauvignon has never looked as good as it does today and the best wines are truly outstanding.

1st Mills Reef 2009 Elspeth Trust Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Hawke’s Bay $45.00

A great wine with pronounced varietal character of cassis, cedar and a hint of leaf. Succulent fruit and a lingering finish also impress. – view on

2nd Church Road 2009 Cuvé Cabernet Sauvignon Hawke’s Bay $27.95 [TOP VALUE]

Quite dense, almost chewy wine with appealing sweet fruit. Appealing Cabernet Sauvignon that offers great value. – view on

3rd Matua Valley 2009 Matheson Cabernet Sauvignon Hawke’s Bay $69.99

Dense Cabernet Sauvignon with blackberry, cedar, floral/violet and olive flavours. Classy, seamless wine with good cellaring potential. – view on

4th Mills Reef 2009 Elspeth Cabernet Sauvignon Hawke’s Bay $45.00

Elegant and surprisingly accessible wine with good fruit sweetness and flavours suggesting blackberry, vanilla, licorice, spice/anise and nutty oak. – view on

5th Mission 2009 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Hawke’s Bay $25.00

A chunky, accessible wine that will appeal to wide cross-section of red wine drinkers. It offers good value. – view on

Best Merlot

After topping the charts for many years Merlot suffered an undeserved drop in popularity in recent times. There are signs that Merlot has now clambered back onto the comeback trail and it’s easy to understand why if you taste the latest generation of stylish wines now on offer.

Merlot can offer all of the silky and seductive charm of Pinot Noir (it’s major competitor) in a slightly more robust style. It’s sometimes called “poor man’s Pinot” because Merlot tends to be a little cheaper on average although the best examples certainly don’t fall into the cheap and cheerful category. My top three wines are all limited edition premium labels that were expensive to produce. Each of those three wineries has significantly cheaper examples of Merlot in its product range.

1st Matua Valley 2010 Matheson Merlot Hawke’s Bay $69.99

Elegant wine with a deliciously smooth texture – it’s a bit like Pinot Noir on steroids. Bright, pure wine with energy and impressive length.

2nd Mills Reef 2009 Elspeth Merlot Hawke’s Bay $45.00

Scented and appealing Merlot with bright berry, floral and subtle fresh herb flavours together with an influence of classy oak. – view on

3rd Black Barn 2009 Reserve Merlot Hawke’s Bay $59.90

Rich, creamy Merlot in an elegant rather than blockbuster style. Appealing sweet plum and red berry flavours with leather, anise and spicy oak. – view on

4th Abbey Cellars 2009 Rapture Merlot Hawke’s Bay $22.00 [TOP VALUE]

A rich and flavoursome Merlot with ripe plum, berry, fresh herb and subtle oak flavours. – view on

5th Sileni 2009 The Triangle Merlot Hawke’s Bay $32.00

Very pure fruit flavours suggesting blackcurrant and cherry supported by chocolate and spice oak characters. – view on

Best “other red” varieties

New Zealand’s mainstream red grape varieties are all from France. They all perform with distinction on the home turf as well as in many other countries. They are proven classics. But there are literally thousands of other grape varieties from France, Italy, Spain, Austria and many other countries that might thrive under New Zealand conditions.

Spain’s best red grape variety, Tempranillo, is a hot prospect for stardom in this country. Trinity Hill were first to make Tempranillo here but others are scrambling to plant the variety after its spectacular success in Hawke’s Bay.

Malbec and Cabernet Franc are minor players in their native Bordeaux and have been grown in this country for some time. Both are widely used as blending wines but are now being hailed for their success as solo performers.

Grenache thrives in the hotter climates of southern France and South Australia and has never been a serious contender in this country until Villa Maria nurtured the variety in the warm and sunny Gimblett Gravels district of Hawke’s Bay. I’m cautiously optimistic about its future here.

1st Trinity Hill 2009 Tempranillo Hawke’s Bay $35.00 [TOP VALUE]

An excellent example of Spain’s leading red grape variety from the winery that successfully introduced it to New Zealand. – view on

2nd Villa Maria 2009 Reserve Malbec Hawke’s Bay $59.99

Dense, supple red with accessible berry, spice and slightly earthy Malbec flavours. It’s hard to imagine a better local Malbec than this. – view on

3rd Black Barn 2009 Cabernet Franc Hawke’s Bay $38.90

Fragrant, silken red with impressive purity and an ethereal texture. Pretty wine. – view on

4th Villa Maria 2007 Reserve Grenache Hawke’s Bay $59.99

This is the first New Zealand Grenache I can recall tasting – and it’s very good indeed. Supple wine with appealing sweet fruit flavours. Delicious. – view on

5th Mission 2009 Reserve Malbec Hawke’s Bay $25.00

Supple and moderately succulent wine in a gently aromatic style. – view on

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Aug 2011.

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