Ireland’s wine drinkers have a special affection for New Zealand’s wines and especially for its signature wine, Sauvignon Blanc. Perhaps it is a tribal affinity with fellow islanders and our common farming of sheep and stunning mountainous landscapes. It is a testimony to the high reputation of New Zealand wines that even during the depths of the global economic crises, New Zealand producers managed to maintain their prices and did not compromise quality by lowering prices in the hyper-sensitive cost conscious market. One of the most recognisable New Zealand wine labels and one of the first in the Irish market twenty-five years ago is Brancott Estate (then branded Montana). It was also the first winery to plant Sauvignon Blanc vines in Marlborough 40 years ago.
I clearly recall tasting it at a anniversary dinner in 1990. The sommelier, Niall Dooley at Dobbins highly recommended it. It has just arrived in Ireland and was one of the first New Zealand wines on the Irish market. When I first nosed the wine, I was taken aback with the force of its pungent aroma. Sauvignon Blanc from its native Loire at Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé never smelled like that and the taste was equally and deliciously intense.
I met the chief winemaker of Brancott Estate, Patrick Materman several times over many years when he attended the annual New Zealand Wine Fair in January in Dublin. February marks Patrick’s 27th anniversary with Brancott Estate.
According to Patrick: “Brancott Vineyard was the site of our first Sauvignon Blanc plantings in Marlborough, a decision that went against the popular opinion of the time that suggested the South Island was too cold to grow wine grapes. By indulging our curiosity and backing our belief in this land, we soon proved this opinion wasn’t founded, with our very first vintage of the varietal winning an award.” The release of the first Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc vintage in 1979 was the beginning of a phenomenon which, not only placed New Zealand firmly on the international wine map, but has since become a shining example of the quality of wine that can be produced there.
Lower Alcohol Wines, a Trend to Watch
When I spoke with Patrick before Christmas we discussed the change in consumer tastes for wines lighter in alcohol and our growing curiosity and confidence in experimenting with unfamiliar grape varietals.
To satisfy this increasing interest and ever the pioneer, Brancott Estate has produced a wine in their range that is new to Ireland, Flight. Made from the perennially popular Sauvignon Blanc but with lower alcohol levels and therefore, lower in calories. The first vintage harvested was in 2012. When introduced to the USA market their main marketing message for this crisp new wine was the lower calories.
I am sometimes sceptical when a food product has had something reduced e.g. fat. The compensation for the loss in flavour and texture is often paid for by added sugars and flavourings and occasionally sold at a higher price in a pay-more-for-less paradox. I asked Patrick how did he achieve Flight’s lower alcohol and did it reduce the Sauvignon Blanc’s flavour and aroma?
Patrick explained the science which is all about exploring and understanding solutions.
“In the vineyard, harvesting early before the grapes are fully ripe reduces the intensity of Thiol flavour compounds. However, to compensate for any possible loss in flavour, machine harvesting promotes Thiols more than harvesting by hand. The early harvested fruit, while unripe on the vine when machine harvested, actually tastes ripe. Another ally in ripening grape’s flavour in the vineyard is New Zealand’s high ultra violet light due to its purity.”
Meanwhile, in the winery, “yeast converts Thiol precursors to flowery compounds in the juice of the grapes from machine harvested fruit prior to the grapes being pressed. Whereas, hand harvested fruit uses whole bunch pressing for a different style and more age worthy due to the more stable compounds.”
However, Patrick elaborated: “It’s not about just maximising Thiols. For example Brancott Estate’s top level wine is “Chosen Rows”, grown organically and in clay soils to give more structure and made to be age worthy and in a restrained Sancerre-like style. Soils influence the palate, structure and age ability; while climate influences the aromas.”
I asked Patrick how were lower alcohol wines received at home in New Zealand compared to their strongest markets and was there potential for reducing alcohol also in red wines?
Patrick’s response was: “Reds are more challenging to produce with lower alcohol because they have underdeveloped anthocyanins. The United States, Sweden and Canada are the strongest markets for Flight Sauvignon Blanc. However, by contrast, domestically, New Zealanders have the highest consumption in the world of lower alcohol wines and growing.”
Producing lower alcohol wines is not just an initiative at Brancott Estate. Patrick explained: “New Zealand Growers successfully applied to the Government for NZ$17 million to fund research in low alcohol wines for the past two years. Studies included leaf canopy manipulation to slow the sugar ripening while encouraging the physiological flavour ripeness and balance.”
“Because the alcohol is lower the wine is lighter in body, to recalibrate this and to counterbalance the higher acidity, the wine is not fermented out to total dryness. Instead, 12 grams per litre of the grape juice’s natural sugar is allowed to remain unfermented. Carbon dioxide gas (CO2) is a natural by-product of fermentation. To ensure the wine does not taste noticeably sweet the levels of CO2 are elevated. For example, Champagne containing 10g/l sugar seems completely dry thanks in part to the natural CO2 present in the wine.”
I asked Patrick was this process in the vineyard and winery a more costly method of production for Flight? Patrick replied: “It’s not more costly, just more scientific.”
Sauvignon Gris, an Ancient Bordeaux Variety Brought Back
Next we turned our attention to the wine consumer’s growing interest in unfamiliar grape varietals. I did a double take when I saw the name Sauvignon Gris and misread it as Pinot Gris at first. Patrick explained that Sauvignon Gris is an ancient Bordeaux varietal, now extinct there and cultivated in Chile and about 80-90ha in Marlborough. Patrick described it as having a beautiful aroma, fresh and vibrant similar to Sauvignon Blanc.
But with a much softer and oily textured palate similar to Pinot Gris. When I asked Patrick would it age well he clarified Sauvignon Gris is at its best in the first two to three years from the harvest year on the bottle. By picking the grapes later, the wines achieve a higher alcohol hovering around 14.5% ABV giving a stone fruit peach and nectarine character.
What to expect on 2017
My final question asked if Patrick had any predictions for 2017? Patrick highlighted that: “Rosé wines are growing in popularity, especially when made from Pinot Noir. Sparkling wines are showing great potential as consumers are open to other styles outside France’s Champagne region. However, the competitors’ price point is a challenge.
Consumers are looking for compelling stories and for authenticity. People’s palates and tastes are much more international now and open to many varied styles of food. They are attracted to the raw ingredients and to their freshness and quality. The natural acidity and freshness of New Zealand wines are at the heart of its greatest appeal.”
Flight Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Brancott Estate
Marlborough, New Zealand 9% ABV
€15.28 and exclusive to O’Brien’s nationwide and wine.ie
Classically pungent aromas of gently bruised basil leaves and freshly zested grapefruit peel with a perfume of passion fruit. Crisp, dryish and light-bodied with full flavour intensity of freshly squeezed lemons and green crunchy apples underpinned by a slight prickle of carbonation.
Food friend: Serve with sushi or pair with pasta, prawns and peas in a creamy sauce.
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.