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Strange Fruit

Our favourite 10 wines from less common varietals.

Strange Fruit

Nov 22, 2023 Drinks

At our annual Metro Top 50 wine tasting, it’s often the ‘alternative’ flights that are the most enjoyable and surprising. Somehow, the tasters all relax a little more and concentrate on the individual, hedonistic qualities of the wines. 

Before I try to explain why that is, we might ask: what are alternative varieties, exactly? They’re basically the wines that are not chardonnay or sauvignon blanc or merlot or pinot gris — the ‘other whites’ or ‘other reds’.

Most wine tastings are done in so-called flights of between 10 and 15+ wines at a time, grouped by variety. The alternative varieties are rarely present in numbers high enough to constitute a varietal flight of their own, so two or three wines of the same, less common variety may be thrown together with a similar number from other varieties, constituting a broader, alternative and strangely exciting category.

This is where it gets a bit philosophical. Are these alternative varieties enjoyable precisely because they are a break from the sometimes monotonous nature of 12-wine flights of well-made sauvignon blanc? Most professional (and some amateur) tastings start with a short discussion about what to look for in the varietal in question — a good merlot, say — before embarking on 16 competently made Bordeaux wannabes. This doesn’t happen with the ‘other’ categories, and perhaps the absence of analytical framing works in their favour. 

Rather than simply applying a known template, in which a chardonnay, for instance, is forever in the shadow of the Burgundian pinnacle, tasters of all levels can assess an alternative wine on its individual merits and particular characteristics. Surprises, and subjective insights, are more possible; the unusual often forgiven.

So where does one draw the line between mainstream and alternative? Sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot gris and merlot are clearly all ‘establishment’ varietals, and not eligible for an alt-tasting, but what about the likes of riesling, syrah or cabernet franc? In the end, the division we chose was both tangible and arbitrary: vineyard area. 

Any variety which counted an area of less than 200 hectares in New Zealand was in. 

That eliminated the big dogs — sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot gris, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, riesling and syrah. It was, perhaps, a little unfair to cabernet sauvignon (207 hectares in the 2022 New Zealand Winegrowers report) and a little generous to gewürztraminer (197 hectares), but let’s be honest, a glass of gewürztraminer has much less universal appeal than a glass of cabernet sauvignon, no matter how you spin it.

Where did that leave us? 

The lion’s share of the white entries were albariño (Spain’s cool-climate coastal white wine) and chenin blanc (a superstar of the Loire Valley in France, alongside its half-sibling sauvignon blanc). The pick of the albariño was the Mudbrick effort — a particularly well-made white wine with lovely acidity, toasty barrel notes and a delicious palate (the Smith & Sheth Heretaunga Albariño is a similar proposition).

The chenin blancs gave a good showing but some had quite noticeable residual sugar. In this regard, it’s important to note that varietal labelling won’t necessarily account for differences in regional or other styles. In other words, a chenin blanc made in the style of a Vouvray (i.e. off-dry) may be quite different to a chenin made in the style of a bone-dry Savennières, though they both fall under the same varietal label. I preferred the drier styles, but the off-dry wines were well made and, alongside the Merekara and the Colere efforts that made our top 10 (the latter reinforcing the stellar reputation the organic Wreckin vineyard in Marlborough has established), Marlborough’s Meltwater and Hawke’s Bay’s Oak Estate 1000 Vines were also excellent wines.

Gewürztraminer is a tricky customer — it’s just not to everyone’s taste (though I think some people who react badly to it are either trying too hard to be cool or not just relaxing enough). But we tasted some great examples. Aside from the Stonecroft Old Vine in our top 10, I also enjoyed the fabulous Lawson’s Dry Hills The Pioneer 2022 effort and the stylistically iconoclastic Smokestack Lightning from Kenzie. If you want to throw anyone a curveball when it comes to gewürz, get them a glass of this (and not just because it’s named after a Howlin’ Wolf classic). Honeyed, gingerbread, spicy notes with a touch of oxidation and a slim, dry, almost saline palate.

Other honourable mentions among the alternative whites go to Moi Wines’ Filigree Fumé Grüner Veltliner, which was almost riesling-like in its citrus-fruit precision, and Sam Harrop MW’s excellent Fiano.

The cabernet francs were almost uniformly exceptional. The examples by Three Fates, Maison Noire, Amoise, Black Barn and Jenny Dobson’s ‘other’ showing, Doris, were all superb wines. Again, though, it pays to be aware of the possible disconnect between varietal labelling and the winemaker’s inspiration. Some of the cabernet francs we tasted — Black Barn and Maison Noire, the prime examples — were more Bordeaux style, with dark, broody fruit and a polished but fresh palate. Others — the Grand Amateur in our top 10, for example — had more in common stylistically with the cabernet francs further north in the Loire: think raspberry leaf and edgy red fruit.

This ‘other’ category is as fascinating a portion of the New Zealand wine scene as it is a tiny one. The examples we found to try also highlight just how much diversity — and real quality, from minimal-intervention producers to boutique winemakers to big names — there is in this space. The alt-varietal is truly a segment of our country’s wine production that is worth highlighting, encouraging and exploring.

 

Top 10

 

Mudbrick Reserve Albariño Waiheke 2022
$49

Very honeyed nose, warmth and attractiveness. The oak shows through the albariño, but works well in tandem with the wine. It’s well-made and delicious, with a well-balanced texture, and long. Albariño purists might wrinkle their nose, but this is still an excellent white wine.


Colere The Wrekin Vineyard Chenin Blanc Marlborough 2021
$53.99

Bright, with sweet yellow fruits on the nose as well as hay and blossom notes and a touch of smoky (even Vegemite) aromas. A lovely palate, well made. A really nice chenin blanc from a gem of a vineyard.

 

Merekara Wines Les Selectionnés Chenin Blanc Awatere Valley Marlborough 2022
$39.50

This, too, has some of those smoky, earthy aroma-notes that I love in chenin. A nice palate which is textured, spicy and dry, with great length.

 

October 30 Gruner Veltliner Matakana 2020
$28.50

Honey, hay, white wax and lanolin on the nose. A nice, rounded, creamy palate with great texture on the finish. This is a really impressive wine from a region that perhaps doesn’t get the props it deserves on the wine scene.

 

Stonecroft Old Vine Gewürztraminer Hawke’s Bay 2021
$45

I like my gewürztraminer like I like my viognier: unapologetic. Neither variety is blessed with natural acidity, so other stuff needs to happen on the palate (generally texture via phenolics). This has all that stuff and more — with petrol, kerosene, wet wool, lifted rose petal and spices, plus the palate weight of a good bourbon. Textured; individual; unashamedly gewürztraminer.

 

Church Road McDonald Series Viognier Hawke’s Bay 2019
$27

Powerful, smoky, papaya, orange rind on the nose. Big, opulent, textured, delicious, rounded and long on the palate. Fantastic stuff. It’s perhaps a concern for the variety that the current release is four years old now (is it a demonstration of slow sales, the end of the line for the variety or simply a run of poor vintages? With Viognier any of these are possible), but the wine itself has certainly settled and is showing wonderfully.

 

Sam Harrop Grand Amateur Merchant Cabernet Franc Hawke’s Bay 2021
$44.99

Very juicy, raspberry and raspberry leaf, red fruits — this is classic Loire Valley cabernet franc, right down to the edgy palate that runs the line between bite and juiciness. It’s easy to point to Harrop’s Loire experience (he consulted to the region’s wine trade body for many years), but it’s another thing to actually make a wine this good.

 

Jenny Dobson Francie Cabernet Franc Hawke’s Bay 2021
$37.99

Another of the more Loire-styled cabernet francs but, to be honest, this is just great Hawke’s Bay cabernet franc — arguably more true to its adopted home than the Grand Amateur (but I digress). With bright, red fruits on the nose, this is a mouth-filling wine: juicy, succulent, structured and so pure.

 

Amoise Gamay Hawke’s Bay 2022
$40

Quite herbal with savoury red fruits on the nose. A nice, textured palate. Bright and long. This pipped the Amoise cabernet franc on the day of tasting, but you won’t go wrong with either. Drink the Gamay now and hold off on the franc.

 

Church Road 1 Malbec Hawke’s Bay 2021
$120

Pretty much the judges’ choice in this year’s Top 50 tasting — it was the wine that all judges came close to scoring identically well. To a degree, this shows the pitfalls of an open blind tasting, in that slipping in a $120 bottle of wine without any context is (in theory) going to reflect well on it. But let the chips fall where they may: this is still a very good, well-made bottle of wine. Broody, spicy fruit; big, Bordeaux-esque, polished, classy. A reminder never to dismiss malbec.

This story was published in Metro N°440.
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