Exactly 10 years ago to the week I left home to spend a month in New Zealand, and a few days in Australia. Looking back, it was a unique and happy time: I was young(er), I was single, I had been working for a few years and could afford to turn dream holidays into reality (so long as the reality wasn’t too luxurious). Perhaps I spent a little too much time on buses and in youth hostels, but still the trip exceeded all expectations, and since the moment my heavily Lord of the Rings-themed plane took off from Queenstown airport I have yearned to return. But times change: within six months I was no longer single, a couple of years after that I was married, another year and I was a parent. A decade ago a dream holiday involved a month spent sheltering from the worst extremes of the northern hemisphere winter on the other side of the world, sea-kayaking with dolphins, spotting whales and setting off carefree on multi-day walks; n0w it’s a night away in Hampshire.
And so it was that the closest I was ever going to get to repeating my great journey a decade on was to snatch a couple of hours at the annual Wines of New Zealand tasting in central London, in between dropping the kids off at school and picking them up again.
Over the same decade life has changed just as much in the New Zealand wine industry as it has chez Cellar Fella. Between 2004 and 2013 exports to Australia rose in quantity by nearly nine times (8.8 to be precise); to the USA by six times; and to the UK by three and a half times. In 2004 they sold NZ$302.6m worth of wine around the world; in 2013 it was NZ$1.211bn, almost precisely four times as much. In the same time the number of wineries rose from 463 to 698, the area under vine from 18,112 hectares to 35,733 and total production from 119.2 million litres to 248.4 million (all the numbers come from here). My only fear about returning to New Zealand is that the beautiful wilderness that entranced me in 2004 will all have been ripped up and turned into vineyard.
There are wines that clearly evoke a place, and others that don’t so much. Sometimes the secrets lie inside the liquid itself, which might contain clues about where it was made, and how; on other occasions it’s all in the drinker’s head. Perhaps they drank this wine once on a particularly memorable occasion, or perhaps they visited the area it was made, or even the winery itself. To many, for example, a glass of Man O’War chardonnay is nothing but another fairly impressive white wine. To anyone who’s been to Waiheke, the gorgeous island where they’re based, it will evoke memories of the short ferry ride from Auckland (that’s it, below) and an indecent number of spectacular viewpoints (there’s one up top, featuring what I do believe is a distant vineyard). I’ve often found Kiwi wines particularly evocative of a certain spirit that has, in truth, nothing much to do with the wines, and everything to do with my memories of their homeland.
My trip to the tasting, like my visit to New Zealand all those years ago, was a great deal briefer than I really needed to have a proper look around. So I chose my targets: no sauvignon blanc passed my lips, and almost no pinot noir, as I instead targeted chardonnay, syrah and a few Bordeaux blends. Man O’War were represented, with their top wines – which carry names like Valhalla, Ironclad and Dreadnought, all of which sound best when said in the aggressive, plummy tones of Blackadder Goes Forth’s Lord Melchett – reliably excellent for a shade over £20 (more like a shade under £30, in some cases). Craggy Range remain consistently superb as well, with the Gimblett Gravels Syrah a reliable bet also for £20, and their top-of-the-range syrah, Le Sol an absolute stunner for about twice that.
I particularly enjoyed the four Pyramid Valley wines, which is a shame as they’re quite pricey. They had two chardonnays and a couple of pinots, and with both grapes one of the pair stood out: the Lion’s Tooth chardonnay 2011 outshone the Field of Fire and the slightly cloudy and idiosyncratic Angel Flower pinot noir 2009 outperformed the Earth Smoke from 2010.
The problem with New Zealand is that, other than the oceans of characterless sauvignon blanc, it’s very hard to get a standout wine in the £8-£14 range where I do the vast majority of my wine shopping. They do have a couple of reliable brands who operate at that level, particularly Villa Maria and Esk Valley (owned by Villa Maria), but anything with individuality and personality comes at a cost. It’s not just the amount of wine coming out of New Zealand that’s been rising inexorably, but the price of it as well: that Craggy Range Le Sol cost £21 seven years ago, £29 in January 2010, £37 in January 2011 and £45 in January 2013 (and that’s if you’re lucky – at Roberson right now a single bottle will set you back £63.95). A few years ago I bought a case of their top Bordeaux blend, Sophia; now it’s out of my range. If the aim is to target two extremes of the wine-buying scale – those seeking a reasonably cheap party quaffer at one end, and those willing to spend £25 or considerably more in search of something sensational at the other – it leaves those of us who inhabit the space in between a little left out.
In short, I might have to find another way of evoking my memories. Still, I’ve always got my photos.