Tag Archives: sauvignon blanc

The land of Ned

The Ned

Sometimes the world of wine might seem a bit static. Think of it like the solar system, with any number of interesting bits flying around at any given time, but all of it in a vague kind of orbit, tethered to a handful of eminently familiar names and regions, which are not to be shifted. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Rhone, Rioja, Tuscany, Piedmont, perhaps the Mosel, Napa and Barossa valleys at the extremely distant reaches, constitute the planets, surrounded by moons and comets and satellites and assorted debris that people only ever consider fleetingly.

But then, every now and then something pops up that illustrates quite how rapidly the scene can shift. And Brent Marris is a scene-shifter, a shooting star, man who in less than 10 years turned a neglected patch of earth into a global phenomenon.

Marris built up the Wither Hills winery with his father, John, before selling it to Antipodean booze giants Lion, the people behind Lindauer, Petaluma, Knappstein and the local distribution of all sorts of famous international beers, for about £23m. That wasn’t the end, though, but the beginning. Marris trousered his share of the cash, and then he went shopping.

It wasn’t until 2004 that he planted the first vines on his new 268-hectare property by the Waihopai River in New Zealand’s south island (there are two Waihopai rivers in New Zealand, inexplicably, and this, despite being pretty southern, is the more northerly). By 2012 he was filling 400,000 cases a year with 4.8m bottles. Picture, if you will, the Aquatics Centre at the 2012 London Olympics: that’s enough to fill its Olympic swimming pool with wine, with enough left over to give each of the 17,500 spectators 85 bottles to take home. That year Majestic, one measly chain of shops on one small island on the other side of the world, sold a million bottles of The Ned sauvignon blanc on their own, while the stuff was also flooding out the doors of one of the nation’s bigger supermarket chains, Waitrose.

And still it was growing, and continues to grow. By now there are 600 hectares of vines – about the size of 840 football pitches, if you’ll allow me yet another sporting-vinous size analogy – with another 400 waiting to be planted. A troublesome 2015 vintage (in quantitative terms – there’s 30% less of it than there was of the 2014) will hold back expansion but even so Australia, the US, the UK, Canada, Germany, China and Scandinavia will be inundated with tastefully black-labelled bottles. Marris boasts that, across his whole range of wines – which includes the various Neds, the Kings Series and the Craft Series, as well as a couple of smaller bottlings, such as the Three Terraces sauvignon blanc he makes for the Wine Society – “every 24 hours, 15,000 bottles are consumed somewhere in the world”. If you do the maths, that means that on average someone somewhere uncorks (or unscrews, more commonly) a bottle of his wine every 5.7 seconds.

Brent Marris, Marisco head honcho

Brent Marris: to be fair, I’d be smiling too

You can’t drink numbers, but even so they’re pretty intoxicating. And I still haven’t mentioned the most remarkable thing of all: the 2015 Ned sauvignon blanc, the biggest of all his big successes, is really good.

It hasn’t been bottled yet, but when I met Brent he assured me that the samples he had brought to the UK to show people in the trade were fairly representative. “I’d have loved more, because I can sell it, but I haven’t been as excited about a vintage for a long time,” he said. And it’s easy to see why: in 2015 the Ned produced an excellent pinot grigio (the biggest-selling pinot grigio in New Zealand, where it outsells the sauvignon blanc “in some months”, though it’s labelled pinot gris there – as it would be here if only Majestic let him), a fine pinot rose (equal parts pinot gris and pinot noir), and an exemplary sauvignon blanc: acidic, taut, electric and icy.

Marris credits his new winery, build five years ago, with his subsequent successes. “It’s like a boutique winery, but on a commercial scale,” he says. “From a winemaking perspective, we’re doing everything we can to be gentle. Is The Ned commercial? You bet it is, but it’s also sourced from a single vineyard, and hand sold.”

Of the rest of his range, outside his white 2015s – for which you’ll have to wait until the autumn – I particularly enjoyed two Kings Series wines: the King’s Favour sauvignon blanc 2013, which he said is “targeted towards top independents – a special occasion wine” but for all that is currently reduced from £14.99 to £9.99 at Majestic, and the King’s Legacy chardonnay 2012, faintly reductive (a love-it-or-loathe-it burnt-match character that I really like in dry whites), creamy and leesy without obtrusive oak (it’s aged in large, 500 litre oak barrels). In most of the world it’s called the King’s Bastard, but Britain and Canada are too prim for that kind of language, hence the more sedate title. This too is currently a penny under a tenner at Majestic, and they’re both very good value at that price.

I'm not just saying it - I actually bought some.

I’m not just saying it – I actually bought some.

My eldest child is nearly eight years old, and sometimes I look at her and marvel at how this little thing I created (helped to create) has grown. I can only wonder what Marris must feel as he surveys his empire. For the crime of making me feel like a hopeless underachiever I consider him a total, erm, legacy. In all other respects, I doff my cap. The Ned isn’t always great, but it’s probably the best of the mass-market Kiwi savvies, and that anything made in such quantities can even occasionally tiptoe in that direction is something of a miracle. So if you see anything with this year on the label, buy it and try it while you’ve got the chance. After all, there isn’t much of it about*.

*Relatively speaking.

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New wine trend alert: is obscure the new familiar?

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At what point does something stop being a coincidence and start to become a bona fide trend? That’s been the question on my mind over the last week, when three things happened that would, individually, have been merely curious but collectively appear perhaps more meaningful.

First the Wine Society sent out an offer for “Off the Beaten Track” producers – lots of stuff from Eastern Europe, plus Turkey, Morocco and a few unknown corners of more familiar countries. Unusual grapes included novac, fernão pires, tămâiosă, Kalecik Karasi and malagoussia.

Then last week Laithwaites unveiled four new and relatively unusual wines that will be added to their portfolio in April – reds from Georgia and Turkey, a white from Greece and, most surprising of all, a three-year-old sauvignon blanc from India. As it happened just hours before I headed off to try that quartet I was in another corner of London trying a dozen Japanese wines made from the koshu grape, almost all of which are now available in the UK.

For anyone appalled at the torrential downpour of identikit vinous tosh that thunders down the British gullet on a weekly basis, the possibility of us collectively rousing from our Pinot Grigio-enduced torpor and actively seeking out outstanding examples of obscure grape varieties from unexplored locations would seem attractive if outlandishly unlikely. But clearly there are plenty of magpies out there with an eye out for an unusual jewel.

I haven’t tried any of the Wine Society’s offerings, but I did try Laithwaites’ newbies, with varying degrees of success: Mantra sauvignon blanc 2009, the Indian white, is for curiosity and particularly devilish blind-tasting games only, lacking the zip and excitement which has made the grape so popular (it’s a bit of a surprise to find anyone adding a three-year-old sauvignon to their list, but it’s actually the latest release from a winery who were apparently too unimpressed with the fruit they grew in 2010 and 2011 to make any wine at all). Thema, the Greek white, a 60/40 blend of assyrtiko and sauvignon blanc, is excellently refreshing and bright, if not a huge bargain at £11.49 (Waitrose sell a very reliable assyrtiko which is a little cheaper and is one of the bargains of their 25% off sales). The Turkish red (Vinart 2010, £10.99), a blend of kalecik karasi and syrah, was a bit confected and flabby (though had its fans elsewhere in the room) but I thought the Tbilvino saperavi 2010, while so dark, thick and deep as to be suitable almost entirely for the chilly months its April release date will be perfectly timed to miss, was good value at £8.99.

Laithwaites already have a few wines from Eastern Europe, including pinot grigios from Moldova and Hungary (Campanulla, which is perhaps surprisingly the best-selling white wine in their entire range, and is currently discounted by a pound from the usual £6.99). Among the offerings from their Moldovan brand, Albastrele, is a white cabernet sauvignon, which is taking unusualness to unusual levels. I didn’t get to try that one, but I was pleasantly surprised by a Romanian pinot noir (not one for the purists, but decent value at £7.29).

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And that brings us to the koshu, the first time I’d tried Japanes wines that weren’t sake and an introduction to a new grape. Fascinating stuff, this, grown in an area devilled by ludicrous summer rainfall even in a good year – last year wasn’t one of those: there were three tornadoes last September alone, when rainfall was triple the average. This leads to high humidity and a need to protect the bunches of plump grapes from the downpour with individual waterproof hats. The upshot is very clean, normally totally dry and generally extremely acidic wines. Most of those I tasted were barrel samples of the 2011 vintage, but I was impressed. The only downside is that by the time you fit each bunch with individual waterproof hats, ease them through a crazily testing growing season, turn them into wine, submit them for tough radiation testing (an expensive necessity for Japanese imports to the EU these days), transport them a couple of thousand miles and then add on Britain’s frustratingly high tax and duty, they’re not very cheap. The cheapest bottle I can find in the UK is £15.99; Amathus have three different examples including a rare sparkler and Selfridges is the best place in London to pick up a bottle.

Or you can just have a pinot grigio. It’s up to you.

Domaine A Lady A Fumé Blanc 2005

“Oh my god!” said Mrs Cellar Fella when she took a sniff of this. After a quick sip, she proclaimed that it tasted of cheese. This is not her standard reaction to sauvignon blanc. But then, this is not a standard wine. Some wines, lots of ’em, are hard to find information about. Not this one. It’s all over the internet like teenage tourists on a Robert Pattinson waxwork.

It’s a new world sauvignon blanc unlike any other I’ve ever had, from a one-acre plot of vines in Tasmania, that gets plenty of lees contact during fermentation and then spends a year in French oak. You basically can’t buy a new world sauvignon that was harvested earlier than 2008. This one is five years old, and the Swiss bloke who made it says it could have another five and be all the better for it.

It doesn’t taste of cheese. But it doesn’t taste like sauvignon blanc. It doesn’t taste very oaky, but it is intensely buttery and creamy and, er, vanilla-ey. It smells like rotting apple peelings. You’re not sure if it’s pleasant or not, but it’s certainly redolent of something pleasant.

The flavour is complex and long and certainly good. It is a wine to savour and ponder. It is not a summer barbecue favourite. It isn’t an easy quaffer. I’m not really used to drinking white wines this complex. I’m enjoying it, but I’m confused by it.