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Face Down in a Wet Rock Garden
By W. Blake Gray
Dec 13, 2011
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New Zealand Riesling is one of my favorite under-appreciated wine categories, and a major reason is minerality.

Frequently I smell chalk, white stones, and other mineral notes in these wines; it's rare when I don't.  Minerality is a loaded term for chemists and wine researchers, because it can be a catch-all for any non-fruit aromas.  In New Zealand Rieslings it's often not elusive; some smell like you fell face down in a wet rock garden planted with stone fruit trees.

It's really noticeable if you open a group of New Zealand Rieslings at once, as I have had the pleasure to do twice recently.  They might be from anywhere in the country, and their sweetness levels vary a lot, but that current of minerality is a defining trait.

I called a couple of Kiwi winemakers to see if they could explain why this is so.

"A lot of the reason for New Zealand Rieslings being the way they are is the cool climate, maritime influence, and very big diurnal variation," says Lynette Hudson, winemaker for Pegasus Bay in Waipara Valley.  "

Hudson says the region that seems geologically most likely to produce minerally Rieslings is Central Otago.  "There's a lot of schist in the soils down there," she says.  "There's a lot of potential."  However, she says Central Otago winemakers have tended to make a very tight, austere style of Riesling, in part because of their unfamiliarity with it.  Growers are making good money with Pinot Noir, so there isn't much financial incentive to plant Riesling. 

That's true about Riesling throughout New Zealand, as Sauvignon Blanc has become the country's major grape, accounting for 80% of exports, Hudson says.

But I think I represent many wine lovers in saying that I'm a little over New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc at the moment.  I may just be going through a phase:  That intense, herbaceous style with in-your-face tropical fruit is great for drinkers seeking bold flavors.  But sometimes a little restraint is nice too.

Hudson says Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc makers are locked in to producing wine in a certain style because that's what the market demands.

"Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is made in a very clean way, with cold fermentation and commercial yeast," Hudson said.  "Riesling can be made that way, but people are playing around with natural yeast and warmer fermentation."

In other word, wine geek stuff, not general public stuff.  Paul Bourgeois, chief winemaker for Spy Valley, points out that the defined style of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a big advantage for the public, whereas with Riesling, consumers don't even know if the wine they're buying will be dry or sweet.

"Wine writers love Riesling, the trade loves it, winemakers love it, but for the public, buying it, that's different," Bourgeois says.  "All of the South Island is making some very good Rieslings, but there are so many different styles."

Bourgeois made what is, so far this year, my favorite New Zealand Riesling, the single-vineyard Envoy Marlborough Riesling 2007 ($36).  I wish I had a case of it, because it kept improving over the three days I had it open, and that seems to bode well for age-worthiness.  The nose delivers lime fruit and lots of that trademark minerality, while on the palate, it's medium-sweet with plenty of apricot, white peach and clementine fruit.  The layered mouthfeel is interesting: I felt chunky plum jam on the roof of my mouth, fine acidity and a current of minerality on the tongue.

Bourgeois said the wine comes from a river-basin block with clay soils topped by sand, and plenty of river rocks.  "Our Riesling was planted in 1993, which was a long time ago here," he says.  But the production size tells where Riesling fits in the marketing plan:  Spy Valley makes 150,000 caes of wine per year, less than 3,000 of it Riesling.

There are plenty of other New Zealand Rieslings I rate well over 90 points:  Villa Maria Marlborough Cellar Selection Dry Riesling 2010 (lively and lovely); Neudorf Moutere Nelson Riesling 2009 (wide open, fruity, German-like); Giesen Marlborough Riesling 2010 (white stones, apricot); Staete Landt Vineyard Marlborough Riesling Auslese 2008 (chewy texture, tons of minerality).

It feels a little strange to be writing about Riesling in the middle of December, when everybody else is writing about heavy gift bottles or awesome reds to have with standing rib roast.  But fine Riesling shouldn't be cubbyholed to summer.  Its acidity cuts through heavy dishes, and it has an affinity for pork. 

This has been a surprisingly hard column for me to write; I've been plugging away at doing it for months.  The reason is that I feel like I have no angle, no news to report, no controversial proposition.

I started with this simple premise: "I like New Zealand Riesling.  It's one of my favorite wines from there.  They're world-class, interesting wines and they're good value compared to other great white wines of the world.  If you haven't been drinking them, you should."  And that's where I'm going to finish.