Can New Zealand equal ‘classed growth’ Bordeaux ?

Chateau Montrose 1999 (12.5%), Te Mata Awatea 2000 (13%)

Geoff Kelly has posted to his website a rather comprehensive review of 2005 New Zealand Cab/Merlot blends. This led a very knowledgeable friend to write :

I still can’t quite believe the claims re NZ cabs – haven’t we been hearing for 20 yrs that they’re comparable to classed growth. The fruit is getting better, but what else… Or am I hopelessly out of touch”.

Which got me thinking. It’s a very good question. I’ve always been a fan of Kiwi claret, and thought it has great potential. Hawkes Bay and Auckland to my palate seem to have the ability to produce wine closest to a Bordeaux flavour profile than anywhere else (Steven Spurrier seems to agree). Western Australia comes next. There is no doubt that California can produce wine of classed growth quality, but now perhaps more than ever there seems to be quite a style and flavour difference. However, similarities in fruit flavour don’t mean New Zealand can necessarily produce wine of classed growth standard. There have long been doubts about the ability to fully ripen grapes, plus there are issues of vine vigour (too much giving a herbaceous quality, great in Sauvignon Blanc, but not so much in other varieties).  But New Zealand (like Australia) is very strong on viticultural and wine making R&D. Over the past 20 years the red wines have been getting darker, richer, and more alcoholic (like everywhere it seems). New Zealand now even makes credible, even exciting Syrah/Shiraz, a grape variety I never expected New Zealand to be able to ripen. So everything bodes well for Kiwi claret, especially considering that winemakers have had much more experience with these blends – Pinot Noir and Syrah are new for most New Zealand wine makers, while producers like Te Mata were producing very classy Cab/Merlot blends 25 years ago.

So can Kiwi claret reach classed growth quality ? And is there a range of wines at this level ?I think the answer is a qualified yes. Firstly, ‘classed growth’ is a pretty broad level. Secondly, yes there are some very fine kiwi cabernets, some that are really exciting, but not a great deal of volume is produced, and there are some serious misses as well as hits. I wasn’t impressed with the 2002 Craggy Hills Sophia (unlike Robert Parker), and I’ve had some horribly forced and showy Villa Maria reds. The fruit is more powerful and ripe now (as proof Kiwi cabernet now sells pretty well in Australia), but winemakers need to learn to use this asset wisely and aim for restraint and harmony.

As a test, on separate occasions I tried (over dinner) bottles of Te Mata Estate’s Awatea 2000 against a good quality low price Bordeaux, Chateau les Grands Marechaux 2000, and then the classed growth Chateau Montrose 1999. The Awatea outclassed the Marechaux, it was finer with the cabernet shining through (the Bordeaux being virtually all Merlot). Against the Montrose the Awatea was more noticeably green, while the Montrose surprisingly managed to be more fragrant on the nose while being a somewhat deeper, more brawny (St Estephe style) wine – but I’m pointing up the differences here, the main story was how well the Awatea sat longside the Montrose, it was not clearly outclassed. The Awatea was indeed a slightly more attractive wine, the fruit a smidge sweeter and more lively, a little more beautiful and elegant; more feminine.

The Awatea is a similar price to les Grands Marechaux, Montrose is 3-4 times as expensive. And Awatea is Te Mata’s 2nd ranked cabernet blend. So all in all a very good showing.

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