Sav making you sad? Peeved by Pinot? Try these three French varietals growing in popularity with NZ winemakers

by | Feb 8, 2024 | Drinks, Opinion

Wander into just about any New Zealand bottle store, restaurant or supermarket and you could be forgiven for concluding that only seven grape varieties can grow on these islands: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and (fucking) Merlot. And for the last couple of decades this has been enough, we were happy with that. We knew broadly what each of these varieities offered, in which regions they flourished and where they were an afterthought, what food might work with which varietal, and that Wendy from HR violently despised Chardonnay.

But this is beginnnig to change. In California and Australia, winemakers have long been interested in planting grapes that are less familiar to the average wine drinker but can produce stunning wines that express the unique qualities of the land in ways that the old international varities weren’t capable of. Unsurpisingly, considering the importance of Italian immigrants to the winemaking cultures of Australia and the USA, Italian varities have made great inroads in both countries, with Sangiovese and Nebbiolo leading the way.

In these cooler climes, winemakers are more often looking to France for inspiration. Young producers are beginnnig to make some brilliant wines from grape varities that were almost non-existant in this country ten years ago. Not only that but older, more established producers are beginnig to notice and follow suit.

Here are three lesser known varieties to keep and eye out for.

Gamay

I first discovered New Zealand Gamay five or so years ago when I was grumpily mooching around Auckland and wandered into Al Brown’s Depot for a drink and a snack. They had Mt Edward Gamay Noir in the fridge and let me have a little taste. i ended up drinking a whole bottle while eating my body weight in ham and boring the life out of the bartender about how good the wine was. I left no long grumpy and full of the joys of young wine made well.

Gamay is the grape of Beaujolais but it originally grew a little further north in Burgundy. In 1395 Duke of Burgundy, Philipe the Bold outlawed the grape describing it as “disloyal Gamay”, whatever that might mean, and making room for the more elegant Pinot Noir to dominate. Gamay also thrives in the Loire Valley near Tours and in Australia and California.

Gamay generally produces fresh, acidic, vibrant reds with a touch of earthiness. In parts of Beaujolais it can also be made into serious, structured wines that hold up well to ageing.

Gamay does well in the sunshine so grows beautifully in Central Otago; check out the previously mentioned Mt Edward Gamay Noir. It also is finding a home in the Hawke’s Bay. Amoise have a terrific chilled Gamay which I would recommend geting a hold of before the end of the summer. Bigger names like Te Mata are also climbing aboard the Gamay train. You can even get their Gamay in New World.

Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Franc is probably most famous for being the third Bordeaux grape where it is almost always blended with its more famous descendents Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It’s real home though is the Loire Valley where it is the star of the show in distinguished, long-ageing wines from Saumur-Champigny and Chinon. As a part of a Bordeaux blend it adds perfume, finesse and elegance. On it’s own it can be a difficult beast to get right. If it doesn’t ripen sufficiently in cooler years it can be astringent and taste not unlike the stalk of a blackberry bush. Brought to its full potential it can be a savoury joy with plenty of wild fruit, crunchy tannins, and hints of pepper and mint.

In New Zealand Cabernet Franc makes it home most happily in the Hawke’s Bay where it has long been grown alongside its fellow Bordeaux stalwarts to be blended together to make one of the regions most well-known styles. Winemakers are now increasingly vinifying Cabernet Franc on its own and producing some delicious, fruity but savoury wines that are equally happy in the company of food or on their own.

I stumbled on Pyramid Valley’s Cabernet Franc in Moore Wilsons on one particularly miserable Wellington afternoon in 2016 and, loving both Pyramid Valley’s weird and wonderful output from earlier in the decade and Loire Valley Cabernet Francs, thought I’d give it a go. I opened it with a dear old friend and immediately regretted it as I would have quite happily drunk the entire bottle by myself. Riper and less savoury than Loire Valley Francs but still with an edge of smoke and greenery. Plenty of the perfume and elegance that makes such beguiling wines in the Loire. Try Sam Harrop’s Grand Amateur Cabernet Franc, and, once again, this most excellent example from Amoise.

Chenin Blanc

Hardly an obscure grape but not one that has taken up much space in New Zealand’s vineyards until recently. Chenin is Loire Valley’s great white grape (along with Sauvignon Blanc) and makes arguably some of the world’s finest white wines, both sweet and dry, in places like Vouvray and Savennières. The best of these wines, light and delicate but with a spine of searing acidity, can age for decades. The grape has also found a second home in South Africa where it often lends its acidity to blends but also makes some fine wines on its own.

Chenin is now establishing footholds all over New Zealand, from Gisbourne to the Hawke’s Bay, from Marlborough to Central Otago. If you like the thirst quenching freshness of Sav but have grown tired of the cat piss and cut grass aromatics, then track down a local Chenin.

Try the Libiamo from Gisbourne’s eccentric but often brilliant Milton’s vineyards. It’s amphora aged for 154 days on the skins and has plenty of fruit and straw on the nose and a lovely texture on the palate. If the whole wibbly-wobbly natural wine malarky isn’t for you then they have a more conventional Chenin up their sleeves as well. The excellent Dicey also make a Chenin Blanc way up there in Bannockburn, Central Otago. Lots of stone fruit, pitch perfect acidity, and just a hint of sweetness.

Image courtesy of Amoise Wines

About the Author

David Wrigley

David is a writer and musician from Kemureti/ Cambridge. He has been published in Noble Rot, Nourish Magazine, Turbine|Kapohau, New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, and is currently working on his first novel. He has done his time in restaurants in Aotearoa and the UK. Oh, yes. He has done his time.

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