Bargain wines… let’s hear it for Kiwi Chenin Blanc

Did you know there is more Pinot Blanc in New Zealand (29 hectares) than Chenin Blanc (22 hectares – a drop from over 50 hectares in 2007)?

I didn’t, til last night, but after tasting a trio of very good Chenin Blancs from Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough at Regional Wines in Wellington, I am asking – again – why isn’t there more Chenin Blanc in New Zealand?

It’s affordable (no oak used so it’s not OTT in price to produce), it’s dry, it’s medium bodied and it’s interesting in flavour – so much more interesting than many of the safe wines on lists everywhere… don’t get me started.

Last night we tasted the tip of the experimental iceberg of New Zealand’s fast growing wine industry. It sounds like an interesting area but it’s a tiny one.

Big picture: New Zealand’s entire vineyard area is almost identical in size to the Champagne region in France – we have about 36,000 hectares of grapes compared to the Champagne region’s 34,000 hectares (latest available statistics online at NZ Winegrowers and the CIVC.

Given that over 24,000 of New Zealand’s 36,000 hectares are devoted to Sauvignon Blanc, it’s a tall order for winemakers to find a spot to plant anything else but a little Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris to supplement all the savvy… but, with over 1368 grapes in official commercial production worldwide, it is staggering to see such heavy reliance on one thing.

This is what inspired a couple of us to host the tasting last night at Regional Wines (which employs me as an independent wine consultant). So we tasted local Albarino (Alvarinho), Chenin Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Syrah and Verdelho. The wines ranged from $15.95 for the 2015 Aronui Albarino from Nelson (a hit, by the way – it was some people’s favourite) right up to $89.95 for the 2013 Elephant Hill Airavata Syrah from Hawke’s Bay (a wine to cellar rather than drink now because it’s such a monster red).

The three Chenin Blancs we tasted were:

2014 Astrolabe Chenin Blanc, Wrekin Vineyard, Marlborough

Marlborough winemaker Simon Waghorn may be saturated in a sea of outstanding quality Sauvignon Blanc, but he is a Chenin Blanc fan too and this is one of the country’s emerging styles to watch – now in its fifth (?) vintage… correct me, if I’m wrong. It’s fresh, lemony and dry as a bone. Delicious.

2013 Esk Valley Winemaker’s Reserve Chenin Blanc, Hawke’s Bay

Hawke’s Bay winemaker Gordon Russell does an outstanding job with this top tier Chenin – he also makes one for $20, which is lovely, but this is super concentrated, hence our pick of the trio.

2016 Maxim Chenin Blanc, Hawke’s Bay

Hawke’s Bay winemakers Darragh and Charlotte Hughes source a portion of their Chenin grapes for this wine from the Moteo Vineyard (the same location that Esk Valley Chenin comes from). This is stylistically very different, with ripe yellow fruit characters and firm acidity providing freshness. This wine was one of the most popular of the evening – and a great newcomer to the Kiwi wine scene.

The Chenin Blancs…

They all rocked in their freshness, their flavour and their diversity – overall consensus was that the star was the Esk Valley Chenin Blanc, which stood out for its incredible concentration of flavour. What types of flavours? Well, think green apples, clover honey, a hint of lemon here, a touch of oatmeal there and all held together by tight refreshing acidity that puts so many neutral white wines out there to shame.

I’m in love with Chenin Blanc. Have been ever since I had one of those mind blowing moments with one at a friend’s 40th a few moons ago. It’s one of those grapes that seems to take to New Zealand’s maritime climate like a duck to you know what…

Why isn’t there more?


PS: Top tips from our tasting…

Cellar buster…

Stash the 2013 Elephant Hill Airavata Syrah in your wine cellar

Weekend treat…

The 2013 Redbarrel Syrah from Hawke’s Bay is a sensational red for $29 from specialist stores. Love its depth of purple colour and wild deep fruit flavours and savouriness.

Find out more about our 2017 wine tasting programme here: regional wines.

Author: Joelle Thomson

I am a wine writer, author and educator... first bitten by a big buttery Chardonnay on a dark and stormy night in the 1980s and there was no turning back... Follow my tastings and join some too on this new site.

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