July 29, 2020

The Wine of Celebration

Sipping on a glass of sparkling wine is a reason to celebrate, to toast an occasion or acknowledge a great friend or event. Whatever the reason one thing is for certain – we are spoiled for choice.

Budget, packaging and occasion will nearly always drive the purchase decision so at all price points sparkling can appeal. Cheap does not necessarily mean low quality, but it does mean a more simply made wine can be expected. The converse also applies – a more expensive product does not guarantee high quality, but it can mean more steps involved in its production and with it comes complexity and often a wine deliberately made to age and develop character as it does. 

Pet Nat or Petillant Natural sparkling wines are made by bottling a wine as it ferments, often a single variety expression. The carbon dioxide produced through the ferment is trapped and dissolves into the juice inside the bottle it is sold in. The taster can enjoy both a wine with some bubbly action as well as a yeasty, ginger spice and fruity type product. Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are often used in NZ for this style. Look for the crown seal closing the bottle and be sure your customer knows what they are purchasing.

This Pet Nat style of production has similarities to the champagne method in that a bottle ferment step is involved, however for champagne separate batches of finished wine are blended to create a style then refermented in bottle, aged and the yeast residues removed before a cork is forced in and wired down. These wines have significantly more time for production, complexities in the finished product and therefore carry a higher price tag. Brand recognition for these wines are critical to the purchase decision. Champagnes Bollinger, Ruinart and Coutet are classic examples (among many). From 1941 the French have protected the label terms ‘Methode Champenoise’ & ‘Champagne’ with trade-marking worldwide and this is why we cannot call any sparkling wine Champagne, even though many of our customers do.

Local versions of Champagne called Methode Traditionnelle are of equal quality to champagne in many instances, but it is brand recognition that presents the biggest challenge to both customers and retailers. The price paid for these wines can be a lot less than their Champagne counterparts as well so the quality for price question can be part of the purchase decision. This is when staff training, knowledge and sales skills should be engaged to educate a customer into the correct purchase decision. NO1 Family Estate, Quartz Reef, Hunter’s, Forrest and Huia are among some of the best NZ expressions of this style of sparkling wine.

Another sparkling wine process that is widely used is a bulk production system that completes the second ferment and bubble creation in large steel tanks. These wines require less ageing, less labor and process steps saving a lot of cost. The wine sells for a lot less than traditional method wines. The easy way to tell the difference is to read the label and if you cannot find any traditional terms then it is a cheaper made product. 

The simplest and cheapest way to make a sparkling wine is to pump CO2 gas directly into the wine. These wines are usually a little (or a lot) sweeter, low in alcohol and the retail price reflects the production system used. Fun and for used for all sorts of occasions and event these wines can deliver a very enjoyable drink.

Winters can be harsh and cold, while Summers can be quite warm and very sunny. Most vineyards are at elevation meaning well above sea-level starting at around 120 metres. Average rainfall is low, and many vineyards require irrigation. Frost remains the biggest threat to viticulture.

From what seems like an unforgiving landscape and climate the overall quality of wine produced in this region is in fact very high. Care and attention in the vineyards and wineries speak a lot to the successes of the region.

The landscape is dramatic, with the southern alps towering above, giant shards of schist punch through the valley floor around the Gibbston Valley, Bannockburn and Bendigo; pink and white quartz, pebbles, loams and loose schist litter the landscape, and glacial activity over several millennia have carved out valleys and exposed a variety of soils.

Central Otago is perhaps best known for Pinot Noir then Riesling. Sadly, not enough Chardonnay is planted, it is an exciting variety for the region. Site and soil play a big role with sub-regional differences noticeable in the glass. Flavors of dark cherry and plum, undergrowth, schist and mineral dominate, with a distinctive dried herb feature (Central Otago landscape has a lot of wild thyme growing).

Some of the best Riesling in New Zealand can be is produced in Central Otago, with dry to off-dry expressions often of very high quality. Pinot Gris is also very successful with over 200 hectares planted. Gamay and Chenin Blanc are varieties to watch out for. Orange wine, Natural wine and Certified Bio-gro sites are on the increase. The whole region is evolving and maturing.

Wines tasted this month reflect this sense of focus and maturity as well as highlighting the importance of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to the region.