The 7.1 earthquake that struck Christchurch on Saturday 4 September was merciful in sparing lives. The hammer blow was as much to the psyche of this charming rural city on New Zealand's South Island as the substantial damage caused to roads and buildings. Yet while earthquakes and hobbits (The Hobbit is to be filmed there) are still hot news, the parlous state of New Zealand's wine industry was the first topic my taxi driver mentioned, when I arrived this month as a guest of the Great Wine Capitals Global Network. "The wine industry's in deep trouble," were cabbie Rob McKee's words.
Surely not, I hear you ask. The only country with an average retail bottle price of close to £6 in the UK, is New Zealand. And is not Marlborough sauvignon blanc the Success Story of the decade? Well, yes and no. Like other rapid achievers, the temptation to cash in has been irresistible. After investors threw money at vineyards looking to make a quick Kiwi dollar, along came a bloated, indifferent vintage in 2008. The fallout has been a glut with tumbling wine prices, vineyard land prices slashed and a hundred-odd vineyards for sale.
New Zealanders, however, are nothing if not resilient, as post-earthquake reconstruction shows, with 100,000 quake claims being processed and damaged infrastructure restored. When overtures were first made to Christchurch to join the Great Wine Capitals Global Network as the gateway to South Island's wine tourism, progress was slow. The earthquake was the catalyst that galvanised the wine industry to get behind the idea and join in hosting a wine conference – New Zealand Wine 2010. What struck you there was how confidently the wine industry is re-building itself. From a one-trick sauvignon blanc pony, a broader palette of grapes matched to the right location is emerging and superb wines resulting.
Marlborough is still number one for sauvignon blanc as wines such as the aromatic 2009 Yealands Estate Clearwater Cove Sauvignon Blanc, £9.99, Sainsbury's, attest, an aromatic white whose green-pepper aromas are underpinned by gooseberry-fool flavours. To Hawkes Bay's reputation for Bordeaux varieties, some impressive syrahs are being added. Craggy Range's 2008 Gimblett Gravels Syrah, £17.99, waitrosewinedirect, displays a fine peppery fragrance, its opulent red-fruit flavours infused with northern Rhône-like spice characters. Aromatic whites such as pinot gris are up-and-coming in regions such as Nelson, where Neudorf's 2009 Maggie's Block Pinot Gris, £16.99, Amps Fine Wines (01832 273502), shows an aromatic fresh pear and quince character.
The region making the biggest waves for pinot noir is Central Otago, although Martinborough, Marlborough and Canterbury are in pursuit. This beautiful southern region comprises a number of sub-regions each contributing different characters to a style that's more reliable and readily lovable than red burgundy, if not yet quite as complex at the highest level. There are too many great wines not to return to the subject in more detail, but for a well-priced typical example, there's nothing not to like in the raspberry juiciness of the 2008 Stockman's Station Pinot Noir, £10.49, Tesco, or the perfumed 2008 Rockburn Pinot Noir 2008, £17.99, Laithwaites. For more on New Zealand and the Great Wine Capitals Global Network, see anthonyrosewine.com