If it wasn't for people like us playing with new varietals, we'd still be drinking Muller-Thurgau," said Trinity Hill's John Hancock when recently accepting a major award for his tempranillo. A scary scenario indeed, but one that could easily have existed, were it not for the spirit of experimentation that has driven our modern wine industry's pioneers to find varieties capable of making far more thrilling wines and which is driving the recent resurgence of varietal adventure.
The discovery that New Zealand's sauvignon blanc was so unique put us on the world's wine map. However, with sauvignon blanc accounting for more than 80 per cent of our wine exports last year, we've come to rely on a single variety like no other wine-producing nation, sparking fears we could have put all our grapes in one basket.
Sauvignon's huge success over the past decade gave producers little incentive to try new varieties, reflected in the recent relative lack of diversity in our vineyards. We certainly lag behind Australia, which has arguably been forced to find new points of difference due to dwindling market for cheap chardonnay. It has also been assisted by a government-funded quarantine system that imports the country's new vines and a climate that is more conducive to ripening a wider range of grapes than our chillier isles.
Thankfully recent years have seen a small but growing band of winegrowers, led by the likes of Herzog, Trinity Hill, Cooper's Creek and Forrest Estate, that have dared to be different in planting and promoting new and lesser known varieties.
"The challenge for us is to get the typical varietal character out of every grape variety and to produce a wine which can stand proudly with the best of that variety grown at their original region," explains Therese Herzog, who has been working with less mainstream grapes since the mid-90s.
"There are thousands of different vinifera cultivars (winegrape varieties) and to concentrate on just a few of those is shortsighted," claims Coopers Creek's Simon Nunns. "New Zealand is a young winegrowing nation and we are still a long way from knowing what varieties will work here and what won't. The only way we will find out what works best is to keep experimenting."
A few years back, pinot gris was the grape that the country went crazy for. Syrah too, and to a lesser extent viognier, also started to gain ground. However, now a whole new fruit bowl of varieties is coming on stream, from reds such as the Spanish variety tempranillo that Trinity Hill has been doing so well with, to an expanding array of white aromatics, a category of grapes with which the country has already been seen to excel.
One future hero could be albarino, a trendy Spanish white that's just starting to be planted in New Zealand. And already bearing fruit and creating a stir with the quality and character of its inaugural Kiwi examples is Austria's major white variety, gruner veltliner.
"I'm confident that gruner is Marlborough's next great grape," maintains Forrest Estate's John Forrest. "It's got the variety's aromatic intensity and has a great texture. I think we can blow away the Austrians and become the gruner capital of the world!"
Seeing just what kind of wine a variety new to the country can create makes this exciting territory, with history suggesting that New Zealand tends to turn up the intensity dial on a variety's aromatics, fruit and freshness.
But it's not without its risks.
For Riversun nursery, which has been importing many of the new varieties, it costs $20,000 to $30,000 to bring a new vine into the country and get it ready for growers to plant, with many failing in the nursery and not even making it that far.
Then when they're in the industry, growers take the chance that the vines won't be suited to their sites. And even if they are, there's no guarantee consumers will be tempted to try new names, especially if they're difficult to pronounce.
Only time will tell if there are any challengers to sauvignon blanc's crown. But what is clear is that sauvignon took off in such a big way because it was already a well known variety growing in popularity across the world. If it turns out we can make world-beating mtsvane, it's not going to be an obscure Georgian variety that will set the world on fire in the same way as our sauvignon.
The Doctor's Marlborough Gruner Veltliner 2010 $27-$29
Combining the spicy element of pinot gris with the freshness of riesling, this impressive inaugural release from Forrest Estate has hints of the variety's classic white pepper character joined by notes of jasmine, while its notes of fleshy stone fruit and apple are counterpoised by crisp citrus. (From Glengarry, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Primo Vino, Caro's, La Barrique, Liquorland Forrest Hill and other fine wine stores.)
Also worth trying: Seifreid, Cooper's Creek, Waimea, Jules Taylor.
Brancott Estate Letter Series "R" Renwick Marlborough Sauvignon Gris 2010 $33.95
Our largest wine company Pernod Ricard is really getting behind this relatively obscure Bordeaux native that's a mutation of sauvignon blanc. Less aromatic than its pungent parent, the fruit profile of this rich, mouth-filling sauvignon gris is more nectarine and blackcurrant than passionfruit, with hints of capsicum, dusty spice and flint. (From fine wine stores.)
Blackenbrook Vineyard Nelson Muscat 2010 $23
Muscat, which makes styles ranging from fortified to fizzy, has been lurking in our vineyards for some time. However, it's yet to hit the big time, which is a shame when you try a seriously good specimen like this. The spice and florals on its lightly aromatic nose lead into a sleek, still and subtly sweet wine in which pure peach fruit is cut with a cleansing note of lemon bitters. (From Caro's.)
Also worth trying: Millton, Soljans (sparkling).
Clevedon Hills Clevedon Arneis 2009 $25-$29
"Little rascal" is the literal translation of arneis, given it's a tricky so-and-so to grow. Nevertheless, this white Northern Italian grape has been embraced by a growing number of wineries in recent years, with Clevedon Hills ahead of the pack, planting it in 1998. This appealing expression exhibits the variety's viscosity, along with notes of pear and stonefruit, hints of hazelnut and a firm citrus and anise edge. (From Fine Wine Delivery Company, Wine and More, Acorns, Ciao Bella.)
Also worth trying: Cooper's Creek, Forrest Estate, Matawhero, Trinity Hill.
Gibbston Valley Central Otago Pinot Blanc 2009 $26
Found across Europe, with small outcrops in the New World, soft and fruity pinot blanc is a white mutation of the black grape, pinot noir. Though only a handful of people work with it here, all produce attractive examples. Gibbston Valley is one of the more complex and concentrated of these, in which stonefruit, citrus and mineral are supported by a savoury and toasty oak influence. (From Glengarry.)
Also worth trying: Pyramid Valley, Greenhough, Mt Rosa.
TW "Art series" Gisborne Verdelho 2010 $25
Given the great verdelhos coming from the Esk Valley stable, it's surprising that more wineries haven't given this zesty variety a go. TW has just produced its first promising version, with fleshy peach and vibrant lemon and lime fruit infused with a hint of chamomile. (From Blend Wine Store.)
Also worth trying: Esk Valley, Villa Maria.
Brown Brothers Victoria Cienna 2009 $15.99.
Brown Brothers have been at the forefront of establishing virgin varieties in Australia, and you can't get much newer than cienna, a variety only recently created from crossing the Spanish grape, sumoll, with cabernet sauvignon. It's a fun and fruity red, full of sweet, soft raspberry and cherry fruit, a subtle herbal accent and slight spritz. At just 6.5 per cent alcohol and chilled it makes a great summer drink. (From supermarkets.)
Spade Oak Vineyard Heart of Gold Single Vineyard Gisborne St Laurent 2009 $26-$30
St Laurent is almost exclusively seen in Austria, where it makes velvety, scented red wines. This Gisborne debut, from the personal label of veteran Gisborne winemaker Steve Voysey, is a bright, fresh and aromatic example with cinnamon and pepper spice and notes of mineral and chocolate over silky textured cherry fruit. (From Gisborne Liquorland, spadeoak.co.nz.)
Also worth trying: Judge Rock.
Hawkes Ridge Wine Estate Hawkes Bay Tempranillo 2008 $29
This expression of Spain's great red grape is made in a full-on fruit driven New World style with lots of toasty oak over juicy dark berry fruit and a spicy savoury core. (From Glengarry, Advintage, Bacchus, Bellatino's, Bethlehem Wines & Spirits, Duffy and Finn's Hastings, Gambino's.)
Also worth trying: Trinity Hill, Black Barn.
Heron's Flight Il Rosso Matakana Sangiovese 2008 $31.95
Italy's sangiovese seems one of the harder varieties to crack on foreign soils, but Italian specialists Heron's Flight make some of the country's most successful and are convinced Italian varieties may suit New Zealand's conditions better than the French ones that currently dominate. Their "chianti style" sangiovese has ripe, fresh and lifted raspberry and briar fruit over a gently earthy spicy base. (From Liquorland Albert St or Palmerston North, Caro's.)
Also worth trying: Black Barn.
Black Barn Vineyards Hawke's Bay Montepulciano 2009 $48
Another Italian native that's behind some supple, gutsy reds in its homeland and increasingly engaging examples from the few producers making it here. This is serious stuff with its powerful dense plum fruit and nuances of prune, laced with spice, savoury notes and mineral, and lifted by fresh undercurrents and violet aromatics. (From Fine Wine Delivery Company, Glengarry.)
Also worth trying: Trinity Hill, Weeping Sands, Blackenbrook.
Hitchen Road Waikato Dolcetto 2009 $15-$19.99
A well-priced introduction to the easy drinking delights of Italy's "little sweet one". There's plenty of smooth mulberry and blackberry fruit, as well as notes of violet and liquorice, in this light, juicy example. (From Artisan Fine Wines, hitchen.co.nz.)
Also worth trying: Heron's Flight.