New Zealand Takes on Bordeaux

Gimblett Gravels reds hold their own in blind tasting
Sep 28, 2009

Twelve glasses of red wine sat before me on a warm Thursday morning this past week. The field included six New Zealand wines and six Bordeaux from recent vintages. The task: Guess which ones were from Bordeaux, which from New Zealand, and to rank them from 1 to 12.

I participated in the exercise last week in San Francisco along with eight other tasters, consisting of San Francisco sommeliers, a retailer and my Wine Spectator colleague MaryAnn Worobiec.

On my scorecard, I put two of Hawkes Bay’s finest ahead of Château Mouton-Rothschild 2006 and Vieux-Château-Certan 2006. The group also ranked New Zealand wines one-two, with Château L’Evangile 2005 tied for third.

Any way you look at it, the folks who make make wines from Merlot and Cabernet in New Zealand’s Gimblett Gravels district proved that they belong on the same table as those from big-name Bordeaux châteaus. The Kiwis did it the only legitimate way, in a blind tasting against the best.

It speaks well for the New Zealand wines that the arithmetic works in their favor, even if the voting was so close that rigorous statistical analysis basically makes it a 12-way tie. On the other hand, the Gimblett Gravels gang wasn’t exactly comparing their wines to chumps. Wine Spectator’s official ratings for the six Bordeaux in the tasting range from 94 to 100 points. What makes the results meaningful is that the NZ wines held their own in this crowd.

How well did we tasters do in identifying which was which? No one went 12 for 12, and only one taster got 10 right. I got eight. As a group, we got 10 right, although the voting on several wines was a close 5-4. Eight of us thought L’Evangile was a New Zealand wine but all of us correctly nailed Château Rauzan-Ségla 2005 as from Bordeaux. The wines were similar in structure, so I thought I would be able to tell them apart on flavor. But I found none of the vegetal character I usually associate with Hawkes Bay reds from Bordeaux varieties. I made my guesses based on tannins and texture, and a couple of the New Zealand wines fooled me with tannin profiles very much like the Bordeaux.

Gimblett Gravels is in Hawkes Bay, on New Zealand’s North Island. GG’s vineyards are planted on an old riverbed, exposed when an earthquake changed the river’s course in the 19th century. Steve Smith, Craggy Range’s founder, likes it because the river stones run several yards deep and they absorb heat. He says they raise the average temperature by about 4° F, enough to get Bordeaux varieties just a bit riper than the surrounding vineyards.

“It’s one of the few places in New Zealand that can successfully ripen Cabernet and Syrah to levels where we can put them on the table with wines from elsewhere,” said winemaker Rod Easthope.

I am not alone in considering Merlot and Cabernet marginal varieties for New Zealand because the prevailing cool climate makes it difficult to ripen them past the stage where they show green and vegetal flavors. Over the years, some of the most promising efforts in this category have come off the gravels, which run along Gimblett Road, hence the name.

Encouragingly, I didn’t find much vegetal character in this tasting. Clearly, the stones are doing their jobs.

One element working in New Zealand’s favor is price. The Bordeaux in this tasting ranged from $140 to $695 per bottle. The Kiwi reds sell for $45 to $85, but they are made in very small quantities, on the scale of hundreds of cases vs. thousands for the Bordeaux. Mouton made 15,800 cases of 2006, my top-rated Bordeaux in the tasting. The U.S. gets less than 100 cases each of most of these Kiwi efforts, although Craggy Range sends about 500 cases of Sophia, the Merlot-based wine that won the group’s top vote.

The U.S. only gets a few dozen cases of my top-rated wine, Sacred Hill Helmsman 2007, and so far none of Church Road Tom 2005, a product of Montana Wines, New Zealand’s biggest wine company. Montana sells its wines under the Brancott label here, but not Church Road.

Essentially, what we were tasting were special reserve bottlings selected from the best parcels. That’s enough to qualify as promising. To qualify as a real player, the Gimblett Gravels growers and wineries have to do better than a few hundred cases of a specific wine.

For the record, only one New Zealand wine in this tasting has been reviewed in Wine Spectator. Craggy Range Sophia 2005 got an 86-point rating in 2008. I rated it 87 points this time. Here are all my tasting notes:

Sacred Hill Helmsman 2007 ($45): Firm and gritty, lovely blackberry and perfume flavors at the core, lean, silky and elegant under the grit, hints of meat and spice on the very long and expressive finish. 53 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 42 percent Merlot. My score: 97; group rank: 3 (tie)
Church Road Tom 2005 ($85): Firm tannins, lean texture, pretty currant and cherry fruit persists on the finish as the tannins subside. Impressive for its balance and sweet elegance. 67 percent Merlot, 33 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. My score: 96; group rank: 2

Château Mouton-Rothschild Pauillac 2006 ($695):
Drying tannins, pencil-lead and mint overtones to ripe currant and blackberry flavors, deftly balanced on meaty finish as tannins absorb into the wine. Glorious stuff. 77 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. My score: 95; group rank: 11

Vieux-Château-Certan Pomerol 2006 ($175): Distinctive, complex, spicy meaty overtones to the currant and berry flavors, harmonious and deftly balanced. Fine tannins. Red berry comes up on the finish. Elegant. 60 percent Merlot, 30 percent Cabernet Franc. My score: 94; group rank: 9

Craggy Range Sophia 2007 ($50): Fine tannins, focused berry and earth flavors, hints of roasted red pepper in the background, herbal finish. Elegant and expressive. 75 percent Merlot. My score: 93; group rank: 1

Château Rauzan-Ségla Margaux 2005 ($140): Has a hard edge of tannins but ripe, generous, focused fruit underneath. Soft core but generous with currant and plum. 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39 percent Merlot. Finishes long. My score: 93; group rank: 10

Château Pavie St-Emilion 2006 ($200): Ripe and generous, beautifully focused nose, perfumed, smoky blackberry, boysenberry, very long and elegant. Has style and grace, backed with power. 60 percent Merlot. My score: 92; group rank: 7

Château L’Evangile Pomerol 2005 ($250): Very ripe profile, gritty tannins, soft center of currant and dried plum, not very alcoholic, however, tannins grip on the finish. 78 percent Merlot, 22 percent Cabernet Franc. My score: 91; group rank: 3 (tie)

Blake Family Vineyard Redd Gravels 2006 ($54): Tight, hard tannins. Smoky. Dark berry and currant fruit. Tough up front, but a lovely waft of fruit and tobacco carries through the finish. 84 percent Merlot, 16 percent Cabernet Franc. My score: 90; group rank: 5
Château Pontet-Canet 2005 ($190): Firm, and strongly herbal, with mint and sage over dark berry, fading slightly on the finish, but very nice. 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. My score: 89; group rank: 8

Trinity Hill The Gimblett 2006 ($30): Earthy tobacco flavors, tight structure, gritty tannins. Picks up some nice blackberry and tangy herb notes and lingers gently. Not big, but nicely focused. 51 percent Merlot. My score: 88; group rank: 12

Craggy Range Sophia 2005 ($50): Gritty tannins, tough texture, smoky and earthy more than fruity. Finishes with some intensity but it can’t quite push through the texture. 81 percent Merlot. My score: 87; group rank: 6

France Bordeaux New Zealand

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