New Zealand's Sweet Nothings

POSTED ON 17/01/2010

It was all going so well. New Zealand wine was up 30% last year (to October) with an average bottle price of £6.25 compared to the next country, France, with £4.82, and whoa!, at the bottom of the Big 10 pile, South Africa at £3.84. Just before this year’s annual New Zealand tasting came the announcement of a raft of New Zealand sweet wines for tasting. These were only admitted to the UK on 14 December after the European Union had banned them for having more than 15% potential alcohol.

The idea that New World sweet wines should be banned for that reason is of course a fiction based purely on their potential for being over the 15% limit because all that sugar might be converted into alcohol. But it isn’t. That’s why the wines are sweet. So it’s purely a commercial device aimed at preventing New Zealand’s sweet wines from competing with their European counterparts. And compete they will because not only are they mostly better value than their overpriced European counterparts but in many instances they are better quality too.

netted vines in Marlboroughnetted vines in Marlborough

This emerged quite clearly from the selection of sweet wines put on by New Zealand wines at the annual Lords tasting on 12 January. Many of them were absolutely stunning examples of liquid seduction in a bottle. In terms of style, the winner by some distance was riesling, which fell into the two camps of sweet, late-picked at around 100 grams of residual sugar and lusciously rich, botrytised noble riesling, reaching well over 200 grams per litre in some cases. Along with Escarpment’s Late Harvest Hinemoa Riesling, Pegasus Bay’s 2008 Late Picked and Encore Noble Riesling were both lovely. The best examples of the ‘noble’ style came from Palliser Estate, Craggy Range, Framingham, John Forrest and Seifried.

Craggy RangeCraggy Range

It wasn’t all about riesling though. There was a fine Sauternes-like 2007 Noble Semillon from Pegasus Bay, an unusual late harvest 2008 Golden Harvest chardonnay from Sherwood and a stonking, who-would-have-guessed-it, müller-thurgau-based 2008 Schubert Dolce, whose sugar levels must have been so elevated that they didn’t register in the catalogue.

With the exception, as far as I could gather, of the 2008 Seifried Estate Winemakers Collection Sweet Agnes Dessert Wine (see note below), none of these wines are actually available in the UK yet because it’s too early days, so the New Zealand annual tasting was a useful dipping of the toe in the water for them. Some have dipped more than a toe in the water and should be arriving in March, so it shouldn’t be long before we start to see them in small independent wine merchants and perhaps even the likes of Majestic and Waitrose.

Marlborough vineyardsMarlborough vineyards

You’ve been waiting for the catch though and here it is. Some of these wines are so rich in sugar that they’re only around 7.5%, in other words the level of many a gorgeous Mosel beerenauslese or trockenbeerenauslese. The problem is, wait for it, that as a result they are not allowed to be shipped to the UK not because they are too high in potential alcohol, but because they are TOO LOW IN ACTUAL ALCOHOL.

Although the rules were changed to allow sweet wines to be shipped to the EU, the alcohol by volume was capped at 8.5%, so anything below that is illegal. Work that one out if you can. David Cox, European director of New Zealand Winegrowers is challenging this bureaucratic red tape with the equivalent of The Food Standards Board in New Zealand with a view to getting the rule relaxed. Let’s hope that the EU sees sense, and very soon, because to deny New Zealand the chance to sell these wines in the UK, and our consumers the opportunity to buy them, is an injustice worthy of an umpire Daryl Harper review.

Tasting Note for the 2008 Seifried Winemakers Collection Sweet Agnes Dessert Wine

The 2008 Seifried Winemakers Collection Sweet Agnes Dessert Wine is yellow gold with rich sweet flavours of apricot, peach and nectarine and it’s incredibly juicy with a spine of acidity. It’s named after Agnes Seifried, who started Seifried Estate with her husband Hermann in the Moutere Valley in 1973. Sweet Agnes is made à la ice wine, using hand harvested riesling grapes from Brightwater and Redwood Valley vineyards. The grapes are frozen on trays for several days following harvest, then pressed when still frozen, the fermentation lasting for some two and a half weeks. It’s currently £19.99, at (£13.99 with discount) and expected to sell in Waitrose and Laithwaites in late February / early march at around £14.99.

Hawkes BayHawkes Bay

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