Most wine in New Zealand is young and consumed on the day it is bought. Some small producers, such as Puriri Hills and Hans Herzog, regularly offer bottle-aged vintages for sale, but around the country, barely 1 per cent of the wine we buy is cellared for even a year.
So it’s great news that more and more wineries are releasing or re-releasing mature, bottle-aged wines, up to a decade old, including Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, Chardonnays, Rieslings – even barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blancs. Age has not wearied most of these beauties, proving the country’s finest wines can mature well for a decade or longer.
Sauvignon Blanc, which accounts for over 70 per cent by volume of all New Zealand wine, is not usually seen as a variety that needs time to develop. Only a decade ago, Marlborough winemakers often stated that the region’s Sauvignon Blanc ‘should be picked, pressed and pissed by Christmas’.
Today, most Sauvignon Blancs develop soundly for a couple of years, but the popularity of New Zealand Pinot Noir has done far more to persuade consumers around the world that this country’s wine can mature gracefully – as it must, if New Zealand is to be accepted as a serious wine producer.
‘To gain true international recognition, an industry has to be capable of making wines that improve with age – that’s the ultimate quality factor,’ stresses John Buck, co-founder of Te Mata Estate, acclaimed for its long-lived Hawke’s Bay Cabernet/Merlots. ‘People need to be able to put wine into their cellars with confidence and know that when they pull them out they will be a damn sight better than when they put them in.’
But do all winemakers share that view? Geoff Kelly, a Wellington-based critic, believes too much emphasis is placed on young wines in New Zealand, partly because many wine judges are winemakers. ‘Generalising, winemakers . . . speak most highly of fresh and fruity smells and flavours in wine. How else can they sell their young wines? Consequently, it is quite rare to find New Zealand winemakers who really enjoy old wines or attend tastings of them.’
If you are keen to build up a cellar of distinguished Chardonnays, Rieslings, Pinot Noirs, Syrahs or Cabernet/Merlots, how do you decide what to buy? Confidence comes from ‘vertical’ tastings, where several vintages of a wine are tasted side by side. Vertical tastings, staged more and more frequently in New Zealand, let you assess the overall quality of a wine, the evolution of its style, the impact of vintage variation and its maturation potential.
To sum up, I suggest drinking most New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs at nine months to two years old. Screwcaps preserve the wines’ freshness markedly better than corks did. Most fine-quality Chardonnays are at their best at two to five years old; top Rieslings at three to seven years old.
Middle-tier Pinot Noirs, Merlots and Syrahs typically drink well for five years; outstanding examples can flourish for much longer. New Zealand’s top Cabernet/Merlot blends from Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke Island are still the safest bet for long-term cellaring over decades.
|Grape variety||Best age to open|
|(non-wooded)||6 months–24 months|
|Grüner Veltliner||1–4 years|
|Pinot Gris||1–4 years|
|Chenin Blanc||2–5 years|
|Cabernet Franc||2–5 years|
|Pinot Noir||2–5+ years|
|Cabernet Sauvignon||3–7+ years|
|Sweet whites||2–5 years|
|Bottle-fermented sparklings (vintage dated)||3–5+ years|