Wine Cellaring

Moana Park, a Hawke’s Bay producer, in 2015 launched a Sauvignon Blanc on 1 April that had been picked in early March. When sent a press release about this, some wine writers suspected an April Fool’s Day prank.

Sauvignon Blanc, which accounts for about two-thirds of 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.’

To celebrate a 20th anniversary, two years ago I opened Te Mata Coleraine 1994. From a good but not great year for reds in Hawke’s Bay, I was taken aback by how well it had matured and how much pleasure it offered. Tasted in August 2016, Grasshopper Rock Central Otago Pinot Noir 2006 (the first vintage of this trophy-winning, single-vineyard Alexandra red) is still full of life – deliciously rich, complex, savoury and smooth.

Today, most wine in New Zealand is consumed on the day it is bought and just 1 per cent is cellared for more than a year. Fortunately, some wine producers are doing the job for us. At Mazuran’s Vineyards, in Henderson, West Auckland, you can still purchase their 1942 Vintage Madeira Port, 1943 Royal Vintage Port and vintage ‘ports’ from every year since – a great gift for special birthdays.

But if you are keen to build up a cellar of distinguished Chardonnays, Rieslings, Pinot Noirs 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 six 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.

Pinot Noirs, Merlots and Syrahs typically drink well for up to 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.

Cellaring Guidelines

Grape variety Best age to open
Sauvignon Blanc
(non-wooded) 6 months–24 months
(wooded) 1–3 years
Arneis 1–3 years
Albariño 1–4 years
Gewürztraminer 1–4 years
Grüner Veltliner 1–4 years
Viognier 1–4 years
Pinot Gris 1–4 years
Sémillon 1–4 years
Chenin Blanc 2–5 years
Chardonnay 2–5 years
Riesling 2–7+ years
Pinotage 1–3 years
Malbec 1–5 years
Cabernet Franc 2–5 years
Merlot 2–5+ years
Pinot Noir 2–5+ years
Syrah 2–5+ years
Cabernet Sauvignon 3–7+ years
Cabernet/Merlot 3–7+ years
Sweet whites 2–5 years
Bottle-fermented sparklings (vintage dated) 3–5+ years