Britain’s most popular wine writer, irreverent Irishman Oz Clarke, led a group of San Francisco area writers and buyers including Matt Kramer, Dan Berger, Leslie Sbrocco, Richard Jennings, Rebecca Chapa, Wilfred Wong and more through an entertaining tasting of New Zealand wines this past January.
Oz Clarke, one of my favorites for his down-to-earth quotes, like “Gewurztraminer smells like the Nivea hand cream in my mum’s boudoir,” and, “Some wines ask a question, some wines answer a question,” was electric, engaging and the best presenter I have seen in a long, long time. Perhaps his time as a West End actor comes into play, a gig he quit after nailing a wine blind on live TV on a dare. His deep vein of passion for the world of wine, impressive depth of firsthand knowledge of vineyards and producers, and his knack for entertaining play together perfectly.
“You are absolutely caught at the bottom of the world,” he said, describing the natural beauty and isolation of New Zealand. “There is nothing between New Zealand and the Artic, and you are surrounded by cool seas.” New Zealand is made up of two islands, North Island, home to commercial wine hub Auckland as well as Hawkes Bay and Martinborough, and South Island, famous the world round for it’s wine producing gem, Marlborough. Martinborough on North Island gets cold cyclonic winds from Australia, while blocking these winds from Marlborough just across the bay. The southwest coast of South Island is dismally wet and windy, “the Greymouth damps” they call it. The Southern Alps however provide a rain shadow, so southeastern South Island, home to Pinot Noir producing Central Otago, and northeastern Marlborough, known for it’s “cloudburst, thrilling, shocking, lime zest, capsicum, love me or leave me” style of Sauvignon Blanc, according to Mr. Clarke, while on the margins still produce great wines. Clarke adds, “All great wines come from the margins,” giving Pauillac & St. Estephe in Bordeaux and Gevrey-Chambertin in Burgundy as examples.
The Sauvignon Blancs tasted, including Seifried, Ata Rangi, Nautilus and Cloudy Bay Tekoko, showed their signature vein of grassiness under a tropical fruit bowl, a style “invented” by Cloudy Bay winemaker Kevin Judd, who blended peppery stinging early pick with riper middle and tropical late picks of fruit.
While “Australia is giving us a raft of savory Chardonnay,” according to Clarke, the Chardonnays we tasted from New Zealand showed opulence while retaining crispness and brightness. Aromatic, almost feral Pinot Gris, apple pie Riesling, spice cake Gewurztraminer and fruit cocktail Viognier wines were poured, followed by flights of unique, minty , peppery and floral Syrah and classic red-berry and red-rose petal Pinot Noir. Clarke informed us that “New Zealand has thrown the gauntlet down with Pinot Noir.” He added, “The molecular structure of Pinot Noir is similar to the male sex hormone Pheromone.”
Soon-to-be proud papa Clarke was presented with a SF Giants onesie to take home to London.
Check out our expert reviews of New Zealand wines here: