If you’ve ever dined at Vue De Monde, Estelle, or St Crispin, chances are you’ve chosen from a wine list curated by Ben Skipper. One of Melbourne’s most experienced sommeliers, you can currently find Skipper overseeing the drinks list at Lagoon Dining. Despite his oversize imprint on the city’s wine scene, Skipper’s greatest influence lies over the sea in New Zealand.
“I guess it’s kind of my birthright,” says Skipper. “I’ve lived in Melbourne on and off for twenty years, but I grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand.” It means the expert somm knows the ins and outs of New Zealand’s wine regions better than most, and you’ll often find NZ wines dotted through his drink’s lists. So we asked Skipper to take us on a tour of his homeland’s wine styles, regions, and explain what makes them so good.
Starting at the top
Skipper begins towards the top of the North Island with Auckland and Waiheke. “Waiheke’s kind of the start. I’s the kick off point of New Zealand for me,” he says. “It’s super picturesque, super dry, but also very maritime because it’s an Island.”
For Waiheke, think Bordeaux-style wines - cabernet sauvignon blends, and aromatic whites like viognier. You’ll also find merlot, chardonnay and syrah grown widely across the maritime climate of the huge Auckland growing region.
Further south we head to warmer climes in the Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay regions, which Skipper describes as, “coastal and sun-drenched,” offering a climate perfect for growing chardonnay, merlot and syrah. “Hawke’s Bay is really large and coastal but super sunny,” he says. “It used to be all orchards when I was growing up in New Zealand, but a lot of it has been replanted to grapes. It’s really sunny and well sheltered with lots of rivers.” Hawke’s Bay is also the source of grapes for local labels like State of Light, which showcases the region’s sun-dappled fresh fruit in its rosé and pinot gris.
At the bottom of the North Island lies the Wellington region, encompassing the pocket of Martinborough. It produces some serious pinot noir, owing to its similar soil and climate to France’s Burgundy, the style’s historical home. “It has the perfect climate and perfect soils for growing those Burgundy-style grapes,” says Skipper. “There’s a lot of old volcanic rock throughout Martinborough, and it just lends itself really well to growing Pinot Noir.”
Marlborough and beyond
The top of the South Island is home to NZ’s famous Marlborough region. “The big dog, as I like to call it,” says Skipper. The region is known mostly for its super-aromatic sauvignon blanc – see State of Light’s low ABV expression of the drop for one of the latest examples – the result of a lush landscape and cool-yet-sunny climate. “Everyone went crazy for it because it’s so intense,” says Skipper. “ It somehow translates all that sun and green into the bottle.” Marlborough also does pinot noir, chardonnay and is one of New Zealand’s biggest regions for producing sparkling wine.
West and central
To the west is Nelson, which Skipper describes as, “Very cool and pretty old school. Lots of sunshine, plains and slightly warmer than Marlborough.” The wine’s grown in Nelson tend to favour chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot gris. Finally we have Central Otago. “They’ve got the advantage of the continental climate,” says Skipper. “Most people would think it’s super cold there, but in reality it’s perfect for growing. They have really long, warm summers and cold winters - the perfect climate for growing grapes.” The region is best known for its lush, fruity pinot noir owing to that continental climate, but you’ll also find plenty of chardonnay.
As for those different styles, Skipper has a few insights about why they work so well.
“These wines are really intense and herbaceous with lots of fruit just jumping out of the glass,” says Skipper. “The general Sauvignon Blanc across New Zealand is very fruit-rich and intense. It’s so definable. Putting it next to an Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc, [the Australian version] would have the same character, but it’s not so intense.” While most of the typical, fruit-forward sauvignon blanc comes from the cool climate of Marlborough, you can definitely find some examples from warmer regions in Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne. “They tend to be a little softer,” says Skipper
A style of wine rather than a grape itself, rosé is the result of red wine grapes contributing a small amount of their skin colour to a wine, giving a pale blush to the finished product. As any red grape can make a rosé, the style can come from any grape variety in any region, but a few tend to feature more than others. “Pinot noir wouldn’t normally be made into a rosé as much as other varieties, because you can get more money from producing the dry red,” says Skipper. “So you do tend to have more kooky styles - blends and syrah rosé, merlot and cabernet up north”.
“It’s so on trend at the moment in New Zealand,” says Skipper. “Those wines that are produced a little riper tend to have been left a little bit later to pick. Lots of that very moreish fruit, very classic in terms of the Gris style.” Flavour-wise you’re going to find, “a lot of pear, a bit of apple and maybe some nectarine. It’s intensely aromatic. Really floral, flavoursome and easy to drink. Very generous in terms of the fruit.”
“As general rule most New Zealand Pinot Noir that doesn’t come from Waipara or Otago is quite fruited,” says says Skipper. It has lots of really pretty red fruits; strawberries, cranberries. Really easy to understand and drink. When you get into Martinborough and more serious Canterbury and Otago styles, they become a little more savoury and they add more oak to the wines, which adds complexity.”
Most NZ Chardonnay comes from Auckland, Gisborne, the regions surrounding Christchurch, and a little in Central Otago. “Depending on where you are,” says Skipper, “most of it does see oak and malo-lactic [fermentation] - that creamy, buttery flavour. It tends to be more creamy, riper and a little richer in style [than in Australia].”
What the French call shiraz, Hawke’s Bay is the region you’ll find syrah – but don’t expect Barossa-style shiraz here. “It’s got a really specific kind of freshly cracked pepper aroma - it’s really fragrant on the nose, really ripe on the palate,” says Skipper. “It’s a bit more crunchy, but not as ripe as Australian shirazes.”
Lower ABV (Alcohol By Volume)
The trend of low ABV wines has gained a foothold in New Zealand in recent years, thanks in part to the fertile agricultural soils of the nation’s microclimates allowing winemakers a breadth of styles to choose from. One example is the State of Light range of rosé and pinot gris crafted to showcase Hawke’s Bay, and a sauvignon blanc from the Marlborough region, coming in at just 7% abv.
“New Zealand has the ability to produce a varied style of wine because of its endearing climate,” says Skipper. “Some hillsides around zones such as Marlborough and Gisborne in particular have the ability to give great hang time to the fruit, allowing some winemakers to pick late and ferment at lower alcohol, which is a Germanic style, or harvest botrytised fruit and make classy sweet styles.” Some winemakers like State of Light use distillation to bring the alcohol content of its premium wine down using a spinning cone, preserving the delicate flavours and aromas, then blend it with full strength wine. “There is no real style to these that’s benchmarked,” says Skipper, “but the areas mentioned always have the option of making products with varying degrees of alcohol.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with State of Light. Browse the State of Light range today.