Kiwis' fondness for sweetness bad news for decent wines
The late British jazz musician and writer George Melly once opined that in the field of music, good taste and popular taste only aligned twice in the 20th century. The first was the swing era of the 1940s (Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington et al), the other was the British pop scene of the 1960s (with The Beatles leading the way).
Looking at New Zealand wine consumption, a solid argument could be made that popular taste has had little to do with good taste for the past 50 years. The reason for that is our fondness for sweetness.
We like to think that craving the next sugar fix is an American thing, but we're actually not that far behind. The obesity stats say as much. Our beer has traditionally leaned toward sweetness. With wine, for decades now New Zealanders have lapped up a series of go-to drops offering little but dollops of sweetness.
In the 1950s and 1960s, they were fortified wines and cream sherries, styles that were the mainstays of the local wine industry. In the 1970s we liked to think we'd moved to table wine but how sweet was that muller thurgau? Oaky, overcooked, honeypuff-like chardonnays were the vins du jour of the 1980s and 1990s. New Zealand sauvignon blanc has almost never been fermented dry and in the early years of the new millennium its sweetness levels began creeping up to the alarm of a number of critics. That's less of an issue now as the new giver of sweet nothings has become pinot gris.
Most of the pinot gris we produce (and it's up there with chardonnay in terms of volume) is made in a light, soft, undemonstrative style where residual sugar plays a key role. And most is consumed locally.
I can think of very few producers who proudly trumpet the quality of their pinot gris. No-one produces a single vineyard example. In terms of critical acclaim, it is the variety with the lowest ratio of gold medals per entries in wine shows. It is produced because it sells.
There's nothing wrong with that. Where popular taste goes, commerce follows. But in this case, depth, quality and excitement are certainly not along for the ride.
What has changed is choice. We now have a spectrum of wine styles available, many of which are not vessels for sweetness, though these often struggle to gain popularity. A dry riesling, anyone?
Nautilus Chardonnay 2014, $36
Citrus, mealy richness and spice, a touch of flint… this is a lifted, balanced chardonnay of real class.
Maude Pinot Noir 2014, $36
One of many attractive 2014 pinots coming out of Central, this has wonderful ripe dark fruit, underscored by brown tea and mineral notes, and trussed in firm tannins.