The World Is Your Oyster

5 mins read

By Celia Strong

It’s probably safe to assume that most wine drinkers have had at least one New Zealand wine, and it’s almost as safe to assume the one was a Sauvignon Blanc. The Kiwis are known for producing some of the absolute best Sauvignon Blancs in the world, but New Zealand does produce other wines – other whites, like Chardonnay, Riesling, and white blends, and, yes, they also produce red wines. Easily as good as their whites, the reds are not as plentiful or as well-known, unfortunately, but it might just be time to fix that. 

New Zealand’s first vineyard was planted in 1851 in Hawke’s Bay. The first Marlborough vineyard was planted in 1973. While most of their Sauvignon Blancs come from Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay is the source for more of their red wines. Marlborough is on the south island; Hawke’s Bay is on the north island. Both have free-draining land with alluvial soils. 

It is this alluvial soil that becomes so important in Hawke’s Bay. There are deposits, known as the Gimblett Gravels, that have superb characteristics for wine grapes, particularly the Bordeaux red varieties. These gravel areas are in former river beds with very stoney soils. That means less fertility in the soil and lower water levels, and the storing of heat where the vines grow. The hotter and drier meso-climate is perfect for Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, New Zealand red wines, made mostly from European varietals, are becoming better known. Pinot Noir is their most popular red, but Bordeaux style blends, single variety Merlots (more than Cabernets), and Syrahs are all being developed, as well as Cabernet Franc and Malbecs. So Hawke’s Bay has the country’s oldest vineyard and thei country’s second-largest wine-producing region, making more than 10 percent of the total production. 

Oyster Bay is our winery this week. Located near Marlborough, Oyster Bay produced their first Sauvignon Blanc in 1991. And they are still owned and run by members of the original founding family. They do not make any reserve wines. What you see is what you get. Their philosophy is to make distinctly regional wines with elegance and assertive, fruity flavors. An intense search led them to Hawke’s Bay as the best source for their Merlot wine. Lots of sunshine and ancient gravel soils produce a fragrant, soft and elegant wine with intense fruitiness. 

The grapes for Oyster Bay Merlot come from several vineyards – Gimblett Road, Heretaunga Plains, and Crownthorpe Terraces. All in a world-class cool climate region. The Ngaruroro River (no, it’s not easily pronounced) flows by and through these vineyards, carrying alluvial soils from the hills to the plains. In 1867, one particularly hard rain storm altered the course of this river and left behind the beds of alluvial river stones and shingle soils – the Gimblett Gravels. 

What makes Oyster Bay Merlot so superlative? Definitely the soils where the grapes grow, but also the grapes themselves. In 1991, Bordeaux clone 181 was introduced – a super premium clone with moderate yields, small berries and lower acidity levels, as well as intense flavor profiles. The vines for these grapes are three to 16 years old. After harvest, the grapes are de-stemmed, crushed and fermented in stainless steel. Pure yeast cultures are used to enhance varietal aromas and fruitiness. Rackings and pump-overs are done during fermentation to extract as much flavor as possible. Malolactic fermentation is done before the wine goes into barrels, and barrel selection plays its part. Bordeaux barriques that are tight-grained and air-seasoned for two years minimum impart subtle toasty, smoky characteristics, spicy complexity and structural tannins, contributing to excellent textures and concentration. A lot of care and attention to detail for a non-reserve wine. Loaded with fruit aromas and flavors – blueberry, cherry, blackberry, black currant – and mixed with cocoa powder, coffee, baking spices, honey and vanilla. The world is your oyster! For $11.97. Enjoy. 

Celia Strong works at Bill’s Liquor & Fine Wines on Lady’s Island.

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