One of Germany’s renowned wine regions is under threat because of climate change.
It seems to be a fitting description of Ben Glover; winemaker for Zephyr Wines, his family owned company in Marlborough, group winemaker for Accolade Wines and chairman of Pinot Noir 2017.
Fresh back from three days as a delegate at Riesling Downunder in Melbourne this year, Glover was part of a small contingent of fellow Kiwi wine producers from Marlborough and North Canterbury.
The event cemented not only the versatility of Riesling in Glover’s mind, but also New Zealand’s natural strengths with this German grape variety.
The wide range of wines in the tastings at Riesling Downunder highlighted the entire spectrum of Riesling.
“The outstanding international Rieslings that we tasted showed how well New Zealand’s cool climate works for this naturally high acid grape variety,” he says.
The conference focused on a combination of themes from unctuously sweet trockenbeerenausleses (TBAs) to dry wines, showing a vast number of examples of how the Germans and Austrians work to accentuate full-bodied Rieslings by using a lot of skin contact in their winemaking.
“That’s something that in Marlborough we don’t tend to do. There is more of that style going on in Waipara where there is a longer hang time and you can get more golden fruit flavour characteristics without alcohol accumulation occurring at the same rate that it tends to in Marlborough,” says Glover.
The response to climatic differences between Marlborough and North Canterbury is to create different styles of wines, which accounts for styles that Glover describes as: “Well structured and off dry, made from grapes without the long hang time because that would usually result in very high alcohol wines without balance in Marlborough, so we make wines that have great purity and lightness in this region.”
Examples of Marlborough wines that fit this stylistic bill include Zephyr Riesling, which he produces for his family company, and also Framingham Rieslings, Te Whare Ra Riesling, Fromm Riesling and Forrest Estate Doctor’s Riesling – “totally in that German Kabinett style”.
“I believe that Riesling is the only variety where you can pick it unripe and make a 7% to 8% alcohol wine with 80 grams residual sugar at one spectrum and pick it over ripe to make a dry Riesling at the other end, with a wide range of high quality styles in between.”
How does he view New Zealand Riesling at the moment?
“It definitely is an under drunk variety and with the likes of Andrew Hedley at Framingham and the Flowerdays at Te Whare Ra doing so much to promote Riesling, I certainly can’t take the cake for pushing its virtues.”
His modest approach belies the fact that he is at the helm of making some of New Zealand’s most commercially successful Rieslings for both Accolade Wines’ Mud House and Waipara Hills brands, and for Zephyr Wines.
The first Zephyr Riesling was made in 2009 from grapes grown on a 1.5 acre vineyard on silty soils on the banks of the Opawa River.
“Those soils provide us with lovely lime blossom characters in Riesling, which tends to age really well from there.”
While the quantities of the Zephyr Wine brand remain relatively small, the nationwide distribution network is strong; at Glengarry’s in the North Island; Regional Wines in Wellington and on the wine list at a select range of restaurants.
The on-premise channel is exactly where niche wines such as Riesling and Gewurztraminer (another focus for Zephyr Wines) do best, suggests Glover.
He works closely with Accolade’s winemakers to determine the style of the different Rieslings that the company produces. Accolade winemakers Simon McGeorge, Cleighten Cornelius, Nadine Worley and Glover all have a slightly different take on the Riesling theme.
“I like the freshness and purity of Riesling whereas Simon quite likes those darker flavours; if you look at Equinox Riesling then you can see richer riper Riesling characteristics whereas Mud House Estate is a different style.
“One of the wines is just a bit sweeter than the other by about 5 to 8 grams of residual sugar, roughly, and that makes an important difference in taste. They both offer really nice differences in flavour profiles. One will have more limes and the other will have more mandarin characters.”
The future for New Zealand Riesling
“Riesling is a fanatical hobby; you’ve got to slip into the kitchen and discuss it in hushed tones whereas Sauvignon Blanc is a wine that everybody understands.”
Glover suggests that New Zealand’s cool climate provides it with a distinctive edge for grape varieties such as Riesling, which could be a unique selling proposition for this variety.
“I think the freshness of New Zealand Riesling can give it an edge over some Australian styles, which I have always tended to look to for inspiration because I like their dry taste and the way that they evolve over time.
But I am finding that New Zealand Riesling can be more distinctive, which I put down to the naturally high acidity of the grape and our cool climate.
These two factors go together extremely well when making high quality white wines in a wide range of styles.”