Lunch with Amber Hatton from Soho Wines starts with a glass of a wine that is selling like hot you-know-whats at that long standing food and drinks institution, SPQR, on Auckland’s Ponsonby Road.
The wine we are drinking is Soho Pinot Gris. It’s good. Bright, fresh and youthful; dry, full bodied and fruity. It’s easy to like. And, according to Hatton, it’s even easier to sell.
The wine we have come to talk about is worlds apart.
Meet Betty. She is also white. She cruises in with less than 10% alcohol. She is bright, crisp and fresh; light bodied, medium dry and – cue the hesitation – made from Riesling. This puts her in one of the toughest wine categories to sell in New Zealand today.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why Riesling makes people hesitate in New Zealand when it sells with far more ease in Australia. But it does.
The irony is that Riesling has tradition- ally been the raw ingredient in many of the great classic white wines of the world, which frequently contain less than 10% ABV – the light, crisp whites of the Mosel in Germany are the apex of this style. They could be the role model for the type of high quality wines that New Zealand’s cool maritime climate does so well.
Instead, we are in the midst of a lower alcohol wine movement (‘lifestyle’ wines, as named by New Zealand Winegrowers), which unfortunately seems to imply that many producers can harvest any old white grape far too early and then cool ferment it (to preserve any aromatic flavours, which appear to be few because many of these wines taste unripe). They can then bottle it, slap on the words ‘lower alcohol’ and there we have it. Unripe, sharply acidic, often insipid white wines, which do not represent the grapes they are made from nor do they provide an enjoyable glass of wine.
Fortunately, there are exceptions. Forrest Estate’s The Doctors’ Riesling was the first of what could be many outstanding lower alcohol wines – it has flavour, balance and lightness. It even ages impeccably well; but that’s not the point.
The production of lower alcohol wines is generally directed at having something tasty to consume now. This is why the Soho winemaking team created a lower alcohol wine with a difference – Betty.
Her flavours are not compromised by reducing her alcoholic content because the grapes were harvested when ripe, which is obvious in her intense flavours. These are balanced by her light body. The high acidity is crisp but it is balanced by retaining some residual sugar so that the acidity does not seem sharp. And the wine doesn’t taste ‘sweet’. It tastes fruity, succulent and refreshing. Within a month of release, Betty had already won medals at wine competitions, which supports the theory that lower alcohol Riesling can taste drop dead delicious – when made well.
Many of the greatest Rieslings in the world today contain lower alcohol and higher aromatic flavours because they walk a tightrope of high acid-high sugar (natural grape sugars, that is). And they taste effortlessly well balanced, while delivering significantly less alcohol.
The latest statistics from New Zealand Winegrowers tell us that in 2014 there were 2046 vineyards in this country; 9% of their land was devoted to Pinot Gris and 3% to Riesling. Eleven years ago, there was double the number of Riesling vines as there were of Pinot Gris. One is a classic; the other one makes a popular, easy to ‘get’ wine.
Article by Joelle Thomson, Drinksbiz, February/March 2016 issue