Wine: Never underestimate New Zealand North Island

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GIVEN Scotland’s love affair with sauvignon blanc, visitors to next weekend’s Three Wine Men event at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms are likely to zone in on wines from Marlborough on New Zealand’s South Island.

However, ask any of that illustrious trio (Oz Clarke, Olly Smith and Tim Atkin) and they will tell you to never underestimate the North Island.

Indeed, the oldest surviving Kiwi vineyard is at Hawke’s Bay on the east side of the North Island. One man who grew up thereabouts is Rod Easthope, who was a top winemaker at Craggy Range but has branched out on his own. I was impressed by his tangy and vibrant 2012 Rod Easthope Pinot Gris (£11.99, Naked Wines). The wine itself has lemon and grapefruit acidity that develops into deeper pear and pineapple flavours to provide fruity yet sophisticated drinking for summer evenings.

Another stalwart of that region is Gordon Russell who has headed the winemaking team at Esk Valley for 20 years. He makes some individualistic and tasty white wines, as you will discover by picking up a bottle of 2011 Esk Valley Chenin Blanc (£9, WoodWinters). The flavours here are more greengage than banana and these are introduced via an opening acidity and freshness – although there is also a whisper of honey on the finish.

Among Russell’s reds, try the 2010 Esk Valley Gimblett Gravels Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec (£12, WoodWinters). The “Gravels” is a 2,000-acre old river bed with fantastic drainage and a warm micro-climate. At first, it was considered the perfect place to grow grapes for Bordeaux blends such as this. This example certainly has the substance and plum, black cherry and vanilla flavours associated with those wines – but avoids the higher levels of tannin often found in northern hemisphere versions.

More recently, however, the area has shot to fame because of its stunningly good syrah. For a great-value example, seek out 2010 Villa Maria Private Bin Syrah (£9.99 as part of a mixed case, down from £12.49 until 22 July, Majestic). Drawing a proportion of grapes from the Gravels, it delivers a soft and smooth wine with redcurrant flavours that slowly work through into deeper cassis fruit but supported by mint and nutmeg undertones.

As you head further south, towards Wellington, you encounter another excellent wine region at Martinborough. Because the area is slightly cooler (and has an ideal terroir), this is prime pinot noir country. Look out for 2011 The Society’s Exhibition Single Vineyard Martinborough Pinot Noir (£16, The Wine Society). It provides light and lively raspberry flavours that are nicely rounded out with a spicy finish and a very attractive mineral backdrop.

Other winemakers producing good pinot noir in that area are Glaswegians Christine and David Kernohan at their Gladstone Vineyard. For a local supplier of that pinot (and Gladstone’s tasty grapefruit and apricot-influenced pinot gris), check out the website of New Zealand specialist Must Wines (www.mustwines.com) in Dumfriesshire. Nearby, another Scot, Angus Thomson, is also winning praise for the biodynamic wines of Urlar and, especially, for his sauvignon blanc.

At the other end of the North Island, the maritime climate and long hours of sunshine at Waiheke Island also beget some terrific wines. I have been impressed by the Man O’ War winery and the 70 or so vineyards it comprises. The real star is the Man O’ War Dreadnought Syrah (£27.95, www.imbibros.co.uk). Its complex plum and bramble fruit, touches of sweetness and deep texture are a joy.

Highland Brewing Co, Orkney Blast, 6%

Excellent, award-winning strong Scottish ale that forms part of this month’s Second Beer Festival at Aldi. I particularly liked the beer’s brilliant balance between rich, honeyed flavours with a hint of orange and its malty, slightly bitter finish. £1.99 for 500ml bottle, Aldi

2012 Merlot delle Venezie, Venice, Italy, 10.5%

A great-value summer red naturally low in alcohol and with appealing seasonal acidity to enliven 
the soft vanilla flavours, but given a cherry-centred tannic twist by the 
15 per cent sangiovese it includes. £5.49, M&S

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