The Vine, The Aussie & The Kiwi
With some of the New World’s best wines, newest vineyards and unique practices, Australia and New Zealand’s viticulture rivalry is fascinating to wine lovers beyond these country’s borders. But exactly how do the two regions compare, or do they at all?
The Grapes of Wrath
As rivalries go, Australia and New Zealand’s is white hot on both the cricket pitches and rugby grounds, but what about the vineyards? Rivalries of the grape are nothing unique, of course, but what makes this one particularly interesting is the how dissimilar the wines often are, thus making it irresistible for those not from the region to add their weight to the debate.
The Pinot Noir grape has been used by both Australian and New Zealand winemakers to great effect, with fine wine examples that rival anywhere else in the world. The grape is known for its lightness of touch, not to mention its red berry overtones. It is a hard grape to grow in the hottest regions, so it requires some skills to get the best from it outside of the Burgundy wine region – where it originates from and which represent its highest expression – but these two New World fine wine giants have managed to do so with great skill.
This is all the more impressive as the grape is relatively new to both regions, dating back to the 1970s and 1980s respectively.
It is hard to compare the two in terms of quality, as this is an entirely subjective matter, but those that prefer a fruiter expression of the grape will likely lean towards the New Zealand version. If a breadth of expressions fascinates you more, then Australia has enormously varied outcomes that are often unique and pleasantly surprising.
The Shiraz/Syrah Divide
It was denied for some time, but science has proven that these two are in fact the same grape, but that is not to say they produce the same outcomes. The grape was introduced into Australia in the 1830’s and it appears there was a somewhat bizarre misspelling of Syrah that explains the difference in name, perhaps his hand writing was less than clear.
In truth, the name likely stuck because what these two countries did with the grape had little in common.
The reasons for this are manifold, but most prominent of these are climate. Syrah of New Zealand is grown in relative coolness, which gives the wine a peppery and floral character. As it is younger and less ripened than its Australian counterpart, New Zealand Syrah has a more acidic quality, often expressing a little more subtlety. The Australian Shiraz, by comparison, is bold and full flavoured, with a distinctly plummy expression, something that has led to the wine becoming a signature for the entire country.
Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Chardonnay
For white wine the comparison between the two regions is one of dissimilarity, as there are no Syrah/Shiraz connections here. Sauvignon Blanc is New Zealand’s signature wine and arguably the fullest expression the grape has produced. It has a gooseberry character that is uniquely its own and is enjoyed the world over as a result. Australia went down a completely different route with its buttery and citrus laden Chardonnays and the joyous pears and “zestiness” Semillons, which is more comparable to the Sauvignons found in New Zealand than the Chardonnay.
So why did the two countries, which are so close together, go such different routes? Well it is mainly down to climate again. Sauvignon Blanc grapes do not thrive in hotter, drier climates, which makes it unsuitable for a lot of the geography of Australia. By contrast, the ability to fully ripen the Chardonnay grape in particular, meant that the climate was perfectly suited to produce the finest expressions of Chardonnay, at least within the Australian context.
Wine Production in Australia and New Zealand
Another way in which the two countries differ significantly is in regards to production. Australia, being a much larger country, has more than 4 times the hectares of vineyards as New Zealand, something they never let their rivals forget. Kiwis, as you might imagine, are quick to point out that quality is better than quantity, although the very best Australian wines have to offer can match any new world, not to mention old world, wines.
It makes for a great rivalry, two New World wine producers battling it out for bragging rights and both offering an enormous amount of quality as a result. There are phenomenally impressive new vineyards that are gaining a reputation worldwide in both countries, not to mention those that have perfected their produce over the last 150 years.
In truth, those of us without ties to either country can sit back and enjoy the rivalry with the comfort of any neutral at a sporting event, with the only exception that, at the end of the day, those of us that are passionate about the grape are all winners.