In thinking about New Zealand white wines Chenin Blanc is unlikely to be the first variety that comes to mind. In fact, I am told anecdotally that there are less than ten producers in the entire country and with Chenin Blanc accounting for 0.7% of the total production area that is not hard to believe.  (Image credit: Bishops Head Wines, Waipara.)
Historically Chenin Blanc was planted en masse in New Zealand and often used as a blending component in cheap wines. To set the context correctly, New Zealand is relatively young when it comes to wine history. Although vines were planted in the country as early as 1819, the modern era of winemaking with a focus on the European grapevine species vitis vinifera begins in the 1960s.
The grape Chenin Blanc is well known to lovers of French wine for all the wonderfully different expressions produced in the Loire Valley. A useful overview of Chenin Blanc can be found on Wine Folly. Elsewhere in the world Chenin’s reputation has suffered when, like in New Zealand, the grape was planted to yield large quantities of fairly uninteresting wine.
The good news however, is that things are changing with key producers outside France releasing quality examples that challenge the old notions of New World Chenin Blanc. Two such producers in New Zealand are Millton Vineyards & Winery in Gisborne on the east coast of the North Island and Bishops Head Wines in Waipara, also on the east coast, but of the South Island.
Source: New Zealand Winegrowers
Of the 23.8 ha planted to Chenin Blanc in New Zealand in 2014, Gisborne holds just over a quarter of all plantings at 6.2 ha. while Canterbury has less than 5% with 0.7 ha. planted. 
Gisborne has three sub-regions Ormond, Patutahi and Manutuke, the latter being the site of Millton Vineyards and Winery. Vines were first planted in Manutuke in the late 1800s and this sub-region is located closer to the coast than the other two which, in addition to the nearby Te Arai River, provides an ideal climate for botrytised and aromatic wines.
Source: New Zealand Winegrowers
As New Zealand’s third largest producer, Gisborne accounts for 4.5% of total production each year. This is an exciting time for the region as its image of bulk wine production is changing to include a growing number of smaller producers releasing wines of exceptional standard. Millton Vineyards and Winery is at the forefront of this development.
Established in 1984 by Annie and James Millton and located on the banks of the Te Arai River, Millton Vineyards and Winery produce a wide range of wines including two Chenin Blancs; the Te Arai (tasting note below) and the Clos Ste. Anne Le Bas. The Te Arai Chenin Blanc sources the majority of grapes from the vineyard of the same name with a small portion coming from the Le Bas vineyard in the Clos Ste. Anne estate. In exceptional years the Clos Ste. Anne Le Bas is released as a single vineyard expression and the next release, the 2013, is due out in March this year. For added complexity the Clos Ste. Anne Le Bas is aged ‘sur lie’ or on lees for nine months to provide texture and creaminess to the palate.
Te Arai in the Maori language roughly translates as “the place where you pause before going on towards the land of eternal sunshine” – extremely fitting for the Gisborne region given the high number of sunshine hours the area sees each year.
Millton Te Arai Vineyard. Source: Millton Vineyards and Winery
While the Loire Valley provides stylistic inspiration, the Milltons have created a style that is uniquely theirs and in doing so they have put New Zealand Chenin Blanc on the international map. Additionally, they are active supporters of organic and biodynamic viticultural practises and were the first winery in the Southern Hemisphere to receive certification from the Australian Demeter Bio-Dynamic Method.
James Millton is also Chairman of Organic Winegrowers New Zealand (OWNZ), an organisation which has been heavily involved in working towards the recent agreement with the European Commission (EC) to recognise New Zealand’s organic wine production methods as equivalent to its own. This will help reduce the administrative time and costs associated with exporting certified organic and biodynamic wine to the European market whilst increasing commercial benefits and positioning of New Zealand wine.
Heading down to the South Island, Bishops Head winery is located in Mackenzie Road, Waipara which, as it turned out, was just across the road from where we stayed during our New Zealand road trip – super convenient for a tasting! When we stopped by Managing Director Peter Saunders was on hand to take us through the portfolio. I had tasted Bishops Head wines the previous year in Hong Kong and I was keen to revisit the portfolio.
(Bishops Head Wine Wines Managing Director, Peter Saunders)
On tasting was a very stylish Fumé Blanc, a Chardonnay a rather delicious Pinot Gris showing good palate weight along with restrained notes of stone fruit, green fruit and white flowers with a burst of mineral flavours on the finish. Next up was the Chenin Blanc (tasting note below) followed by the 2012 Pinot Noir. This is an elegant expression of Pinot Noir displaying a very pretty nose of red fruit, spice and violets. Around a delicate frame of acidity, well integrated oak and fine tannins winds a savoury flavour profile with herbs and spices sitting alongside the fruit.
Established in 2006, Bishops Head is a family owned and operated business and holds 19 ha. under vine. They are the only producers of Chenin Blanc in the Canterbury region and, like Millton Vineyards, they look to Europe for inspiration whilst creating something that reflects the unique location the fruit is grown in. The first vintage for the Chenin Blanc was 2009 and Peter confirms their confidence with the varietal on their vineyard site is growing each year – a statement which could easily be extended to Chenin Blanc production throughout the country.
So next time you are looking for a white wine it is worth tracking down a New Zealand Chenin Blanc and adding it to your line up!
Millton Vineyards and Winery, Te Arai Chenin Blanc 2013. Winemaker: James Millton
Sourced primarily from the Te Arai Vineyard. The 2.82 ha. of the vineyard are made up of a mixture of Matawhero and Waipaoa silt loam. Located 5 kilometres from the sea the vineyard is subject to the cooling influence of ocean breezes and mists.
During harvest multiple passes are made through the vineyard to ensure the best quality grapes are selected. The grapes undergo a slow press with the juice being allowed to settle for a short time prior to fermentation. Stainless steel tanks and demi-muids (600L oak barrels) are used for fermentation and maturation. The oak is seasoned to remove any flavour and assure depth of fruit flavour. The wine is bottled on site and the grapes for the wine are Certified Organic and Biodynamic.
This is a deliciously perfumed wine showing waxy notes of lemon peel and grapefruit together with floral scents of honeysuckle and jasmine. The palate has some creaminess to the texture with flavours of citrus fruit, some stone fruit, particularly peach, leading through to herbaceous notes of fresh cut grass on the finish. After tasting the wine we continued to enjoy it with some cheese; the Whitestone Cheese Company Livingstone Gold and the Meredith Dairy Marinated Persian Feta. Both cheeses were a good match highlighting different flavours in the wine – well worth putting to the test yourself!
Bishops Head Wines, Chenin Blanc 2011. Winemaker: Paul Hewett
First produced in 2009, the grapes for this Chenin Blanc are grown on clay over clay gravels. Following harvest by hand, indigenous yeasts are used to ferment the wine which is then aged in barrel. The wine spends a minimum of 6 months on lees which lends richness and weight to the palate.
My notes start with “Lovely!”, followed by aromas of lanolin, waxy citrus fruit such as lemon and grapefruit, white flowers of jasmine and honeysuckle and stone fruit. The aromas follow through on the palate with the addition of a good dose of spice on a very long finish.