Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: New Zealand’s Giesen Wines branches out from sauvignon blanc

Winemaker Marcel Giesen during a 2015 Sacramento visit.
Winemaker Marcel Giesen during a 2015 Sacramento visit.

All sorts of New Zealand vintners are showing that they can produce more than one kind of wine, but the most ardent and adaptable players in that mission well may be the Giesen brothers – Theo, Alex and Marcel.

Since New Zealand’s wine trade began to gain traction internationally about 50 years ago, it has been identified largely with an especially electric style of sauvignon blanc – aggressively aromatic, vibrant in flavors, possessed of a snappy acidity that makes it especially versatile at the table.

The Giesen brothers appreciate sauvignon blanc – it’s their flagship wine – and they are keen to amplify its distinctive character while also showing that New Zealand is quite capable of producing other varietal wines with the potential to become as esteemed and as popular.

Their brand, Giesen Wines, already is well-established in the United States, which accounts for around 10 percent of sales of the more than 300,000 cases they make yearly. To continue to build on that success, the winemaking brother, Marcel, visited Northern California last fall, a tour that brought him to Sacramento for the first time in about 25 years.

While the Giesen portfolio still runs most enthusiastically to sauvignon blanc, it also includes other varietal wines for which New Zealand is developing followings, notably chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah.

There’s riesling in there, too, but the Giesens recognized early on that while New Zealand is cool enough to do well by riesling, the country’s reputation would be built principally on sauvignon blanc, in particular when grapes are grown in the Marlborough region at the northern reaches of the nation’s South Island.

“Riesling is just riesling (at Marlborough), while sauvignon blanc becomes Marlborough. There, sauvignon blanc transcends being a grape variety. No one has been able to replicate that wine to any extent,” says Marcel Giesen in speaking of the unparalleled symbiosis between sauvignon blanc and Marlborough.

Riesling is the brothers’ sentimental choice, given its admired role in the German wine district Rheinpfalz, where they grew up in a family of stonemasons.

The prospect of continuing the family trade is what drew the two older brothers, Theo and Alex, to the South Island in 1981. The terrain so reminded them of Germany, however, that they bought a small parcel outside of Christchurch to try their hand at grape-growing and winemaking. Initially, they put in gewürztraminer and riesling along with chardonnay.

Their first wines were well-received, so they gave up thoughts of cutting stone and turned their attention to Marlborough, then starting to generate buzz for sauvignon blanc. They bought their first Marlborough vineyard in 1993, and in 2001 moved their winery to the area. Today, they cultivate 685 acres of grapes in a dozen vineyards in Marlborough’s Wairau Valley.

They make and market their wines in six niches, each increasingly labor-intensive, site-specific and pricey. The backbone of the business and the wine most accessible and familiar to Sacramentans would be their limey and zesty Giesen estate sauvignon blanc, usually selling for around $15.

And Marcel Giesen continues to tinker with sauvignon blanc, striving to build on the varietal’s potential for complexity and longevity. Giesen 2011 Marlborough The Brothers Sauvignon Blanc ($20), for one, retains the region’s reputation for an almost feral-like aggressiveness in its spicy fruit while wrapping it with a conservative application of oak to round out its texture. The Giesen 2011 Marlborough The August 1888 Sauvignon Blanc ($30) was fermented with wild yeasts in French oak barrels, giving it more layering and an even more luxurious texture, but without cloaking the fresh and forward fruit flavors as cultivated in New Zealand.

“I’m not pushing for oak flavor,” says Giesen of The August 1888, named for the brothers’ grandfather and his date of birth. “My pure aim is to extract texture.”

At the top of Giesen’s sauvignon-blanc hierarchy are two vineyard-designated interpretations that have been aged in traditional German 1,000-liter oak casks called fuders whose squat shape exposes more of the wine to wood. As a consequence, both Giesen The Fuder 2011 Dillons Point Sauvignon Blanc ($45/$55) and Giesen The Fuder 2012 Matthews Lane Sauvignon Blanc ($45/$55) are more complex and more compelling in their graceful unfolding, yet again retaining the varietal’s spirited flavors of tropical fruits and green herbs.

Though Giesen is principally a white-wine house, the brothers are drawing attention for their pinot noir and their syrah, in particular the lustrous, effusive, strawberry-focused Giesen 2012 The Brothers Marlborough Pinot Noir ($25/$30) and the earthy and peppery Giesen 2011 The Brothers Marlborough Syrah ($60).

How have the brothers remained so cohesive for more than three decades?

“We know each other well enough to know what buttons to press and what buttons not to press,” says Marcel Giesen. “It’s kind of fun, however, to press one of the do-not-press buttons to see what happens.”

When that’s happened the consequences apparently haven’t been so severe to distract the brothers from their goal to make Giesen one of New Zealand’s more highly regarded and popular exports.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. Reach him at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.