Is New Zealand becoming a fine wine mecca?

Recently I was privileged to be part of the team that selected the Fine Wines of New Zealand ­–  a new initiative, sponsored by Air NZ, to bring recognition to New Zealand’s most prestigious wines. It was both excruciatingly difficult and wonderfully gratifying.

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A stunning super premium Chardonnay vineyard in Waiheke’s Church Bay.

The quality of the wines was well beyond what I had imagined and made for lively debate among the five Masters of Wine and 1 Master Sommelier tasked with selection.  It reignited a feeling I’ve had for the last few years: that New Zealand is on the cusp of becoming one of the great fine wine countries of the world.  This feeling further deepened when I showed a selection of these wines to a delegation of top sommeliers in Japan a few weeks back.  They were truly awed by the quality.

New Zealand has long enjoyed a reputation as a producer of high quality commercial wines ­– the consistently high quality of our Sauvignon Blancs cementing this position.  It’s not that fine wine producers don’t exist in New Zealand – they do, and many have done for as long as the modern New Zealand wine industry – however in terms of quality and global recognition I believe we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.  Here’s why:

Our climate and geology

We are perfectly placed in the world for fine wine growing into the future.  As a young volcanic nation we have an incredible diversity of geology which allows for successful cultivation of different varietals.  Crucially we enjoy the cool climate required for premium grape growing but with year on year heat and sunshine – enough to get most varietals to optimum ripeness.  Climate change experts predict that, unlike other premium wine producing regions, New Zealand will become less marginal for grape growing.  This should not only improve our potential in existing regions like Hawkes Bay, Marlborough and Central Otago, but potentially open up new areas for quality wine production.  In addition, most regions will see less humidity and moisture meaning less disease and improving feasibility of organic practices – a growing preference in the global fine wine market.

Our viticulture

Our vines are maturing.  In the past, we have relied on excessively ripe fruit and correspondingly high tannin and alcohol levels to bring concentration to our wines.  Now vines are starting to reach an age where they have more maturity and balance. Grapes are reaching a physiological ripeness at lower sugar levels, which means lower alcohol levels.  The resulting wines have greater concentration, intensity and balance at lower alcohol. Acidity is higher and pH is lower, wine is more stable, and there is less need to intervene (to correct /overcorrect acidity, add sulphur, add tannins, extract excessively).  Which brings me to my next point.

Our winemaking

Winemaking in New Zealand is reaching a golden age.  With more than 30 years of experience under our collective belt we can now explore with confidence the more sympathetic approach favoured by the fine wine makers of the world.  This means embracing more balanced, less interventional techniques and allowing the wine to show its sense of time and place – a highly prized currency in the global fine wine market.

This doesn’t mean abandoning our naturally pragmatic and technical approach completely; it is about tempering it with a more intuitive sense of winemaking that celebrates subtlety and diversity rather than quashing it.  Quality is what we’re known for and this should continue regardless of the style of winemaking.

Our tourism

No one can argue that New Zealand tourism is booming and only looks set to increase. This represents a major opportunity for savvy fine wine producers – just look at Hunter Valley and Napa for seriously well executed ‘regional’ wine marketing.

If you’re nodding your head saying ‘I knew it!’, give yourself a pat on the back and then start stocking up.  Here’s the full list of the Fine Wines of New Zealand for 2016 to get you started.

Aromatics

Felton Road Dry Riesling 2014

Felton Road Block 1 Riesling 2015

Framingham F series Riesling Kabinett 2015

Johanneshof Cellars Gewürztraminer 2014

Stonecroft Gewürztraminer 2015

Te Whare Ra Toru SV5182 2014

Millton Vineyards Clos de Ste Anne Chenin Blanc 2014

Prophet’s Rock Pinot Gris 2014

Dry River Pinot Gris 2014

Bordeaux style

Te Mata Coleraine 2014

Craggy Range Sophia 2013

Villa Maria Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2013

Esk Valley The Terraces 2013

Stonyridge Vineyard Larose 2014

Church Road Tom 2013

Chardonnay

Kumeu River Mate’s Vineyard 2014

Neudorf Moutere 2011

Sacred Hill Riflemans 2014

Dog Point 2013

Felton Road Block 2 2010

Villa Maria Keltern Vineyard 2014

Dessert wines

Forrest Wines Botrytised Riesling 2012

Framingham Wines Noble Riesling 2013

Framingham Wines ‘F’ Gewürztraminer 2014

Pinot Noir

Felton Road Block 3 2013

Burn Cottage 2014

Valli Bannockburn 2014

Rippon Vineyards Tinkers Field 2012

Bell Hill 2012

Ata Rangi 2013

Dry River 2013

Craggy Range Aroha 2013

Kusuda 2013

Sauvignon Blanc

Cloudy Bay Te Koko 2011

Astrolabe Province 2015

Dog Point 2015

Greywacke 2015

Saint Clair Reserve Wairau 2015

Vavasour 2015

Sparkling

Nautilus NV

Akarua Vintage Brut 2010

Deutz Blanc de Blanc Vintage 2011

Quartz Reef Vintage 2010

Syrah

Craggy Range Le Sol 2013

Trinity Hill Homage 2013

Bilancia La Collina 2013

Te Mata Bullnose 2014

 

 



Why sherry is the best wine you’ve never tried.

Outside of Spain there seems to be two main camps when it comes to sherry: those who have been scarred by an early life experience of overly sweet alcohol from Grandma’s tumbler, and those who have never heard of it.  Either way it is a tragedy, as sherry remains one of the truly great wines of the world and – like saké – partners wonderfully with food (see my recommendations at the end).

Like many highly prized products true sherry hails exclusively from a small part of the world – in this case, Andalusia, Southern Spain.  Favoured by Christopher Columbus and Shakespeare and with a colourful and tumultuous history, sherry has had its share of time in the limelight over the centuries.  However, it suffered a sharp decline in sales last century in part due to a glut of sweet and cheap products from other countries marketed under the sherry label.  This is not to say genuine sherry producers don’t make sweet wines.  Indeed, the majority of sherry produced today is of the sweet variety.  However, the best sherry is crisp, dry and wonderfully complex. Continue reading…



I want it now!

You might have seen or read about The Marshmallow Test – where 3 and 4 year olds are given the choice of eating one marshmallow immediately or waiting for 15 minutes for 2 marshmallows (apparently it’s supposed to predict future success by way of measuring a child’s ability to delay gratification.)  Some kids immediately eat the marshmallow while others use a myriad of tactics to stop themselves eating it (closing their eyes, distracting themselves). Some almost get there, but break in the last few seconds.

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For the love of saké

In 2007 I got bitten by the saké bug and ended up a samurai. To put samurai into context: I’m not referring to the noble warriors of medieval Japan, rather an esteemed title given by the Japan Saké Brewers Association to folks who promote saké and Japanese culture.  Saké Samurai.  This honor was the beginning of an incredible pilgrimage into one of the most ancient and culturally significant brewing industries in the world.

As a Saké Samurai (and in cooperation with the International Wine Challenge – one of the biggest wine competitions in the world) I have worked with some of the most passionate (bordering on fanatical) people in the saké world.  Our vision: to put Japanese saké on the global stage.

It’s working.  Saké is one of the most talked about alcoholic beverages in the world right now.  However, it’s still one of the most misunderstood. Continue reading…



Artful Intervention: Is there a sweet spot?

A few weeks ago I was privileged to be asked to speak on wine and art at a soirée hosted by one of the most dynamic patrons of the New Zealand art world.  It was a fascinating topic to research.  I come from a wine technologist background, so it goes without saying that I’m a total geek when it comes to the scientific aspects of winemaking.  But I’ll admit the question of whether wine is art wasn’t something I’d spent a lot of time pondering.

There was the mandatory googling of definitions of art (conclusion: there isn’t one – hooray!) the fossicking through historic papers debating the topic of what is and isn’t art, and of course, the mulling over where wine fits into this construct.

I’ll spare you the intellectual pontificating, but suffice to say that based on the majority of definitions (creativity, expressing a feeling, eliciting a feeling in the viewer, communicating an idea), wine itself can very much be considered art. Continue reading…



Are you a brave new consumer?

Many people are afraid to give me their opinion about a wine. Uncertainty, insecurity, fear –  I know these feelings well. They are my constant companions when I travel around the world; they are there every day when I wake up to my kids and the unknowable world of parenting or when I have to deal with multi-country tax regulations. I feel like a dope. Like I’ll never ‘get it.’

Most people don’t give much consideration to what they’re drinking beyond its functionality as an alcoholic beverage (remarkable, when you consider that the world consumes around 24 billion litres of wine a year) but for those who do want to know more, the world of wine can feel like an impenetrable bubble, rigged with booby traps waiting to expose you as the imposter you believe you are. Varieties, vintages, domaines, VDLP, IGT, AOP, DOC DOCG. BA, TBA. Even once you’re ushered inside the wine world’s hallowed halls there’s still something Hogwarts School about its moving staircases and vanishing doors.

Take, for example, the lexicon of the wine elite.  In my opinion, wine descriptors and wine ‘speak’ can be a serious barrier, leaving many consumers feeling disempowered and afraid to comment. When we hear people bleating on about typicity, terroir and ‘brett’ (no, not Murray’s brother) our ego’s leap to the rescue, telling us that it’s all just nonsense (but to zip our lips nonetheless!)    Continue reading…



The art of closure

0c54402da86cb39ab4a2b9225a0f7ec8As someone who routinely loses wallets, phones, sunglasses, and has even lost sight of his own (admittedly very small) child on occasion, my wife finds it alternately absurd and ironic that I should choose a wine closure that necessitates a corkscrew — yet another item that eludes me at vital moments.

I admit it does seem absurd. With all the advances in screw cap closures and with New Zealand wineries adopting the screw cap with a zealousness bordering on fanatical, one could be forgiven for believing that the ship has well and truly sailed for wine corks.

But in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Depending on which publication you read 18.5 – 40 billion bottles of wine are produced each year. Of those, over half are still sealed with corks. It’s a fact made more astonishing when you consider that around six percent of wines sealed with natural corks are likely to be faulty – three percent from cork taint and two to three percent from oxidation, due to the poor elasticity of natural cork (and subsequent oxygen ingress). That’s between 720 million and 1.4 billion bottles of faulty wine on the market.

New Zealand winemakers shake their heads in bemusement. ‘Why on earth risk the quality of the wine by using a cork?’ they beseech. And they have a point.

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On the shoulders of giants

Late last year I wrote a very personal guest post on top London wine merchant Berry Brothers & Rudd’s blog.  It was about the leap I took in starting my own wine label whilst continuing to consult around the world.

What I didn’t mention in the post is that this leap may very well have remained a fantasy had it not been for the inspiration and confidence instilled by some key individuals in both my personal and professional life.

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Cedalion standing on the shoulders of Orion from Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun by Nicolas Poussin, 1658, Oil on canvas; 46 7/8 x 72 in. (119.1 x 182.9 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art

It’s something I’ve been thinking about as I skim read the news, hoping not (but half expecting) to see the name of yet another musical revolutionary referred to in past tense. We know their influence, but often don’t pause to reflect until they’re gone.

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