What’s so great about wine from Waiheke Island?

Perhaps it was reading Joseph Campbell’s ‘Myths to Live By’ during my first overseas vintage in California, 22 years ago, that inspired me to keep one eye on the anthropology of the wine regions I visited for the rest of my career.

Over the subsequent years I have traveled to most major wine growing nations around the world – from Europe to The Americas, Africa, Asia and, of course, Australasia – and have drawn correlations (imagined or real) between national culture and the dominant wine style.  Think Australian reds with their big, intense personalities, their rich and sometimes hard backbones and their smooth and often cheeky qualities. Such cultural observations in the glass are heightened when localised to small wine producing communities, especially those making single vineyard wines.

“In wine, a respectful human input is integral to both achieving a sense of place and appreciating it.

A key concept in this anthropological equation is the French word ‘terroir’.  In wine, it is used to describe a broad range of physical elements of a vineyard – the soil, the climate, the aspect and anything else that can differentiate one vineyard from another. An associated and perhaps more useful term when making the sensory link between the vineyard and the wine in the glass is ‘a sense of place’, or the Maori word turangawaewae which can be translated as ‘the places where we feel especially empowered and connected’. These two terms acknowledge the human aspect and experience alongside that of tangible factors like soil and climate.  In wine, a respectful human input is integral to both achieving a sense of place and appreciating it.

“Boutique wine growing is a labour of love, and in this way the wine is shaped further by the owners’ own ideology and values”

Against this backdrop, Waiheke Island is a fascinating wine region to study. One of the most boutique and charming of all New Zealand’s wine regions, its wines are often considered expensive, however access to materials and labour make this true for all islands. Its small crops mean the average per litre costs to farm grapes are some of the most expensive on the planet.  This could lead us to conclude that a combination of scarcity and island novelty are the reason for its high regard.  However, the truth is a little more complex, and a lot more interesting.  

Climate

Despite being a relatively small island, with an area of only 92 km², Waiheke is home to a rich, lush, vital and diverse landscape, shaped largely by its unique island microclimate. As anyone who lives (or holidays) on the island knows, Waiheke enjoys a special protection from some of the colder, wetter weather brought by the prevailing south-west and westerly winds, making it both drier and warmer than the Auckland isthmus.  From a viticultural perspective, however, it is the proximity of the surrounding ocean that has the biggest impact.  Acting as both a fan and an insulator, the ocean moderates both rising temperatures in mid-summer (through sea breezes), and falling temperatures at night.  The result is a growing season that has more in common with much hotter regions but without the extremes. Importantly, these moderate temperatures extend into the early autumn ripening period.     

Landscape

As if in cahoots with the climate, the dramatic landscape is comprised of a variety of different aspects.  This feature allows a range of varieties to thrive on the island from pinot gris that love cooler micro-climates to late-ripening cabernet sauvignon and merlot that need north-facing slopes and more sunlight exposure than others, to fully ripen.  While there is a significant site variation, most vineyards are fortunate to enjoy highly mineralised, marginal soils dominated by clay. This soil type keeps the vine cool, delaying ripening, and allowing for better flavour and good acidity, while also giving structure and mouth-feel, especially in red varietals.  As a result, there is less need to intervene and extract body and flavour through winemaking techniques – it comes naturally.  More on this later.  

Viticultural practices

With the stage set for growing great fruit, we can then look at plantingand viticultural practices and again Waiheke breaks the mould with small, unirrigated, single vineyards.  Undiluted by water and/or other vineyards, the result is unarguably more intense, concentrated and vital wines, and – where the winemaking is respectful – a far greater chance to discover its sense of place.  This is a unique proposition for the new world, where irrigation, multi-vineyard and multi-regional blending is commonplace.  The wineries themselves are boutique not only by virtue of the size of the vineyards but also the people who founded them – many of whom still own their operations.  Boutique wine growing is a labour of love and in this way, the wine is shaped further by the owners’ own ideology and values.  

People

This brings me to the special ingredient in Waiheke’s unique wine story – the people.  Waiheke’s population is as diverse as it’s wine styles, with ‘born and breds’, latter settling locals, retired well-to-do baby boomers, seasonal holiday-makers, and a raft of newer ‘imports’ – many of whom are international.  Despite this diversity, I have heard it said more than a few times that those who live on the island share one fundamental commonality: they choose to be here.  The island existence is not for all, and in almost Darwinian fashion, the locale and the complexities of island living scare off most who don’t have the means and/or tolerance for such a life. This idea is strongly represented in the wine growing community on the island.  Nearly every winegrower I have met on the island over the last five years reflects qualities of his or her chosen island home: vital, natural, modest, with a quiet confidence.  For certain, it is impossible not to be influenced by the environment on Waiheke, particularly when your livelihood depends on a respect for and understanding of it.  Added to this appreciation of nature at large is the unique perspective imparted by the winegrowers’ own nationalities, which are as varied as those of the broader island population. Americans, Canadians, Germans, French, Italians and Swede’s and more, are among them!  For the most part, the island style of winemaking errs towards the sympathetic end of the spectrum which means lower human intervention and more trust of the vineyard and nature.

The result of this combination of unique microclimate, varied aspects, soil type, lack of irrigation and single vineyard planting, alongside passionate, knowledgeable and sympathetic winemakers, is wine with a concentrated sense of place; a crystal-clear looking glass through which anyone with the inclination can behold the turangawaewae of Waiheke.

It is easy to get caught up in the hype of ‘the island of wine’, but my advice to those who really want to get under the skin of Waiheke’s wine is: Look to the land, the vineyards, listen to nature if you can, find out the philosophy that guides the winemaker’s craft (not the sales and marketing pitch) then let your senses take over and think of nothing but what is in the glass; its colour, its specific aromas, texture, intensity, and complexity. Let your reflections be the platform for your senses to leap from.

In the words of Campbell, “follow your bliss”.

 



The Oxygen Dilemma

How I relish a glass of wine at the end of a busy day.

If you’re anything like me, it begins as a sweet, shapeless sense of anticipation at the margins of the mind. By the time I am home, it has become more than a gratifying thought, enshrined in ritual and expectation. And yet, how often do we consider the marvel of alchemy that made it possible? The remarkable process that turned simple grape juice into this toothsome wonder? It’s easy to give recognition to the quality of the fruit or the skill of the winemaker, but without the love-hate relationship between yeast and oxygen, the party simply cannot start.

As both catalysts and custodians of fermentation, yeast takes its job seriously. These little powerhouses can start and finish juice fermentation on their own but oxygen helps them do a better job of converting sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide. It also makes them more resilient, helping them to ferment all the sugars in the must to absolute dryness. There is always some oxygen present in the freshly pressed juice, and the yeast happily mops it up.

Oxygen is essential at all stages of the winemaking process, but how much depends on the stage and the variety and style of wine. Too much oxygen in the finished wine can reduce its shelf life and quality. Whereas lower levels of oxygen can furnish the wine with a much sought-after, earthy, flinty, and mineral expression, as it sits in the cellar. It is a true creator/destroyer.

The dynamic tension that arises from yeast and oxygen’s co-dependence during fermentation can be manipulated by the winemaker depending on what he or she is trying to achieve.

In aromatically intense wine styles, like Sauvignon Blanc, the winemaker works to minimize oxygen in the juice, as he or she wants to protect flavor precursors that lead to fruit intense wines. This allows for the production of much more pungent aromatic wine styles. Even in this instance, the yeast still needs a certain amount of oxygen in the first third of fermentation. Without it all sorts of fault problems can arise due to yeast lacking the necessary population or strength to finish its job: Residual sweetness; vinegar-like volatile acidity notes, and even garlic, cabbage and/or onion notes, to name just a few.

In less aromatic wine styles, like chardonnay, where overt fruit expression is undesired, some winemakers actively expose the juice to oxygen pre-fermentation, to oxidize phenolics. In many instances this allows the wine to age better once in bottle.

After fermentation, it is a different story. In all but the more esoteric styles, oxygen behaves like a jilted lover – facilitating interactions to further the process of decay by oxidation. This is one of the reasons why aromatic wine styles are bottled and put to the market so quickly: Once in bottle flavor and aroma recede with every day that passes. If you like your wines super aromatic, buy your year’s stash as soon as it hits the market, and cellar/store it at cooler temperatures (where possible) to slow down the oxidation process.

In less aromatic styles, winemakers who rely more on winemaking philosophy rather than the varietal expression imparted by the yeast, often like to leave the wine in contact with the gross lees (the dead yeast cells and other particles remaining in a wine after fermentation) to improve both complexity and texture. These yeast lees have the ability to absorb significant amounts of oxygen acting as a natural preservative and protecting the wine as it matures in barrel, or tank. Good old yeast battles away till the bitter end! Less oxygen can mean less need for anti-oxidant type additives like sulphur dioxide and thus (assuming the wine is otherwise well made) a fresher more natural and vital flavor in the finished wine.

Oxygen is a vital component of healthy wine fermentation, but like any symbiotic relationship it is a fine balance. Wines designed to age are best enjoyed at the apex, where the vital characters of youth intersect with the more complex and subtle characters of age which it is also recommended as stress reliever from this site read NervePainRemedies.com’s review here. Beyond this ethereal point, the wine – with the aid of its pall-bearer, oxygen – faces a steady decline towards its ultimate resting place: the kitchen sink.



Wine of our times

One of the questions I’m asked most in my travels is ‘what’s new in wine?’

For many years I would rattle off improvements in active dry yeasts, or bottle closures, and watch as eyes glazed over. Sure there were new brands launching every day, but from the perspective of wine drinkers there wasn’t much real change happening on a visible or consumer-relevant level.

Nowadays, like the list of alerts from my world current affairs app, there’s almost too much major stuff happening to keep up. Below are what I consider to be the important trends in wine right now. Some will endure and shape wine into the future, while others will surely fade or morph – their inclusion a symbol of the changing landscape of wine and wine consumers. There is no argument that the Millennial market (people born between 1981 and 1995, currently 21-35 years old), are the current hot targets for producers and retailers globally. Their spending power and drastically different priorities to former generations, underpin many of the trends below.

Natural Wines

The natural wine movement is gaining a foothold in Europe and the US, particularly with Millennial consumers, to whom its ideologies and brand stories are engaging. Natural wine resists being pigeon-holed: There is no universally accepted definition nor a global organization to control standards. However, purists demand that a wine only be called ‘natural’ if it is produced without adding or removing anything in the winemaking process (ironic as there’s nothing natural about the winemaking process). In accordance with this definition true ‘natural wines’ are unstable at bottling because they lack sulphur dioxide (SO2) or other preservatives to kill off any rogue micro-organisms and scavenge oxygen (both of which damage wine quality). The result is wine that is – more often than not – faulty at its core. Under normal tasting criteria these wines would be deemed well past their best, usually heading toward the vinegar end of the spectrum. Bizarrely this doesn’t dissuade many die-hard natural wine aficionados, in fact some of the most unappetizing natural wines are the most popular! I wouldn’t have an issue with this if it weren’t for the eye-watering price tags. In this instance, it really is a case of the emperor’s new clothes. Interestingly, many of the original natural wine producers are now using sulphur (and filtering) which suggests they have come around to the view that great wine cannot be made on ideology alone. Orange wine, which deftly combines the Millennial desire for perceived authenticity, and a shiny new colour, is the trendy poster child of natural wine.

Colours

In its desire to corner the lucrative Millennial market, and in particular the female millennial consumer, wine has gone back to basic tactics: mesmerizing with pretty colours. The two latest colour offerings are orange and blue respectively, though I’d put my money on rosé as the hue to watch.

I ummed and ahhed about including blue wine in this piece: it feels more suited to a write up on the latest ready-to-drink aimed at teenagers transitioning from soft drink to intoxication.  However, I feel it’s important to note it simply as a marker of change, a sign of the times. Wine drinkers and the wine market is in a state of flux. Categories are blurring. Blue wine – the colour of poison – in all its artificially, cloying sweetness, really exists!

At the polar opposite end of the winemaking intervention spectrum is orange wine (sometimes known as skin-contact wines), which is made by leaving the skin of white wine grapes in contact with the juice for a period of time. Although orange wine sounds novel and modern, the process for making it has been around for hundreds of years and originated in the Caucasus. Because of the involved and often natural process (think spontaneous fermentation and deliberate oxidation), orange wines are made in small volumes and for that reason alone resist the mainstream. However, there is another reason I don’t see orange wines overtaking white or red in popularity any time soon: Quality. Due to the natural winemaking process, many orange wines are in fact faulty and show apply and cheesy characters, not to mention the bitterness and hardness that comes with excessive skin contact. There are of course exceptions, and good orange wines – offering a distinctly different flavor and textural sensation – do exist, but many rely largely on the emotional and intellectual component of wine enjoyment. They are the masters of the placebo effect!

Pink wine, otherwise known as rosé, has been growing in popularity since 2006 and for good reason: The quality of rosé is improving year on year. Traditionally dominated by female consumers in recent years’ good rosé’s similarity in structure and body to red wine is converting more men. Rosé is a genuinely distinct and interesting style, and ­– paired with the recent focus on quality – this category is only heading in one direction. My article expands on the many reasons to take rosé seriously.

Bubbles

It’s no secret that sparkling wine has been growing steadily in all major markets for the last few years. What you may be surprised to know is that it is Prosecco – not Champagne – driving this growth. In fact, according to some experts Prosecco is forecast to outstrip all other sparkling wines, increasing by over 36 percent, versus Champagne’s one percent, over the next five years! The improved availability, quality and value of Prosecco in recent years has made bubbles an everyday luxury rather than one reserved for special occasions. And while Champagne retains its crown of exclusivity, consumers now order Prosecco by name (rather than hiding it) signalling the extent of transformation in this category. Sparkling Rosé is also growing (in keeping with the rosé category’s overall expansion) and Spain’s Cava is finally getting in on this action, with a record 245 million bottles sold in 2016.

At the top end, in Champagne and in fine sparkling segments, brut nature otherwise known as ‘zero dosage’ is creating some noise. The driest of all Champagne styles it contains 2 grams of sugar per litre or less, compared with the 10 – 12g/l in most brut styles. These zero dosage sparklers are much more approachable than they were in the past thanks in part to climate change and the resulting riper fruit. They also reflect a couple of the most pervasive lifestyle trends globally: health and wellbeing, sugar-free and excluding certain ingredients or additives.

The other interesting development at the top end is in ‘Grower’ champagnes. These wines are made by small producers who traditionally supplied the fruit from their best vineyards to the top champagne houses. Making champagne under their own marque gives these winemakers freedom to experiment and they lead the innovation agenda in Champagne with drier, more natural and more exclusive wines. They also explore terroir more than the big boys who focus on house style and consistency from one year to the next.

Lighter Styles

The pendulum has finally begun to swing away from Robert Parker Junior’s rich, overly oaked, high octane red wines. Now we are seeing a movement towards lighter reds with higher acidity, lower alcohol, and less oak. Descriptions such as ‘water-like’ speak to the transparency and freshness which is being put ahead of Parker’s power and presence. White wines are moving along the spectrum towards lower alcohol. Top winemakers looked for 14 percent alcohol in their chardonnay a few years ago, now they look closer to 13 percent. Many of the white wines that are revered today today are dryer, flintier and more mineral than they were a few years ago. Oaked styles like chardonnay are less oaky and buttery, with more acidity and freshness. There is also a renewed interest in true balance to express the site of fine wines.

Organics & Biodynamics

Organics and biodynamics have been making inroads in wine for many years, and can no longer be called ‘up and coming’. The number of organic vineyards globally has almost tripled from 2004 to 2011 and organic wine is forecast to continue its growth. People are often confused about the difference between organics and biodynamics, as both are made from grapes grown without pesticides and chemicals. Biodynamic farming goes a step further and is based on the esoteric practices developed by Rudolf Steiner, which include consideration of lunar cycles when working in the vineyard. A number of top estates around the world use these practices to good effect and while there is little, if any, scientific justification for the practices (from a quality perspective at least), biodynamic growers may well be more dedicated to sustainable farming techniques than the majority of organic producers. Although the continued growth is global and unarguable, biodynamic and organic wines are unlikely to ever become truly mainstream due to their relative cost to produce.

A note on sustainability
Not all organic and biodynamic wines are made from sustainable vineyards. Sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? Well, there’s the carbon emissions created by the greater number of tractor passes through the vineyard (to manage fruit quality without pesticides), use of copper and other chemicals to control disease (which damage soil and resident micro- organisms), and excessive water use (even in regions where irrigation is permitted). There are sustainable farming models that are conventional (i.e. manage
use of all farming inputs to protect the environment) and there are sustainable models that are organic: the organic models are unquestionably best for the environment. NZ wine producers lead the way globally in sustainable viticulture and winemaking practices with over 98 percent of NZ’s vineyard certified as sustainably farmed.



Slow down, you’re here

It’s been a while since I posted: A delicious, lingering stretch free from long-haul travel and it’s accompanying physical and mental fatigue. A blissful down-gearing dedicated to family and friends, domestic chores and beach swims at dusk. Ah, the slow life.

Apparently I’m not the first to discover the joy of this mode.  An i-Phone google in the early hours (old habits die hard) confirmed that there’s a whole global movement geared towards slowing down.  In New Slow City, William Powers sets himself the challenge of slow living, whilst residing in a 31 square metre micro-apartment in the middle of Manhattan.  He fully recommends ‘idling’, focusing on one thing and doing it well, stopping and taking the time to have a conversation, and delaying gratification.

It seems that when we’re able to slow down, we appreciate that the most satisfying things in life aren’t the most obvious, and – for the most part – require time.

Artisans – whether cheese, whiskey or wine makers – have long understood the importance of slow in crafting and enjoying exceptional products.  As consumers we may have ploughed headlong down the rabbit hole of fast, disposable rubbish, but true artisans have kept on doing what they’ve always done, and waited for for the tide to turn.  And it’s starting to.  We’ve been an over-producing first world populated by frenzied consumers for too long.  Eventually the frenzy fizzles, replaced instead by overwhelm or apathy.  In this setting values like quality and longevity are rediscovered.  And with them new values of sustainability and traceability come to the fore.  This is particularly true for millennial consumers, who – having been born into a paradoxical world of hyper consumerism and ecological awareness – are the first generation to ever consciously pay more for a product that is higher quality and sustainably produced.

The rise of craft beer globally is testament to the reach and pull of the slow, crafted ideal. Beer, a product that has long been the domain of behemoth global breweries, rationalised beyond recognition, has at last been reclaimed by small, local brewers.  And the consumers are lining up.

Wine production on the other hand, has been trending the other way (towards rationalisation and FMCG status) for a number of years.  Part of this is to do with the cost of making wine – companies need to acquire more vineyards and bigger facilities to realise economies of scale.  The upsides can be higher product quality, improved value, greater availability for consumers. But if pushed too far, wine rationalisation could undermine the very essence of wine.  Diversity (from grape type, geography and winemaking) and the capacity to age are – in my opinion – the most majestic qualities of wine.

It’s not all doom and gloom in the wine sector though. In New Zealand for example, while there is undoubtedly rationalisation, there is also ongoing interest and investment in the more crafted, premium segment as well.  Nearly 100 new small wineries have been established in the last 10 years.  Also, as noted in my last opinion, premium wine is an exciting category, where ­– alongside vine age and winemaker maturity – wine quality, personality and complexity seems to improve year on year.

After a stint in the slow lane, and as I bend the throttle into another busy year of travel, I find myself cherishing ever more the deliberate steps and contemplative moments that are necessarily part of my tiny winemaking operation. Preparing to label up my Cedalion 2015 wines, which have been resting and improving in cellar for the last 12 months, I turn my mind to the artisan’s conundrum: the desire to retain product so that it will be enjoyed at ‘optimum’ age, versus the need for cash-flow. Of course, business dictates that cashflow must prevail and while the quality of the 2015 wines already exceeds that of the 2014, I can’t help but instill every bottle with a silent wish: that it is enrobed with dust in a loyal customer’s cellar, to await discovery in 5-7 years.

Ways to slow down (and simultaneously rebel against the rationalisation of wine)

Spend some quality time in a good independent wine store

Between supermarkets and online wine retailers many specialist wine stores are now struggling.  The good ones know their niche is in providing expert, face-to- face advice, tastings and access to interesting wines that won’t see the light of day in most major supermarkets.

Get immersed  

Wine tourism is booming.  In New Zealand in particular this a great thing for consumers, as wineries and eateries up the ante to cater to every possible whim.

Whether it’s tastings, workshops, winery tours, music festivals or just a stunning setting for a lunch, never has there been a time where the wine industry has opened its doors so fully.

Delay the gratification

If I sound like Ebenezer Scrooge, it’s for good reason.  If you have the means and the space one of the most fascinating and rewarding parts of being a wine lover is to cellar wine and see how it evolves over time. Up the ceremony stakes by cellaring wine from a special occasion.  Nothing like uncorking the wine you had on your wedding day to celebrate 10 (or 20) years of a good thing.

Share the love

There are tiny wine operations doing amazing things. Literally putting their livelihoods on the line for their craft.  Seek out the good ones and support them.

They may not be able to offer a 3 Michelin star lunch in an award-winning cliff-side monolith, but they’re far more likely to take the time to share their passion over a glass.