Eight out of 10 bottles of wines are bought in the supermarket in the UK. What a sorry state of affairs for independents. Add the fact that promotional offer is the most influential factor in a British man or woman’s buying decision and market looks like a dismal prospect.
But don’t despair! The latest research from YouGov poll suggests there is a place in our hearts and shopping baskets for specialists and wine merchants. The survey shows that wine drinkers actually value expertise and variety of choice above price, despite more than half (53%) admitting they didn’t buy wine from their local wine merchant.
Interestingly this contrasts with previous research by Wine Intelligence that suggests recommendation by shop staff is fairly low in importance when it comes to buying wine. Their 2008 survey showed us Brits were most influenced by grape variety and promotional deals.
However, if the latest YouGov research is to be believed then things are looking up for wine merchants with a decent range and informed staff. Most British adults buy their booze from the supermarket (74%) no doubt because it’s convenient and there are some pretty decent ranges (M&S & Waitrose, in particular). But the indies need to start playing the card that they are for everyday drinking, not simply special occasions.
The research also shows that drinkers aged 45 and over, especially women, are least likely to buy from their local wine merchant. Is it because it’s intimidating, perhaps? These women have money in their pockets and love wine. Go out there and entice them through your doors. Give them a reason to shop at your store, and they will come.
I’ve been asking myself whether Hawke’s Bay should be concentrating on Syrah or Bordeaux blends for a few months now – and it seems the same question is floating around on Waiheke Island.
Bordeaux blends initially put the island on the map but Syrah is now creeping up behind it and making a big splash.
Syrah is my favourite grape variety so I’ll admit I could be a bit biased but in my opinion, the Syrahs from Waiheke better reflect their sense of place than Cabernet blends. Feel free to disagree but that’s the way I see it.
The Bordeaux blends are very good, often elegant (although some aren’t so good: I don’t think Cabernet and American oak go together) with black ripe fruits, firm tannic structure and medium to high alcohol.
There are green capsicum (even brussel sprout) notes found in many Cabernets here alongside a ripeness of fruit and tannin that you don’t find in Bordeaux. The green aromas are not unpleasant at all (hey, it’s Cabernet’s varietal character) but in a cooler year, ripening can be an issue. Neil Culley, founder of Cable Bay says, “The Cabernet sites need to be warm right to the end of the season so they need to be in the middle of the island or sheltered sites.” Cool sea breezes scupper Cabernet’s chances of ripening and some sites are certainly not suited to it.
But the Syrah screams class in a glass. It’s unique and performs consistently year to year. Yes, it’s a vigorous little bugger but on a low vigour site and with careful management, boy is it characterful.
Daniel Schuster (no relation of Michael), a flying wine consultant with Stag’s Leap and Chateau Palmer on his CV, says, “There are Bordeaux varieties here and it is obvious they are working. But the Syrah is the closest I have seen to classic Rhone. They have Syrah that doesn’t taste like marmalade, full of American oak.” Which Syrah producing region are you referring to, I wonder Danny?!!
The Syrahs here are full of blackberry, violets, floral notes and, although many try to deny their wines are peppery, they are. Get over it – some of us kinda like it.
If I were a producer on Waiheke, I’d be planting Syrah and I think this should be the Island’s flagship. Duncan McTavish, winemaker at Man O’War, the island’s largest producer, says, “I don’t think we necessarily need a flagship. The two can co-exist. We built our reputation on Bordeaux blends. Syrah is the new kid on the block and it has made a big statement early on. But we can’t focus on one to the detriment of the other.”
Summer is drawing to a close in Auckland. The chilly mornings are making it increasingly difficult to haul myself out of bed to do an hour’s MW study before starting work. But at least we’ve had a decent summer – which is more than you can say in England most years.
Waiheke Island is just 35 minutes by ferry from Auckland CBD and temperatures are two degrees C warmer on average than the nearby city. The occasional downpours we’ve had in Auckland have failed to reach Waiheke’s shores. It is experiencing the worst drought on record, which go back 50 years.
The vines seemed to be holding up remarkably well considering no-one on the island irrigates their vines (or so they claim – if anyone does irrigate, they were hiding it well). Most of the vineyards sit on clay-based soils which are renowned for water retention (Bordeaux’s right bank based on clay usually does well in dry years while the left bank based on gravels does well in wet years). In the words of David Evans, owner of Passage Rock “Clay soils hold on to the water quite tightly then release it slowly.”
Hawke’s Bay producers would probably like to donate some of their water with rainy day after rainy day. While there are often parallels drawn between the two regions which make Bordeaux blends and Syrah, Nick Jones of Mudbrick says, “Waiheke is a different world to Hawkes Bay. We seem to do well in even years and they get good results in odd years.” It’s not particularly scientific but it does have some legs.
Producers are optimistic about this year’s harvest. Of course, they’re going to tell a journalist that but looking at the vines and tasting some of the grapes, there’s no reason to believe otherwise. There were a few stressed parcels but if they’re picked relatively soon, they should be ok. The Cabernet Sauvignon was still green as hell and eye-wateringly sour but that’s to be expected of a late ripener and they won’t be harvested for at least another three weeks while the Viognier was sweet and tasty and was fermenting late last week. Neill Culley, founder and winemaker at Cable Bay was pressing his Viognier when I showed up and he is looking to make a wild yeast, barrel-fermented Reserve Viognier for the first time this year (you heard it here first) but it all depends on what goes on in the cask in the coming months.
New Zealand has put itself on the red wine map making some pretty impressive Pinot Noir but the variety faces some stiff competition from Bordeaux blends and Syrah.
At Waiheke Island’s Passage Rock winery, co-founder and winemaker, David Evans says, “Sometimes I wonder why we are shouting so much about Pinot Noir when we make so much great Syrah.”
David and his Swiss wife returned to New Zealand in the early ‘90s and initially thought they were going to focus on Merlot - perhaps that was something to do with drinking trends at the time or the fact they’d just visited Pétrus a few months earlier…
The producer is more focused on Syrah today but does make a dense Merlot as well as several Bordeaux blends. “Bordeaux varieties are great in a great year but the Syrah performs much better. It’s more consistent and more exciting.” During the rainy and cold 2001 and 2003 vintages, Cabernet Sauvignon was “horrible” yet Evans claims he has not had a bad year with Syrah.
After tasting the wines, the Syrahs are the star of the Passage Rock show with attractive violets, blackberries and cherries on the ’08, a fleshy palate and chunky ripe tannins. At $30 a bottle, it represents pretty good value for money compared to some of the other producers on the island.
In the next few blogs, I’ll be looking at whether Waiheke Island does Syrah or Bordeaux blends better, a problem called Brett, the worst drought since records began and, Blackpool…
How wineries can rub a journalist up the wrong way in three easy steps:
1. On arrival, don’t tell them you are too busy to host them for the dinner as arranged, leaving them with no time to arrange anything else. “There’s a restaurant at the hotel,” I am informed. They have clearly never eaten there.
2. Do have the technical sheets ready in case your visitor wants to know the finer details. Don’t suggest they can go on the winery website after the visit.
3. Do take the ten minutes to drive your visitor back to their accommodation as pre-arranged. Don’t suggest they could walk (“although it might be a bit far” particularly with an overnight bag) then call them a taxi, leaving them to cover the fare.
That is not what I call good press relations. Yes, it is currently harvest time at Stonyridge, but just because you make a ultra-premium $220 wine and there are some Malbec grapes cold-soaking does not mean you should treat any visitor this way.
I am certainly not a prima donna but I have never felt so unwelcome on a winery visit. It really makes me wonder how the public get treated when they visit the cellar door.
Thank goodness the other producers on Waiheke island were more hospitable.