Waitaki Waves Goodbye To Key Producer
Thursday 18 April
The Waitaki Valley aims to make its name as New Zealand’s 11th wine producing region.
Wine growers have been attracted here by its cool climate and outcrops of limestone.
At this early stage in its development, the region has already managed to impress with elegant, finely structured aromatic whites and pinot noir. And, it seems an ideal location to make traditional method sparkling wines in the future.
The Pasquale family was one of the first to take the plunge. Leaving northern Italy for New Zealand in 1997, academic Antonio Pasquale saw the potential of the Waitaki, and its offshoot - the almost unpronounceable Hakataramea Valley. “The cool climactic edge here, along with the limestone soils, is ideal for wines of crispness, concentration and lasting minerality,” predicted Pasquale. “Great wines can be made here.”
But it hasn’t been plain sailing. The climate is marginal, making grape growing a risky pursuit. Spring frosts are common; cool weather and winds can ruin flowering, slashing potential yields. In 2007, some producers didn’t set a berry while Central Otago, just 180km away had a small but high quality crop. In addition, Waitaki’s harvest period is the latest in the country: most regions have finished picking by the end of April but it can be as late as mid-May here. While that’s a big risk for growers, it also means that the wines can have incredible aromatics, firm acidity and moderate alcohol levels.
American-owned Craggy Range released some impressive crisp whites in 2008 and 2009 but soon called it a day in the Valley. It simply didn’t make economic sense to produce wine in the region.
And that’s one of the major reasons why one of the region’s pioneers, Antonio Pasquale, has also decided to throw in the towel after 14 years.
Pasquale has planted over 100,000 vines in the Valley and, in 2009, built and equipped the area’s first and only winery.
The winery’s aromatic whites were particularly exciting and its Marcel Deiss-esque blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer - Alma Mater - stood out as interesting and unique.
However, it’s not just the challenging climatic conditions that make life difficult for local wine producers to make money.
Kurow Winery’s general manager Renzo Miño says its location (in the village of Kurow a.k.a. Nowheresville) was also a factor. “Small wineries rely on having a good proportion of direct sales, and our location really is the middle of nowhere with limited passing traffic, despite the development of an attractive cellar door and café. The cost of growing and hand-harvesting our low-yielding vines is reflected in the high quality and cost of the wine in bottle. Our pinot noir vines, for example, have only 20 percent of the yield found in Marlborough, and hand-harvesting is dramatically more expensive than using machines. The third factor is the risk, mostly from weather, that can wipe out a harvest every four or five years.”
What happens to the region’s only winery is undecided. It may see the region revert from wine production back to a purely grape-growing area with its wines made elsewhere, admits Pasquale. Alternatively, local growers may take ownership of the winery themselves.
It’s a sad reality that this potentially exciting region may not get to fully realize its potential. Let’s hope those remaining - Ostler, Valli, Forrest and friends stick it out.
Next Level Sauvignon Blanc
Thursday 11 April
“Brightness of fruit and acidity is the signature of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc,” says Brancott Estate’s winemaker Patrick Materman.
This signature style has put the New Zealand region on the world wine map but its makers aren’t stupid: they saw what happened to Australian Chardonnay and it wasn’t pretty.
While Materman admits that “99%” of Brancott’s production will continue to be the exuberant thiol-driven style we are familiar with, Kiwi producers have been experimenting with different techniques in both the vineyard and winery in an effort to retain our interest in the longer term.
“Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has been about clean fermentation, hands off [winemaking], stainless steel, cultured yeast, with very little winemaker influence,” explains Materman.
“The movement in the last few years has been how do we add extra elements of interest, including palate weight, a textural element, complex sulphides.”
And how to do that? The use of oak has been on the increase since Sacred Hill launched Sauvage in 1992 and Cloudy Bay released its first Te Koko four years later. Producers started with small barrels – and many continue to do so – but larger formats including puncheons and older oak seem to be more compatible with this aromatic varietal.
Wild ferments are also considered to be an important contributor when it comes to adding extra layers of savoury complexity. Malolactic fermentation and lees work can also play a large role stylistically on the final wine. The malolactic leads to a fall in acidity and linearity while lees stirring adds palate weight and texture. These are stylistic decisions the winemaker must take: do you want to produce a linear style or a more voluptuous Chardonnay look-alike?
There’s also another factor involved in creating a more complex style of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc: money.
“Marlborough stands out in the world stage but we have not commanded high prices for the wines.”
The question, Materman asks, is: “How do we command aspirational prices?”
Unfortunately for Sauvignon Blanc, it isn’t a varietal that commands high prices – Didier Dagueneau and notable Pessac Leognan estates excepted.
Good luck to Brancott Estate, which is charging $80 for its new Sauvignon Blanc, Chosen Rows. Apparently it’s a hand-sell but there will need to be some pretty intense arm twisting to persuade customers to spend that sort of money on a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, no matter how good it is.
The Sauvignon Blanc Smear Campaign
Friday 15 March
Imagine that you are in Mendoza. You’re visiting local wine producers in the region but it becomes apparent that they don’t think much of Malbec – and they’re not afraid to be vocal about their disdain for the wine region’s most important export. It doesn’t seem like a wise marketing technique, does it?
But that’s what is happening in New Zealand.
Sauvignon Blanc, which represents more than 80 percent of the country’s wine exports by volume, is being derided very publicly by the very people that make it. It won’t be long before the derisory phrases such as “Bitch diesel” or “Cougar juice” filter down from the industry to the public domain. And then what?
The very down-to-earth New Zealand wine industry could create an image of an elite serving up wines they wouldn’t drink themselves to an ‘ignorant’ consumer. Warning: the consumer doesn’t like to be belittled. They’ll find someone else’s wine to drink who values their custom and their tastes. It’s a PR disaster that needs to be stopped right now.
I admit I’m no cheerleader for the exuberant passionfruit and herbaceous sauvignon blancs that have put New Zealand on the map. Drinking it is comparable to meeting a really intense person at a party: fine for the first 10 minutes but you wouldn’t want to spend the whole night with them.
But my livelihood doesn’t depend on selling the variety.
While I appreciate producers are passionate about their delicious off dry Rieslings and fine Pinot Noirs and want to sell more of these styles, they don’t pay the bills.
So for those who don’t like Sauvignon Blanc but sell it – and the minority that don’t make it and are part of the New Zealand wine industry – keep your opinions to yourself.
New Zealand Vanishes - EU Blamed
Tuesday 5 March
Date: 4 March 2025
New Zealand was yesterday hit by the world’s rising waters, submerging the country’s 4 million people and 31m sheep. What a baaaastard.
The world must bid a fond farewell to New Zealand lamb, the All Blacks and Marlborough sauvignon blanc.
It is a sad loss. But let’s face it, New Zealand was a nation at the end of the world. Next stop, penguins on the South Pole. And will we really miss Kiwi savvy? The Chileans will be pleased to see their major competition literally sink – or how about Argentine Torrontes, which has been really making headway in the Russian market since Putin banned vodka production in 2020.
While global warming experts are proclaiming this is the start of the end of the world as we know it, conspiracy theorists are claiming that is all part of the European Union’s grand plan to finally win market share back from new world producers and reduce the wine lake once and for all.
It has been reported that Frenchman Philippe Fillop, agricultural commissioner for the European Union, is envious of the success of New Zealand’s pinots and sauvignon blanc in his native country. The federation of militant wine producers have recently been throwing Kiwi lamb chops at their local mairies in disgust at soaring sales of Marlborough sauvignon blanc in Carrefour.
Reducing the world’s wine oversupply has been top of Fillop’s list since he took charge in 2015. At that time, he was certain that China, India and Brazil were going to come to the wine world’s rescue, by drinking more and more wine. Instead, the BRICs continue to sup beer and spirits, sticking two fingers up at wine.
So, thinking that no one would really notice if New Zealand fell off the bottom of the earth - it was almost dropping off anyway - did the EU call in the heavies?
If so, it’s a sign of things to come. The Kiwis produced just 1 percent of the world’s wine. Yesterday’s submersion has not made one iota of difference to the world’s oversupply - particularly since New Zealand recently sent its entire 2024 vintage to the U.K. in bulk for Tesco’s own label Saver Sav, keeping the shelves piled high.
It would have been more effective to get rid of the Austrians or Moldovans, which produce more wine than New Zealand ever did but landlocked countries are a tricky proposition to obliterate.
Benchmarking New World Pinot Noir
Thursday 21 February
There’s no escaping Burgundy when you’re at a Pinot Noir conference. The French region makes the world’s finest examples that most of us can’t afford unless we forego several mortgage payments. It’s inevitable that any Pinot Noir producer would like to achieve the heady heights in terms of quality.
This is benchmarking - the process of determining who is the very best, who sets the standard, and what that standard is. Any ambitious producer in any industry – wine or not - is right to do this because to live in a world where there is no context is to be drifting aimlessly on a sea of bulk wine.
Yet there has become an aversion to comparing Pinots from New Zealand and elsewhere to Burgundy.
Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines in Sonoma and Burn Cottage in Central Otago made it clear that he thought comparisons to Burgundy were unhealthy for New World producers in a speech at the Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir conference two weeks ago.
“Look inward,” he said. “Do not measure all things against the Old World. And above all do not see Burgundy as a measuring stick. We must be like Odysseus, lashing ourselves to the mast of the ship in order to resist the siren song of the maidens of Burgundy.”
I agree with Ted that New World producers should not set out to make a Burgundy-like wine if they’re in New Zealand, Australia or Oregon.
Yes, it should be about getting to know your land better and the wines it produces but for those of in the world of communication and education, it’s another matter.
I compared the wines of the Omihi subregion of Waipara to Pommard at Pinot 2013 and it was as if I had talked about Lord Voldemort at Hogwarts. Tumbleweed moment. I make no apology for it. It provided context. These wines are powerful, dense and meaty and when you compare them to Pommard, those not familiar with the wines of Omihi (which are a fairly sizeable group) gain an immediate sense of style.
I agree that wine producers and wine writers should not put Burgundy on a pedestal - let’s face it, the region makes a lot of crap. Take a 10 euro prix fixe lunch at a restaurant in Beaune and you’ll be able to taste wines that aren’t worthy of salad dressing.
I agree that New Zealand Pinot Noir cannot be anything else but New Zealand Pinot Noir – just like Oregon, the Mornington Peninsula and friends. They’re recognizable, inimitable and can be bloody good. But for those of us trying to describe what the wines are like to a wine savvy audience that needs a benchmark, I’m afraid the region-that-shall-not-be-named is the best benchmark we have for the foreseeable future.
In time, we’ll be able to kick those comparisons to the kerb but we are not there yet.
I’m looking forward to that day and thankfully it doesn’t seem too far away for Kiwis. The New Zealand wine industry’s growing maturity was evident at the Wellington Pinot conference in January. There’s a burgeoning sense of self and an attitude that says “This is who we are, this is what we do, and if you don’t like it, plenty of other people do.” There’s a confidence and a pride that has emerged, which wasn’t in evidence at the last Pinot conference in 2010. Long may it continue.