Cautious Optimism From Kiwi Wine Industry
Sunday 25 August
New Zealand’s national wine body, NZ Winegrowers, has published its annual report and the chair’s opening statement always proves to be a mine of information from the vital statistics in production and sales, to the mood of the country’s wine producers.
This year that mood is cautiously optimistic. There’s plenty of reason for optimism – export value has hit a record high of NZ$1.21 billion and botled exports are up while bulk has fallen. Admittedly, export volumes are down 3 percent but that can largely be explained by the fact there wasn’t a whole lotta wine after a small harvest in 2012.
But the cautious tone in the chair’s report cannot be denied. There’s a fear that we’ll repeat the mistakes of the past, failing to learn from the glut caused by the bumper 2008 harvest.
“It is vital growers and wineries and the industry as a whole, learn from the struggles of the recent past,” says Steve Green, on the first page of his chair’s report.
Hooray, things are going well, but don’t mess it up by making too much wine, he warns. “Optimism should never be unbridled but rather should be market led and fact based.”
It’s no surprise that Sauvignon Blanc remains the country’s major export: the variety accounts for 84.5 percent of all exports and Marlborough’s 18,000ha of Sauvignon Blanc is “more than double the largest Sauvignon Blanc region in France,” the Loire Valley. Yet, some local producers seem intent on discrediting it. “Bitch diesel” and “cougar juice” are just two of the terms, winemakers like to call their bread and butter (see my blog “The Sauvignon Blanc Smear Campaign” from March)
Green, who also owns Central Otago winery, Carrick, clearly feels this negativity surrounding Sauvignon needs to be nipped in the bud, reminding its members that unity and reputation are assets that the country needs to protect. The country is too small to have in-fighting.
He takes the platform to remind the country’s producers of the importance of this aromatic variety. “Without the heft of Sauvignon Blanc, the fight for other styles to establish a ‘New Zealand’ category in the global trade would be so much harder.”
Of course, the country doesn’t want to be accused of being a one-trick pony: “The wine world values the consistency of our flagship wine but it also craves diversity. And in order to be taken seriously at the highest levels New Zealand needs to offer prestigious examples of the most highly regarded wine styles including full-bodied reds and Pinot Noir.”
Certainly, Pinot Noir has made its mark on the wine world but there are world-class Rieslings, Chardonnays, Syrahs and Bordeaux blends that most consumers have yet to realise exist.
Will NZ Wine Dodge The Fonterra Fallout?
Thursday 15 August
New Zealand’s 100% pure image has taken a beating in early August.
New Zealand products sell well in China because they are seen as pure and untainted. However, that illusion was shattered at the start of the month: Fonterra, the New Zealand dairy giant, revealed that products including infant formula were potentially contaminated with Clostridium botulinum, a bacterium linked to botulism, which can be fatal.
The scare prompted recalls of some baby formula products and sparked consumer panic in overseas markets, particularly China, the dairy exporter’s biggest market.
Meanwhile, a report emerged from the Ministry for the Environment declaring that the water in 61 percent of New Zealand’s rivers is not safe to swim due to pesticide run off from intensive farming as well as household cleaning products.
So where does that leave New Zealand’s pure image?
In the shit, claimed Britain’s Daily Mail: an imaginative sub-editor turning 100 percent pure into 100 percent manure.
I can’t say I’m surprised that the purity of New Zealand is in question – when I moved here, I was surprised at the poor public transport system and its backward recycling schemes. Everyone has to own a car here and instead of putting money into trains, buses and cycle lanes, the government builds more roads. One reason New Zealand remains relatively untouched is that the population is a mere 4 million. In my opinion, Kiwis are no more environmentally conscious than western Europeans.
Do the recent events tarnish the purity of New Zealand’s wine and other agricultural products?
Hopefully not, but New Zealand wine producers can’t hide under a rock and hope this will go away. Its slogan is “Pure discovery” and with the Fonterra scare and the dirty rivers story going global there may be questions asked.
So I asked Philip Gregan, CEO of the country’s wine marketing body, New Zealand Winegrowers, about the potential fall-out. “We are always concerned about anything that might affect the reputation of New Zealand wine,” he said.
“New Zealand wine’s reputation rests quite strongly on the reputation of New Zealand so they are somewhat inseparable.”
The country’s wineries need to make sure this doesn’t turn to manure for them, and communication is key. It prides itself on its sustainable credentials (whatever that means to the end consumer): by the end of 2012, 94 percent of New Zealand’s total vineyard area was certified sustainable while another 3 to 5 percent operates under other accreditation schemes. It’s also hoped that 20 percent of the country’s producers will have converted to organics by 2020.
At the moment it’s unclear whether or not the wine industry or any other agricultural product will feel some negative effects caused by the Fonterra PR disaster. NZ Winegrowers reports that it has not received any enquiries relating to the integrity of the country’s wines.
There’s one slightly silver-ish lining, if you scrabble around looking for it: the day after the Fonterra scandal emerged, the New Zealand dollar took a hit against other major currencies. It’s regained strength since, but a weaker New Zealand dollar wouldn’t hurt wine exporters!!
New Zealand Gewurz: A One-Horse Race?
Thursday 1 August
Does Gisborne-based Vinoptima produce the best Gewurztraminer in New Zealand? By a mile. But does it have much competition? Hardly.
Marlborough-based Johanneshof and Te Whare Ra are doing some good things with the variety but the general standard of New Zealand Gewurztraminer isn’t great, in my opinion. They’re very clean but often they’re clean to the extent that they are b.o.r.in.g.
Aromatics vary from vaguely citrussy to richly floral. Some examples taste slightly soapy – like an old lady’s washbag.
While most are full bodied, they lack depth and complexity. Many lack concentration – are the yields too high (You can’t get 12hl/ha out of this baby and expect it to be interesting, not looking at you sauvignon blanc producers) and make up for what they lack with glycerol, sickly aromas or residual sweetness.
While the varietal has naturally low acidity, the country’s cool, maritime climate should bring greater freshness than is evident in the glass.
Why, then, is a producer in one of the country’s warmest wine producing regions making the most interesting and freshest wines?
Nick Nobilo, the man behind the Gewurztraminer-only Vinoptima Estate, believes there are a number of factors that are playing their part. Firstly, there’s the alluvial/clay/silt loams of his Gisborne vineyards. In his opinion, growing Gewurz on stony soils, such as Marlborough “tends to produce a leaner style, certainly pungent but they don’t have texture.” Marlborough growers might not agree, however. Local Gewurz growers have been quick to remind me of my MW notes on Gewurz - it’s all about phenolic drive.
And then there’s the vines. In the 1970’s, long before BRL Hardy (now Constellation) came along and snapped up his family company, Nobilo Wines, Nick persuaded a grower in Gisborne to plant Gewurz in addition to the grape of the day - Muller Thurgau. Over time, the pair selected the 50 best vines from the 500 vine plot, took cuttings and developed their own ‘clones’. While Nick was still tied up with the family business, making gallons of Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurz from the vineyard was winning many awards in New Zealand. After the sale of Nobilo Wines to BRL in 2000, Nick made the move to Gisborne and started his vineyard with cuttings from that very vineyard.
Vinoptima’s top wine is US$70-80 retail, which doesn’t make it accessible to all. Thus it has released a new, less expensive version aimed at on-premise sales. While it can’t match its big brother for aromatics and opulence, Bond Road is a totally different style: structured and taut with less overt aromatics. It’s not a showy all fur-coat no knickers gewurz but focuses on fruit purity and freshness - this is achieved through earlier picking and a lower level of residual sugar than the Reserve wine.
Perhaps my only criticism is release dates: the 2008 Vinoptima Reserve is the current release. It’s drinking well now and while the suggested drinking window is 10 years plus, I’d be cracking on with pulling the cork now (if you can - mine broke in three and then had to be pushed into the bottle, which will be music to the screwcap fan base here in NZ, sigh…) or the next 2-3 years.
Nobilo explains his decision to release so late: “The key element of Gewurztraminer is the phenolics not the acidity. I do a lot of pre-fermentation cold maceration on skins so I get quite a bit of phenolic extraction and phenolics are just tannins. Red wines need time for the phenolics to integrate - so does Gewurz.”
The man has 52 vintages under his belt so he clearly knows a bit although you have to question his sanity concentrating solely on one grape variety that’s a hard sell. Commercial suicide? “It’s had its challenges. But if you are going to produce a Rolls Royce you don’t want to be building Toyotas as well.”
Vinoptima Reserve 2008, Ormond Vineyard
Rich fragrant and honeyed with good aromatic intensity: orange peel, subtle rose petal bouquet. And what a gobfull to follow: intense concentration, full bodied and mouth-coatingly rich. It’a s little hot on the finish (14%) and while the acidity is characteristically low – this being gewurz after all – there’s enough to refresh the palate. An element of grainy tannin on the finish give away the phenolic nature of this variety. For the price, I’d expect a longer finish but it still kicks the rest of the country’s Gewurz into touch.
Tasted: 14 July, 2013
Vinoptima Estate Bond Road 2009
This ain’t a showy gewurz: focusing on fruit purity and freshness. Pale gold green in appearance. Closed nose - not the whack of fruit expected: there’s citrus and a very subtle rose petal note but you really have to work at it to get it - Nick later reveals that it was picked early. Taut on the palate, there’s a freshness you don’t find in the other examples. Very pure with good concentration of fruit, which integrated the 14% alcohol well. Linear finish.
Tasted: July 14, 2013
Why The Kiwis Can Still Make ‘Prosecco’
Tuesday 9 July
In 2013, New Zealand wine producers are still permitted to use terms like Chablis and Port to describe their wine styles. One Marlborough producer even makes “prosecco” from riesling, muller thurgau and pinot gris and it’s all perfectly legal.
The murky issue reared its head when the wine association Napa Valley Vintners recently crossed the Pacific to register the Napa Valley name as a trademark with the Intellectual Property Office in New Zealand to prevent any “potential for misuse of the Napa Valley name.” I can’t think of anyone who uses the term Napa - or would want to use it - to describe a Kiwi wine but I hope they enjoyed their visit.
However, Napa can only register as a trademark in New Zealand and not a Geographical Indication because New Zealand doesn’t have a Geographical Indication registration system – yet.
While the rest of the world has been given the cease and desist warning from Europe over its prized wine regions, New Zealand has been enjoying a rather long holiday from these legal constraints. A Geographical Indications Wine and Spirits Act was passed in 2006 but seven years later, it still hasn’t been brought into effect. The Prime Minister, John Key, has been too busy commentating on televised cricket matches and attending other equally important events!
But the national wine association, New Zealand Winegrowers, has petitioned the government to remove the digit and finally implement this GI registration system.
The industry body hopes that it will come into force in 2014, as it would provide a higher level of protection for the country’s wines overseas and force regions to define their regional identity formally. Moving into China and other less well-established markets means Kiwis are rightfully keen to register regions including Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay as GIs
John Barker, general manager of advocacy and trade for the country’s wine association, New Zealand Winegrowers, says: “It’s about being able to tell your story. The opportunity with the GI is to really work with the regions and coordinate those stories. You have to generate quite a lot of information to apply for a GI: climate, geography, history, social structure, there’s an opportunity for us to pull all that together. When you have everybody with their regional stories built on the same basis it gives us a lot more depth to what we are doing.”
However, the implications are enough to cause a migraine: when the act comes into force every GI across the wine world can be registered if they wish. Any region from Anjou to Zakynthos could turn up in New Zealand with their registration form. The paperwork could be enormous.
A consultation paper is expected from the New Zealand government in the next few months and perhaps that will lead to greater legal protection for Kiwi wines overseas and imported wines over here. Or, perhaps we’ll be waiting another seven years.
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.