This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of 'Hotel and Restaurant Times'
They are not Rugby World Champions by accident. Indeed, it took decades of endeavour and patience mingled with several bitter disappointments before the All Blacks finally took ownership of the William Webb Ellis trophy after winning the RWC in 2011.
You could say much the same about the wine growers of New Zealand. They are hardly steeped in tradition, only began to be noticed internationally in the 1980s and have had to capture the hearts, minds and taste buds of wine drinkers who live very far away.
Even to-day the New Zealand wine industry, which produces less that 1% of the world’s wine, is tiny when compared to its Southern Hemisphere competitors in Australia, South Africa and Chile, not to mention the ‘Big Guns’ of Europe. Yet it is, from some perspectives, the envy of the wine world because of its consistency of quality, sustainability of its vineyards and most of all, the premium price which its wines command on world markets.
‘Do What You Do- Do Well’ is an apt axiom for New Zealand. For instance it concentrates on a single sport- rugby union- and has built the All Blacks into the best team in the world. It also has a relatively small portfolio of wines, but again leads the world with its Sauvignon Blanc.
The growing popularity of Sauvignon Blanc, which is chasing Chardonnay in the race to be the most popular white grape variety in Ireland, has boosted New Zealand sales, as indeed has an upsurge of interest in Pinot Noir. Both of these varietals also tend to sell well above entry level price points here and therefore the value/volume ratio of New Zealand wines on the Irish market is attractive.
New Zealand has also been a pioneer in sustainable production with virtually all NZ grapes and wine produced under independently audited sustainability schemes since last year. Indeed at the annual 2013 New Zealand Wine Fair in Dublin, each and every one of the 176 wines shown were certified as being produced in accordance with the ‘Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand’ programme. The wine industry has taken a pragmatic approach to the ‘sustainability’ issue, which is different from the ‘organic’ or indeed, the ‘biodynamic’ philosophies found elsewhere in the wine world. It has a focus on reducing, but not altogether eliminating, the use of chemicals, minimising consumption of water, energy and packaging and optimising re-cycling. It can be argued that this programme makes sound business sense as it reduces costs, but the benefits to the environment on a national and global scale, are also significant. A substantial investment in research is designed to produce further environmental and business dividends in the future.
If you are small, then you must be smart in the wine world and innovation has been a feature of the New Zealand industry for many years. The country’s wine producers pioneered the use of screwcap bottles which are now ubiquitous and they have also been to the forefront in label design.
Sales of New Zealand wines in Ireland have grown on the back of Sauvignon Blanc which was first planted in Auckland as recently as the 1970s. The first commercial wines emerged in 1983 (‘yesterday’ in wine terms) and it took less than a decade for the varietal to become synonymous with New Zealand quality. The lion’s share of Sauvignon Blanc is planted in Marlborough with just 6% in Hawkes Bay. The Marlborough variety is aromatic with a powerful flavour and a zesty character.
New Zealand is also one of the few regions to master Pinot Noir production. The grape was planted as early as 1897 but it was a full century later before quality production took off. Over the past 16 years there has been extensive planting throughout the South Island and in Hawke’s Bay, Gisbourne and Auckland on the North Island. Planting is still only around 5,000 ha. but the average quality is very high.
This was well illustrated during a tasting of Pinot Noir from six NZ regions, held during the Wine Fair. These included Central Otago in the South with its free-draining soil and long Summer days, Waitaki, the newest Pinot region with its maritime climate, Waipara Valley where Summers tend to be dry and cool, Nelson, warmest of the Pinot regions, Wairarapa which has Spring rains and warm Summer days and of course Marlborough, the largest of the Pinot regions with the most ideal climate and soil. Predictably, all the Pinots were perfumed, richly flavoured and supple but there were also discernible differences from the aromatic Bellbird Spring River Terrace from Waipara to the savoury Wooing Tree Beetle Juice from Cromwell Central, Otago. This wine, incidentally, is named after the Cromwell Chafer Beetle, an endangered species found on just one site in the world- 81 ha of sand dunes which have been declared a Nature Reserve.
‘Aromatics’ are also emerging as a New Zealand speciality and include varietals such as Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. Plantings of these three varietals have increased almost fourfold since 1996, albeit from a low base. Riesling has been the most favoured varietal in the South Island and particularly in Nelson, Marlborough and Waipara. The wines come in many styles from the bone dry to the very sweet with the dryer wines coming mainly from cooler Waipara. The grapes are from German clones and producers aim at low yields which are achieved through careful canopy management. The tasting featured Rieslings from Fenton Road (WineKnows), Esk Valley (Barry and Fitzwilliaam) and Richmond Plains (Vintage Roots)
Pinot Gris thrives throughout New Zealand although plantings are relatively small. A distinctive ‘aromatic’, it smells of apples and pears. The tasting included an excellent bottle from Amisfield Central Otago, Pasquale Hakataramea in Waitaki, Babich in Marlborough (Ampersand) and Bilancia in Hawke’s Bay.
Some of the best New Zealand Gewurztraminer comes from Nelson where growers like Te Mania have tamed this notoriously temperamental varietal through careful vineyard management . Villa Maria Single Vineyard Ihumatao from Auckland is available here through Barry Fitzwilliam while Lawson’s Dry Hills is distributed by Febvre.
On the look-out for Irish connections to the New Zealand wine industry I was immediately attracted to a producer called ‘Urlár’, which however happened to be owned by a Scottish couple, Angus and Davina Thompson, who follow biodynamic principles in their vineyards. They translate the name of their estate as ‘Earth’ rather than ‘Floor’, which is a better fit with their enterprise. The wines are distributed by O’Briens.
New Zealand is well represented on the Irish market and distributors include O’Briens (Urlár, Man O’ War), Ampersand (Babich), Edward Dillon and Co. (Cloudy Bay), Febvre and Company (Lawson’s Dry Hills, Craggy Range), Gilbeys (Hunter’s Wines), Liberty Wines (Tinpot Hut, The Paddler, Wild Earth, Grey Wacke, Lani Wines, Ata Range), Findlater Wine and Spirit Group (Matua, Saint Clair Family Estate), Delegat’s Wine Estate (Oyster Bay), The Ciorkscrew Wine Merchant (Pegasus Bay), Irish Distillers (Stoneleigh, Brancott Estate), Classic Drinks (Seifried), Cassidy Wine Merchants (Tiki), Barry and Fitzwilliam (Villa Maria) and Comans Wholesale (Wither Hills, Landauer).
The premium price commanded by New Zealand wines at retail level, also tends to be reflected on restaurant wine lists. The Pinot Noir’s at the tasting for instance would be priced from around €35 to €100 in restaurants and will therefore appeal mostly to those who know the wines and can afford them. In most cases however the quality matches the price and the Pinots as well as the Sauvignon Blancs and some of the aromatics more than justify their inclusion on serious lists.