New Zealand Industry Strengths & Challenges; California and Southern Italian Discoveries and Top Ten Smart Buys
Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud: New Zealand.
Three sunny summer weeks and a few thousand kilometers later and I’ve scratched deeply into the surface of a country that occupies a place of growing importance in the world of fine wine. Over a mere three decades, New Zealand has earned an envious international reputation for its high average quality wine production, now widely exported to all of the world’s major markets. Sauvignon blanc, mainly from Marlborough, remains the country’s calling card. But the real story, of course, runs much deeper. Read below for some observations on the industry.
And since I was in New Zealand during the media tasting for the March 2nd release, I was able to taste only about half of the new wines on offer. The features are California and Central-Southern Italy, and there are some fine discoveries from each, which I’ve folded into the top ten smart buys.
Those familiar with Frog’s Leap won’t consider this a ‘discovery’, but others unaccustomed to Napa cabernet with moderate alcohol, fresh fruit flavours and even a hint of herbal-green flavour might be pleasantly shocked by the 2010 Frog’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon ($56.95). This winery has long espoused a balanced, fresh, lively style (it’s also farmed organically), and this 2010 is indeed fresh and succulent, with genuinely juicy acids and balanced alcohol (13.9%), not to mention terrific length. Most importantly, this wine gives you the desire to come back for another sip.
In a similar fashion, devotees of balanced and crisp, minerally chardonnay will be pleased with the 2010 Chalone Monterey County Chardonnay ($29.95). Chalone is a perennial favorite for its classy, restrained style, and this 2010 is refreshingly crisp with mouth-watering acids and remarkable flavour intensity, lingering on chalky-limestone minerality. It’s enjoyable now, or hold for a half-dozen years or so.
Quality pinot noir from anywhere in the world under $20 is a rarity, making this 2010 Bonterra Pinot Noir from Mendocino County ($19.95) all the more memorable. Don’t expect a life-changing experience, but this organically grown, mid-weight example is pure and inviting and varietally accurate, with lightly dusty tannins and balanced acidity – a perfect mid-week sort of pinot.
Of the discovery wines from the Central Coast area, the 2010 Vina Robles White 4 ($18.95) is worth a look. It’s an original blend of viognier, verdelho, sauvignon blanc and vermentino, surprisingly subtle on the nose, though the palate picks up the flavour intensity. It’s nicely balanced and contained overall, showing generous but balanced alcohol (14.2%), and above average length.
Central and Southern Italy Smart Buys
Choose carefully from the Italian feature. Vintages has unearthed a few authentic, genuine Italian treasures alongside some undistinguished, internationally styled commercial wines aimed, one supposes, at drawing non-Italian wine drinkers into the category. Topping my list for regional character and value is the 2009 Selvanova Vigna Antica Aglianico ($15.95). This is a wine with a real sense of volcanic minerality; you can clearly taste the rusty iron, tar, scorched earth-like soil profile, allied to tart red and black cherry fruit and dried herbs-pot-pourri-faded flowers. Tannins are fierce and grippy, giving this a distinctively rustic, old world structure. It’s categorically not a fruity wine, but a terrific value for fans of unique, terroir-driven wines. Cellar 2-3 years, or serve with hard cheese or grilled lamb.
The 2010 Terrelíade Nirà Nero d’Avola ($18.95) is made in a similar, if less dramatically rustic vein, tailor-made for grilled or braised game meats. It’s intriguingly spicy and herbal, like roasted green pepper, with black licorice, dried leaves and spiced black cherry fruit. The tannins are also tough and rustic, but coated by generous alcohol (14.5%), balancing the palate and adding succulence.
And other March 2 Smart Buys
Other smart buys worth pointing out include a pair of cool chardonnays: the 2010 Te Awa Chardonnay ($18.95) and 2011 Southbrook Vineyards Triomphe Chardonnay ($21.95). It’s not a stretch to say that the wines from Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, and those from the Niagara-on-the-Lake area of the Niagara Peninsula share some commonalities. Both areas are slightly warmer than the relative mean, and tend to produce fairly generous and round styles while still respecting the cool climate idiom.
Southbrook has really nailed it on the head with this 2011, moving away from a more oxidative/wood-inflected style to an example that’s axed on ripe orchard fruit flavours, even honeydew melon and pineapple tropical fruit, while still maintaining a sense of cool climate restraint. The palate is pure, flavourful, effortlessly balanced with very good length and little wood influence. Te Awa’s example is likewise a classy, elegant and refined barrel-aged chardonnay at an attractive price, in which citrus, orchard fruit and judicious oak intermingle on a balanced frame of acids and alcohol.
And finally I might be accused of hoarding were I not to draw your attention to the 2004 Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva Rioja ($29.95). The Spanish tradition of releasing wines at maturity is largely under-appreciated in a world where the younger and fresher, the better it is. Gran reservas by law can’t be released until their 6th year from vintage, and this eight-year-old wine is in brilliant drinking form right now, with no need for further cellaring (though you can certainly hold onto this for another decade without pushing the limits). It’s a refined, complex, elegant wine, but what I most appreciate is the fine balance between old and new school styles – this sits comfortably between the two, and it’s just about perfect as such. (See my full list of Top Ten Smart Buys here).
My visit to New Zealand was occasioned by the 5th edition of the Kiwi’s celebrated Pinot Noir NZ conference, a triennial affair that attracts a huge delegation of local and international journalists, importers, sommeliers and winemakers. Such has been the success of the conference that it’s enough to mention “I’m going to Pinot” in wine circles, and the meaning is clear. That’s no small feat for a country that had no pinot noir, nor virtually any other vine planted for that matter, prior to the early 1970s.
Following are some observations, including some strengths and challenges ahead for the New Zealand wine industry as I see it. I’m in the process of posting over 300 New Zealand wine reviews on WineAlign from the tastings over those three weeks (even though I tasted many more wines than that), some from the pinot conference itself, others from prior and subsequent visits to wineries on both the North and South Island. My April 13th report will sketch out the major regions with a focus on pinot noir, along with profiles of recommended producers and their top wines, so stay tuned, and colleague David Lawrason who was also in New Zealand has many more reviews, observations, and regional reports to share. And finally, if you’ve never been to New Zealand, or even if you have, you may get a kick out of my personal snapshot of what it’s like to travel in New Zealand. Read it on WineAlign at: On The Road; John Szabo’s New Zealand.
New Zealand: Industry strengths
New Zealand has experienced unquestionable growth in the last twenty years. In 1991, just 12% of wine production was exported. By 2011, that figure had jumped to 70%, with major markets in the UK, Australia and the US (Canada purchases 3% of NZ’s production). There are now over 700 wineries across the country, farming a total of just over 34,000ha, almost exactly the same size as Champagne, a considerable area. Success has been swift and abundant, and here are some of the explanations why.
Minor variations on a theme of terroir
Winery owners and marketers are quick to play the uniqueness and diversity card, as well they should – it’s a sine qua non these days to sell wine at premium prices. But the reality is that New Zealand is not France or Italy, which can be considered an advantage. By this I mean that despite slight variations in climate and soils, New Zealand wines on the whole occupy a relatively small stylistic sphere, focusing on a select few varieties, unlike France or Italy. New Zealand is much more uniform.
The climate is cool. Even in the warmest regions like Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne, the temperature rarely breaks 30ºC. It get’s much hotter in Southern Ontario. The secret to a reliable grape crop lies not with heat but with the relatively dry climate, thanks to the rain shadow effect produced by the stretch of mountains that form the backbone of the country from the North to the South Island. All of the country’s vineyards lie on the east side of the ranges where rainfall is moderate – the west side can see as much as eight or nine meters of rain per year. Sunlight is also unusually intense, with high UV due to the thin layer of Ozone over this part of the planet. Thus sunny, dry, cool, conditions prevail in the majority of regions, with long growing seasons.
The net result is stylistic similarity across grapes: the cabernet blends are invariably more Bordeaux than Napa, the syrah more Rhône than Barossa, the pinot and chardonnay more Burgundy than California. This in turn allows New Zealand to present their wines as a collection of variations on a similar theme, rather than a hodge-podge of radically varying styles sharing only a country code. All marketers know the power of a simple and consistent message; it’s much easier to get across than a complex one. What united message could France or Italy possibly put forth to the world, other than that of bewildering diversity?
One need only look to the obvious example of Marlborough sauvignon blanc and its wild success to see the benefits of consistency. Indeed, if anything negative could be said about Marlborough sauvignon it would be that’s been too successful at being consistent, with one brand barely distinguishable from another. (Interestingly, the way forward now in Marlborough is introducing more variation – more on this in an upcoming article).
Of course there are nuances between regions and producers, between the Wairau Valley and the Awatere valley of Marlborough, or limestone soils of North Canterbury and the schists of Central Otago. But initial success is based on consistency across a region.
Another easy lesson of success is that of a collaborative spirit, evident at every turn in New Zealand (or at least internecine strife was well hidden). During Pinot2013, presentations were divided into regional groups. Producers gave the delegates a collective regional overview before the tastings each morning and afternoon, with several winemakers rising to speak for each region. For the most part, there was a real sense of mutual respect and deference between winemakers, and an understanding that the rising tide raises all boats. My hat’s off especially to the crew from Central Otago, who put together an informal, informative presentation delivered by at least a half-dozen (mostly barefoot), winemakers. There was a fun, unpretentious, let’s-get-together-and-show-the-world-what-we-do spirit that is often absent between producers in the same region, who consider themselves in competition with one-another. The smart ones know that the competition is not with each other, but with the rest of the world. Divided they fall.
Access to market
Another of New Zealand’s strengths appears to be relative freedom from government intervention and open access to market. This is as much a comparative comment on the Ontario wine industry, which has been retarded by antiquated alcohol distribution laws and a quality-incompatible grape growers collective that protects prices, not quality, but the benefits for NZ producers should be outlined.
Like Canada, New Zealand, too, had it’s flirtation with prohibition, in fact a much more serious relationship with it than did Canada. Several NZ counties went fully dry for a period, and some still hold a referendum every three years to gauge the public’s position on the matter. But when the tide changed in the late 1960’s, it was a wholesale turnaround, not a halfway compromise as in Canada. Kiwis have been known for their radical and extreme social experiments on themselves.
Today, NZ wineries are free to distribute in restaurants, private shops, though their cellar door or export. In other words, each producer has equal opportunity access to market, a critical advantage that Canadians especially can appreciate. In order to build a solid export market, it’s critical to have strong following at home. In NZ you can ship a case of wine from the North to the South Island without obscene taxation, or sell in any shop that’s willing to carry your product. That’s something to be thankful for.
Finally, but not lastly, New Zealand as a country also enjoys an enviable international brand image of clean and green, a fact capitalized upon by the New Zealand Winegrowers Association in their key tag line “Pure Discovery”. New Zealand is indeed an environmentally conscious and beautiful country with an understanding of the importance of natural resources, the inescapable consequence of living on a remote Pacific Island. (And this despite early European settlers’ best efforts to chop down as many trees as possible to make way for sheep pasture.)
An initiative to encourage sustainable winegrowing was launched in the mid-1990’s, later called Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, or SWNZ. The key areas of focus were biodiversity; soil, water and air; energy; chemicals; byproducts; people; and business practices. The program has been highly successful: “Participation in SWNZ rose to almost 100% between the launch of the policy and the target date of 2012 — an estimated 94% or more of New Zealand’s producing vineyard area (accounting for approximately 90% of the wine produced) is now SWNZ certified. A further 3-5% of vineyard area operates under other certified organic programs.” (Source: www.nzwine.com/sustainability/) That’s pretty impressive.
Furthermore, wines from vintage 2010 on must have been produced under one of the recognized, independently audited, sustainability programs in order to participate in any of the New Zealand Winegrowers’ national and international marketing, promotional and awards events. Most of the growers I spoke with were very positive about the SWNZ program, and had been motivated to improve their business practices because of it. And once certified by SWNZ, the step to organic certification is considerably easier, so it’s expected that organic production will rise to almost 20% of the total by the end of the decade. New Zealand is certainly not the only country that has launched a sustainable scheme, but it is clearly one of the most successful. This is something that seems to resonate ever-more with consumers around the world.
All industries have challenges, and New Zealand wine has a few obstacles ahead as I see it.
In hand with the concept of sustainability is profitability. A winery that is not profitable is not sustainable. It’s more than a little alarming that several of New Zealand’s most critically acclaimed producers, as I have been informed, are not turning a profit. Growing top quality wine is expensive anywhere, but particularly so in New Zealand. It’s a shockingly expensive country to live in, as I experienced first hand. How will these growers convince the market that their wines are worth enough to make them sustainable? Or will their top wines remain loss leaders, while lower end, volume wines pick up the tab, as seems to be happening in some Marlborough operations in particular? Again, this challenge is hardly unique to New Zealand, but that doesn’t make it any easier to manage. It would be a shame to see the industry consolidate around a safe low to middle-ground range of quality and deprive the rest of the world of some pretty amazing wines.
Relatively high production costs and the need to be sustainable lead to high prices. In regards to pinot noir in particular, prices are aggressive. Good quality, inexpensive pinot noir is hard to come by in any country, but the early promise that NZ pinot would fill in the gaping hole in the market left by Burgundy, namely in the $20-$30 price segment, has never been realized. It seems NZ prices went from zero straight to $35, at least for the good stuff, without stopping in between. Yet to sell for any less would most likely be unsustainable, not too mention that if you can sell in the home market for $50 or more from the cellar door, there’s little motivation to drop prices for export. How this will all work out remains to be seen. In any case, these wines will have to compete with the best from around the world.
In Defense of Deference
In reference to the point regarding the strength of wine style similarity, and the one above regarding profitability, it’s perhaps deference, or a combination of more experience, better understanding of terroir, and a healthy dose of deference that could well become the distinguishing factor that preserves the very top end of New Zealand wine. Matt Kramer’s now infamous thought-provoking (and anger-provoking, too, it seems) opening address for pinot2013, the 2+2=5 speech (actually entitled “Can Atheists Make Great Pinot Noir”), brought the discussion of how to make truly great wine to the forefront of many subsequent talks, speeches and private discussions, so it obviously resonated. (See Alder Yarrows admirably accurate transcription of the speech on his website vinography and don’t miss the amusing, occasionally enraged comments of some readers).
While many seem to have missed the point of Kramer’s talk – it has nothing to do with religion, nor is it an anti-science manifesto, and still less any kind of comparison to Burgundy – Kramer essentially argues that complete and obsessive control over the entire winemaking process, from blocks of identical clones picked at uniform ripeness to a host of other possible manipulations to regularize production, can take you to four, that is, a very good wine. But to get 2+2 to equal five, at least with our current understanding of the unfathomably complicated set of inputs and outputs that result in wine, requires a bit of deference to nature, or terroir, or whatever you wish to call it. The factors that comprise greatness are as yet not fully measurable or quantifiable. Winemakers the world over could well produce more interesting results (along with less interesting results occasionally, too) by slacking off on the reins of control, and allowing for potential “imperfections” to actually make more meaningful wines. Beauty is often in the imperfect. Will New Zealand winemakers have the courage and faith in their terroir to ease off and give it a chance to speak? Authenticity and uniqueness have been proven to command high prices in the wine market.
What was also mostly lost in Kramer’s speech and in the bluster that followed, is the importance of the observer, in this case the drinker. The drinker has to be pre-disposed to believe in greatness in order to find it. There’s no inherent greatness, no ‘5”, in a concoction of molecules in a glass. No doubt most of the scientific community will disagree (see Dr. Jamie Goode’s thoughtful reflection on Kramer’s speech at wineanorak), but for many, I’d argue even most wine lovers, a little perceived mysticism makes for more enjoyment. Deference to a natural process is a better story than rigid adherence to a set of numbers. Clever wine salespeople rarely attempt to wow you with clonal numbers, measurements of brix and pH and titratable acidity. Winemakers in New Zealand and elsewhere can raise the bar on perceived quality with a judicious combination of scientifically sound and deference-imbued wines, and charge sustainably for them.
Also, it must be said, that New Zealanders suffer at times from cultural cringe, a common complex in post-colonial nations, an admission I heard frequently during my travels. As a Canadian I can relate; we too suffer at times from a feeling that our own culture is inferior to the cultures of other countries, or in this case, that our wines are not as good as theirs. As a backlash against the cringe, by the end of pinot2013, it became virtually taboo to even mention Burgundy in relation to NZ pinot noir. Panelists during the final tasting moderated by Tim Atkin were forewarned that any mention of Burgundy would result in an immediate red card (Atkin actually had a set of football style yellow and red cards with him). Only “the place that begins with a B”, or “the MS” (for Mother Ship), were permissible mentions.
It’s surely tiresome to always compare yourself to something else, but conscious and intentional avoidance of any comparisons whatsoever also invoke a bit of a cringe. In the specific case of New Zealand pinot, many of the wines are tremendous, and should have to neither seek out nor avoid bench-marking against other examples from anywhere else in the world. A diminishing cultural cringe and a growing sense of self-confidence borne by time should pave the way for a new and original method of communicating NZ wines to the world.
On the other hand, the flip side of cultural cringe is excessive back-slapping. Some winemakers expressed concern about the growing sense of complacency within the industry considering the already considerable success to date. Perhaps in this respect a little cringe is a good thing, since blinding yourself to everything else is a sure-fire way to cease learning and improving. Winemaking psychology, like fine wine itself, is a fine balance.
All in all, New Zealand’s strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, and the future is bright. And I haven’t even really touched upon the actual quality of the wines. Suffice to search for the top scoring examples on WineAlign and let the wines do the talking. And don’t miss my report for this coming April 13 VINTAGES release, with a focus on New Zealand wines.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier