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By John Salvi
December 2005

One has to say, right at the beginning, that this was an excellently prepared and organised trip, infinitely better than some of our more recent ones where tasting seemed to be the only aim and object to the exclusion of all else. Here we gave considered attention to the entire spectrum of wine – viticulture, wine-making, maturing, bottling and handling, in equal parts. There was no lack of tasting, far from it, but it was not the be-all and end-all of the visit. Also, although the programme was long, wearing and intense, there was time for some relaxation and some extra-curricular enjoyment – for me principally gastronomic!

In eight days it was not possible to visit all ten of the wine producing regions of New Zealand, but we gave it our best shot. If we did not get to Canterbury, Waipara, Wairarapa, Nelson and Northland, we did indeed get to Central Otago, Marlborough, Hawkes Bay, Auckland and also Waiheke Island. I think that we covered all the principal climatic conditions and all the grape varieties and we went from Latitude 46° to Latitude 36°.

It is surely this wide range of climatic conditions in a relatively small country, and an even smaller wine producing area and industry, that makes New Zealand so exceptional. We were told that the total production was only some 100 Million litres per year, but within this production there is something of everything for everyone and the classical grape varieties, such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet, produce a simply astonishing range of structures, flavours, bouquets and expressions. Here, 200 years ago, there was not a grape to be found, except perhaps in gardens. Today there are at least some, and in a number of places many, from North to South even if less from East to West due to the barrier of the mighty snow-clad Alps in the South and to some over-exposed conditions in the North.

I was happy to find, on the whole, friendly cooperation and rivalry rather than the jealousy, back-biting and denigration of fellow producers so sadly common in France. Wine Makers mainly seemed to share their knowledge and experience with each other and to taste each others wines constructively. They seemed interested in, and conscious of, what their neighbours and their rivals were doing – much more so than in Europe. This goodwill is surely one of the reasons why their quality has enjoyed such phenomenally rapid progress. Before starting the visits, it was said that producers were in need of guidance, would welcome direction and tended to introspection. Personally I found this to be totally untrue. They did indeed welcome, most warmly, anything constructive that we had to say and were eager to exchange knowledge or to know about anything new, but they were absolutely not introspective, enjoyed world vision, seemed to know very clearly where they were going and to be doing a great job of getting there.

For those of us who come from climates such as Bordeaux, although the Latitudes are not so different, the conditions that some of the regions have to cope with elicit considerable admiration. 350mm of rain one side of a mountain and 7-8 metres the other, just a very few kilometres away, with a huge variation even on the same side. As much as a five week variation in picking time of the same grape, in the same region. Living side by side with phylloxera. One of the most splendid remarks of the trip, made in Marlborough, was “let’s not worry chaps. We only have leaf roll 1 and 2, and yes we have phylloxera and a half destroyed root structure, but it is worth soldiering on until the vine keels over”!!

I would have loved to see the famous fault line near Montana, but regretfully there was not time. I was told that you could actually stand with one foot on each side of the rift. Next time, with time, maybe!

Some regions and some Wineries are taking technical know-how to the absolute limit. This is particularly so in Hawkes Bay. Research into Sauvignon is practically Science Fiction and huge amounts of money are being invested in it. Some of these research projects are positively esoteric. It is certainly the only place that I know where a brilliant psychologist is fully employed to interpret what goes on in our mind and our brain when we smell and taste a wine made from the Sauvignon grape. We learned unimaginable amounts of scientific facts and figures. We learned things about which we had never dreamed – reflective mulch for example, and the value to the vine of high ultra violet light. Looking at these white, smashed-up seashells spread around the vines, we were informed that grass has a far red ultra-violet wavelength totally unusable by the vine, whereas the white ultra-violet wavelength from the reflective mulch is 100% usable. High ultra-violet light hurts the eyes but, when reflected, gets light up under the leaves and bunches. All this science worried me a little. We were told that if the Chinese preferred a passion-fruit bouquet on their Sauvignon then it could be given to them. This of course without resorting to fruit flavoured yeasts or any such dirty tricks! The same for grassy or herbaceous bouquets of Sauvignon for the British and other markets, to say nothing of gooseberries, mangoes, peaches and asparagus – the whole vegetable and fruit basket! Is this a good thing? How far can the limits be pushed? Will be Marlborough Research Centre eventually be able to provide a meat or fish smelling Sauvignon for those who want it, or perhaps even a Sauvignon with a bouquet of Chardonnay? Help!! I am told by oenologists here, at the University of Oenology in Bordeaux, that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility, now that the molecules and chemical components forming the particular flavours and aromas have been isolated, that they will soon be able to be added, subtracted, modified, manipulated and adapted at will. This can also be done, to a certain extent, by genomics, turning on or off the different genes. ALL THIS SENDS SHIVERS DOWN MY SPINE. Less research however seems to be going on into frost-resistant, rot-resistant or earlier ripening genes and molecules than into all these flavours and aromas. Surely a healthier, earlier ripening, frost-resistant grape would also have an impact, a good one, on the taste and the bouquet? It may be just sour grapes (which molecule?), but Denis Dubourdieu, the world acknowledged leader in the field of Sauvignon, says, “why are they bothering over there with all that, we know most of this already!”

However some of the science was fun. Who would have thought of importing European earthworms and inoculating New Zealand soil with them, and why? The explanation is that New Zealand earthworms are very large and work too slowly at aerating the soil. Smaller European ones speed things up. Apparently all bugs work slowly here, malo-lactic bacteria as well. This, we were told, is because the metabolic rate of the eco-system is slow in New Zealand due to the isolation of the Islands for such a geologically long period of time (information provided during a Marlborough Pinot Noir tasting). Another splendid throw away statement was “Gimblett Gravel is one large reverse osmosis machine. Comparisons of the latitudes and global climate comparisons were fascinating. The Médoc is at latitude 44.5°, Canterbury at 43.04°, Marlborough at 41.31°, Hawkes Bay at 39.39° and Central Otago 45.02°. The Médoc has vastly less sunshine hours than any of those four New Zealand regions, a little more rainfall than Marlborough and Hawkes Bay but, strangely enough, considerably more heat expressed in growing degree days from October – April.

The other thing that bothers me about all this science is the total lack of passion. There is, quite correctly, no room for passion in pure science and these researches seem to be getting dangerously close to it. I may be old fashioned, but to me wine, like food, music, art, sculpture, painting and sex, arouses passion in the wine-lover or should do! Wine-makers fell almost too neatly into the totally-with, and the absolutely-without, passion camps. This is too black and white!

Naturally the appearance upon the scene of large corporations changes the scene dramatically. Corporations usually have shareholders. They have to keep their shareholders happy, they have to show profits, they have to be businesslike and ipso facto they have to be pragmatic. This does not encourage passion. They are there in a big way in Marlborough and in Hawkes Bay, but they have not yet invaded Central Otago or Waiheke Island. I fear that they may do so in Central Otago as soon as enough fine and passionate wine-makers have shown the way and perfected the recipe for fine wine-making. The outstanding exception to the above tirade about large companies is Villa Maria, where passion abounds, but this is one man and his dream and not an International Corporation.
Now we come to what, for me, was truly and delightfully encouraging and exhilarating. The truly great wines, or should I say the finest wines that we were given to taste during our extensive trip, with the most perfect balance, finesse, purity and elegance, were made with absolutely NO high-tech at all, but by a clearly absolutely brilliant wine-maker brimming over with passion. It was made in open fermenters and by mixing the grapes varieties on picking. Cement vats were used. A clearly brilliant wine-maker, because all the wine at Esk Valley Winery were fine, not just the Bordeaux Blend on the exceptional terraces, but also the white wines which he had never made before or only just – Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris and Verdelho. Congratulations Gordon Russell, your passion shines through!

So where is New Zealand going? I am probably not the man to say. I probably knew less about their wines than anybody else on the trip, having only ever tasted three before I arrived. Also I have been retired for eight years. Retirement however gives me the luxury of not really having to follow market prices and profit margins. I can simply enjoy a wine, or not enjoy it, without relating it to its price and its value for money. It is quite clear, and many New Zealand producers are very proud of the fact, that New Zealand wines are generally more expensive on the shelf than similar level wines from other countries. They are certainly right to be proud of this. At present their production is limited enough, and their wines are flying off the shelves fast enough, to make this entirely possible. Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are on a roll! Fashions change however – look what happened a few years ago to Riesling, although it now seems to be making a comeback. Great Sauvignon is being produced in France, as it has been for a long time, but also in Australia and South Africa, where production is soaring. The long term future may need to be carefully considered. Pinot Noir, in my humble opinion, is the ultimate challenge to the wine-maker. We tasted a lot of good Pinot Noir, and a splendid one at Olssens in Central Otago, but very few that were outstanding. I hope I do not offend too much if I say that they still have a long way to go here. They did tell us quite clearly that Pinot Noir is genetically very unstable, and a lot of scientific work is being done on this. If they come up with a perfectly virus-free and genetically stable plant, I feel sure that we would warmly welcome it in Europe.

Chardonnay abounds, as it does throughout the world, at all levels of quality. Syrah remains, as it does so often, overpowering for those who like to be blown away, but there are some truly splendid and refined Bordeaux Blends which can stand the test of time. I put my money on those, although that is probably no more nor less than most people expect of me after 35 years living in the Médoc.

Before wrapping up I should not omit a mention of the olive oils. A number of wine producers, especially in Central Otago, are producing olive oils of world class standard and the future of such oils on the world market would seem very bright indeed.

I will finish by stating what all of us felt throughout the trip. The hospitality was outstanding, warm and generous to a fault. The food was, on the whole, excellent. Fruits and vegetables were supremely fresh. The seafood is a gastronomic delight and the lamb is all that it is cracked up to be. As both a gourmet and a gourmand, the availability of PAUA (abalone or ormer), and particularly the little Dollar-Paua, now so rare and almost unobtainable elsewhere, was an absolute joy. Central Otago gave me a great idea for saving time when visiting vineyards. The next time that I take a group round the Chateaux of the Médoc, and when time is of the essence, I will offer them a sandwich in a brown paper bag to eat in the car or bus. What a splendid sales pitch!!

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