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I recently received this question from NZ journalist Lee Suckling:
I’m writing an article about the reputation of New Zealand wines internationally, specific to buyers, restaurateurs, and consumers themselves (rather than the professional palates and awards teams).
A Kiwi distributor sent me the following outline of her experience in Northern Europe, Asia and the USA.
Re: the “TRUE perception” of NZ wines overseas:
“I was shocked to realise that our wines are generally considered to be:
- from poor vineyards on the wrong sites – generally on valley floors rather than on slopes where the best vineyards are normally planted
- bad plantings – wide rows, wide vine spacings vs dense vine plantings
- bad clones – a lot of our clones were brought in for quantity not quality, so unless people are active in seeking great clones we are stuck with a lot of inferior genes
- very chemical focused, conventional farming rather than more natural farming techniques – leaving the soils and plants ‘dead’ rather than brimming with life via organic and biodynamic farming methods
- irrigation – dilutes flavour intensity
The combined effect of the approach above means our wines are generally not of the quality, or style, that international markets are looking for. “
This is a very interesting question and probably the most important one to ask for the future of the NZ wine industry.
I have just returned from a month in France. This is the 2nd year in a row when I have been lucky enough to be able to do this.
There has been a quiet revolution taking place in the Appellation controlled regions in particular. All of the points below are highly relevant to their great uplift in quality and consistency.
- The best sites are well known and understood
- Row spacings are determined by optimising the light and heat that the vines are exposed to (and not the width of their tractors)
- Clonal selection is part of long evolution
- Most of the best producers are converting to organic and biodynamic farming (although I have never seen antifungal spray getting banged in harder anywhere)
- Irrigation is banned in a lot of the best appellations (This is simply not possible in regions like Marlborough where vines actually start to shut down and die within about six hour of being cut off from water in the growing season. This is where it gets a little complex. Most French growers in water limiting Appelations cultivate heavily so as to chop of the lateral roots of the vines so they burrow down looking for water. So even though they may be shifting to organic and biodynamic farming methods, on average there is probably more disturbing of the soil structure going on in French vineyards than in New Zealand ones.)
New Zealand is fortunate, in my view, in that it has without any doubt, the best pure fruit flavours in the world. This has enabled NZ to produce some of the best value premium wines suitable for everybody but the highly sophisticated drinker. NZ does this easily.
The trouble is, you need that highly sophisticated drinker to have the complete country brand. Without that, you competitors will eventually undermine you. You would not believe what the Australian trade is saying about Central Otago Pinot, for example.
From our On-Premise research into the UK market (our Canadian research produces very similar results) you can see that although NZ scores well in terms of having few wines listed at low price points. NZ performs poorly, however, when it comes to listings above £60 per bottle. France, the US, Italy and even Australia have much greater share of their listings above these price points.
To make these wines, New Zealand has do address all of the points above. A small group of producers do this now but there really needs to be a transformation in terms of what smaller producers are looking to achieve in terms of quality and price points both for them to survive economically and for the NZ industry to maintain and build its reputation.