My Kiwi wine journey 1) Auckland: wine in the suburbs
I’m in New Zealand for two weeks, on a trip taking in most of its wine regions. Along the way, I’ll explore its viticultural history, which goes back further than you think … I’ll taste all the varieties you might expect to find, and some you really wouldn’t … I’ll hear the unlikely story of how Burgundy’s finest grapes ended up over here … I’ll find out why almost 99% of its wines are sustainably made, and what that actually means … i’ll learn more about organic and biodynamic winemaking … and I’ll experience the relaxed cellar door, cafe and occasionally haute cuisine culture that has made New Zealand’s wineries an absolute ‘must’ on any tourist itinerary.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s that chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot gris were planted …
It all begins in Auckland, not the capital, but by far its biggest city. Before I first came to New Zealand five years ago, a good friend, who’d been before, assured me Auckland was boring. Well, it isn’t. For a city of almost a million people, it’s certainly quiet, but it has an exciting food scene, plenty to do, and a wonderful quality of life that stems from a sense of being close to the sea. It also has the nicest supermarket I have ever seen (‘Farro Fresh’) and, just beyond the western extent of its sprawling suburbs, a thriving wine region. Although Auckland’s in the North, so it should be warmer, it’s still a tricky place to grow grapes because of the humidity that encourages bugs and blight. In the early days, this region was known for an odd mix of European crosses, like Müller Thurgau, and fortified wines. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot gris were planted – the grapes for which Kumeu River has garnered much acclaim.
Established in 1944, when Mick and Kate Brajkovich arrived from Croatia’s Dalmation coast, their grandson Michael Brajkovich is now chief winemaker. Modest and unassuming, it’s only my homework that reveals just how influential he is on New Zealand’s wine scene: he was the country’s first Master of Wine in 1989. As he shows off his new ‘cross-flow filter’ (the price of a high-end Mercedes apparently, but worth it for the impact on the clarity and purity of fruit) and his extensive selection of different French oak barrels, he rattles off some of the things that define his style: hand-harvesting (“if you are really interested in quality, you need to be hand harvesting”), reductive winemaking (“it is often taken too far, but some ‘struck match’ is desirable”), and the use of oak (“There’s been a problem in Australia and New Zealand, when we say ‘a little is good, so a lot must be better’, and it isn’t”).
Michael and his team produce a small amount of Gewurtztraminer, some Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, but 75% of their output is Chardonnay. The entry level wines are branded Kumeu Village – and they are the ones I first fell for, a few years ago. I’m surprised to discover that the ‘blend’ also includes a significant proportion (around 30%) chardonnay from Hawke’s Bay, a couple of hundred miles away, which tends to be a bit riper and richer. The next tier is an ‘estate wine’, blending their premium sites, all of it aged in oak. Then there are three top end, ‘single vineyard’ wines; Matés Vineyard (named after Michael’s father), Hunting Hill and Clodington – all of them subtly different, but sharing a wonderful purity and balance, with a classy sense of restraint.
Finally, there’s the sparkling wine, which is something of a passion project for Michael. I’ve been banging on about the virtues of Crémant for a while, but Auckland was the last place I expected to find one. New Zealand has been making sparkling wine for a few years now, but this is a first. If you want to make a Crémant, and import it into the EU, there are specific rules on things like yield and ageing, which Kumeu River is happy to sign up to. So you have EU quality controls/strictures (delete as you see fit) making their way to the other side of the world. Made from two of the three main Champagne grapes, chardonnay and pinot noir, this has all the elegance and finesse you’d expect, a gently savoury biscuit character, with the robust acidity that comes from cool climate grapes, for structure.
Next stop is Cooper’s Creek, founded back in 1980 by Andrew Henry, a former chartered accountant, who vowed to show me something rather different: “wines that aren’t sauvignon blanc, as you’re going to be tasting an awful lot of that”. Incredibly, almost ninety per cent of the UK”s wine imports from New Zealand are sauvignon blanc, so it has been a hero grape for the Kiwis. More than half of the production of Cooper’s Creek is Marlborough sauvignon, however the winery also boasts an eclectic stable of twenty different grape varieties, which include wines you’d expect from a reasonably big Kiwi producer – a Central Otago pinot noir, a syrah and chardonnay from Hawke’s Bay – and those you wouldn’t – a montepulciano, an albariño, a Rhone duo of viognier and marsanne, and even an arneis, a grape usually found in Piedmont.
With Minky, the adorable winery dog, watching on, I sample most of the wines (and really enjoy the 2010 Reserve Syrah), but I’ll focus on those that I didn’t expect to find in New Zealand: my favourite is the marsanne, fresh and long, with citrus, apricot and a bit of fennel root at the savoury end. I also really like the albariño; the sea breezes that buffet the coast at Gisborne provide perfect conditions for this maritime grape and the ‘Bellringer’ offers freshness, zippy acidity and that distinctive sense of salinity. The arneis is interesting aromatically, but a little waxy for my tastes. Many of the Cooper’s Creek wines are imported by Berkmann Cellars, so they can be seen in specialist wine stores and restaurants, including Marylebone’s Kiwi hotspot, ‘Providores’.
“You have to cater for what consumers want” …
The Westbrook Winery, in Waimauku, was established by Croat immigrants more than a hundred years ago, albeit with a different name – and in a different location. Like many of Auckland’s wineries, it has been driven further out by the city’s urban sprawl. Now run by Anthony Ivicevich, the grandson of the founder, Westbrook makes a Gold medal-winning chardonnay, plus pinot gris, pinot noir, a traditional method sparkler, and even malbec, which I wasn’t expecting to find. The latter is at the lighter, herbier end of the spectrum, but it’s the pinot noir I enjoy the most in a delicious ’vertical tasting’ of different vintages that reveals spicy, savoury, decidedly grown-up wines. Sadly, much of the beautiful pinot noir is now going into what they market as a ‘crackling rose’ – a lightly carbonated wine that isn’t to my tastes, but is apparently doing really well commercially. “It’s an entry point wine”, Anthony explained, “you have to cater for what consumers want”.
‘the John Lewis of winemaking’ …
Villa Maria excels at that. I’ve always seen the group as the ‘John Lewis of winemaking’: confident it knows what its customers want, consistent with quality, never cutting corners, and competitive on price.
The brand is a behemoth these days, so it might be a surprise to find that this remains a family firm, with the founder at the helm. It’s certainly a surprise to find vines, a winery, and a cellar door restaurant, on the edge of an industrial zone next to Auckland’s international airport.
Winemaker Simon Fell leads me through a tasting, which kicks off with an innovative, naturally-made lower-alcohol Sauvignon Blanc, that’s made from early ripening grapes, to limit the alcohol conversion. There are, of course, the tiered levels of Marlborough sauvignon that UK consumers know and love, and there’s an intriguing single-varietal sauvignon gris, a grape normally reserved for blending Bordeaux whites, that has a waxy, herbal character. There’s a Cellar Selection Hawke’s Bay syrah, from the glorious 2014 vintage, which is a silky and supple fusion of blueberries, blackberries and sweet spice, with a cool purity. And there’s an incredible single vineyard Seddon pinot noir, from Marlborough’s cooler 2015 harvest, which elegantly balances ripe juicy red cherry with savoury herbs and a smooth chocca-mocca finish.
Villa Maria was established in 1961 by George Fistonich, the son of Croat immigrants, who now has a Knighthood for his services to the wine industry. Sir George has just recently announced he’s handing over the reigns as CEO, but he’s determined to keep up his work as the figurehead for the brand. He’s a real gentleman and I’m honoured to meet him.
What he hasn’t seen in the wine world isn’t worth knowing. Alongside fellow director, and sustainability expert, Fabian Yukich, Sir George talks candidly about the group’s early attempts to go organic: it was apparently “a disaster” because they “tried to do too much, too soon”. They persisted, becoming the first major NZ winery to achieve ‘BioGro’ certification from vineyard to winery, and are justifiably proud of Villa Maria’s record on sustainability: “the desire to leave something for the next generation drives the business”, Sir George tells me. As well as the things you’d expect like recycling, that agenda also extends to more ambitious initiatives including natural lighting, heat recovery and night air cooling, and philanthropic work in the community, including local culture.
There’s little need for cooling of any kind as I leave. With a tropical storm blowing itself out, I cross my fingers for the Waiheke ferry in a couple of days time …
UK stockists: see my suggestions after the last article in the series