In Vino Veritas: Surprising New Zealand Wine

A different wine tasting ...

The invitation was impossible to resist.

In association with Wine Channel TV we’re celebrating Waitangi Day (NZ’s National holiday) with a virtual wine tasting and cooking demonstration – and you’re invited to ‘come along’! With a NZ winemakers in attendance and online, and a live audience in Chicago, you’ll have the opportunity to message in questions as you sip along with us from the comfort of your living room. Gather up a group of friends, register, and tune in with fellow-wine lovers from around the globe for this fun, social way to taste and learn about New Zealand’s finest wines!
Winemaker Sarah Burton of Cloudy Bay will be co-hosting the wine tasting, while Chef Bill Kim of Urban Belly will be preparing mouthwatering dishes with Cervena Natural Tender Venison and New Zealand King Salmon.
Be sure to stock up with a few bottles of our featured wines at a participating retailer beforehand. To stay up-to-date with #nzwineday news including competitions, participating retailers and restaurants, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
See you online!   – The Complexity Team

 I’ve written a good deal about New Zealand wines and did research fieldwork there a few years ago, so what could be more interesting than to catch up with developments via a virtual tasting? Complexity, I learned, represents 21 of New Zealand’s best wineries and was the organizer of the  Waitangi Day tasting.  I signed up for the program and lined up some research assistants to help out with the heavy lifting.

As the big day drew closer I began to wonder what the program’s theme would be?  Yes, tastings are always about the wines (and Complexity would be sure to showcase its clients’ best products), but the wines need to be part of a larger narrative. What message would we find in the bottles? Looking at the list of wines we would be tasting (see below) I could imagine several possible story lines.

Beyond Marlborough

Mike and Ron

New Zealand wines have been very successful in the U.S. market in recent years — Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinean Malbec are the fastest growing import segments.  Perhaps the tasting would argue that there is more to New Zealand than Marlborough?

This theory was backed by the inclusion of wines from Auckland, Gisborne, Hawkes Bay and Martinborough on the North Island and Central Otago and Nelson in the South. New Zealand is a surprisingly large and diverse country in terms of wine terroirs and the tasting’s theme could easily be “Marlborough … and Beyond.”

Beyond Sauvignon Blanc?

You could say the same thing about Sauvignon Blanc. Despite the success of NZ Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc is still the defining factor for the New Zealand export brand. And that’s a good thing I suppose given the huge amount of it that is now produced and must find markets abroad.

There is some comfort in having one of the world’s most successful regional wine brands, but there is also some anxiety. Mark Twain famously advised that his readers should put all their eggs in one basket — and then watch that basket! — but diversification remains the conventional wisdom.  Sauvignon Blanc, yes. But Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Cab, Syrah and more — that might be a useful message.

Avoiding the Shiraz Trap?

Or maybe, I thought, the theme would be complexity (is that too obvious for an event organized by a company called Complexity?). Wine regions sometimes fall into a stylistic trap — a popular and successful type and style of wine emerges and pretty soon everyone is making a stereotype version of it. Individual differences disappear and a certain sameness settles in. It has been said that this was part of the downfall of Australian Shiraz. It would be easy for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to fall into this kind of trap and maybe NZ Pinot Noir, too. Some people say it has already happened, at least at the lower price points.

It would make sense that you might choose wines for the tasting that are really distinctive that would reinforce the idea that New Zealand is many things, not just one, and that the different wine regions and makers offer a complex pallet for the adventurous wine drinker’s palate.

In Vino Veritas!

So which message did we find when we pulled the corks (2 bottles) and twisted the screw caps (4 bottles)? Well, actually I never learned what the scripted message was because technical difficulties prevented many of us online from viewing the video feed and interacting with the studio guests until the tasting was almost over.  Whatever message was there was lost on us.

That left only the wines to speak for themselves and In Vino Veritas, as they say. So my team focused on them and here’s what we think they have to say:


All three of the possible story lines just mentioned emerged from our tasting of six bottles of wine, but a bigger theme surfaced: surprise! Although we all know New Zealand wines pretty well and enjoy them, these wines surprised us and made us rethink them.

The Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc was the essence of what we expected — the classic wine taken to its logical extreme so it made us think about what we really look for in Marlborough SB. Then we sampled the Cloudy Bay Te Koko and wow was it something completely different! Is this a New Zealand wine? Is it even a Sauvignon Blanc? Quite a long discussion took place as we tried to make sense of two wines so different along such different dimensions.

The two Pinot Noirs (from Escarpment and Seresin) went in opposite directions, too, and personal favorites changed and changed back as the wines developed in the glass.

The Craggy Range Syrah that ended the tasting for us was another stunner — a distinctive interpretation of the Gimblett Gravels terroir that encouraged both conversation and introspection. A real stereotype-breaker.

The wines really did speak for themselves in this case and, if they told the truth, then maybe it is time to reconsider what we think we know about New Zealand wine.

Full of surprises


 Thanks to the folks at Complexity for inviting us to participate in this interesting event. Thanks to Mary, Ron (and Coco) and Sue for their work decoding the NZ wine message. Here is the list of wines we tasted.

WINE LIST (the wines we tasted are marked with *)

Flight 1

Quartz Reef, Methode Traditionelle NV, Central Otago

Nautilus Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough

Cloudy Bay Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough*

Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough*

Ata Rangi Sauvignon Blanc, Martinborough

Flight 2

Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay, Auckland*

Pegasus Bay Semillon Sauvignon Blanc, Waipara

Neudorf Moutere Riesling, Nelson

Spy Valley Envoy Pinot Gris, Marlborough

Vinoptima Gewürztraminer, Gisborne

Flight 3

Seresin Rachel Pinot Noir, Marlborough*

Vavasour Awatere Valley Pinot Noir, Marlborough

Escarpment Pinot Noir, Martinborough*

Palliser Pinot Noir, Martinborough

Craggy Range ‘Le Sol’ Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay*

Flight 4

Felton Road Bannockburn Pinot Noir, Central Otago

Mt Difficulty Pinot Noir, Central Otago

Amisfield Pinot Noir, Central Otago

Villa Maria Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay

Trinity Hill ‘The Gimblett’, Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay

5 responses

  1. Mike,

    “Individual differences disappear and a certain sameness settles in. It has been said that this was part of the downfall of Australian Shiraz.”

    I think you are tarring Australian shiraz with a pretty broad brush. There are significant differences between, say, shiraz from hot regions like the Barossa in South Australia, and that from cooler climates, eg Yarra River and Mount Barker, WA (even some from northern Tasmania!). Hunter Valley shiraz is unique for its leathery, cigar box notes. And shiraz from Margaret River is different again.

    Perhaps the Australian shiraz you reference are all from the ‘engine room’ of Australian winegrowing-South Australia?

    All the more reason for you to start planning your (overdue) visit to the Antipodes?

    • I agree about the reality, but I was talking about the stereotypes that got attached to it and some of those SE Australia producers wield big brushes. So we agree about that … and about my need for a visit, too, which is now clearly on the radar!

      • As regards industrial scale, I recall in the ’90’s that the total winegrowing production of all of Western Australia < that of the Barossa alone! Its South Australia and the Riverina that have the giant brushes…

        See you Down Under soon!

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