Kiwi Wine Wars: Terroir and Its Discontents

When Sue and I visited New Zealand in 2004 we found a wine industry experiencing tremendous success, but worried that the good times might not last. It seemed like New Zealand’s wine production was doubling every few years — could global markets continue to absorb so much Kiwi wine?

Eleven years later the conclusion is that global consumers still love Kiwi wine, but the concern is still there for the future.

A Kiwi Variant of the Dutch Disease? 

There were lots of worries back in 2004. One was a kind of Kiwi variant of the “Dutch Disease” — the concern that tremendous success in one part of the wine industry would put a curse on the rest of it. Would the triumph of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc crowd out other regions and winegrape varieties and leave New Zealand uncomfortably reliant on a single type of wine?

But that wasn’t the only problem people saw then. Ironically, we met with one very successful Marlborough producer who was worried about Pinot Noir messing up Sauvignon Blanc. New Zealand’s brand is Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, he told us. Giving more attention to Pinot Noir risks confusing consumers about the Kiwi wine identity and killing the goose that lays the golden egg.  Put all the chips on Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and make sure that very successful and profitable wine doesn’t fade away, he advised.

Eleven years later I think the concern about reliance on Sauvignon Blanc is  still around, but I’m not hearing much talk about Pinot Noir getting too much attention for the industry’s good. And that producer who wanted to deemphasize Pinot is now proud to make some highly-regarded Marlborough Pinot Noir in addition to his Sauvignon Blanc!  So a lot has changed even if some things stay the same.

 It’s Terroir Time

One concern that is still on the agenda is terroir and its importance in marketing the wine by telling an authentic terroirist story. As I have suggested in previous columns, terroir designations have morphed from a protective tool in Europe (an attempt to control fraud, for example, and protect geographical trademarks) and a brand issue here in the U.S. (brand Napa Valley) to an indicator of authenticity in the story-telling necessary to effectively sell wine today.

It’s terroir time in wine world. Upscale consumers want to have authentic stories to go with the products they buy — this is true for wine and other products — and a specific geographic designation is one way (but not the only way) for winemakers to tell that story.

Some of the people we talked with in Marlborough back in 2004 were thinking in terms of protection and brands and they were worried by New Zealand’s lack of a stronger geographic indicator system for wine. Marlborough is a very large designation, one producer told me, and it is a powerful brand for Sauvignon Blanc. But it is such a big and diverse area, he said, and the wines are so diverse in terms of style and quality.

He was afraid that as production was ramped up the lack of consistency would undermine Marlborough’s credibility. Private efforts to stress particularly excellent sub-regions did not seem to be getting traction and official actions looked slow in coming. Would Marlborough’s success ultimately undermine its credibility? That’s the pattern that I called “the Curse of the Blue Nun” in Wine Wars.

NZ-based wine writer Rebecca Gibb recently wrote about the movement to identify key Marlborough zones for Pinot Noir, concluding that as appealing as the idea is it might be premature. Maybe Kiwi winemakers are still learning where the the best places are to grow particular varieties, Gibb says. If she’s right then it was certainly too soon back in 2004, when the zones might have been crafted with SB, not Pinot, in mind. And Jamie Goode has recently cautioned about the movement to adopt geographical indicators in general.

Gimblett Gravels: Seizing Control

We visited Hawkes Bay on the North Island in 2004 and some of the winemakers there were impatient with Kiwi geographical indicator policies. Growers in the Gimblett Gravels knew that they had special terroir and, having saved it from exploitation as a gravel quarry, wanted to both protect it and brand it. But how?

They did both in the most direct way available to them, forming an association, registering “Gimblett Gravels” as a trademark and rigorously regulating its use. In essence I guess they “privatized” their terroir designation because they were frustrated with the lack of a clear public path.

Here is an explanation from the GG association’s website.

GIMBLETT GRAVELS is the registered trademark of the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association. The Association and registered brand were developed to define and then name a winegrowing district using principles that are not catered for within New Zealand’s proposed Geographic Indications Act legislation.  … The Association and designation of the area was formed at a relatively early stage in its winegrowing life to ensure that the purity and integrity of its designation was not compromised by political issues outside its control. … To the best of our knowledge this is the first viticultural appellation in the New World where its ultimate boundary is defined by a distinct soil type boundary, no compromises, no politics.

The approach taken has determined that a carefully planned and professional branding program was required to promote the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District as a viable sub-region within the Hawke’s Bay region. The lack of any legal Geographic Indication status for Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District has determined this approach. The branding program has developed a strong logo and branding platform that controls the use of the name “GIMBLETT GRAVELS” and “Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District”.

Kiwi Terroir Today

I suspect my friends here in the U.S. who are caught up in various aspects of AVA and sub-AVA politics will look at the Gimlett Gravels initiative with respect, admiration and even a bit of envy. What a bold move! And I think it has been very successful, too.

Terroir and geographical indicators have grown and changed in their significance. Where does New Zealand stand today? Come back next week for a quick look at progress on this front both in private sector branding  and in Kiwi wine policy.

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2 responses

  1. All the talk of “branding” is well and good, but only up to a point. There is still the issue of identity, which is actual substance of what the product is. A brand is a halo, shorthand descriptor or stereotype that is easier for masses to identify with less specificity than identity. It is a conceptual construct, more so than a practical distinction.

    NZ pinot noir does have a distinct character and the trends in the wine business are playing to its strengths: higher acidity, clear, clean flavors, more focused than merely juicy, minerality and extreme food friendliness., similar to an Italian chianti.

    Many wine lovers, and many new to wine are drawn to these wines for the above qualities. Yes, they are leaner than Oregon pinot noir which is leaner than California pinot noir. But there is a place in the wine multitudes for these specific traits to attract passionate fans.

    Branding should be built upon essential substance, not the image advertising and marketing dollars can create around a label or a region. But branding is rarely about real substance, and the concept serves niche products poorly and keeps them small. The high school beauty queen is rarely as appealing in twentry years. But the people who create real lives for themselves are the ones to know for a llifetime.

    The proper positioning for NZ pinot noir is…with dinner.

  2. Hi Mike, looking forward to welcoming you to the Okanagan Valley next Monday at the AGM of the BCWI .

    I’d also like to invite you to come visit us at Sandhill Winery in downtown Kelowna during your stay.

    We make only single vineyard wines from 6 vineyards and I think we were the first in Canada to devote our brand exclusively to showing terroir. Enjoyed your NZ article, particularly the terroir angle.

    Let me know your availability as I understand you might be touring with Kim Barnes, Marketing Manager of the BCWI .

    Cheers !

    Howard Soon
    Master Winemaker – Sandhill Wines
    Ph. 250.979.4247
    Cell 250.717.6381
    Email howard.soon@andrewpeller.com
    Website http://www.sandhillwines.ca

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