MARY-THERESE BLAIR discovers a programme setting the bar for world-class fine wine the New Zealand way.
When we think of the term ‘fine wine’, different ideas may conjure in our mind as to what actually defines a fine wine. European, particularly French? Probably. Old or aged? Possibly. Expensive? Most definitely.
What if you were to learn that a fine wine, with renowned provenance and a track record of consistently excellent quality year after year, was available in your backyard for $30?
C’est impossible, n’est-ce pas? Fine wine, surely, should be elusive, exclusive and expensive?
The Fine Wines of New Zealand programme seeks to make this not just a possibility, but a reality, and to redefine what fine wine means for us in New Zealand. As an upstart new-world wine producer we are seeking to do in one generation what the old world did over hundreds of years. We’re ready to take our place in the lineup of the world’s finest and most renowned wines, but on our own terms and that includes criteria that are regardless of price.
The programme is adjudicated by eight of New Zealand’s most knowledgeable wine experts, seven Masters of Wine and one Master Sommelier. With the help of Air New Zealand as patron, they want to show that while the great wines of the world do indeed come from Margaux in Bordeaux, Hermitage in the Rhône and Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, they also come from Wanaka in Central Otago, the Wairau Valley in Marlborough and the Gimblett Gravels in Hawke’s Bay.
Each wine expert has the task of selecting the wines that they believe to be New Zealand’s finest, bringing to the table a selection of wines that they consider to be of excellent quality regardless of price. The wines are collated and blind tasted by the entire expert panel along with additional older vintages of the same wine. This seeks to fulfil two qualities essential in a fine wine: consistency of wine quality year after year, and the ability to age well.
While wineries are able to submit their wine, they must meet the inclusion criteria which state that the winery must have demonstrated excellence in winemaking, they must have at least seven years of production and be regarded either as an iconic New Zealand wine or a wine deserving of inclusion.
Once adjudicated, a wine can only be added to that year’s Fine Wines Of New Zealand list if its pedigree is agreed upon unanimously. A group with a collective wine knowledge of hundreds of years ensures that excellence is the very baseline standard. Once selected for the list, the winery is free to resubmit their wines year after year. Being on the list, however, is no guarantee of inclusion in the future. In fact, should a winery fall from the list and fail to meet the standard for the subsequent two years, they are required to stand down for a further three years. This strict protocol ensures that the quality of the list can be trusted to be consistently high.
This commitment to quality is indeed reflected in the outcome. Of 150 wines in 2019, a mere 16 elite wines were added to the Fine Wines of New Zealand list.
Fine Wines chair Alastair Maling MW, wants this accolade to have real-life benefit for the wineries involved. “One of the core goals is helping the wineries to put their wines in front of restaurants and retailers and actually get sold,” he says, illustrating that the list is not just about prestige or puffery but having tangible outcomes for the winning wineries. Selling wines secures a future and enables successes to come. That’s a mindset reflected in Maling’s desire for the future of the programme, “It’s not just about creating a list, but creating a legacy for the New Zealand wine industry.”
Undoubtedly the collaboration with patron Air New Zealand provides the perfect opportunity for getting word of our fine wines to the world. Both figuratively, with the airline’s dedication to reflecting true New Zealand culture in every aspect of their business in addition to their international reputation for quality, and literally as some of the fine wines are added as Business Premier in-flight wines. “Air New Zealand is a dedicated and supportive partner that is looking to the long term,” says Maling, who is solid on the fact that this programme is just getting started. Only now, as the fourth list is released, is he seeing real engagement. Not just from wineries but from the public, restaurants and retailers at home and abroad, with more talk, more events, more promotion, more excitement for what this programme could mean for New Zealand’s finest wines on a global stage.
“The vision is that the story of the fine wines of New Zealand can be spoken about on a global basis. We know here in New Zealand we make great wine, but does the rest of the world know that?” With the high standard of the baseline for this programme, the collective expertise of the judging masters and the global respect and marketing might of patron Air New Zealand, it is only a matter of time before the rest of the world finds out.