My first week in New Zealand

Sunday 29th January

Geisen Clayvin Syrah 2012

New Zealand is a friendly place. Before I’d even landed in Auckland, a guy in the passport queue had taken my details and promised to send me a list of his favourite Syrahs. And within ten minutes of finding a wine bar the owner had poured me a generous taster of the Giesen Clayvin Vineyard Syrah 2012, one of the best reds from Marlborough. It’s my first visit to NZ and it has a disarmingly friendly and uncomplicated vibe.

Call me a curmudgeon, but these are two characteristics I’ve never valued in wine – the wines that I’ve grown to love aren’t friendly, they’re awkward bastards that don’t care what I think – they don’t go out of their way to please. “Oh, you don’t like me?” they say with a passive-aggressive Gallic shrug; “then drink something else ffs.” Wines like Barolo, Sherry, Savennières. ‘Uncomplicated’ is great when it comes to train ticket machines and online tax forms, but when it comes to things like plots and wines, I’ll take complicated any day.

Perhaps this is why I haven’t yet got into New Zealand wines. Will I learn to love the friendly and easy-going? Or will I find some difficult bastards to revel in?

Monday 30th January

Waiheke Island

Wine has taken me to some remote places, and Waiheke Island off the coast of Auckland is certainly one of them – remote and beautiful. It’s small – just an hour’s drive across – and inhabited almost exclusively by tourists and winemakers. Duncan McTavish, CEO and winemaker at Man O’ War Vineyards, picked me up in his battered pickup to go and taste his Syrahs.

They’re the biggest producer on the island and they make some serious wines. We started with the 2009 Dreadnought Syrah, his first vintage, and went through to the 2014. The turning point was the 2012; they started including a proportion of stems, stopped acidifying and extended the time in barrel (500l French, 25% new). The 2012 and 2014 are both excellent, robust styles with structure and fragrance. They also make the vibrant Bellerophon, which includes 3% Viognier, and the single vineyard Kulta Syrah. Both are worth a look, especially the Kulta in a couple of years when it’s had time to develop. Duncan is clearly having a whale of a time, which isn’t surprising as he’s basically making wine in paradise.

Man O’ War is a hard act to follow, but I dropped in at Villa Maria on the way to the airport. Their new visitor centre is impressive and the wines are as consistent as ever. They’re experimenting with some new varieties; their restrained, firm Single Vineyard Ihumatao Verdelho 2014 has real presence and their new flagship Cabernet Sauvignon, Ngakirikiri 2013 from Gimblett Gravels in Hawke’s Bay, is phenomenally good (but not cheap). I flew into Wellington straight after the tasting and readied myself for three days of pure Pinot…

Tuesday 31st January

Craggy Range

Gazing at its natural beauty, it’s easy to forget just how new things are in New Zealand. The islands have only been populated for 700 years. There was nobody there before, not even the Maoris. And the modern wine industry has only been going for 40 years. At the first day of the conference, I bumped into some winemakers who were responsible for planting the vines and fashioning these first tentative wines. It’s like chatting to Dom Pérignon, but this being New Zealand, everyone’s so relaxed you could easily forget just what they’ve achieved.

The conference got off to a striking start with a traditional Maori welcome and some exceptional presentations from the likes of Professor Dame Anne Salmond, New Zealander of the Year 2013, who gave us an unforgettable lesson in New Zealand history and culture. In the afternoon I concentrated on tasting wines from Marlborough and Nelson. Things are changing quickly here. If you think Marlborough Pinots are all light-bodied wines with simple, sweet red fruits, then check out the latest from Clos Marguerite, Seresin, Giesen and – my discovery of the day – micro-negociant Corofin. Marlborough is transforming itself into New Zealand’s Côte de Beaune.

Wednesday 1st February

Pinot NZ 2017 Conference

If you ask a top international panel to choose two non-NZ wines to illustrate greatness in Pinot Noir, how many Burgundies do you think will be selected? Just one, it turns out – and that was made by an Australian. The panel consisted of Jancis Robinson MW, Ken Ohashi MW, Mike Bennie and Marcel Giesen, and delivered plenty of food for thought.

Blind tastings are always humbling and instructive, and this one served as a reminder of the potential for quality outside of Pinot’s French heartland. Highlights for me were Domaine de la Côte ‘Bloom’s Field’ 2014, Santa Rita Hills, California; Dr Mayer Pinot Noir 2014, Yarra Valley, Australia; Meyer-Näkel ‘G’ Spätburgunder 2014, Ahr, Germany; and Aussie Mark Haisma Morey Saint Denis 1er Cru Les Chaffots 2013, Burgundy, France. Giesen rounded off the session by comparing New Zealand winemakers to the students of grand master painters who are now beginning to find their own voice and expression, particularly as vines reach maturity.

New Zealand wine journalist and sonic artist Jo Burzynska was up next to demonstrate how the same wine can taste different when listening to different types of music. I think many of us instinctively feel that music can subtly alter our enjoyment wine (and food for that matter) but it was fun to try it out live, working through a glass of Pinot firstly with silence, then dubstep, then baroque, then hard rock, and finally ambient. Turns out that ambient music is a Pinot’s best friend – it was a piece that she’d composed herself in fact. And now I know why they don’t serve Pinot Noir at dubstep raves…

Thursday 2nd February

Stephen Wong MW

The final day of the conference started with a half-a-dozen highly diverse and captivating talks. Michael Brajkovich MW of Kumeu River Wines spoke about indigenous yeasts; Janis Robinson MW updated us on microbial terroir; Stephen Wong MW talked about the language of wine lists; Andrea Frost suggested ways that our communication about wine could progress; and Elaine Chukan Brown explained that we should do our best in our work for our descendants, some of whom we’ll never meet.

Dom Maxwell, winemaker at Greystone Wines in North Canterbury, was the first to speak and told us about his unique approach to fermentation. The use of indigenous yeasts that live in the local environment, rather than shop-bought yeasts, is a growing trend around the world. Converts believe it can better express their terroir, or that indigenous yeast is even a part of terroir. Greystone is taking it one step further however: to avoid the influence of yeasts that live in their winery building, they are fermenting their wines in the vineyard itself instead of the winery. It’s quite possibly unique in the world of wine, and they believe their wines are better for it, with lower alcohols and more precise reflections of site and vintage.

A tasting of Central Otago Pinot Noirs that afternoon showed a range of different styles. Trends toward whole bunch fermentation and away from new oak are both positive developments. That ‘fruit bomb’ style that has been a calling card for some Central Otago Pinots seems to be on the wane, and more savoury, medium-bodied styles are on the rise. If that sounds encouraging, seek out wines from Akitu, Surveyor Thomson, Prophet’s Rock and particularly Rippon, whose 2006 Sagesse Pinot Noir was one of the most impressive wines at the entire conference.

Friday 3rd February

Marlborough Sounds

With the conference over, it was time to fly to Napier for the Classic Reds Symposium. Getting there was part of the fun: a chartered Air New Zealand jet flew us over Nelson, Marlborough, Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay at 5,000 feet so we could get a better understanding of the vineyards. All this with a commentary by ‘Captain’ Bob Campbell MW, a world authority on New Zealand wines, and wines matching the vineyards we were flying over. I was even lucky enough not to be sitting next to one of the travellers who turned an unhealthy shade of green. Bit too much Pinot the night before!

We landed 86 years to the day that an earthquake measuring 7.8 devastated the town of Napier, killing 256 inhabitants – New Zealand’s deadliest natural disaster. It lasted two and a half minutes, during which the land was raised by two metres, and some 40km² of sea bed was pushed skywards, becoming dry land. Imagine witnessing that. New Zealand still feels very much ‘Earth in progress’.

Saturday 4th February

Syrah tasting

Today centred around the tasting I’d been waiting for: 16 Syrahs, 12 from New Zealand, 4 from other cool climate regions, all tasted blind. Most New Zealand Syrah is grown in Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke Island (both on the North Island) with a splash found in most other regions, even Central Otago. A chirruping fantail bird hopped among the rafters above us in the Trinity Hill barrel room where we sat as if to remind us which country was hosting us.

The New Zealand wines were from Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke, and there was certainly a stylistic variation between the three: Marlborough delivers a lighter-bodied, aromatic and peppery expression; Waiheke wines tend to be fuller and denser with darker fruits. Hawke’s Bay sits between the two and has a greater breadth of styles.

The two Rhône ringers were both from Chapoutier; Saint-Joseph Les Granits 2013 and Ermitage Les Greffieux 2013. Neither were showing terribly well, the Granits in particular, which is a shame as normally this is an excellent wine. The Greffieux was unmistakably Rhône in the line-up; it had intense weight and texture of tannin, and also flirted with faults – two things that contrasted it against the New Zealand wines. Some stand-out New Zealand Syrahs were John Forrest Collection Gimblett Gravels 2013, Bilancia La Collina 2013, Trinity Hill Homage 2013, Craggy Range Le Sol 2013, Man O’ War Dreadnought 2014 and Passage Rock Reserve 2013.

From here I’ll be travelling around Hawke’s Bay, to Martinborough and Marlborough to see what their Syrahs are like in a bit more detail – I’ll be back in a couple of weeks for a full report on