(Not) to the consumer’s taste, Paul White

Wines & Vineyards of New Zealand (1996—fifth edition)
Michael Cooper, photos John McDermott
Hodder Moa Beckett, $89.95,
ISBN 1 86958 297 7

Michael Cooper’s 1997 Buyer’s Guide to New Zealand Wine
Michael Cooper
Hodder Moa Beckett, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86958 317 5

The Penguin Good New Zealand Wine Guide (1996/97 edition)
Vic Williams
Penguin Books, $19.95,
ISBN 0 140 25663 6

A little over a year ago I ran headlong into a curious aspect of Kiwi culture. Totalling up all the wine columns I had read in New Zealand publications during the previous year, I found only a couple had focused, and rather ineptly, on some cheap, nondescript Italian wine and three covered the return of South African wine to local shelves. The overwhelming majority were devoted entirely to New Zealand wines. During this period I had not seen a single review of wine from any of the six classic regions of France, Spain, Germany or either American continent.

It seemed clear that the majority of wine writers had little interest in or understanding of wine internationally. Oddly coupled with this insular approach to wine commentary was an exclusive obsession with what the British had to say about New Zealand wine. British commentary was often cited out of context and positive remarks reported without qualification.

After a Wellington wine columnist bashed the Australians and their wine for their parochialism, smug superiority and moments of grand delusion, I wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper in which the column appeared, challenging the nature and quality of wine writing and suggesting that it wasn’t serving the interests of either the winemakers or the consumers.

The published response to this suggested unequivocally that I should leave the country if my Old World prejudice wouldn’t allow me blindly to appreciate the unsurpassed, universally recognised greatness of the wines produced here. This “love it or leave it” response was puzzling, given how crystal clear I was in not attacking the wines of New Zealand but rather those who were paid to critique and assess them.

Inadvertently, I had struck a sensitive nerve at the core of post-colonial identity. Arguably, wine is New Zealand’s first “sexy” international product, taking the country off its butter and sheep image and flushing out the residual meat pie and “fushnchup” culture of the British Empire. Almost out of the blue a unique wine style has appeared, with the potential to dazzle the world’s most sophisticated “table” cultures, France, Italy and California. Wine could place New Zealand on the tip of everyone’s tongue throughout the world. This I have no doubt about.

Wine is becoming the new drink and cultural flagship of Aotearoa. Whereas most Kiwis understood this instinctually, I, not being from here and being primarily interested in wine, hadn’t noticed how central and vitally important nationalism was to the concept of wine in New Zealand.

The great irony is that the post-colonial wine industry has been, and continues to be, heavily determined by its former colonial parent. For all intents and purposes New Zealand remains a wine colony of the British — 70-80% of exports go there. A dangerously large portion of the wine industry’s eggs sit in this one basket, although it represents only a tiny niche in the British market (about 1% of imports).

There is also an at times desperate concern with what the British have to say. Virtually all of the wine books and magazines available for sale here — excluding those authored by New Zealanders — are written by Britons. Wine industry propaganda is regularly peppered with British accolades and local wine writers universally drop the names of or quote British wine journalists to bolster their authority.

Commonly, any negativity is rarely relayed to the public here. Yet during the decade I spent living in Britain it was clear that reactions to New Zealand wines were mixed. For instance, the term “one-glass wonder” was coined and commonly used in Britain to describe many New Zealand sauvignon blancs, which were disliked by some critics for their over-the-top, fruit-and-veg characters and liked by other writers for the same reason. Oddly, no one here, even in the depths of the industry, seems aware of this coinage. In fact for many Britons New Zealand wine is enjoyed for its extreme fruit-drivenness, something to have every other month to perk up the senses and remind one in that dank cold climate that the sun does shine elsewhere in the world.

And yet for all the obsession with the British affirmation, no wine writer here has accurately represented how New Zealand wines actually relate to the British market, nor how the over-reliance on this single market has placed the industry in a precarious and potentially dangerous economic position now that the New Zealand dollar is strong and the Brits are instead buying equally competitive, but cheaper, Chilean, South African and Californian wines.

Logically one would expect a young, developing wine culture to draw on as many sources as possible to counterbalance any pre-existing domination, cultural or economic. Oddly, in the case of New Zealand there seems a total lack of outside information about wine from any source other than Britain.

A recent search of several Wellington public libraries, magazine racks and bookstores found not a single American or French wine publication on the shelf. This is extremely odd, considering how essential the works of Robert Parker, Emile Pernaud, Matt Kramer and Kermit Lynch are throughout the world, including Britain. During my three years here I have yet to read a wine column that has focused on either French or American wine. The only mentions of either country have been in offhand comments quoted from British wine writers.

This seems extremely limiting, given that France is the richest source of knowledge of wine culture and its long historical development, while America represents the most mature and sophisticated New World wine culture, with the longest standing and deepest reputation for innovation and quality. The latter is especially relevant because virtually every stage of New Zealand’s industrial development has a precedent in the United States regions of California, Oregon and Washington.

The almost total lack of information and products from France and the United States is hard to dismiss. It seems intentional but is so totally illogical that one is tempted to conclude that this has happened as a result of the political disagreements between the governments of New Zealand, France and the United States and is now more the result of cultural bias than anything to do with wine. And yet, without a comprehensive knowledge of these nations and their products, how can New Zealand hope to enter these markets or compete with their products elsewhere in the world?

So if New Zealand wine writers comment on New Zealand wine only in the most glowing terms and all overseas commentary is carefully filtered to relay the positive comments of a select few British observers, what do wine writers from other countries say about New Zealand wine? Here is Parker, the world’s most widely read and influential wine writer, in his latest edition of Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide:

Has anyone noticed the lavish press this country receives from the English wine media? I may be one of the few wine writers left in the world who has not taken a free business trip to New Zealand to taste these “remarkable” new wines from this hot new “cool climate” viticultural paradise… Is all the excitement over New Zealand’s wines generated by the enormous press coverage it receives warranted? No. However this country does produce some very fine sauvignons.

Curiously, although widely consulted in Britain, neither this book nor any of Parker’s other essential wine references nor his consumer oriented periodical, The Wine Advocate, are sold here. As a result, Parker remains virtually unknown in New Zealand. I find this even odder, given that Parker is well known as a champion of the fruit-driven, New World wine style that is the basis of the industry here.

In the Financial Times (May 14/15, 1994) Jancis Robinson, a leading British wine writer, produced an enlightening interview with France’s most open-minded and influential wine critic. Here is how Michel Bettane sums up Australian wine and its wine writers:

I think California produces some superb wines, but Australians? I just cannot understand them. Even someone as sympathetic as James Halliday [Australia’s top wine writer and a wine producer] seems to be from another planet. Acids, tannins, balance, we taste completely differently. With Davis [the academic centre of California wine], I understand them — and I know they’re wrong. With Australians, I can’t even understand them.

Even though the focus here is on Australian wine, it is often argued that New Zealand winemaking is dominated by Australian concepts and the taste of New Zealand wine is closer to Australian style than that of any other nation’s wine. Both countries share the same intense southern sunshine, many New Zealand winemakers have been schooled at Roseworthy (University of Adelaide) and the shared culinary and cultural heritage is obvious. Whereas New Zealanders and Australians might find enormous differences between their wines, most outsiders including the British, would recognise only that New Zealand wines generally share the same fruit flavours with Australia, but have higher levels of acid.

From a French perspective the wines of New Zealand, like those of Australia, are about as bizarre as they can possibly get (and it must be said that most New Zealanders find French wines to be equally and unpleasantly as extreme). It is no coincidence that a number of British wine writers have remarked that some of the most parochial current attitudes towards wine exist in France and the Antipodes.

2

Parker’s assessment that the enthusiasm of British writers for New Zealand (and Australian) wines is based in part on free junkets is not without a factual basis. It is difficult to bite the hand that has fed you, particularly if that invitation might be extended again in future. But this also illustrates the nature of wine writing in the Commonwealth, which differs markedly from that in the United States. Fundamentally, United States reviewing is consumer-driven. Consumers buy information that is meant to survey a wide field of products, each evaluated and compared with other wines. Parker has proved to be the world’s most successful wine writer because he exemplifies this approach, making a point of purchasing the products he reviews directly off the shelf and refusing offers of free trips made by regional wine industries. Parker is funded solely from the sale of his books and his Wine Advocate, placing him even further beyond editorial and financial influence. Kramer, another important American wine critic, has followed the same pattern. He has, for example, paid his own way to visit New Zealand wine regions on four separate occasions to taste anonymously and has turned down offers of subsidy.

This lengthy preamble is given to support my fundamental claim that more often than not New Zealand wine commentary suffers badly from both a limited perspective and a bland unwillingness to take a firm stand.

The first problem of perspective presents a deeply dug hole that is not easy to get out of. New Zealand is among the world’s most inwardly focused wine cultures. Although its wines represent under 1% of the world’s total production of fine wines, within the country it is extremely difficult to find anything that resembles even a vague representation of the other 99% of the world’s wines. There are not more than a dozen or so foreign (excepting Australian) wines universally available throughout the country and no more than a few hundred labels available in total.

Given these odds, the reality is that New Zealand wine writers swim in an isolated sea of New Zealand wine, writing solely for an audience that drinks its own wines exclusively because that is all its writers write about. This begs a question. If we were talking about music, literature, drama or even automobiles, would a reader take any critic seriously who had exposure to nothing but New Zealand versions of these products?

As for the general air of “safeness” that hangs about wine writing, it is clear that New Zealand is a small country where any comment can come back to haunt in future. With a few dangerous words, doors once opened can slam shut tightly forever and once generous sponsorships can dry up immediately. These are worries for someone who relies heavily on ready access to wine supplied directly from the industry for review. Given this ever-present undercurrent, the basic character of wine writing tends consistently to show New Zealand wine in a positive light, with inferior or faulty products ignored, rather than noted, weaknesses generally wafted over with euphemism and waffle and “safe” review material favoured over controversial. This doesn’t protect consumer interests nor does it develop and support the progressive portions of the industry. Clearly, those few individuals who objectively try to distance themselves from the industry on a regular basis often come under internal pressure to toe the good-news-only line. Michael Brett (Sunday Star Times) and Jöelle Thompson (Capital Times) come to mind as having shown the courage to lift a few stones to see what’s squirming around underneath. Both have felt industry heat for their daring.

3

This rambling overview is not directed at any one individual nor would I pretend that all things apply to every writer in this country. Indeed, there are a few wine commentators who consistently write with a professionalism and authority that commands high levels of respect and attention. Sadly, these are the exceptions rather than the rule. By and large, the wine writers don’t stack up to the high levels of professionalism in winemaking. The shame is that so many ill-equipped people have landed in positions of power, which carry the capacity to bankrupt a good winemaker — of which there are many in the country.

The various Penguin Guides to Wine seem to decline in stature with each new edition. The Penguin Good New Zealand Wine Guide (1996/97 edition) must rank among the world’s least authoritative wine books. Vic Williams reads like the sort of wine “personality” who got on the Kiwi wine bandwagon in the days when it wasn’t necessary to know much more than that chardonnay wasn’t müller thurgau. As New Zealand wines grew up, Williams became an industry unto himself with a joshy sort of Kiwi bloke market focus and a neat lock into the system.

Populism is an extremely important aspect of wine education that needs to be handled well. Oz Clarke, the English wine writer, has one of the finest and most broadly schooled palates in the world but he also has a knack for writing clearly and directly to any audience. All people, regardless of background and experience, should have consumer guidance available which helps them buy the best quality wines within their price range. Williams has neither Clarke’s palate nor his knowledge nor his knack for clarity.

Generally, the Penguin Guide is formulaic. It lacks any detail of vintages or background information about regions, grape varieties or wineries. Basically, the book contains nothing but tasting notes, with two or three sentences for each wine and a food pairing.

I found Williams’ tasting notes consistently disappointing, filled with double talk and waffle and often vague to the point of unintelligibility. His judgments on individual wines lack justification, authority and perspective. This kind of wine writing does the industry more harm than good and offers little to the consumer.

At some point the Penguin editors must have heard from their marketers that “the people” wanted wine and food pairings. Faced with the daunting task of coupling food to over 1000 wines, Williams gives the impression of having developed some sort of system akin to William Burrough’s “cut-up technique”: make one pile of food nouns (hare, pork, trout…); make another pile of cooking techniques (roasted, grilled, boiled…); make a third pile of grape varieties (pinot noir, riesling, chenin); and draw from each pile  On the whole, William’s pairings seem ill-conceived.

4

In sharp contrast, Michael Cooper’s books get better with each new edition. His previous editions of The Wines and Vineyards of New Zealand struck me as typical coffee table wine books that were nice to look at but without enough specific information to make it very useful. The latest edition, beautifully photographed by John McDermott, makes great strides towards providing the groundwork for definitive answers as to what makes each region distinct. The heading to each region attempts to come to terms with the interplay of wind, soil, man, grapes and micro-climate. The single important thing it conspicuously lacks is an attempt to detail vintages over the last decade and how they differ from region to region.

I have often heard Cooper’s writing style described as bland and uncommitted. My sense is that he has consciously decided to err on the side of the factual data he feels comfortable with rather than delve too heavily into speculation. The book provides both a general overview of the nation’s wines and individual snapshots of many of the wineries. These latter, again, are not detailed close-ups but are meant to provide a historical and philosophical feel for what each winery is about and how it attempts to deal with its individual wines.

Michael Cooper’s 1997 Buyers Guide to New Zealand Wines is everything that the Penguin Guide should be. Over 1000 individual wines are grouped according to variety and each category is prefaced by a short introduction to the grape variety and its relationship to regions. He rates many of the individual wines on a star system, with tasting notes and other useful information contained in text to the side. As with any buying guide, ultimately the usefulness of this type of book comes down to the points of agreement between the author and the reader. If both agree on a regular basis, the reader can extend a trust beyond to those products not yet tasted.

Again, one has a sense that Cooper is maturing and has improved on his most recent previous edition. Where the last cursorily examines the 1995 vintage, the newer version takes a more detailed look at the 1996 vintage and how it differed by region. This takes a clear “warts and all” approach to vintage assessment, standing apart from many wine writers here who still mistakenly believe that 1996 was an excellent vintage throughout the country. My one wish is that eventually Cooper will extend this regional detailing back to each vintage of the last decade as Parker does in his guides.

I was also pleased to see that Cooper increasingly attempts to compare New Zealand styles with the classics. He alone among wine writers here has understood that Brajkovich’s cabernet franc represents an attempt to reproduce a beaujolais-like style of easy drinking wine that is common to the Loire valley villages of Chinon and Bourgueil. Most others wrongly assume the wine is simply based on a Bordeaux grape variety. Small details like this reassure one that Cooper is thinking beyond the limitations of his national borders.

Although Cooper’s buying guide is among the best on offer, for the most part, no one here is yet aggressively advocating the consumer’s interest to the extent commonly found overseas.

 

Paul White has established himself in Britain as a successful and competitive blind wine taster and judge and is currently a wine buyer for a local wine distributor.

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