Note: this is my summative piece about my visit to the Family of Twelve top wineries in New Zealand. ‘Postcards’ on the visits to individual properties can be found on the blog, starting from here and then click through.
What can you expect from a Family of Twelve? I come from a very neat nuclear family. We couldn’t quite manage the mythical 2.4 children that British families were supposed to have but there were just a total of four of us. So a family of 12 offers a huge range of possibilities which it would be difficult to imagine as a child. Mind you, life has of course got a bit more complex with the passing of the decades, greater life expectation and marriage and re-marriage. As a result I am now part of a family of 15 and counting … and so a family of 12 is rather more familiar. But what if the family in question was a family of 12 wine families? The possibilities become endless and fascinating.
I had the huge privilege of being a guest of the Family of 12 in late January and early February 2016, having won the inaugural Family of Twelve/Institute of Masters of Wine student prize. As a result I got to visit the 12 wineries situated in the eight principal viticultural areas of New Zealand. And if that were not good enough, I also attended the first International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in Blenheim, which brought in 300+ participants with speakers from around the world. This was 14 packed days with so much to learn and to enjoy that it will takes months and years to absorb. What were the main themes of my visit?
Getting a glimpse of New Zealand
This was my first visit to New Zealand and hardly a typical one! To visit all 12 wineries in effectively nine days (three days for the conference) meant there was no slacking – and it was great of people to let Janet and I visit on the two weekends involved to make it all possible. But between winery visits, tastings, great meals and conversations, not to mention sleep, we did get a glimpse of New Zealand. These glimpses included Auckland – beautiful harbour-side city with traffic to almost match London’s, the Bay of Poverty where James Cook first saw these islands, the small towns on the drive down to Hawkes Bay, chic Martinborough and the drive into Wellington airport. On the south island the highlights embraced rural charm near Nelson, the impressive rebuild and continuing sadness of Christchurch, flying over (just) the Southern Alps and the wild beauty of Central Otago. In addition Janet and I saw but – needless to add – did not participate in bungee jumping or kite surfing, but we can testify to the warmth and excellence of Kiwi hospitality and cuisine on our travels.
Professional with a human touch
For an MW student and wine educator with the WSET it was great to have numerous conversations with the Family’s winegrowers and makers. I have 100 invaluable pages of detailed notes (mostly legible). These encompassed a huge range of issues from netting against birds, Lyre, Scott Henry and VSP training systems, ‘hen and chicken’ in Mendoza clone Chardonnay, pros and cons of organic and conventional viticulture, pressing grapes by the single ton or 100s of tons, malo in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir styles, diversity of sites in the extensive Marlborough area and block-by-block variation in the Gimblett Gravels or Bannockburn … and much more. And this goldmine of knowledge and insight was accompanied by a questioning and humane spirit in everyone we met. It was very clear that colleagues were keen to reflect, share their experience and to learn. It was equally evident that they really valued the professional friendship of the Family of Twelve. Everyone we met emphasised the value of being able to pick up a phone and talk to a colleague and many mentioned the annual viticulture day when colleagues meet at one of the Twelve to chew the fat together. The Family of Twelve is much more than an important arrangement to promote their wines together. They really value one another’s companionship and expertise. In this way it is a model of collaboration.
Pioneers and innovators
One of the most moving experiences we had was to stand with members of the Family and to realise that everything that you saw in front of you – orderly vineyard or winery – had been made by your host. Talking to Sir George Fistonich at Villa Maria at the 2005 Auckland HQ hides the fact that George started this now large company from scratch. Similarly the Brajkovichs at Kumeu River have gone from being among the founder generation of the modern wine industry in New Zealand to internationally acclaimed Chardonnay experts. At Ata Rangi Clive and Phyll were in the group of the first four who bought impoverished, unfarmed land and turned Martinborough into a name to be reckoned with among the world’s best Pinot Noir territories.
And that spirit of adventure and determination continues. Whether big or small, we found all the members of the Family to be completely committed to continuing to innovate and to produce the best possible wine within the segments of the market they deal with. At Nautilus we tasted the very creditable Grüner Veltliner and aromatic Albariño proving there is more to Marlborough than Sauvignon Blanc. Equally we admired the dedicated processing line for Pinot Noir. The attention to detail and plot-by-plot vinification at Craggy Range was reminiscent of a top Bordeaux chateau. Lawson’s Dry Hill’s spruced up cellar door now is in line with the quality of their wines. Felton Road’s additional new barrel hall now being built will allow them to keep their Chardonnay in old oak beyond the next vintage. This is a big investment to enable them to offer the style they are aiming at. And the list of innovations and developments could go on. The Family are clearly setting their sights on continuing to be at the forefront of NZ wine growing for the coming decades.
Quality, quality, quality
At the end of the day any wine venture is going to be judged on quality at chosen price points. What really struck me was the consistency of the quality being achieved. And, this being the Family, the wines came in a range of styles.
My journey around New Zealand to visit the Family of Twelve exceeded my very high expectations. Janet and I were made so welcome at every point, the arrangements worked like a dream and colleagues were so generous with their time and insights. Most of all we were deeply impressed by the willingness to share and by the drive to make great wine which was so evident at every visit. This is a truly remarkable Family.