Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Happy Families 

Happy Families

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 take months and years to absorb.  What were the main themes of my visit?  

Getting a glimpse of New Zealand

Gisborne coastlineThis 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 has 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

Chardonnay goldAt 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.  

  • On our return to the UK, two of our children shared with us Villa Maria bottles, a continuing testament to their great contribution to high-quality wine at everyday prices.  But we know about their top wines too.  
  • Millton’s Libiamo, skin-contract Gewurztraminer is a true original.  78 days of maceration mean that the nectarine and apricot notes are backed up by a really grippy finish, making it a great companion for cheese and a conversation piece.  
  • I was delighted to see how much excellent Pinot Noir was being made: Palliser’s subtle and elegant Estate Pinot Noir from Martinborough and Fromm’s beautiful 2014 and remarkable La Strada Pinot Noir 1994 were two examples of which there were many.  It was clear from my time in Marlborough that high-quality Pinot Noir is now a big deal here.  
  • But the real learning point was the consistently high quality of the Chardonnays, perhaps New Zealand’s best-kept secret?  Lots of barrel fermentation for great oak-fruit integration plus lees work leads to sleek, complex wines which are much more than just about fruit.  For contrast, I loved the unoaked Neudorf 25 Rows Chardonnay for its unadorned, rapier-like palate with fine honey and green apple notes.   Pegasus Bay also came up trumps with its estate Chardonnay and its reserve, Virtuoso, wines of real complexity with ageing potential.  And there were many more. 
  • If I were to re-write my Family of Twelve essay now I would have to debate whether New Zealand should put its weight behind Pinot Gris as a complementary signature white variety or whether they should back high-quality Chardonnay.   
  • Finally, I was fascinated to see how members of the Family, while creating something new, have been inspired by the great wines of Europe.  The displays of consumed trophy bottles at Fromm and Pegasus Bay, and the use of ‘village/estate/single vineyard’ for tiers of quality at Kumeu River, tells a story of reference to the great wines of the old world.   There are wines here which belong in this canon. 

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.

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