In her first book wine expert Rebeca Gibb MW takes on The Wines of New Zealand, looking at the past, present and future of the New Zealand wine industry. Taking a break from her hectic schedule, Gibb explains why she wanted to take on such a massive task, as well as give us tips on which are the most exciting new winemakers to keep her eye on, what new developments there are with NZ Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, which 6 NZ wines every sommelier should have on their list and much more…
The problem with wine writing, Gibb says, is that too often it is focussed on education rather than entertainment.
Where are you this summer and what are you up to?
Working at home in Darlington – unlike most of the wine trade I’m not taking August off! I will, however, be enjoying weekends away in the Yorkshire Dales, London and Devon.
Infinite Ideas has just published your first book. What is it about New Zealand wine that made you want to write a book about it?
Having lived in New Zealand for six years, I became well acquainted with the people and its wines, so a book was always in the offing.
Is it meant to be a definitive guide to the Wines of New Zealand?
As definitive as it can be in 100,000 words! There are close to 700 producers in New Zealand and they couldn’t all be included – if I had, it would be as long as the dictionary.
Who is it intended for?
Wine lovers – and anyone visiting the country that has a vague interest in visiting a vineyard.
Is there a particular angle or stance you’ve taken?
Writing a reference-style book to a wine producing country means tackling its history, regions, grape varieties and contemporary issues so that’s what I’ve done. I’d like to think that I’ve done it an approachable style, with a few laughs along the way.
Talk us through the process of how you start writing about such a massive subject.
Research, plan, write. I made the usual mistake of setting a ridiculously tight deadline with a target of writing 10,000 words a week so there were a lot of very long days and a few tears en route.
You’re a Master of Wine and yet you are known for having a matter-of-fact/ down to earth style. Do you think that a lot of wine writing is too stuffy and over-intellectualised?
Am I known for my down-to-earth style? Superb to hear: it must be my northern roots. I think the problem is that wine writing is all too often educational rather than entertaining. The best wine articles aren’t stuffed with facts but take you on a journey to a beautiful place to meet great people because wine is made in fantastic locations by interesting ladies and gentlemen.
What’s exciting about New Zealand wine right now?
Other than my book?! New Zealand is exciting right now because it has reached a new stage in its evolution. New Zealand’s winemakers have matured alongside their vines in the past decade developing a greater understanding of their sites. What’s more, experience has also given producers the courage to be more hands-off in the winery and experiment with new varieties and techniques.
Isn’t it all just Pinot and Sauvignon Blanc?
From a trip to UK’s supermarket shelves, you’d think it was just Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir but the cool climate regions on the South Island are capable of producing fine sparkling wine and aromatic whites – think Riesling and Grüner Veltliner – with scintillating acidity.
In the more temperate climes of Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne on the North Island, warmer varieties excel, including Bordeaux reds and Syrah. In my opinion, New Zealand’s Syrahs are as exciting as its Pinot Noirs. The style is characterful offering a medium bodied, elegant style filled with juicy blackberry fruit, a lightly savoury note and a peppery edge. The style is a meeting of the New and Old World and no one else can emulate it. If only more people would buy it, Kiwis would plant more…
And I haven’t even mentioned Chardonnay yet: its best wines have what it takes to rival top Burgundies
So who are some of the producers we should keep our eye on and why?
There are so many fabulous producers in the UK market that have a long relationship with the UK – you know the names: Kumeu River, Neudorf, Ata Rangi…But when it comes to lesser known producers in the UK I’d suggest seeking out Black Estate and Tongue in Groove from North Canterbury for their orange-scented Rieslings and broody Pinots. In Nelson, Michael Glover is pushing the boundaries with his Mammoth project while Greenhough shows that Neudorf isn’t the only one making fine Chardonnay in this region. I could go on and on…
What changes are happening to NZ Pinot and Sauvignon Blanc?
When it comes to New Zealand Pinot Noir, vine age is making a massive difference to the fruit quality. There’s also a willingness to evolve winemaking processes and trial techniques such as picking earlier to retain freshness and rein in the country’s naturally fruity flamboyance, more judicious extraction, experimentation with whole bunches, pulling back on new oak…hell, there are even a couple of wineries fermenting their Pinot Noir in the vineyard (Amisfield and Greystone)
On the Sauvignon front, there’s been an incredible amount of research undertaken in the last 15 years, meaning that no one knows their Sauvignon Blancs quite as well as Marlburians. While the big boys continue to be make Sauvignon with high yields, clean juice, commercial yeast, low fermentation temperatures and so on, there’s a growing number of wineries that hand pick their fruit, whole bunch press it and allow the fermentation to start naturally with high solids in barrel – you could call it a Sauvignon counterculture.
What are the top 6 NZ wines that every sommelier should be looking at for their list?
Holy moly, that’s way too difficult! I could name all the usual suspects for fine dining but I suspect that’s not going to be all that interesting and would be a waste of asking the question. So, like a politician, I’m not going to, sidestep it and offer 6 quirky white wines – if I saw these on a wine list, I’d think the sommelier had his or her finger firmly on the New Zealand wine pulse.
(in alphabetical order)
Bellbird Spring Sous Voile, North Canterbury (aged under flor)
Black Estate Chenin Blanc, North Canterbury
Coopers Creek Albariño, Gisborne
Greywacke Wild Sauvignon, Marlborough
Prophet’s Rock Pinot Gris, Central Otago
Supernatural Wine Co. Green Glow Sauvignon Blanc, Hawke’s Bay
The kids are in bed (ha!), there’s a box set to catch up on – what’s your favourite NZ telly wine?
Depends what’s on telly. I do love a bit of University Challenge and Only Connect for a bit of high-brow entertainment so the wine would have to be of the same ilk, such as North Canterbury Riesling or Martinborough Pinot Noir; if I’m watching Orange is the New Black, I’d want something that doesn’t need a degree to drink – how about an Albariño or the super fun Gamay made by Te Mata?
You’re out treating the Kiwi hubby somewhere posh (ha!) what NZ wine on the wine list makes your eyes light up?
I’m a sucker for Larry McKenna’s wines in Martinborough. Give me a bottle of Escarpment’s Kupe Pinot Noir and I’m your friend for life.
Your desert island already has a sea container full of NZ wine obviously, what other wines are ‘must takes’?
I’m developing a bit of a Loire habit so I’d have a few cases of Muscadet from one of the new cru communaux – probably Clisson and, if money was no object (which it is when you write about wine), the 2017 Chateau Margaux Pavillon Blanc, which was damn-near the most perfect white wine I’ve ever tasted. I also still dream about the 2001 Chateau Figeac I tasted last year. It was one of those rare moments when you almost shed a tear because a wine is so beautiful.
You’re going to Wines of Australia for a job in their marketing department. What’s your opening line?
True story: the reason I’m in the wine industry is because of an Australian wine family (the Chalmers). I worked a ski season in Australia in 2001 and became friends with Tennille Chalmers whose parents – unbeknownst to me – happened to run one of the country’s biggest vine nurseries, and were responsible for importing many Italian and Spanish varieties into Australia.
As the token English girl in the snowy Victorian Alps, I was invited to dinner when Tennille’s parents visited the resort and it blew my mind when they poured their wines and talked about how they were made and how that influenced what was in the glass. That was it, I was hooked. I returned to Australia a few years later to do a vintage and travelled around all the wine regions in a clapped out Mitsubishi Magna. The reason I’m writing about wine is also because of Australia – I later penned an article about my visit to the Mornington Peninsula, which won the Young Wine Writer of the Year competition, and was offered a job on Harpers.
I really have Australia to thank for my wine career.
The Wines of New Zealand is available now and can be purchased here.