Who makes the best wines? It’s a question I’m often asked when tasting, drinking or talking about wines, whether I’m working with them or enjoying them.
New Zealanders often assume their rugby players are the best in the world with the same misty-eyed nostalgia they apply to New Zealand’s highly applauded wine industry.
Ever since Kiwi wines began winning major international awards in the mid-1980s, New Zealand winemakers have been punching above their weight. The quantity of New Zealand wine is still tiny – a minuscule 0.3 per cent of all wine produced globally each year is Kiwi – but it is constantly being applauded, awarded and talked up, both nationally and internationally.
For every award won by a New Zealand winery, however, there are another 10 won by wineries from countries that make serious quantities of wine: Australia, France, Italy and Spain, to mention but a few.
For all the success that New Zealand wines garner around the world, the clichéd catchcry that New Zealand wine is the best in the world just doesn’t always stand true.
For the best sauvignon blancs in the world, look to the Loire Valley, France, where biodynamic winemaker Didier Dageneau produces the highly revered and utterly delicious Pur Sang and Silex sauvignon blancs.
Dubbed a non-conformist, maverick and eccentric because of his unconventional winemaking ideas and unkempt demeanour, Dageneau has one aim: to make the best sauvignon blanc in the world.
It’s an understandable one given that Dageneau lives in Saint-Andelain, a village in the Pouilly-Fumé Appellation of France, which has been home to sauvignon blanc for a lot longer than any part of New Zealand.
Are there as many startlingly different top-quality sauvignon blancs made in the Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre appellations as there are in a, Hawke’s Bay, Nelson and the Wairarapa?
It’s a matter of opinion. A New Zealander who makes a living from selling only the cream of the local crop is Daniel Kemp, founder and co-owner of Kemp Rare Wine Merchants in Auckland.
The wines he stocks are not the crowd-pleasing, fruit bomb type. Over-oaked, fruit-forward wines are out. In their place are tiny quantities of wines that do not enter competitions, sell in supermarkets or gain easy acclaim. Adventurous, yes, but these wines are also controversial.
If New Zealand has an equivalent non-conformist to Dageneau, it’s North Canterbury winemaker Mike Weersing, who is more interested in experimenting with different wine styles to see what’s possible than making the same thing year in, year out.
While he and his wife, Claudia, wait for the vines they own to bear their first fruit, Weersing trawls the countryside for old vines. Striking deals to buy the grapes from these vines, he makes tiny quantities of top-quality wines, such as Pyramid Valley Orton Vineyard Hawke’s Bay Gewürztraminer, which was a one-off because the vines have now been pulled up. Like it you may, but not everybody does.
“I didn’t know how to take this wine when I first tried it, because it’s so out there,” said Kemp, who later declared it to be the “finest” New Zealand gewürztraminer he has tried.
Kemp insists he wants to bring great winemaking to the forefront of people’s minds and mouths.
Stocking such labels as Pyramid Valley, Koru, Herzog and Puriri Hills in his small wine warehouse, he is championing diversity rather than the “best” or the most medal-awarded bottles. He wants to push away from promoting and selling wines that are mass-produced crowd pleasers.
With 604 wineries in New Zealand today, it’s high time somebody searched out the boundary pushers among them.