An insider’s guide to New Zealand wine
Grant Taylor, proprietor and winemaker of Valli Vineyards, talks with us about what’s happening with New Zealand wine.
How did you become a winemaker?
Wine seems like it has always been an interest of mine. I grew up with it as my father kept a small wine cellar. At university I studied agriculture, though I did take a viticulture class and formed a wine-tasting club. After graduating, like many Kiwis, it was time to leave New Zealand and explore the rest of the world.
I eventually ended up in Napa Valley and soon realized there was work, things to be learned and fun to be had in the wine industry. I applied for a position as assistant winemaker at a Napa Valley winery that just being built in 1980 called Pine Ridge. Somehow I was successful. The experience I gained in the two previous years of travel helped a lot.
Can you briefly describe the Otago wine-growing region for travelers who've never been there?Otago is one of the world’s most scenic wine-growing regions, home to small vineyards in a great variety of surroundings — on high river terraces, on slopes overlooking lakes, tucked into the bottom of cliff faces left by the workings of gold miners, on valley floors carved out by glaciers — while in the background are the mountains which create a rain shadow in Central Otago, allowing Pinot Noir to perform so well here.What are you focusing on these days at Valli?The focus at Valli has not changed since setting it up in 1998 — to make wines from the different Otago subregions, make them the best they can possibly be and share with others what we have learned in 20 years of winemaking in this region.It's quite an accomplishment to win the award for best Pinot Noir in the London International Wine Challenge three times! What attracts you as a winemaker to that varietal?I won’t necessarily say I was attracted to Pinot Noir, though it is one of my favorite varieties, but rather attracted to this place, to Otago. Pinot Noir is the variety that performs its best here. In the early years, we experimented with many varieties, it’s just that Pinot put its hand up first and highest and said, “Pick me. I am the one.” I believe I would be just as happy working with any variety that grew well and expressed place so well.I see that you've also worked at, established and consulted with American wineries in California and Oregon. What parts of the winemaking experience are different in New Zealand?There are definitely more similarities, but one of the biggest differences is the amount of money that gets invested. In many California and Oregon wineries, money is no object. There is the thought that the more spent on barrels, equipment, buildings, staff, consultants, marketing, etc., the better the wine will be. Anyone who has recently visited Napa will know what I mean.It feels like more of a struggle down here, but that's what makes success so satisfying. There actually is a reward for hard work.It seems like there are some exciting things going on in the New Zealand winemaking community these days. What's your opinion of the state of the industry today?I feel like the New Zealand wine industry has finally matured. The country’s vines average over 20 years old, so the wines show the benefit of vine age. Also, there is no longer a shotgun approach to making every variety in every place. Instead, each region tends to be focusing on the varieties best suited to it.
- Hawke’s Bay: Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot
- Marlborough: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay
- Waiheke Island: Bordeaux red varietals
- Otago: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling
Many of the wines are world class. Now it’s just a matter of getting them known to the rest of the world.
So what are your top five favorite New Zealand wines?That’s the hardest question as there are so many good wines, and it changes with vintage. For these, I have not included vintages, as these wines are pure quality from any vintage. Here are some of my favorites right now:
- Stonyridge Larose
- Bilancia Syrah
- Pelorus Vintage sparkling wine
- Kumeu River Mate’s Vineyard Chardonnay
- Quartz Reef Pinot Noir
New Zealand is a featured stop on our Oceania journey, taking off March 2014.