Few consumer products offer as staggering a range of choice as wine. You can buy a bottle of Dark Horse Big Red Blend for $8. Or for around $500, you can get a 2012 bottle of Sloan Proprietary Red. Yet for each bottle, the same question applies: Is it any good?
The rise of the wine-rating crowd
In 2004, Eric LeVine — then a group program manager at Microsoft — launched CellarTracker, a site where amateur wine enthusiasts can rate wines. Today, CellarTracker is the web’s most popular “community” or “crowdsourced” wine review website, containing 6.3 million reviews from 113,000-plus users for more than 2.2 million different wines.
Amateur and professional wine scores correlate very tightly
How similar? We ran a statistical tool called a Spearman correlation and got a figure of 0.576. A perfect correlation is 1. An utter non-correlation is 0. A score of 0.576 may not sound impressive at first, but it can actually get worse than 0 — a negative correlation, which is what you would see if you compared, say, shortness with the likelihood of playing professional basketball.
Amateurs appear more expert than the experts
It looks very much like the enthusiasts actually do a better job of agreeing with the experts than the experts do with each other. That might sound odd, but out of thousands of wines we analyzed, only a handful contradicted this pattern. Simply put, if you want to know what the experts think, the best place to look appears to be, of all places, CellarTracker.
The better the wine, the more experts agree with the amateurs
There is also a tendency for scores to converge as wines improve in quality. This is evident in the arrow shape of the clusters in figures comparing CellarTracker with Wine Advocate and CellarTracker with International Wine Cellar. Average scores, furthermore, are high. On Wine Advocate, the average score was 89, on International Wine Cellar it was 91, and it was 17 out of 20 for Jancis Robinson. On CellarTracker, it was 89. This tells us that experts and enthusiasts alike don’t seem to be spending a great deal of time scoring mediocre wines.
The New Zealand wine industry has recognised the service and dedication of industry icons Mark Nobilo, Jane Hunter and Ivan Sutherland by inducting them as Fellows of New Zealand Winegrowers at the New Zealand Wine Awards dinner held in Wellington last month. The Fellows award recognises individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the industry.
Mark has been a tireless advocate for grape and wine industry for over 50 years from his time as viticulturist with the family firm through to his recent years as a consultant, particularly in the Northland wine industry. In his role with Nobilo Vintners Mark spent enormous amounts of time helping the Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay growers in their endeavours to produce quality grapes. In more recent years Mark has been a consultant particularly in Northland where he has shared his knowledge, without charge, with all Northland winegrowers.
Mark served on a number of industry Committees over the years but perhaps most notably on the New Zealand Grapevine Improvement Group which played a key role in sharing knowledge about and distributing improved planting material to the industry. “Mark has always given freely of his time to assist the growth of the industry,” said John Clarke, Chair of New Zealand Winegrowers.
Jane joined the New Zealand wine industry in 1983, taking up the role of National viticulturist with Montana Wines. Jane has contributed to the wider industry in many ways and served on the Wine Institute Board and various Committees for several years. Importantly she was a foundation Director of the New Zealand Wine Guild which charted the path forward for New Zealand wine in the UK in the early 1990’s and established the model of cooperation in export which has served the industry well to this day.
Jane has received a number of awards over the years honouring her contribution to our industry including in 1993 an OBE in 2009 when she was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit and in 2013 became the first woman inducted into the New Zealand Wine Hall of Fame. “Jane never intended to stay in the industry long but has since become a New Zealand wine icon. One of Jane’s greatest assets has been the time and energy she has devoted to serving the wider community,” said Mr Clarke.
Ivan Sutherland, Proprietor, Dog Point Wines
Ivan, originally from Marlborough, studied Valuation and Farm Management at Lincoln University graduating in 1972. He has been involved for nearly 40 years in the New Zealand wine industry, commencing as one of the first contract growers in Marlborough in 1979 before becoming involved in viticulture consultancy. Today he is a proprietor of well know premium winery Dog Point Wines. Ivan has served the industry in a number of capacities over many years. He was a founding member of the Marlborough Grape Growers Association and served as Chair on more than one occasion.
As a strong advocate of grower issues, Ivan has always had a keen interest in research serving as Chair of the original Marlborough Wine Research Centre Board. More latterly Ivan became a Trustee of The Marlborough Research Centre and still enjoys this involvement. As an ardent advocate for all things Marlborough, Ivan was a Board member of the first International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration held in Marlborough in 2016 playing a major role in the success of the event.
As I sit to prepare this newsletter Celine Dion is singing “Another year has gone by” in the background. Surely not, I say, but it is so. Where has it gone? We can start by reviewing our year. We began with our summer BBQ at the end of January. The usual excellent occasion and thanks to Derek for continuing to make his premises available. February saw us heading on a “Summer Romance – a love affair with Wine” where some of your committee members presented their favourite summer wines. In March Mark and Susan Haythornthwaite presented some of their “Haythornthwaite” wines and told us of the success they have had adding platters to the tasting experience at their premises.
In April Simon Bell from MacVine took us on a tour of Europe embracing France, Italy and Germany. May was the usual AGM then in June Unison Vineyards from the Gimblett Gravels in Hawkes Bay presented some lovely wines. July was something of a disappointment when we went to Saigon Van Grill Bar. The meal was lacking, particularly in quantity, and subsequent efforts to redress the problem have been futile. Never mind, we were back on track in August with a great tasting from Clearview.
September saw a continuation with European wines when Maison Vauron gave us a taste of French wine with some cheese matches. Then who could forget Negociants presentation from that iconic Barossa winery, Yalumba.
The tastings for the year finished with a return to Europe, this time Portugal with Confidant Wines, and some great wine with food matches. All this travel and we haven’t had to leave home.
As I finish this Celine has moved on to “Holy Night” and is singing about a night divine. I can’t quite work out if she means Christmas Eve or the December Dinner at Juniper. You be the judge.
These words were uttered by the French-born English wine merchant and author André Simon in 1964 when tasting Hawke’s Bay winery Te Mata’s 1912 red blend. More than half a century after it was first made – the same year as the sinking of the Titanic – the red wine was still very much alive, so why has New Zealand not developed a reputation for making age worthy wines?
Two words: Sauvignon Blanc.
The New Zealand wine industry is dominated by a grape variety that is typically fermented and put into bottle within months – or even weeks – of being harvested. ‘Picked, pressed and pissed before Christmas’ is the life cycle of Sauvignon Blanc in some winemakers’ view. Why wait for Christmas when you can drink the wine before Easter? Moana Park winery has released a Sauvignon Blanc on April 1 and that was no April Fools. If the previous vintage has been small and stocks are running low, a few blocks might be picked early to produce a wine to bridge the gap between vintages, such as Villa Maria’s Early Release Sauvignon Blanc.
However, there are a growing number of smaller, quality focused producers that are holding back their Sauvignon Blancs before releasing, giving them time on lees and time in bottle. Having tasted some of Marlborough’s finest Sauvignon Blancs at seven or eight years old, drinkers need not be in such a hurry. Putting the brakes on wineries releasing wines doesn’t help their cash flow and with grape growers to pay and bank repayments due, accountants can overrule winemakers, putting the onus on drinkers to put the wines in their usually non-existent cellars.
It is partly a matter of wine culture: New Zealand does not have a long-standing tradition of making and drinking wine. Having rejected Prohibition in 1919, the country continued to operate under a cloud of abstemiousness, promoted by restrictive licensing laws. Until 1961, New Zealanders couldn’t enjoy a glass of wine with a meal in a restaurant. The 1960s brought licensing change with more and more restaurant licences granted, a rise in the number of wine shops while a rise in tax on beer and spirits in the 1958 ‘Black Budget’ gave wine an encouraging bump.
The 1950s witnessed the birth of aspirational winemakers and pioneers seeking to move away from fortified wine and hybrids to quality table wine made from vitis vinifera, which gained increasing momentum, culminating in legislation outlawing a sugar and water culture and a state-sponsored vine pull in the 1980s. In the 1970s, regular wine columns had appeared in several newspapers, catering for an educated population who had done their ‘OE’ (overseas experience), travelling around Europe, experiencing wine and food culture. From just 174ml of wine per capita in the early 1960s, wine consumption increased to 5.3 litres by the end of the 1970s. In 2016, the figure stood at 20.2 litres but has remained stagnant for a decade. (Come on team, get drinking, we have to lift this again – Ed)
Red wines in New Zealand, like whites, are all too often released early and consumed early, meaning there are few older vintages available to purchase and enjoy. There are relatively few wine collectors and fine dining restaurants with cellars and mature stocks of New Zealand wine and thus some wineries are starting to take responsibility for ageing their wines until they approach their drinking window. Judy Fowler, owner of Puriri Hills Vineyard in Clevedon, Auckland, which specialises in Bordeaux blends, has a Brunello di Montalcino approach to releasing her reds. “My late release policy is based on the fact that we attempt to produce Bordeaux-blended wines made in the longstanding traditions of Bordeaux. The great Bordeaux generally benefit from ageing five to 10 years or longer. Our wines are built to age well. However, we are a small, newer vineyard [established 1998] with perhaps another 300 years to earn the reputation for quality that the grands crus of Bordeaux have. As such, we do not expect our customers all to want to wait for five or more years to taste our wines at their best, so we do the ageing here at the vineyard before release.” While Fowler is not alone, most wineries don’t apply the release-when-ready-to-drink policy across the entire range, as it can leave suppliers wine-less and raise the prospect of delisting.
It is difficult to judge the ageability of New Zealand wines with so little precedent. In the past decade, young vines have matured, viticulture has evolved, winemaking has become more refined: a Pinot Noir produced 10 years ago from young vines by winemakers that were still getting to know their site will be quite different today than a current vintage opened in a decade’s time. When asked to provide drinking windows for a recent Central Otago Pinot Noir or Hawke’s Bay Cabernet Sauvignon, it is a case of pinning the tail on the donkey.
However, there’s no doubting the country’s best wines have the components to age gracefully: intensity of fruit, richness of ripe tannins, acidity (and pH), alcohol and magic all play their part in the development of a red wine. In whites, high levels of acidity and flavour precursors elongate their shelf life.
There’s also a small matter of the closure: screwcaps are omnipotent in New Zealand. Although a small but significant number of producers continue to seal their top Bordeaux blends under cork (while putting the rest of their range under screwcap), it is likely that the wines will age more slowly, because of the lower rate of oxygen ingress compared with a natural cork.
What is clear, is that far too many New Zealand wines are being consumed before they are out of nappies. It’s time to let them grow up.
We are working on final details for the menu and pricing. Wayne will supply members with a combined “payment advice’ form before the November tasting. So forget about second Wednesday of the month this time and put 8 December into your diaries.
We are sure it will be a great event. As I say, more detail from Wayne shortly.
This was a very enjoyable tasting. Cenna was a very knowledgeable presenter with a great relaxed style. She admitted to a few nerves to start with but was soon interacting nicely with the members. The wines presented were great wines at a good value for money. The tasting was a good night.
Whilst we haven’t used Negociants before, the fact that we are now licensed means we can deal with this type of operation in the future. We will keep it in mind to pencil Negociants in for another tasting soon, as they have a really good provider base.
I raised the issue of letting the committee know of your intentions when it came to tastings involving the preparation of food to enhance your tasting experience. Clearly, you will already have noticed that we are seeking your assistance with this again for the November tasting. Grateful if you can let Richard know if you will be attending.
We have had a great reaction to our request for members to take home the glasses used at Club tastings for those attending who do not have their own. We have about 5 names already and would like to thank those that have offered. Would love to have more names however so please let us know if you can assist. We are arranging the purchase of a container which will fit about 16 glasses. This should make the task of carrying and cleaning very manageable.
Negotiations with Saigon Van Grill Bar over some level of compensation concerning the July dinner seem to have stalled and we are not hopeful of getting a result for members. If this situation changes we will let you know but we are not holding our collective breaths.
For goodness sake, surely it can’t be November already.
Cheers Robin Semmens Editor
2 for 1 offer
Want to try something different and you're not already a member. Why not grab a friend, workmate or partner and join us for our next tasting. Take a look and see who's presenting.