John Saker: Winemakers try something new, throwing out the Roseworthy Rules
It wasn't long ago that a winemaker deemed to be "experimental" was one who planted a new grape variety. If the variety's name was suitably evocative (eg Albarino), the producer wasn't just experimental, but a rebellious pathfinder.
It's always interesting to see how a new variety adapts to life in Aotearoa. However, that's no longer the cool laboratory. The best experiments today are all about method, in the vineyard and winery, no matter what variety you're dealing with.
Much of this exploration involves departing from the orthodoxy that governed winemaking in this country for around 30 years. That regime could best be described as the Roseworthy Rules, after the venerable South Australian institution where many of our winemakers learned their craft during the 1980s and 1990s.
This approach is standard, modern new-world winemaking – chemical-prone in the vineyard followed by standover, manipulative tactics in the winery. Part of the plan is to iron out the ups and downs that nature can rudely serve up. The resulting wines are glossy and well-behaved and deliver a consistent experience, regardless of vineyard and vintage.
For many people, that's how wine should be, and there's nothing wrong with that. But some started to think otherwise. They worked in other places, picked up ideas, discussed things, tasted different wines and thought hard. Many came to the conclusion that the Roseworthy Rules were a) a recipe for making boring wines, and b) masking rather than revealing the true character of their sites. They set about unlearning what they'd been taught.
So now we have, in effect, two New Zealand wine worlds.
In the vineyard, these alternative producers often embrace organic and biodynamic principles, out of respect for the land but also because they believe their wines will have more authenticity and taste better.
During the winemaking process, they are laissez-faire – wild ferments, no additives, low-sulphur regimes, giving nature her head.
But most importantly, they're trying new things. They're looking at what their vines give them and adapting methods accordingly. We're seeing some exciting wines as a result.
At the recent Cuisine pinot noir tasting (see the next issue), our top wine was organically farmed and made using practices that are certainly not commonplace. The winemaker took those paths because she wanted to see what awaited her on the other side. And because she was bold enough to have a go.
Mahana Sauvignon Blanc 2015 $24.50: Few winemakers are as experimental as Michael Glover at Mahana. This sauvignon, with its nectarine, leafiness, jalapeno, and high-revving acidity, gives your palate a right talking to. It's dry, bold, mouthwatering and singular.
Quartz Reef Bendigo Estate Pinot Noir 2014 $75: This is one of winemaker Rudi Bauer's best yet. A recent conversion to biodynamics has led greater harmony, and this wine is a dark, settled, lithe pinot that speaks of Bendigo, its place of origin.