New Zealand – A Special Feature

New Zealand: Helping Redefine Fine Wine Plus a Buyer’s Guide to some of the Country’s Best

by John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by New Zealand Winegrowers.

“Fine” wine, traditionally defined by a combination of factors such as long history and pedigree, longevity, scarcity, high price, and a widely held view of exceptional quality and authentic regionality, is under renovation. It’s no longer enough to be good. In addition to the aforementioned qualities, fine wine in the 21st century must also exhibit an increasingly important dimension: sustainability.

Here, I’m talking sustainability in the broadest sense, the adherence to a series of practices that safeguard the environment and economic viability, as well as the well-being of the people involved in the production of wine at every stage.

Virtually every wine producing region and country has implemented some form of self-evaluation which allows producers to understand, monitor and improve upon their performance in these areas. Some do it better than others, but it’s part of an undeniable worldwide trend towards more ethical products. And certain countries, like New Zealand, take sustainability particularly seriously.

It’s not just simply the morally right thing to do, though it is certainly that. It’s also survival. Countless studies show how the future drinkers of fine wines, millennials, and more especially generation Z-ers, relate differently to brands than previous generations. Given their exposure from earliest youth to the internet, social networks, and mobile systems, these hypercognitive (future) consumers are adept at collecting and cross-referencing many sources of information. And they do.

It all points to one inescapable realization: these consumers are searching for truth, and they have the means to find it. Consumption choices are made in a highly analytical and pragmatic way, and has become a matter of ethical concern, and a means of influencing the positive change they seek.

This is not a niche, passing trend. The Drinks Business recent ‘Top 10 Defining Drinks Trends’  put eco-sustainability and the rise of organics in the top spot of drinks trends that have changed the wine world in the last twenty years, and according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), one billion bottles of organic wine are expected to be consumed around the world by 2023, more than doubling from the 441 million bottles recorded in 2013. Sustainable credentials will soon become a sine qua non of fine wine.

New Zealand’s Clean Image

Already, the images of crystalline turquoise waters surrounding New Zealand in the deep South Pacific, the lush green sub-tropical valleys of the North Island, the pristine snow-capped white peaks of the Southern Alps, and the large tracks of virgin forest and sheep-dotted pasturelands of the South Island give New Zealand an advantage in the increasingly competitive battle for sustainable supremacy. As a brand, New Zealand enjoys a clean and green country image in the minds of most consumers.

Yet beyond the existing pastoral iconography, the New Zealand wine industry has mobilized itself to ensure that this image remains reality, not greenwashed marketing fiction. Through a number of initiatives, including the creation of the grower-led organisation Organic Winegrowers New Zealand (OWNZ), dedicated to supporting organic winegrowing, a Climate Change Mitigation Programme, improvements to the existing Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ) scorecard, and a Climate Change Research Programme providing guidance on adjusting vineyard practices in response to changing climate, the strong New Zealand ethos of caring for its land and its people has become a model to follow.

Copyright owned by Jim Tannock 2009

In number terms, New Zealand has 111 registered certified organic grape growers, and 73 organic wineries, representing just over 10% of all NZ wineries. Organic and biodynamic wines make up approximately 6%, (by volume) of NZ’s annual production. These are not world-beating numbers, even if they are increasing.

Where New Zealand does lead the world is in sustainability. Sustainable Winegrowing NZ™ is widely recognised as a world-leading sustainability programme and was among the first established in the international wine industry, in 1997. Currently 96% of New Zealand’s vineyard producing area is certified sustainable. That is unmatched anywhere.

Looking Deeper at Sustainability

Now, from a Canadian’s perspective, you may be asking yourself how buying New Zealand wine in Canada could possibly be sustainable. You literally couldn’t buy wine from further away. Certainly, the global pandemic has driven renewed interest in supporting local, geographic-based consumption, and the 100-mile diet can, and should, include wine. But consumers seeking truly environmentally sustainable products need to look much deeper at the reality of sustainability throughout the entire value chain.

The fact is that transportation accounts for only a part of the Green House Gas (GHG) emissions associated with the production and shipment of consumables like food and wine. And it’s not the biggest part. Studies show that growing, processing, and packaging account for nearly 80% of a wine’s carbon footprint, while shipping is just over 20%. New Zealand is an island, which means that wines are shipped to international markets by sea, which is five times more carbon efficient than road transport. In fact, driving your vehicle to the LCBO (depending on how far you live) probably contributes as much GHG emissions on a per unit basis as sailing from Auckland to Halifax. So, to really measure a wine’s sustainability, you have to consider the production process more carefully than how far away it was made

In this sense, buying NZ wine could well be a sustainable option. Here’s a compelling fact: New Zealand’s national energy grid is over 80% renewable. The average of the 37 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development sits at 25%. And as of 2019, Canada has just 17.3% renewable energy. This translates to fewer emissions associated with the production phase of NZ wine. Especially important since wine is such an energy (and water) intensive product. What’s more, New Zealand Winegrowers have committed to the goal of making the wine industry net carbon-zero before 2050, ahead of the regulatory deadline set out by the Paris accord. These are very positive consumer messages and should be a wake-up call to wine industries everywhere.

Now, I’m not by any means suggesting you shouldn’t buy local. Supporting local wineries is much more economically sustainable for Canadians, after all. But buying local is not always the most environmentally sustainable course of action.

There are positive developments in NZ among the leading exporters. Villa Maria, for example, one of the largest family-owned wine companies in the country and widely available in Canada, has recently announced that all of its vineyards will be certified organic by 2030, not just sustainable, which is a significant pledge.  Even commercial giant Brancott Estate (producers of the popular brand Stoneleigh), has launched a new organic (and vegan) range under the Living Land brand, donating $1 from every bottle sold to the Marlborough Falcon Trust’s efforts to protect and restore the falcon population in the region. These are powerful messages to consumers worldwide, helping to shore up the overall positive country image. Even the largest commercial players are getting the message.

Villa Maria, Ihumatao Crater Vineyard

And Quality

So, fine wine and sustainability, can, and must, go hand in hand. Of course, on the flip side, sustainability alone is not enough to earn the fine moniker. The wine also has to be good. And here, too, there’s good news to report.

The WineAlign crü sat down in October to taste through about five dozen wines sent to our offices by New Zealand Wine Growers, many of which were certified organic or biodynamic, 100% of them certified sustainable (very cleverly, only SWNZ-certified wineries can participate in promotional activities such as this, which no doubt accounts, in part, for the incredibly high national certification rate). It was one of the most consistently impressive tastings we’ve had this year, highlighting the country’s strength with cool climate styles, in particular chardonnay and pinot noir, in addition to sauvignon and other memorable aromatic whites. Excellent and sustainable wines: let’s call them fine wines.

Fromm Vineyard

Additional Information

What more on NZ? Watch the replay of The New Zealand Wine Diaries, a four-part round table webinar series featuring Ronan Sayburn MS of 67 Pall Mall in London, David Keck MS, organic winegrower in Vermont, yours truly, and a rotating resident master of wine from New Zealand. The final episode looks at sustainable, organic, biodynamic and natural wines.

Watch my 5 to 7 Winedown IGTV video featuring four organic wines from New Zealand, aired during NZ Organic Wine Week in late September.

Guide to NZ’s Top Wines and Producers

Below are my picks, with contributions from Sara d’Amato and Michael Godel. For the whole team’s top-rated wines and complete reviews, click on New Zealand 2020. Some prices were not yet available at the time of publishing. Contact the agents listed directly for availability.

Marlborough & Hawkes Bay

Villa Maria Taylors Pass Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Marlborough, New Zealand
$29.95, Philippe Dandurand Wines Ltd.

Villa Maria Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2018, Gimblett Gravels Hawkes Bay Hawke’s Bay
$59.95 Philippe Dandurand Wines Ltd.
John Szabo – There is much worth admiring about Villa Maria, founded by Sir George Fistonich, a titan of the NZ wine industry. The company is hugely successful and still family-run, overdelivering on quality from the entry-range to premium, single vineyard bottlings like these. The Taylor’s Pass sauvignon is a richer and more substantial sauvignon than the mean from the Awatere Valley, a sub region of Marlborough, where high winds and low-yields are the norm. Cab-merlot from the celebrated Gimblett Gravels sub-region of Hawke’s Bay is crafted in an absolute classic, cool climate style, full of pencil led and gravel, crunchy black fruit, cassis, plus the varietal family’s herbal character. Drink or hold into the late ’20s.

Babich Family Estates Organic Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Marlborough
$21.95 (estimated), Dionysus Wines & Spirits Ltd.

Babich Wines Te Henga Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Marlborough
$12.95, Dionysus Wines & Spirits Ltd.
John Szabo – Founded over a century ago, Babich is another large, successful, family-owned operation, with over 500 hectares of vineyards in Marlborough alone, plus vineyards in Auckland and Hawke’s Bay. Scale helps create value, as with this terrific Te Henga Sauvignon, as good as many in the $18 range. And big doesn’t mean industrial, as with this progressive organic-certified version of sauvignon, a solid new wine in the Babich range.

Giesen Clayvin Vineyard Chardonnay 2015, Marlborough
$44.95 (estimated), Charton Hobbs

Giesen The August 1888 Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Marlborough
$46.05 (estimated), Charton Hobbs

Giesen Sauvignon Blanc 0%, Marlborough
$14.95 (estimated), Charton Hobbs
John Szabo – The Giesen brothers Theo, Alex and Marcel, continue the legacy of their grandfather August Giesen. 11% of the company’s vineyard holdings are certified organic, and growing, including the flagship Clayvin Vineyard, the first significant hillside vineyard in Marlborough located in the Southern Valleys sub-region. There’s a reason the Clayvin Vineyard has developed such a high reputation, here in the Giesen’s hands it’s rendered into an ultra-premium version of chardonnay, on par with, say, Penfolds’ Yattarna. Length and depth are truly excellent. The August 1888 sauvignon is an homage to the founder, included in this round up not because it’s available, but rather to share the fact that Marlborough sauvignon can age shockingly well when made in this very rich, wood-aged style. Anyone lucky enough to still have a bottle should pull it out with a swanky lobster dinner with drawn butter, or scallops, or similarly rich, umami-driven seafood/shellfish. Another emerging trend in New Zealand and elsewhere is low or no-alcohol wine, and the Giesens prove that they’re with the times with this innovative 0% alcohol former sauvignon wine. Alcohol is removed through a unique process, leaving less than 0.5% remaining, and just 10.6 calories per 125ml serving (6 per bottle). It’s perfectly refreshing if not very wine-like, but I would happily spritzer it up in the name of refreshment and dry January.

Loveblock Orange Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Vegan, Sustainable, Marlborough
$27.95, The Vine Agency
John Szabo – The indefatigable Crawfords, Kim and his wife Erica, have been trailblazing for years. While the massive Kim Crawford brand is no longer in their hands, they continue their quest with Loveblock, an organically-certified vineyard in the Awatere Valley. The “orange” is rare a skin-fermented version of sauvignon with a unique twist: green tea powder is used as a natural anti-oxidant instead of sulfur (or nothing at all). And yes, there’s an herbal, zesty note here, though no obvious connection. What I like most is the savoury aspect, the marked salinity that drives through to the finish. It’s an intriguing wine to be sure, one that deserves attention over the course of an evening.

Hans Herzog Mistral 2016, Marlborough Marlborough
$59.90 (estimated), Seeking representation
John Szabo – Hans Herzog continues his relentless quest to express perhaps the widest diversity of grapes under one winery roof in the southern hemisphere – no fewer than 28 on certified organic estate vineyards – and each to a shockingly high degree of quality. Mistral 2016 is, as the cuvée name alludes, a Rhône-style blend of 60% viognier, 20% marsanne and 20% roussanne, macerated on the skins and fermented with wild yeasts in 500 liter casks. Unfined and unfiltered, it’s deeply-gold coloured, richly perfumed, thick, dense and extracted on the palate with rounded acids and full-bodied, creamy texture. This is so clearly an ambitious and concentrated wine far outside of the commercial norm, really top notch, and without local paradigm.

Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Marlborough
$27.95, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.
John Szabo – The flinty Dog Point style is quite original for Marlborough, so don’t expect the classic fruit explosion. Yet  2019 sees a slight pull back, featuring less marked ‘sulfide’ character and far more grapefruit and citrus, passion fruit and guava flavours. As such it will surely appeal more widely. Length and depth, and overall composition, are at the usual top level.

Spy Valley Pinot Noir 2016, Marlborough, South Island
$26.95, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.
Michael – Spy Valley just seems to have a way of making these amenable, delicious and so properly made pinot noir, all at impossibly fair prices. Add in here the idea of singling out place and selection, well then you’ll understand where this is going.

Whitehaven Greg Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Awatere Single Vineyard, Marlborough
$23.95, E & J Gallo
Michael – Greg is Whitehaven’s upscale, up-level sauvignon blanc ode to co-founder Greg White and the layers here really need to unfurl. Unctuous and multi-tiered, fruit begets acidity, begets tannin, comes back to fruit. Sip, swirl, repeat.

Whitehaven Pinot Noir 2016, Marlborough, South Island
$26.95, E&J Gallo
Sara d’Amato – An elegant, rather precise pinot noir that has held up very well in bottle. Mildly spiced with excellent concentration and notable attention given to keeping fruit the central figure in this story.

Astrolabe Marlborough Pinot Gris 2008, Marlborough, South Island
$18.75, Rogers & Company
Michael – This pinot gris from winemaker Simon Waghorn is richly hued, mineral flinty to nose and almost riesling like, made in an off-dry style. Reminds of André Blanck’s Alsace, nutty, tropical and old school.

Astrolabe Province Pinot Noir 2016, Marlborough
$27.95, Rogers & Company
Sara d’Amato – A bright, aromatic and notably Marlborough style of pinot noir that offers ripe red cherry, pomegranate, tilled earth, licorice spice and botanicals on the nose. The palate showcases a delicate balance of fruit and spice from oak that has meshed nicely over time in bottle. Decidedly upbeat with good concentration and a plush texture. A very well-made commercial style that should prove widely appealing.

Blank Canvas Wines ‘Escaroth’ Pinot Noir 2017, Marlborough
$49.99 (estimated)
John Szabo – Blank Canvas’s mantra, “made without recipes” is apt, as is their statement “Our wines are not for everyone, but we would rather make wines that some people will love, rather than wines that everyone will just like. This is clearly wine for those who love the natural wine movement, open, earthy, spicy, high-toned, not to say volatile, made with 50% whole bunch (stems), hence the savoury, twiggy, herbal-resinous profile that supersedes fruit. Although the Escoroth vineyard is in the Southern Valleys sub-region of Marlborough on heavier clay soils, the structure is quite light overall. I’d suggest drinking this over the short term, perhaps into the mid-2020s maximum – I don’t see a great deal to gain – enjoy it while the fruit still lives.


Luna Estate Blue Rock Pinot Noir 2018, Martinborough
$50 (estimated), Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.
John Szabo – Sustainability and care of the land and nature’s resources was the founding philosophy of Luna Estate, essential to expression the diversity of their two vineyards. The Blue Rock vineyard pinot is my favorite, a warm, north facing undulating vineyard with rare geology compared to Martinborough’s mostly gravel terraces, sitting on an ancient marine seabed with layers of clay loam, limestone, greywacke and the blue rock that gives the vineyard its name. This is full of beguiling fragrance and classic savoury pinot perfume, well-pitched, even-keeled, elegant and refined.

Left Hand Paddy Borthwick Pinot Noir 2018, Wairarapa
$66 (estimated), Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc.
Sara d’Amato – A nervy and still youthful pinot noir that is named after the personality of winemaker Braden Crosby whose logic, creativity and precision are distinctive traits that shape his winemaking decisions. This is expression is a crunchy, complex and ageworthy style that is a testament to careful, guidance when it comes to winemaking.

Waipara/North Canterbury

Greystone Pinot Noir 2017, Waipara Valley
$42 (estimated), Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.
John Szabo – From Greystone’s organically farmed estate vineyard on the limestones of the Waipara Valley in North Canterbury, this is ripe and dark/black-fruited pinot noir, also highly structured, not yet at prime enjoyment; revisit this after 2022 for the complete experience. If you can find it. Don’t miss Greystone’s Vineyard Ferment pinot noir as well. 2017 marks the 3rd vintage of a separate bottling made from lots actually fermented in the vineyard, in plastic bins (though the latest vintages were made in concrete fermenters) – putting to rest discussions about wild yeasts coming from the winery or the vineyard (they live in both).

Central Otago

Quartz Reef Methode Traditionnelle Blanc De Blancs 2013, Central Otago
$75 (estimated), Amethyst Wine Agency Inc.
John Szabo – Rudi Bauer’s Demeter-certified, biodynamic wines are among NZs best, you can surely count this sparkling among the top Blanc de Blancs of the southern hemisphere. It’s so sapid and saline, balanced and energetic, with terrific length and depth. Drink or continue to hold another decade.

Valli Waitaki Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018, North Otago
$85.95 (estimated), The Living Vine
John Szabo – I’ve admired Central Otago pioneer Grant Taylor’s wines since first tasting them in NZ in 2013, so suffused with finesse and charm were they then, as now, effortless but characterful. This pinot noir from the cool, newish region of Waitaki north of Central Otago (first commercial harvest in the region was 2004) is an absolute stunner, perfumed with dusty rose. A wine of pure finesse and elegance, succulence and balance, a spectacular wine all in all. Everything from Valli is worth a look.

Rippon Mature Vine Pinot Noir 2016, Wanaka, Central Otago
$63.00, Cru Wine Merchants
John Szabo – Not only is Rippon Vineyard probably the most picturesque on the planet, the wines, too, are one-of-a-kind. Biodynamically farmed, Nick Mills seeks the “voice of Rippon”, the ultimate expression of a place in the wines. From the oldest vines on the property, this pinot is lovely and pure with fruit singing in the high register. I like the lifted florals, the purity, with no evidence of wood to report aside from the gentle oxidative effect. It’s not a blockbuster style, but rather one built on finesse and subtlety, delicacy yet marked personality.

Burn Cottage Moonlight Race Pinot Noir 2016, Lowburn Central Otago
$59.95, The Living Vine
John Szabo – The virgin Burn Cottage Vineyard property was purchased in 2002 by the Sauvage family, but several years would pass before planting so they could evaluate which potential sites responded best to biodynamic treatment, showing the most vibrant native vegetation regrowth. The winning parcels were planted under the guidance of American biodynamnic winegrower Ted Lemon of Littorai, and has been farmed the same way ever since. Moonlight race is Burn Cottage’s ‘entry level’ pinot, named after a waterway that feeds the pond on the property. It’s a blend of the home block plus two other parcels purchased but farmed by the Burn Cottage team. It’s a beauty, delicate and floral, with firm, silky texture and a salty, saline quality. This is a wine you can drink a lot of without tiring.

Grasshopper Rock Earnscleugh Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017, Central Otago
$44.95, Paradigm Fine Wine Agency
John Szabo – In the Alexandra Basin of Central Otago, Grasshopper Rock’s Earnscleugh Vineyard produces slow-moving, ageworthy pinot noirs with tight acid structure alongside moderate alcohol (here 13% declared) – be sure to decant if serving now, or cellar another 5-7 years.

That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle of sustainable fine wine.

John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by New Zealand Winegrowers. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.