New Zealand Wine Labels Bring a Rare Trait to North American Markets

The sharing of an unexpectedly rare trait has led a group of New Zealand’s ultra-premium wine producers to establish a distinctive new marketing group under the banner of The Specialist Winegrowers of New Zealand (TSWNZ), launching shortly in North American markets.

The trait which the founding members share in common is that they each specialise in a single grape variety or style – and no, it isn’t Sauvignon Blanc. While New Zealand has excelled in recent years as a producer of predominantly white wines at an affordable price, little has been seen of the exceptional single-vineyard wines being produced by the artisan winemakers for the fine wine market.

“In common with other New World producers, New Zealand wineries have been happy to produce across a wide spectrum of grape varieties” explains Nick Nobilo of Vinoptima Estate, “but true specialists intent on making the very best wine in one chosen variety or style, a choice which often leads to a level of dedication that borders on the obsessive, has been rare.”

Yet this is precisely the quality that distinguishes The Specialist Winegrowers of New Zealand. There are over 600 artisan producers in New Zealand but only a handful are true specialists. Now five of them have banded together to bring their exceptional wines and compelling stories to North American markets. Being small volume producers don’t expect them to be competing on price. (One member’s wines can be found at Coi Restaurant in San Francisco, Marché in Menlo Park, Nectar in Burlingame, Tru in Chicago, and Michael Mina’s at The Bellagio in Las Vegas at nearly $400 a bottle. These Kiwis are no shrinking violets!)

For the early members, who found each other through a shared admiration for each other’s wines, the rarity of such specialisation in New Zealand winemaking came as the greatest surprise.

“We had each come to the conclusion that focus and commitment to a single variety or style would lead us to our goals of making the finest possible wine. What we didn’t realise was how few of us had chosen that path,” explains Nick, who after the sale of Nobilo Wines to BRL Hardy 10 years ago, threw himself into the making of ‘the world’s best Gewurtzraminer’, a goal which he readily admits is not for the faint-hearted.

Chris Canning of The Hay Paddock Wines, whose 30 year search for the right variety in the right place, led to him planting Syrah on Waiheke Island near Auckland, recalls an early meeting of the group. “When we got together and started talking we recognised that we shared a common fanaticism which, to outsiders, might be seen as a mild form of insanity. Focusing on making the very best in a single variety or style is a risky and lonely proposition, yet it is hard to imagine how the very highest standards can be achieved without that focus. Our wines are expensive to make and people who buy them understand and respect that.”

Daniel and Adele Le Brun, owners of No1 Family Estate, couldn’t agree more. “We are obsessed with making the very best Methode Traditionelle we can. It is our life,” explains Daniel who, as a native of Champagne, has been recognised as the pre-eminent exponent of the art in New Zealand since the 1980s.

Other founding members include the Bordeaux blend specialists Destiny Bay (New Zealand’s most expensive wine) founded by ex-patriot Californian Mike Spratt, and Central Otago’s much acclaimed Pinot Noir, Wooing Tree. Expansion of the membership to other varieties is planned, but not in a rush. “Chardonnay and Riesling are high on our list,” says Mike Spratt of Destiny Bay, “but our criteria limit the list of potential candidates. Not only must they be single variety specialists, but they must have achieved critical recognition and a premium price point.”

So don’t expect to find The Specialist’s wines at discount outlets. The limited supply and lofty prices will keep these wines on the lists of prestigious restaurants and in the racks at exclusive merchants who manage to secure a small allocation.

The TSWNZ group is primarily a marketing alliance. Its objective is to expand distribution of members’ wines to those specific markets where the distinctive attributes of specialisation in quality at all cost are rewarded. “This is a challenge that we have each recognised as being far more achievable together than alone,” states Mike Spratt. “Together we represent the best of New Zealand’s wine styles, yet each with its own unique story and personalities attached. The world’s fine wine markets are looking for precisely these attributes in their wines, but the cost of reaching them and telling our stories to them individually is daunting, if not prohibitive. Now we can provide a single point of access.”

Steve Farquharson, co-founder of Wooing Tree, a rising star among the growing list of Pinot Noir producers in New Zealand, is passionate about his wines and about the prospect of standing alongside his new partners. “New Zealand has achieved recognition for producing drinkable white wines at affordable prices but has little standing in the fine wine market which is where, as one of the world’s smallest producers, we should be aiming.”

The Specialist Winegrowers of New Zealand is actively recruiting distribution partners servicing the leading restaurant and fine wine markets on the Pacific and Atlantic seaboards and plans to introduce its portfolio to the wine trade and media at a series of private functions in coming months.

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