A group of New Zealand’s 'ultra-premium' wine producers have established a new marketing group called The Specialist Winegrowers of New Zealand (TSWNZ) and the five founding members hope their obsessive desire for quality (a passion they say could possibly be seen as a mild-form of insanity) might help New Zealand wine escape the commoditisation trap they feel it is currently in danger of falling into.
The TSWNZ group is primarily a marketing alliance with an objective to expand distribution of the members’ fine wines to niche markets (wine connoisseurs, top restaurants and specialty retailers) where quality at all costs is the aim. It also aims to show that New Zealand is more than a one-trick sauvignon blanc pony, as this is the general overseas perception overseas at present.
Each of the founding members, whose wines range in price from $40 to well over $100, specialise in a single grape variety or style. Steve Farquharson, co-founder of Central Otago's Wooing Tree, makes pinot noir; Mike Spratt, of Destiny Bay (home of the country's most expensive wine), makes a Bordeaux blend on Waiheke Island; Chris Canning planted syrah at The Hay Paddock on Waiheke after a 30 year search for the appropriate spot; Nick Nobilo of Gisborne's Vinoptima, is trying to make the world's best gewurztraminer (it is sold in British celebrity chef/scientist Heston Blumenthal's eatery The Fat Duck); and Adele and Daniel Le Brun (a native of Champagne), of No.1 Family Estate, are all about methode traditionelle.
“This is a challenge that we have each recognised as being far more achievable together than alone,” says 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.”
Nick Nobilo, who, after the sale of Nobilo Wines to BRL Hardy 10 years ago, threw himself into making “the world’s best gewurtztraminer” says: “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.”
Chris Canning says the group "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," he says. "Our wines are expensive to make and people who buy them understand and respect that.”
As one of the world’s smallest producers, Farquharson says New Zealand wineries should be aiming at the fine wine market.
As it says on the TSWNZ website: "Despite producing less than one percent of the world’s wine, New Zealand producers believe there is a glut. They have dramatically discounted their prices, increased bulk wine sales five fold and called for vineyards to be scrapped and compulsory caps to be placed on production – at the same time boasting that export sales have now topped the billion dollar mark . . . The market where price is not an issue and where margins properly reflect cost is the fine wine market. We are not there because we haven’t aspired to be there. It is where elitists operate, people who set very high standards for themselves of both performance and achievement."
Expansion to other varieties is planned for the group, but Nobilo says membership is limited to “true specialists intent on making the very best wine from our one chosen variety or style". Or, basically, winemakers with a level of dedication and specialisation that borders on the obsessive.
“Chardonnay and riesling are high on our list,” Spratt says. “But our criteria limit the list of potential candidates. Not only must they be single variety or style specialists, but they must have achieved critical recognition and a premium price point."
Similar schemes have been tried before, most notably the High-End Initiative, which was led by Gisborne winery Craggy Range, involved NZTE and targeted the ultra-premium market in America.
The Specialist Winegrowers of New Zealand will be launched in New Zealand to the wine trade and media at a series of private functions in the coming months and at selected overseas events in key markets.