Honesty is the best policy

By | 04/02/2010

As it is with people, it is also interesting to see how an industry presents itself (yes, that will be me giving your shoes a once over to see if they are polished). I came away from last weekend’s Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers’ Cabernet Merlot Forum and Syrah Symposium slightly scratching my head at the image that was presented to the couple of hundred industry locals and international trade and media who attended.
–          Firstly, it was a little tricky to know exactly who the events were aimed at. There was a curious mixture of very basic viticulture and vinification sessions which seemed to be preaching to the converted (I doubt anyone in the room didn’t already know that appropriate site selection and selective fruit picking improves wine quality); lots of very technical research (interesting enough in itself but perhaps not really the time and place?); and plenty of exploration on what other countries and regions are doing but without much relating back to what is happening in New Zealand.
–          Whilst there were some very interesting and often amusing speakers, many appeared to cover parts of what others had already done and often had to rush through their presentations due to poor timing of the proceedings. Most unfortunately of all there was little time to discuss the wines, a number of which were top flight and deserved more than a 90 second swirl, sniff, spit and 10 second sound bite. There were some big names in the audience alongside some smart palates and brains and it would have been good to have had the time to hear them debate their opinions more.
–          The invited overseas guests represented a wide range of perspectives and experiences and while we got to hear some of these, many spoke on rather banal topics. It would have been better and more relevant to have heard James Halliday speak on the state of the Australian industry, where cabernet sits there and what lessons New Zealand could take from their experience. I can look up cabernet’s parentage in a book if I need to, but there are far fewer opportunities to hear an industry stalwart give a more insightful look at the state of affairs and I fear that this was one missed.
–           The tastings followed the usual pattern: to showcase some of the world’s best wines and hope that commentators proclaim that the NZ wines were just as good. But then to gloss over any rigorous discussion or dissent as to whether the NZ wines did actually stack up (a perfect encapsulation of the NZ wine industry as a whole at times, methinks) was a real pity, not least because as mentioned above, there were some really interesting wines and comparisons on display. How are we ever really going to learn and hit our straps if we don’t accept honest, fair criticism of our wines? Kiwi winemakers are happy to point out if there are deficiencies in European wines (brett, unripeness, etc). But when asked if a local wine was liked (especially when the NZ ones were discussed) the room was full of nodding donkeys plus a tiny few brave souls who gave their honest opinions. And yet in the breaks for morning and afternoon tea, the place was alive with chat of over-extraction, too much oak, high alcohol, the emperor’s new clothes; all the usual suspects. Well, why not say that when a useful discussion could actually be had??
–           It is all very well (and fashionable) to do the Bordeaux vs. Hawke’s Bay comparisons but a more useful and just as fascinating comparison might be NZ cabernet and syrah at $15, $30, $50 vs. their overseas competitors. Surely that would give a better assessment of where our strengths and weaknesses lie? Glossy $100 Hawke’s Bay wine is all well and good and often looks very inviting next to its tighter European counterparts, with flattering results but it is only one very small part of the equation.
–           Despite sauvignon blanc being the very grape that blazed the trail for New Zealand’s premium wine ambitions, the current commoditisation woes of Marlborough were sniggered at by all and sundry. Yet there was no discussion as to whether this may be a potential pitfall for syrah et al, even though every man and his dog are rushing to plant it and not necessarily adhering to the premium wine tenets that appear to be New Zealand’s best hope on a world stage. Anyone old enough to remember the avocado/goat/deer/kiwifruit booms and busts has not been surprised to see grapes following similar patterns.
–           There was very little discussion about regionality and terroir. It was certainly alluded to but there was no actual exploration of this hot topic. And at the price points demanded by so many of New Zealand’s wines, a sense of place is the very least a consumer should expect.
–           Which brings me to my final observation. Many of the Hawke’s Bay wines (both cabernet and syrah) looked pretty good, but they invariably said as much about their winemakers as they did about their origin. This was especially true of the most highly praised wines. Conversely, when a flight of Rhone wines was poured, there was much smacking of lips over their general deliciousness and animated discussion over their expression of terroir, but the one wine in the flight that stood out for its very high degree of winemaker input (Guigal Chateau d’Ampuis Cote Rotie) was the one seemingly least favoured. Food for thought.
I enjoyed my two days in Hawke’s Bay: the overall event was well organised, there were plenty of cheerful faces, some great wines, some interesting discussions (most of which over a cup of tea and the excellent biscuits) and I had much to ponder on the drive home. My mother always said if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, but as you may have guessed, I have found that a far less useful piece of advice than to always keep your shoes polished.
The impression given by the Cabernet Merlot Forum and Syrah Symposium, intentional or not, is that we do just want you to say nice things, we don’t really want any serious debate about the issues, and we will all be nice to each other, except perhaps for when no one else might be listening. There is little doubt that New Zealand makes some excellent wine, some of it world class and there are some very clever and erudite people working within the industry; an event such as this is a natural forum for their honest opinion and it would have been good to have heard it.

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