|Lasting Impact: American Sommeliers Reveal Their Impressions Following New Zealand Wine Excursion
By Jessica Dupuy
It’s often said that there’s no better way to understand the wines of a region than to see the landscape from which they come, to walk around in the vineyards, feel the soils in your fingers, and engage with grape growers and winemakers in their own space. It’s an opportunity four American sommeliers were invited to experience earlier this year in New Zealand as part of the 2019 New Zealand Winegrowers International Sommelier Scholarship. And as each of them can attest, the experience enhanced their appreciation for the range of wines offered by the country’s unique and varied regions.
The American sommeliers — Vanessa Da Silva, of New Jersey’s Ninety Acres; Jillian Riley, of Chicago’s NoMI; Winn Roberton, of Bourbon Steak at Four Seasons in Washington, D.C.; and Emily Tolbert, formerly of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House in Houston — joined 14 sommeliers from the likes of Asia, Canada, Europe, New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates, and Australia as participants in the fourth annual Sommit™ in Hawke’s Bay, as well as the International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in Marlborough and the Chardonnay and Sparkling Symposium in Gisborne. The 11-day excursion was led by the New Zealand Winegrowers staff who offered a deeper dive into the country’s distinctive winegrowing regions.
Despite a rigorous schedule that had these sommeliers traipsing from Auckland and Gisborne on the North Island to Marlborough and Central Otago on the South Island, a distance akin to traveling from New York to South Florida, the experience was uniquely eye opening.
For Da Silva the opportunity to gain such comprehensive exposure to New Zealand wine was invaluable. “This experience really helped me comprehend the scale of everything going on in New Zealand wine,” said Da Silva. “I think in the States we see a decent amount of wine from Marlborough, Central Otago, Hawke’s Bay, and even some from Martinborough, but we don’t really see just how small these regions are! Hawke’s Bay is just 4,700 hectares, Central Otago is only 1,900, and the Wellington wine regions are just 1,000! When you compare that to the 24,000 hectares of Marlborough, it really put things into perspective for me. Seeing just how close-knit these winemaking communities are really impacted my desire to champion these wines even more.”
Roberton praised the chance to be able to personally interact with the winemakers. “Getting to have time with producers is always eye-opening because you get to see their passion and struggles in a place that is so far from home,” he said. “Talking clones and lees and sales numbers are all super-important, but as a sommelier, the people behind the wine are what make the difference. Their insight and personal stories give us so much more to share with our restaurant guests.”
The tour kicked off with the two-day Sommit™ in Hawke’s Bay, where participants were not only introduced to the region’s star grapes — Chardonnay, Syrah, and Bordeaux varieties — but also given the opportunity to contrast young and aged Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as smaller yet successful plantings, including Albariño, Fiano, Grüner Veltliner, Gamay, St. Laurent, Tempranillo, and Lagrein. Sommit™ leaders Master of Wine Stephen Wong and UK Master Sommelier Ronan Sayburn used the immersive experience to encourage discussion with participants about how New Zealand wines fit within their home markets.
“I was very impressed with Hawke’s Bay Syrah,” said Riley. “It hovers in a very interesting space between New World and Old World. But I also thought Chardonnay showed great potential, and the Riesling from Central Otago was incredible. When we consider how young the industry is in a world context, it’s very exciting to see how the wine production will develop in the next 10 years.”
At the three-day International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in Marlborough, sommeliers explored the complexity of New Zealand’s flagship variety, emerging styles, vineyard practices, winemaking influences, and future trends. The themes of “place, purity, and pursuit” anchored the content. The topic of place drew on Tūrangawaewae, the geographical terroir of Sauvignon Blanc. Purity explored topics such as climate, sustainability, and flavor. And, on the final day, pursuit explored what the New Zealand industry and its stakeholders should pursue domestically and globally, outlining future challenges and opportunities. Among the highlights was a discussion of sustainability in New Zealand by Dr. Roger Boulton of the University of California whose work focuses on the chemical and biochemical engineering aspects of winemaking and distilled spirits production.
“Dr. Boulton’s talk on sustainability was inspiring and authentic,” said Da Silva. “His research and ingenuity on the subject is vital in the world climate we live in today. It was truly heartwarming to hear that his more than 40 years of work to create a self-sustainable winery is finally being utilized successfully.”
Guests took a chartered low-altitude flight from Blenheim over Nelson, Martinborough, and Hawke’s Bay to Gisborne for the Chardonnay and Sparkling Symposium, where participants spent a day exploring Chardonnay clones and styles, yeasts, malolactic fermentation and reduction, and the evolution of the country’s sparkling wine.
“I thought the tasting that compared various clonal varieties of Chardonnay was fascinating,” said Tolbert. “To sensually experience through taste and smell the effect of different clones and the type of proportion of flavor compounds they express was mind-blowing. It’s uncommon to view wine through the lens of chemistry, but this tasting really dove into why wines taste like they do, why the same variety has different characteristics, and why the geology and climatology affects the genetic makeup.”
After nearly two weeks in country, each sommelier left with a deeper appreciation not only for the wines but for the land and culture from which they come. More importantly, they had a better handle on how these wines could best be represented back home.
“Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc remains incredibly popular in the States,” said Tolbert, who sees this as a good thing and a jumping-off point to talk about other New Zealand wines. “As a sommelier, it’s vastly easier to get a consumer to try a new variety from a region they already know. Recommending a New Zealand Chardonnay or Riesling because they already know Sauvignon Blanc makes it easier to take a leap of faith.”
In addition, Riley sees a big opportunity for some of the smaller producers from the lesser-known New Zealand regions to get their foot in the door. “We are seeing a new generation developing more and more buying power, and they are increasingly concerned with sustainability,” she said. “The smaller, eco-friendly producers making a handmade product will grow in popularity if they have adequate support in the right markets. It definitely helps to show other varieties at an entry-level price point. The inexperienced customer is more willing to experiment on wines in the $20 price point, which could serve as a great gateway for New Zealand wine.”
Indeed, the takeaway for these American sommeliers was much more than the stunningly beautiful landscapes and the magnetically warm and welcoming culture of New Zealand. These elements, coupled with the versatility and quality of the wines, have left a lasting impression to share with their guests long into the future.