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New Zealand Winemaker: Five to Watch

A new winemaker crowd is taking over in New Zealand – well travelled, experienced in the wine trade, and with youth on their side. SUSY ATKINS meets five of the new generation

In New Zealand the times are a’changing – and fast. No longer a minor winemaker country made up of tiny boutique wineries, it’s now home to a grown-up industry, and its new generation of stars comprises some very serious players. They will be needed, since the next few years will see an enormous increase in the amount of vineyards coming on stream. New Zealanders will need to make and market their wines cleverly if they are to sell all that they are about to produce.

The new generation of winemakers is remarkable not least for the amount of air miles notched up. Overseas work and the exchange of ideas is not something many of the previous generation enjoyed and it is interesting to note just how much Europe, rather than Australia or California, has been an influence.

But there is more to their CVs than travel. This is a country that favours youth and energy, and there is an impressive number of young guns who are now heading the wine industry. Brian Bicknell of Seresin, Grant Edmonds of Sileni, Claire Allen of Huia, Rod McDonald of Vidal and Gordon Russell of Esk Valley all spring readily to mind as worthy of note. But I’ve chosen to concentrate on the following five New Zealand winemakers, newly at the top of their profession and all playing a crucial role in the future of Kiwi wine.

Steve Smith MW

Wine and viticulture director, Craggy Range, Hawke’s Bay. Age: 41

In 1997, as we headed into the new millennium, Steve Smith was named by Decanter as one of the 50 most influential figures in wine. Soon after, he announced an impressive move – to head up new winery Craggy Range, which opened its vast doors earlier this year. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa sang and Sir Edmund Hillary spoke at the launch party, a lavish outdoors concert on the winery lawns, with dramatic Hawke’s Bay mountains forming a gorgeous backdrop.

It all sounds glamorous, and indeed it is. With Craggy Range, founded by the Australian millionaire, Terry Peabody, the hard-working, ambitious Smith has truly arrived. He now has the perfect opportunity to showcase single-vineyard New Zealand wines – something he has long aspired to. A lot hangs on his performance at Craggy, as all eyes are watching this flashy new operation, but if anyone can pull it off, Smith can. The first releases are compelling and stood out at a recent generic New Zealand tasting – serious, complex wines from particular nooks and crannies of the great regions of Martinborough, Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay.


Born in 1962, Smith grew up on the crop farms of the Canterbury Plains, and was a prominent viticulturalist in the 1980s and 1990s, working (as so many important figures seem to have done at some point) for Villa Maria. He became fascinated by the relationship between vineyards and wine at a time when many New World producers were too tied up in the lab to get outside.

Now he says: ‘I’m a passionate New Zealander, but also a critical one. We could do so much better in every area of the wine business. You just have to taste the wines that light up the mind – they are world class without a doubt. But there are too many so-so wines in between. We have a great opportunity but I fear it is being hijacked by the brand-driven, price-point multinationals.’

Smith claims his main aim in life is ‘to make great wine from old vines I have planted before I’m too old!’ Odds-on he succeeds.

Craggy Range, Old Renwick Vineyard, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough 2002 ****

Rich grapefruit and gooseberry yet ultra-fresh and racy, with a mineral streak. Drinking well already. £11.99; Wai

Kate Radburnd Winemaker and managing director, CJ Pask, Hawke’s Bay. Age: 41

As winemaker at CJ Pask, Kate Radburnd helped to focus world attention on the Hawke’s Bay region, when Pask’s 1998 Reserve Merlot won the award for best Bordeaux red at the 2000 International Wine Challenge. It was yet another sign, if any were needed, that with the dazzling 1998 vintage, New Zealand’s reds had finally come of age.

Now Radburnd feels another important era has arrived. ‘From now until 2005, as a huge increase in grapes arrives, people will realise we have moved beyond Sauvignon Blanc alone. New Zealand has come on so fast, and so well, and now we are set to increase our amount of wine enormously.’

Radburnd is optimistic about the impending grape glut. She sees a great future for Kiwi Syrahs which display finesse and elegance – ‘not the big, rich Aussie Shiraz style’, she says. She is also ‘a huge fan of Merlot’ and hopes to see more in the way of Merlot-rich blends, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. ‘The future for our Merlot, Merlot blends and Syrah is immense,’ she claims.

Clearly this is a winemaker with a passion for reds, perhaps surprisingly in a country that built its reputation on white wine. But Radburnd, an Australian, has championed Hawke’s Bay reds ever since working at the Vidal winery where the wines she produced in the late 1980s and early 1990s are still considered classics. ‘Time and again, the best fruit came from one particular grower – Chris Pask,’ she says, and it wasn’t long before Pask invited her to join him in making wines independently. It certainly helped that Pask was one of the pioneers of the Gimblett Road area of Hawke’s Bay, now acknowledged as one of the best spots for red grapes. ‘We have one of the hottest spots of all,’ says Radburnd, referring, one suspects, both to the temperature and desirability of Pask’s prime vineyards.

Today she has another interest – in sustainable viticulture – and she is the current chair of the Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand committee, an organisation that promotes non-interventionist, near-organic practices. ‘We must endorse and verify the clean, green image,’ she says. Radburnd is consistently described as ‘secure’ and ‘accomplished’, someone who ‘doesn’t blow her own trumpet’. She has done much to champion and influence women winemakers in a land where there is a relatively high proportion of female high-fliers.

CJ Pask, Declaration, Hawke’s Bay 2000 ****

Elegant, restrained, complex blend of 50% Cabernet, 40% Merlot and 10% Malbec, with the latter showing flavours of black cherry, plum and redcurrant. Cedary, leathery depths. 5–7 years. £14.95; L&W

Nick Mills

Winemaker, Rippon Vineyard, Central Otago. Age 30

The word down in Central Otago, South Island right now is that 30-year-old Nick Mills is one to watch. The fruits of his first vintage back at the family estate are yet to be released but all the signs are greatly promising. For a young man, Mills has lived a great deal: growing up at Rippon Vineyard while his pioneering parents Rolfe and Lois established it as one of the first wineries of note in Central Otago; becoming the national freestyle skiing champion (1994); taking a philosophy degree in Dunedin; working several vintages in Burgundy and Alsace; and suffering two serious sporting accidents along the way.


He spent much of the late 1990s in France, working at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti among others, and becoming fascinated by organic and biodynamic viticulture. His list of mentors is long, headed up by his late father, and joined by Rolfe’s winemaker Rudi Bauer, Nicolas Potel, Jacky and Maurice Barthelmé of Albert Mann, and prominent organic Kiwi winemaker James Millton.

The current gold rush for vines and wines in Central Otago owes a lot to the vision of Rolfe Mills, and Rippon is highly respected for Pinot Noir in particular, so Mills junior has a great deal to live up to. But his experience in Burgundy, his evident feel for terroir honed while there, and his attention to viticultural detail bode well. Those who have visited the winery and seen the work he is currently doing report very positively about the future for Rippon, and Mills is often described as a ‘sensitive’ winemaker, with an innate feel for his land. ‘I don’t like the word “winemaker”,’ he says. ‘I see my role as team manager. I work with four of my siblings, but also with millions of micro-organisms, from which we help create, in a liquid essence that we can imbibe, as accurate a representation of their surroundings as possible. They only do this if you treat them properly, respecting their environment, helping them to build their resistance, and knowing when to let them rest.’ Ecological credentials, sporting prowess, and a healthy dose of New Age philosophy – Nick Mills is truly a winemaker for the 21st century.

Rippon Vineyards, Pinot Noir, Central Otago 2000 ****

All the smooth silkiness required from Pinot, and generous, aromatic cherry-berry fruit. A New World classic. Up to 8 years. £18.95; L&S

Alastair Maling MW Group winemaker, Villa Maria, Auckland. Age: 37

By sheer chance, when Alastair Maling passed his MW exams in 2000 (only the sixth New Zealander to do so), he won the Villa Maria award for best viticultural paper. At that time, he had nothing to do with Villa, New Zealand’s third biggest wine company. But the award must have looked pretty good on his CV when, two years later, he was considered for the job of group winemaker there.

To make the task more daunting, he has replaced the highly respected, multi-award-winning Michelle Richardson, who now works in Central Otago. He seems unfazed: ‘I’m here to play a part in blending, help direct the wine styles and generally act as a sounding board.’ He certainly should have enough experience. From his early 20s, Maling was a flying winemaker who touched down in many wine countries, including Spain, France, California and South Africa, mainly making supermarket wines for the UK. As a result he is ‘very commercially driven’, according to colleagues.

Making cheap and cheerful wines for the Brits at under a fiver is not now his raison d’être, but it will be interesting to see how this marketing-savvy winemaker will work back in his homeland. His main aims at the moment include ‘pushing New Zealand reds into riper flavours rather than green ones’, ‘focusing on Riesling, because it will be well worth it’, and ‘working on Pinot Gris to make it more fruit driven – to let the fruit flavours really talk.’ With a great team behind him, it’s difficult to see things going wrong. But then Maling has a lot to live up to.

Villa Maria, Private Bin, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough 2002****

Extremely impressive for such a large-volume label, this is loaded with crisp gooseberry and lemon fruit. Drink now. £7.99; widely available

Brent Marris

Winemaker, Wither Hills, Marlborough. Age: 41

It must be pretty good to be Brent Marris right now. When the huge multinational corporation Lion Nathan snapped up his Wither Hills winery 12 months ago, it paid over NZ$50 million for the privilege. Marris stays on for three more years as winemaker, and, he says, gets to further his plans both in the vineyard and the winery, only with much more expansion planned and, presumably, even more dosh behind him. Sounds like a good deal.

An extrovert with no small ego, Marris certainly conveys an infectious enthusiasm for life, sport, fast cars, family and of course wine. He travels widely promoting Wither Hills, and his positive nature, plus a canny business acumen, must make him a useful ambassador for New Zealand wines in general.

He is a Marlborough boy, born and bred, and is clearly very attached to the region. He grew up there in the 1960s, where his father John (with whom he founded Wither Hills) was an early contract grape grower in the region. Marris went to Australia to gain a degree in oenology at Roseworthy College and returned to work for several years as winemaker at Delegats. Wither Hills was established with his father in 1994 and it was considered a huge success even before Lion Nathan came sniffing around.

Marris is a talented winemaker, but his main strength is that he can make wines that are high quality and appeal on a commercial level. Think fruity wines, smooth textured and moreish. He has been particularly successful in getting his wines abroad at decent prices and has shifted a whole load of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as a result. Interestingly, he is one of a number of quality New Zealand producers bottling under screwcap and would like to see all New Zealand wines packaged in this way.

Pinor Noir is clearly his main passion, and the wine he makes is packed with sweetly ripe fruit, intense and luscious. ‘The fruit should be the hero,’ is one of his regular sayings.

It’s anyone’s guess what Marris will do in the long-term now that Wither Hills has been sold. His more general ambitions centre on Pinot: ‘[My aim is] to prove that Marlborough can make the best Pinot Noir in New Zealand consistently, and to see New Zealand have the same success with Pinot as it has had with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.’

Wither Hills, Pinot Noir, Marlborough 2001 ****

Sweetly ripe, soft and plummy with slightly savoury, spicy notes. Up to 5 years. £14.99–15.99; GWW, Jer, Odd, Wai, WSo

Written by Susy Atkins

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