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The Decanter interview: David Babich

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the planting of the first vines in New Zealand. Josip Babich was one of the country’s founding winemakers and today his pioneering winery is still family-run, with grandson David at the helm. Rebecca Gibb MW meets him to talk legacies and future prospects

David Babich likes water as much as wine. The head of one of New Zealand’s oldest wineries might be sitting behind his desk poring over the future strategy of his family’s business on weekdays, but his healthy complexion and athletic physique are evidence of his love of kitesurfing and windsurfing on Auckland’s waters. It’s part of his need for speed, which was evident at an early stage.

‘I got a motorbike aged 12 and blasted around the vineyard – it was only two years later I got a helmet for Christmas,’ he says, laughing incredulously. ‘My mum looked at what I was doing and said: “Hmm, you should really have a helmet on.” Today you would have your kid in a suit of armour!’

Growing up on the family’s vineyard in west Auckland in the 1970s in an era before hi-vis vest-wearing health and safety officials, Babich, his two brothers and cousins would use the winery as a playground and drive tractors before they were out of primary school. Three generations of the family lived alongside each other on the eponymous Babich Road, built by his great uncles and grandfather, Josip, who produced his first wine in New Zealand in 1916. They were ‘trying to emulate what they had left in Croatia’, he says.

In the early 1900s, five of the six Babich brothers headed for the gum fields of New Zealand’s far north in search of a better life, leaving behind family and friends in their native village in Dalmatia. Like many other hardworking, gum-digging Dalmatians, they would earn enough to buy land, and a strong community grew up around Auckland, bringing their culture of vine-growing and winemaking to a country dominated by beer-swilling and whisky-swigging Brits. The name of Babich, along with Fistonich (Villa Maria), Brajkovich (Kumeu River), Yukich (Montana, now Brancott Estate) Nobilo and Selak are just some of the pioneering Dalmatian families that the New Zealand wine community has to thank for its early success.

Babich brothers 1900s

The Babich brothers started off by working in New Zealand’s northern gum fields in the 1900s

Overcoming adversity

The many adversities these early settlers faced included a strong temperance movement, which culminated in a narrowly defeated national Prohibition vote in 1919. The hangover from the vote, however, led to restrictive legislation on alcohol sales throughout the first half of the 20th century: it wasn’t until the 1950s that wineries could sell single bottles of wine to the public; restaurants could not sell wine until 1960; and the 6pm closing time for pubs continued until 1967 – just one year before David Babich’s birth.

The New Zealand wine industry has changed beyond all recognition during his lifetime and Babich Wines has illustrated this evolution. Fortified wines were the mainstay of New Zealand production in his childhood, and as late as 1993 Babich was still producing as much as 200,000 litres of so-called Port and Sherry. On the eve of his return to the family fold in 2001, fortified wine production had fallen to just 2,000 litres and within four years, these styles had dropped off the radar, replaced wholly by quality table wines produced using international varieties.

The family’s move from Auckland to Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough also reflects the changing geography of the New Zealand wine scene in the last half of the 20th century. Marlborough, Gimblett Gravels and Central Otago were devoid of grapevines when Babich was born in 1968. The Yukich family planted the first vines in Marlborough in 1973; vines took root in Gimblett Gravels in 1981; and the first commercial wine was produced in Central Otago in 1987.

It was clear that New Zealand’s vinous future was not in the damp, humid climes of Auckland. Although Babich Road remains home to the company’s North Island winery facility, offices, tasting room and a small vineyard that is being replanted with Albariño – ‘a variety that can handle the crappy weather and clay soils of west Auckland’, Babich says – the company’s production centre is now in Marlborough, which accounts for about 90% of its output.

David Babich at a glance

Born 18 April 1968, Auckland

Family Married to Julie; three children Peter b.2005, twins Annelise and Luke b.2009

Education Bachelor of Oenology, Roseworthy Agricultural College, Australia; Bachelor of Commerce, University of Auckland

Career 1990s – sales, marketing and management positions at drug company Glaxo, which merged with SmithKline Beecham in 2000; 2001 – returned to Babich Wines as assistant general manager

Other interests Water sports and motor sports

A global stage

Babich is fresh from yet another business trip overseas as he sits at his desk on a Saturday morning, surrounded by the vineyards he careered around on his motorbike as a boy. International travel is not as glamorous as it seems, but as head of a business that now exports 90% of its production, it is part of the job description. 2019 marks not only the 200th anniversary of the planting of the first vines in New Zealand, but also 40 years since the Babich family exported its first shipment – more than 1,000 cases of Pinotage-Cabernet and Riesling-Sylvaner to Germany. The world’s love affair with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc would provide the impetus for greater international success in the coming decades.

When Babich returned to the business after seven years in the pharmaceutical industry, he found the company had no annual budgets or forecasts, all the wines cost the same – ‘unless it was oaked, in which case it cost $10 more per bottle’, according to the Babich family history The Next Vintage – and a perennial issue with wine supply was thwarting the export effort. Cue the introduction of the Excel spreadsheet at Babich’s offices and the expansion of its vineyard holdings.

Since taking his place in the Babich management team in 2001, the national vineyard area has grown as fast as the top speed of Babich’s Maserati, mushrooming from 11,648ha to 37,969ha, with 23 years of consecutive export growth providing the stimulus. The US, UK and Australia have the greatest thirst for New Zealand wine – in particular Sauvignon Blanc, which accounts for 86% of all wine leaving New Zealand shores, according to the New Zealand Winegrowers Annual Report 2018. But what next?

‘I think the question being asked is will people get over Sauvignon Blanc en masse, creating a vacuum of demand?’ answers Babich. ‘If people are going to get over Sauvignon, mature markets like the UK and Australia are going to get over it first, so we watch for flagging demand there. They can’t keep growing like they have, so we accept that they might say, “We are looking for something different now”.

‘After 35 years, the UK still has positive growth; Australia is fairly flat, so those will be the first to tip if we are going to face this challenge. How maturity also manifests itself is in trading down and price commoditisation. What wineries do in response is go to less mature markets like the US and take them towards maturity.

‘In the case of New Zealand, you go to Asia and develop brand new markets that are immature, opening up regions that are westernising their food and beverage habits.’

Babich brothers

Peter with his brother Joe and David Babich

The road ahead

In a bid to maintain the interest of mature markets, including the UK, where Babich estimates more than 70% of sales are commoditised, he says: ‘You have to differentiate your product and give retailers something to spark new life into this category. Sauvignon Blanc isn’t “one style fits all”. It has all these variants and we are offering one: Headwaters is a single-vineyard, organic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. This has got a future in a mature market.’

Whatever the future holds for the New Zealand wine industry and Babich Wines, the family’s success has already far exceeded the expectations of its founder, Josip, who trod his first grapes as a sideline to digging gum. Josip, David’s father Peter, and his uncle Joe defied the odds in passing on a healthy business to the third generation.

What is even more impressive is that they did this in a country that was initially hostile to their arrival as ‘alien enemies’ from the then Austro-Hungarian Empire; they persevered in a land at the bottom of the world that had no wine culture and imposed burdensome licensing laws for the first 50 years of their business. It is a delicious story of overcoming the odds.

The man now driving the family business forward might love speed, but he realises that slow and steadfast has won this race.

New Zealand pioneers

Alongside the Babich family, here are five other key names that helped to shape the country’s wine history.

Auntsfield Scotsman David Herd bought land in Marlborough’s Southern Valleys and planted Muscat vines circa 1873. While the vineyard was pulled up in 1931, the Auntsfield wine tradition has been resurrected by the Cowley family.

Corbans Lebanese immigrant Assid Abraham Corban bought a 3.9ha block of land in west Auckland in 1902 and grew vines despite a strong prohibitionist sentiment at that time. The Corban family lost control of the brand to tobacco company Rothmans in the 1970s, but the family remained involved in the industry through the fourth-generation Alwyn (who sold his brand Ngatarawa Wines to Mission Estate in 2017) and Jeremy Corban (Big Sky, Martinborough).

Mission Estate Founded by French priests in Hawke’s Bay in 1851, it is still 100% owned by the Society of Mary.

Te Mata Estate Under the stewardship of the Buck family since 1974, the first vines were planted on Te Mata Station by Bernard Chambers in 1892 and its wines were receiving international awards as early as 1908.

Vidal Estate Spaniard Anthony Joseph Vidal bought a racing stables with an acre of land in Hastings, Hawke’s Bay in 1905. Today, the brand resides within the Villa Maria stable.

Babich wines tasted by Decanter experts:

The following wines have been tasted by Decanter experts and are available to view to Decanter Premium members. 

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