Kumeu River Chardonnays trumped every other wine at a blind tasting of white burgundys in London. (Photo: NZIFF)

Vive la screwcap: How NZ is beating French winemakers at their own game

A film that positions France as everything New Zealand vintners should aspire to is looking at the world of wine through a narrow lens, argues wine writer Joelle Thomson.

Does the New Zealand wine industry deserve a seat at the international wine table?

It’s a big question with lots of different answers depending who you talk to, and David Nash and Simon Mark-Brown unleash several viewpoints in their new film, A Seat at the Table.

The pair co-directed and co-produced the film, which was inspired by the global success of wineries such as Kumeu River in West Auckland, Ata Rangi in Martinborough, Clos Henri in Marlborough and Alan Brady’s pioneering role at Gibbston Valley, Mount Edward and The Wild Irishman in Central Otago.

It is a self-funded venture that took four and a half years to produce. Not that the self-funding shows through. The cinematography is outstanding.

It had to be, says Nash, whose background is in advertising commercials.

He always had a love of wine, and when he returned to New Zealand from the United Kingdom in 2011 he saw lots of New Zealand wine stories that he wanted to tell. After completing a course in wine in Auckland he decided to make a Kiwi wine film. And here it is.

I love the opening lines in the film by Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, who says that wine is a paradox, teaching us patience in a world that goes faster and faster. A product that teaches us conviviality in a world filled with brutality. And a product that shows us how uncertain life can be.

For many people wine is an analogy of how good things take time, so it’s ironic that New Zealand wine has become incredibly commercially successful on the global stage in a relatively short time. The French have been making wine for hundreds of years (and far longer, in some regions), whereas New Zealanders have only produced it from the same grape varieties for less than 50.

The New Zealand wine industry has come a long way in a staggeringly short period of time, writes Joelle Thomson. (Photo: NZIFF.)

The film’s central premise is that France is the model to which most New Zealand winemakers aspire. Which makes sense, given that this country’s wine industry focuses almost solely on French wine styles and French grape varieties, with the exception of riesling and gewurztraminer among a sprinkling of other grapes, but the French focus made me feel tetchy at times.

I’m not sure I can agree that France is the be-all and end-all when it comes to wine. There is no doubt that the French have refined wine making across a wide range of wine styles and that their best known wines are at the core of the New Zealand sector, but to suggest that this means French wine is the absolute pinnacle is to view the world of wine through an extremely narrow lens. Still, it is understandable to centre on a powerful message that is straightforward in the telling.

That message is the runaway success of Kumeu River Chardonnay at a formal blind wine tasting conducted by Farr Vintners in London. The chairman of Farr Vintners, Stephen Browett, suggests at the start of the film that their customers understand that white burgundy is the greatest white wine on Earth, but adds that Kumeu River Chardonnays from West Auckland have consistently surprised those same customers for many years, so he decided to formalise it and put the wines side-by-side in a blind tasting. He knew Kumeu River would do well but never expected them to (sorry to use the ‘t’ word) trump every single line-up of wines in the blind tasting.

Winemaker Michael Brajkovich is refreshingly humble when asked what he thought  of the ‘win’, saying that burgundy is the wine he aspires to. His response suggests that he is flattered to have his wines in the same company.

When asked if he thinks that France is the greatest wine country on Earth, Nash says he wanted to frame the film from an international view point and deliver a straightforward message. Farr Vintners’ Browett substantiates this when talking about how his customers view wine – that white burgundy is the greatest white wine on Earth. In this context, it makes sense to focus on France as the inspiration for New Zealand winemakers.

“We wanted to tell a really simple story about how New Zealand was competing on a world stage in a way that everyone understands. It’s the simplest way to tell the story and to be honest when you go and talk to a lot of these winemakers, and as we showed later on in the film, the vast majority have learnt their craft from a French experience or inspiration. We are identifying with the French model to reflect the focus of our country’s wine industry.”

A Seat at the Table is beautifully shot and accurately reflects an impressive number of key movers and shakers in New Zealand wine today. This includes elder statesmen such as Sir George Fistonich and Master of Wine Bob Campbell, and top winemakers such as Master of Wine Michael Brajkovich, who is one of the country’s most talented but humble pragmatists. “Tradition, and dare I say it, snobbism,” says Brajkovich, when asked why French adhere so stubbornly to traditional corks.

New Zealand wine has come a long way in a short time for good reason: our winemakers work hard, adopt modern practical technology (viva la screwcap) and remain open to new ideas.

It is timely to see some of their stories on film. It’s great to hear and see the diversity of people and regions, including, among many others, Alan Brady, John Hancock, Paul Pujol, Jules Taylor, John Buck, Brent Marris, Murray Turner, Warren Gibson, Clive Paton, James Healy, Ivan Sutherland, Steve Smith, Duncan Forsyth, Chris Keys and Nigel Greening.

So, to the question: Do we deserve a seat at the table?

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Some would say we are already at the table. As are many others in the growing world of wine, not only in France and Europe but far further afield, in places such as Argentina, Australia, California and South Africa, to name but a few of the great wine countries today.

Here’s a toast to both white burgundy and to Kumeu River Chardonnay, not to mention Felton Road Chardonnay, Tony Bish Zen and Skeetfield Chardonnay, Villa Maria Keltern Chardonnay, Kupe from Larry McKenna, Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, Pegasus Bay Riesling and Prima Donna Pinot Noir and all the other outstanding wines which are too numerous to name here, but which have come a long, long way in a staggeringly short time.

A Seat at the Table is showing at the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Joelle Thomson is a journalist, author and wine educator


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