Sir John Kirwan tasting the wines of Veneto (Image: supplied).

John Kirwan’s love affair with Italian wines comes home

From the moment he arrived in Italy to play rugby Sir John Kirwan fell in love with the food and wine. He speaks to Simon Day about bringing a taste of his corner of the country back to New Zealand.

In 1985, a 20-year-old (not yet Sir) John Kirwan was living in Mangere earning $150 a week as a butcher working for his dad, playing amateur rugby for the All Blacks on the side. One evening during an Auckland training session two olive-skinned, stylish men stood at the end of the paddock watching Kirwan. After practice they approached the winger and asked him if he would come and play for the Benetton Rugby Club in northern Italy, with a monthly salary of $3000.

“I went home and spoke to my dad and he said: ‘What did they look like?’ I told him they were really well dressed, one had long hair in a ponytail. And he said: ‘Don’t trust them mate. Do some more research.'”

After he did his due diligence he discovered the offer was genuine, and these smartly attired European men were the real deal from the Benetton Club, funded by the wealthy clothing company. And the money was real, too.

“So I went home to my dad and told him it’s true, I’ve checked them out. He said: ‘Well that’s too much money for you. Take your sister and brother-in-law, and pay them half.’ So I gave half my money to my brother-in-law and sister. And he played for a club just up the road.”

From the moment in 1986 when Kirwan arrived in the medieval town of Treviso, 20 minutes north of Venice, he was charmed by the famous Italian passion, and especially the passion for food and wine. His first night in Italy he was taken out for 10 course meal, paired with different wines, that went on for hours.  

“I just thought, ‘what’s going on here?’ We were a meat and three veg family. Dad would come home and might have a glass of Lion Red or a whisky, and we’d have meat and three veg every night,” Kirwan says.

“It was the first time I had pasta, it was the first time I’d ever had red wine – or white wine for that matter.”

He fell in love with Italy, and the way the world revolves around the dining table. He fell in love with his future wife, a Treviso local. By the end of his first year Italy was in his blood. He would return to play for Benetton for many seasons, go on to coach the Italian national side after retiring as a player, and raise his family between Italy and New Zealand.

These days Kirwan is sharing his passion for Italy through his boutique line of traditional Italian wines, from the Veneto region, where he played rugby and now lives for two to three months a year. The JK.14 range has a varied collection of wines and liqueurs that represent the palate and history of Kirwan’s Italian home, and the hospitality of Italy.

In importing old world wines he wants to expose New Zealanders to something new in the diverse flavours, techniques, and stories of Italian wine and the way they’ve become an essential part of his life. And he wants to show us the Italian culture of drinking; a more measured, engaged, slower way of consuming alcohol. 

“I think New Zealanders are starting to branch out a bit, so what we are trying to do is bring in wines people do know, and wines they don’t know. So we will bring in a carménère and we bring in a merlot. What we want New Zealanders to do is just try it, branch out a wee bit,” he says.  

This weekend Kirwan is hosting his own long lunch at the Fine Wine Delivery Company (where you can get all his wines and liqueurs) in collaboration with Bolognian native Stefania Ugolini, owner and chef at Mt Eden’s Pasta e Cuore. The six course Italian Sunday Lunch will pair Ugolini’s gorgeous traditional cooking with Kirwan’s range, where he will give an insight (tell great yarns) into the wines that speak of his adopted home, and the stories that inspire them.

Ahead of the event The Spinoff caught up with Kirwan to talk long lunches, the wines of Veneto, and how to learn to love grappa.

The hills of Veneto (Image: supplied)

What was it that grabbed you so quickly and so passionately about Italy?

I was a Kiwi kid who would get his dinner down as quick as I could then go out and play. I never thought about sitting at the dinner table at 7.30 in the evening and getting up at midnight. Or having lunches that lasted all afternoon. Although family was strong, it was never built around the dinner table. We’d sit down for dinner, but it was never an event.

I thought after that first night 10 course meal, that it was nice for them to do that for me. Then I realised they do it all the time.

Because food and family are intrinsically linked in Italy?

Everything is based around the table, you get together to eat, you discuss food. If I’d ever said to mum that the food was too salty, you know what would have happened. Whereas in Italy they comment on it – that took me by surprise, honest feedback on the food.

From 1986 and the 10 course meal, how did you relationship with Italy progress?

I fell in love with it pretty quickly. I came back to New Zealand and started taking some Italian lessons and decided I wanted to go back. I wanted to go back the following year, but the New Zealand Rugby Union wouldn’t let me because of the World Cup was coming up and I didn’t go the 1986/87 season.

Then the World Cup exploded a bit for me, they wanted me to go again but I sent [fellow All Black] Craig Green in my place and he’s still there, living in Treviso.

Then I went back in ’89. In ’89 I met my wife, we won The Championship. And I just had a fantastic time.

What I love about Italy is each region is unique, it has its own personality, and that is especially evident in each region’s food and wine. What does Veneto taste like? And why is it special?

Treviso is famous for its radicchio, which is a special lettuce grown over the winter. It’s very red, and very crunchy. The Veneto region is known as a farming, hard working region.

We bring in a Prosecco called Labano. What happened with Labano, the Austrians came down in the First World War and they were kept out of Italy by the River Piave which runs through the Veneto region where we live. When they left there was a lot of devastation, so Prosecco was born by five guys in the region who decided they needed to bring some money in or everyone was going to starve.

Prosecco has been around since Roman times, they say it was carried from Greece by a priest. But after the First World War Labano, who we named one of our wines after, commercialised it. He believed they needed to sell it to make the region wealthy. And that is how Prosecco was born.

In our region there are lots of trattorias where you have the mum in the kitchen and the family is running the restaurant. There’s a lot of game served. You get pasta with a hare ragu, or a rabbit ragu, or a duck ragu. They’re really, really proud of their food.

Workers harvest grapes for Prosecco in a vineyard in Treviso, Italy. (Photo by Stefano Mazzola/Awakening/Getty Images).

What about their wine? Looking at your offerings, there are a lot of varieties I’ve never heard of.

Luigi Manzoni was an agronomo [agronomist] who used to cross-pollinate a lot of grape plants. And after the First World War, there was lots of poverty and starvation. So what Manzoni did was cross-pollinate a lot of plants to make them more sturdy and make more fruit on the vine. He created about 300 different cross-fertilisations between the First and Second World War.

Unfortunately, when the Germans were retreating during the Second World War, they burned all his work. But the caretaker had stolen a couple plants – that it is how Manzoni Bianco survived. Manzoni Bianco is a dry riesling cross fertilised with a pinot bianco. That’s why you wouldn’t have heard of that, it’s very local to the region.

Another very common to the region is the carménère. It is a red wine; we would call it a great table wine. It’s what everyone drinks in Italy at home. My father-in-law would go and buy 50 litres and bottle it himself.

Carménère was brought to the Veneto region by the Crusades, and for many many years it was mistaken as a cabernet. Carménère, in our region on the Piave river, where our wine is grown, has lots of sand and rock, so the plants have to work particularly hard to grow, so they get a really earthy feel to them.

The most interesting one for us is the Malanotte. The Malanotte was a wine that was dead. They say in our region that Jesus drank it at the last supper, and they really believe that’s where we come from. There’s no one around to prove us wrong.

Raboso, which is another grape from our region, is a really strong wine, it is really interesting to drink. I don’t know if New Zealanders would enjoy drinking it. It’s an old school wine, and a lot of the old guys enjoy drinking Raboso.

But what they did with Malanotte, they dry the grape down until it’s almost like a raisin, and they put it back into the fresh Raboso, and they put it into an oak cask for two years, and then they put it into a bottle for a year.

Malanotte is a really special wine for me. It’s one of the best around. Only two vineyards make Malanotte: our vineyard, and there’s a vineyard up the road.

Veneto is about farming, it’s about being practical, they’ve never really had big big wines like the other regions. So Malanotte was special to these two vineyards, and their chance to say ‘we can make prestigious wine’. It is also DOCG which is the highest classification you can get.

You’ve retained a family feel to the company. What is your daughter Francesca’s role?

Francesca and I have always wanted to do this. She was playing professional volleyball in Italy, and wanted to come back to New Zealand and live. She wanted to play beach volleyball. And I told her there’s no money in sport in New Zealand, most women’s sports are underpaid. So I suggested ‘why don’t we start the wine company we have always been passionate about?’, and I’ve always been passionate about sharing my Italian story. So I said ‘I’ll invest some money and be the public face to the business, and you can run the business day to day’. And that’s what she does.

I taste the wine, choose the wine, and drink the wine. I’ve got the best job.

What are you trying to achieve with bringing these into New Zealand? Most of us lack knowledge about the vast varieties of Italian wines. Our palates can be hard to break through and we get addicted to things like sauvignon blanc and pinot noir. How are you going to break through with things like the Malanotte?

New Zealanders are traditionalists. The best way I can explain it is I sat in the same seat in the changing room for ten years. If you drink merlot, when you go up to the bar you won’t take a risk in case it’s not as good as your merlot. People who drink chardonnay, drink chardonnay.

I think New Zealanders are starting to branch out a bit, but what we are trying to do is bring in wines people do know, and wines they don’t. So we bring in a carménère and we bring in a merlot. But our merlot is very different to what we have here. They have a completely different taste and what we want New Zealanders to do is just try it, branch out a wee bit.

The other interesting thing is it’s quite organic, the way Italians make their wine. They have really low sulphates, they can’t add any sugar. And I think you can taste that.

For me it was just a case of the stories as well. You never drink a bottle of wine in Italy without a story. My cousin Andrea, he comes around with a bottle of wine, but he doesn’t just put it on the table and open it, he tells a story. “I’ve got this one because my mate had it one night in a restaurant and loved it, and I’ve been looking for it, and I went to this guy’s store…” There’s always a story behind the wines.

Is that why you’ve chosen to include such wonderful stories of your friends and families as part of the wines?

Exactly, because every wine has a story behind it. That’s what Italians do. You can’t sit down for lunch for three hours without some storytelling. A lot of that storytelling is around their food and wine.

That is why we wanted to attach names and the true stories behind the wines. My father-in-law, if I took a bottle of merlot with a label on it to his house, he would think I am pig headed and getting ahead of myself. Why would you pay €4 for a bottle of wine when you can buy carménère for €1.50 a litre and he buys 50 litres of it for himself? He drinks wine like he does water.

Sir John Kirwan exploring the vines of Vento, Italy (Image: supplied).

Tell me about some of the personalities behind the wine and what they represent. How did a front rower get a wine named after him?

The Ciccio. Ciccio means fatty in Italian. But people don’t get offended, it’s an endearing term. He’s one of my best friends.

I’ve told you about my father-in-law’s carménère, the wine that he drinks every day. But if Ciccio comes around to my place and I gave him a carménère he would not be happy, because that’s what he drinks with his dad every day. So I’ve got something a bit better to drink than a carménère. If he came round and I served him carménère he’d slap me upside the head. So that’s why I named it Ciccio. If you have guests around then that’s what I would serve, because they’re drinking the other stuff every day.

One of our liqueurs is named after Davide, he’s a really interesting mate of mine. We have a 19th-century villa in Treviso that we did up and Davide was the builder. And Davide rides a 1954 Harley Davidson and he’s fully tatted up, but he’s one of my most cultured mates. He introduced me to Amaro, which is one of my favourite post-dinner drinks. You’ve always got those stories associated with your wines and your liqueurs.

Sitting around telling stories, eating salami, drinking the wine, I’ll think about who it reminds me of, and what I’d like to call it. The rosé, it took us weeks to decide what to call it. Rosé is about meeting, especially in New Zealand, and especially for women. The women will meet and have a bottle of rosé together, and talk probably badly about men and their husbands. But it’s about meeting. So we called it ritrovo (the word Italians use to describe catching up with old friends).

Tell me about Italian spirits and liqueurs. When are they consumed? And what am I doing wrong with grappa?

Haha. The problem with grappa is it’s a little bit like your uncle’s home brew back in the day.

It reminds me of the gin and vodka my grandfather distilled in his laundry.

Exactly. The trouble with grappa is, people go to Italy and someone will offer them something that their uncle made, and it’s rocket fuel. But really good grappa is exquisite.

What I tried to do with our stuff, because New Zealanders aren’t ready for grappa yet, I bought in three “grappa based liqueurs”. And they’re called grappa based liqueurs because they’re under 42% alcohol, and a grappa has to be above 42% to be a grappa.

One of the kinds of grappa we bring in is called a tagliatella. Back in the old days at the distillery they would catch all the drops of the old grappa underneath then pour them all into one bottle and call that tagliatella. But because it was so good and tasty they made it into a real grappa and I love it.

And the Amaro we bring in – Davide – it was a medicine back in the day. It’s made out of gentian root and different herbs and spices from the Dolomite mountains. Priests used to use it to settle your stomach when you weren’t well, and the Italians added alcohol to it because that’s a good idea.

Basically grappas are supposed to be drunk post dinner because they burn and cleanse the inside of your gullet and settle your stomach. You’re supposed to have one after dinner. What happens with my mates, we will go out for dinner and then after dinner the restaurant will put five or six types of grappa on the table, and my different mates will have different grappa. I’ll either have an Amaro or a Tagliatella. Davide always has Amaro. You all have your different cleansing grappa after dinner.

I love what you’re doing with this gradual education of New Zealanders on a different way of looking at alcohol through Italian wine and spirits. And it’s through telling stories. If there isn’t a story giving us a reason to change our habits, we just keep drinking pinot. In the same way we love doing what we know, we love a good yarn.

It’s about the stories. It’s about us sitting down and talking about wine and food and why we are eating it and why we are drinking it. And that happens all the time in Italy. There is always a narrative.

I think that New Zealand does need to change its drinking culture. Sometimes with New Zealanders we are all or nothing. I think we need to change the way we drink. I don’t like following other cultures, but if we do, I think the Italian culture is a good one to follow. It’s about family, it’s about sitting around the table, and it’s not about drinking a lot.

We might start with a Prosecco, and then with every course we would try a different wine, but it would be half a glass. We might have three or four different wines, finish with a grappa and a cup of coffee.

We are lucky in our country because we are so young we can adopt other cultures. We don’t have to always follow modern American culture. I’m really excited about the food and drink scene in New Zealand. There are some amazing chefs, and some amazing bars and restaurants.

And how amazing is Stefania [Ugolini of Auckland restarant Pasta e Cuore)]? She was my pasta teacher.

She is so passionate about what she does and I think that is the beauty of Stefania, and I love eating with her. She won’t do anything that doesn’t have the right ingredients. And that is so Italian. She doesn’t just make pasta, she makes sure it is made the right flour and the right eggs. And you can taste the difference. Italian food is simple, but you need great first ingredients – great oil, great produce.

I’m a butcher by trade. When people come round they say ‘your meat is beautiful!’ and it’s because I know my butcher and I talk to him. I ask him about where the food comes from, I ask him about where he’s got suppliers.

My butcher will get me a castrated lamb, it will be a year old, it will be 35kgs, with a little bit of fat on it, and I will be able to slow cook that in my wood oven in Italy. He knows the farmer in the mountains who raised that lamb.

That for me is Italian cooking – doing the minimum required to accentuate the natural product.

If something has excess in it in Italy they won’t let you get away with it. It’s the same with the wines. You get honest feedback. If I cook a pasta at home and it’s not quite right, I get told. But it’s not offensive.

Sir John Kirwan and Stefania Ugolini making tortelloni (Image: supplied).

What are you trying to achieve with the long lunch with Stefania at the Fine Wine Delivery Company?

For us it is really important that when we sell our wines we also tell a story. I am not a sommelier, I like wines that I like. These wines I have chosen for my palate. Some of them are emotional. When I drink a carménère it takes me back to Italy, it makes me feel at home. So a lot of the wines make me feel emotional.

We match the food with the wine. We tell the story about the personality behind the wine and why we named it after them. I tell people why I like the wine and what I can taste. If a sommelier was there they would possibly taste something different and they’d be right. But I do everything on emotion.

We are really excited because it is pretty special to have Stefania. It’s just amazing what she does. She’ll match seasonal food with the wines. So we take you through an Italian long lunch with wines to go with the food and finishing with a grappa.

It’s just good fun. It’s not intimidating. I feel intimidated sometimes when people talk about wine, but we just want to take some of that out of the tasting, and want people to taste it for their palate and understand the story behind why we’ve made the wines.

You’ve captured your friends and family in the wine and spirits that represent them. What wine in your offering best represents you?

Ooh, that’s a good question. I think the Mallanote and the Amarone. The only thing that scares me is they are two pricey wines. But I absolutely love sitting down and having a glass of one of those.

I’ve had Amarone that’s worth $3000. No wine is worth that as far as I am concerned. But the reason we brought in the Amarone was we wanted to bring in a special wine and keep it as affordable as we could. In the Mallanote I can feel Gigi’s work in it. I can feel his pain. Every bottle I know he has worked really hard for.

If I had a choice I’d probably open the merlot every night. It’s a really drinkable wine.

But if you were coming round and said “JK grab me your best wine” it would be Mallanote. If it was you and me sitting down it would be a Mallanote.


This content is brought to you by the Fine Wine Delivery Co. where All Black legend John Kirwan’s range of wines, and liqueurs offer a real taste of Italy. The Fine Wine Delivery Co. is utterly devoted to good taste, whether it’s wine, food, craft beer, whisky or rum. You just have to know where to look, and their website is a great place to start. Or visit either of their purple SuperStores at 42 Lunn Ave in Mt Wellington or 60 Constellation Dr on the North Shore.


The Spinoff’s beverage content is brought to you by Fine Wine Delivery Co, which is completely and utterly devoted to good taste, whether it’s wine, food, craft beer, whisky, rum… Check out their website or pop into one of the two Auckland superstores.

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