Winemakers sprint to the top

By Ingrid Tiriana

A quality-first philosophy that underpins everything Mills Reef winemakers do ensures the Tauranga winery remains at the top of its game.

That philosophy drives all decisions says general manager Nick Aleksich.

"We're not so much about price-driven products, we're about quality products and all staff have a clear understanding that quality always comes first - we live and breathe it," he says.

Mills Reef, which was established in 1989, has never rested on its laurels.

Continuous research and fine-tuning the product and processes have helped ensure the winery's ongoing success. Its most recent accomplishments are partly down to having ageing vineyards. But that in itself wouldn't be enough to ensure success - the right decisions must be made at all stages and that's where the tweaking comes in, says Mr Aleksich.

He likens the difference between an award-winning wine and its closest contenders to a 100m sprint in which there may be just milliseconds between first and second.

Winning that wine sprint is all about constantly seeking to gain a better understanding of the interaction between the soil, climate and vine management, he says. Mills Reef also understands the need to make the most of what works well and has certainly sought to do that with its Gimblett Gravel wines, made from grapes grown in the gravelly soils of the Hawkes Bay and producing exceptional Bordeaux-type wines.

Research forms a key component of ongoing improvements at Mills Reef.

That research not only involves getting a great quality fruit from the vineyards but also constantly refining the wine-making process with its hundreds of variables, says Mr Aleksich.

The winery is also able to benefit from the support and experiences of other wine-makers. When it comes to New Zealand's wine industry there is definitely strength in numbers, he says.

The industry is "very collegial" with a lot of collaboration and information sharing.

"New Zealand makes up just half a per cent of the world's wine market so for us to have any impact overseas we have to work together, at a technical level, with our research and with our wine-making and marketing," says Mr Aleksich.

Mills Reef currently sells about a quarter of its product overseas but is looking to grow its exports in the future. At the same time, its already strong domestic base has also continued growing.

The winery's biggest overseas market is the US. It sells to about 25 countries in varying amounts throughout Europe and China, and supplies several international airlines.

Mr Aleksich says the Chinese market has huge potential for growth and there is demand for the Bordeaux-type reds that Mills Reef winery produces

But while there is "huge, untapped potential" in China, there are also challenges, including finding the right distributors, he says.

"We have four importers there currently but you have to take your time to find the right partners, it's critical to find the right distributors, people who share your philosophy, plus wine is a very delicate product which needs special handling." Just like other exporters, the biggest challenge facing Kiwi wine exporters at the moment is the strong New Zealand dollar, Mr Aleksich says.

"At the end of the day economic cycles come and go and we're in the part of the cycle currently that is against us but believe the export market will come right.

It's also about balancing quality with choosing the price, he says.

A true trophy wine

The trophies keep rolling in for Mills Reef. The winery has received its fourth trophy in as many months for its 2010 Elspeth red wines with the merlot receiving the Merlot & Carmenere Trophy at the Five Nations Wine Challenge - an invitation-only contest.

Winemakers from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Chile were involved in the challenge which featured 540 top quality wines.

Mills Reef chief winemaker, Tim Preston, was in attendance and was "humbled and excited to receive the trophy from amongst such a distinguished line-up of wines - it's a great honour".

Judge Huron Hooke described the trophy-winning 2010 Elspeth merlot as "a delicious pure-fruited medium bodied style of wine with lots of energy and grace".

Mr Preston said the latest trophy was further endorsement of the stature of 2010 vintage for Gimlet Gravels wines, with four trophies received for the Elspeth reds - syrah, merlot and cabernet merlot. The award-winning wines were grown from grapes in its prodigious 18 hectare Mere Rd vineyard.

"It's a phenomenal vintage, arguably our best yet," Mr Preston said.

The three preceding trophies for the 2010 Elspeth reds included the NZ Syrah Trophy for Elspeth Syrah at the London International Wine Challenge, the Tom McDonald Champion Classical Red Wine Trophy for Elspeth cabernet merlot at the Bragato Wine Awards and the Alan Limmer Champion Syrah Trophy for Elspeth syrah at the Bragato Wine Awards.

Mills Reef Winery was established in 1989 by the Preston family and over the years the brand has become established as a premium New Zealand label.

The winery is based on 20 acres near Tauranga's CBD, has full wine-making and bottling facilities, cellars and wine-tasting areas and an award-winning 150-seat restaurant.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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