This month Element kicks off its 'Drinking Naturally' column, where we celebrate those making wine the way it used to be made, naturally, where the season and earth are indelibly marked on the flavour of the wine.
Wine is about as down to earth as you can get. It comes from the fields, from the dirt. This fact isn't hidden, it's celebrated - and rightly so. I've lost count over the years of the number of brilliant wine producers who have told me that great wine is grown not made.
So, welcome to Element magazine's Drinking Naturally column. Each month we will uncover and explore aspects of this country's naturally made beverages.
How wine is grown has a huge impact on its final quality and, especially, on its character. Wine is often matched to food but, most importantly, it needs to match the mood - and that is down to character. And character is what wine is all about.
What is natural wine?
In wine there are good years and bad years; you might think this a subjective matter of opinion. And you could be right. But the impact on wine prices suggests there is an objective measure at work.
The quality of a year is defined by how well it suits the growing season. If dairy farmers are complaining about late summer drought, then viticulturists (grape growers) will be grinning about a great growing season. The risky influence of a season can be diluted - even overcome - through manipulation in the winery, adding acid, or sugar, or pumping juice through reverse osmosis.
I've seen many a cunning plan and other-worldy machines at work in wineries. And it does work. Even dank summers and bland grapes can produce perfectly drinkable wine, free of fault. Clean and forward, but without character. We've all drunk many wines like that.
The best wines reflect time and place. They are the unique taste of a season, of a summer - somewhere specific and memorable. In wine, there is tangible evidence of the efforts and aspirations of the men and women whose lives' work it is each year to create a distinctive drink.
In wine these people are the traditionalists. Sir George Fistonich, the founder and vanguard of Villa Maria, told me earlier this year that: "Once all wine was organic. It's how wine is meant to be made."
Under the demands of scale and industry, drawn by the seductive tide of technology we lost that. Well, nearly.
Natural wine continues, in many forms and by different definitions; organic, biodynamic, sustainable, biologically farmed, perhaps even carboNZero (See definitions of these on the opposite page).
All these come into the embracing reach of natural wine. This is not a strictly defined term, it is very much up for discussion. A discussion best done, over a glass of wine.
A much-debated term, but the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) defines organic agriculture as: "A production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects....to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved."
Organic accreditation is by BioGro NZ, Asure Quality, Organic Farm NZ and Demeter (see biodynamic). Organic Winegrowers New Zealand (OWNZ) has over 150 members and is a useful start to find producers, but beware, while some are accredited organic many are still in conversion to organic or as OWNZ website explains may merely be "exploring organic production."
100% organic, biodynamic makers go several steps further and are yet more exacting in their commitment to working in sync with nature. Accredited in NZ by BioGro or the international Demeter certification, biodynamics is based on the philosophy, principles and practices of Austrian philosopher and ecologist Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Biodynamics is not just about production but ethics and spirituality too, viewing the farm as a cohesive, interconnected living system. Well established in Europe, biodynamics is growing in NZ and has been adopted by some of our finest boutique producers (Millton, Seresin, Felton Road). Biodynamic makers are natural wine's true believers.
A broad and inclusive term referring to sustainable management based on ecological principles and practices.
Also known as BioAg, Ecological Agriculture, Regenerative Agriculture, Eco-Agriculture, Sustainable Agriculture, Natural Farming, Humus or Carbon Farming it is led in NZ by the Association of Biological farmers. biologicalfarmers.co.nz
The most basic accreditation for producers giving a nod to environmental practices. Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand is a programme administered by the New Zealand Winegrowers, a government-mandated body that all wine producers in NZ must legally belong to and are levied by government to fund.
Administered by Landcare Research (a Crown Research Institute) carboNZero wine is, at least in part, aimed at addressing negativity in our export markets over carbon miles. It gives credible emissions measurement and enables globally credible marketing claims around emissions and off-setting. Demanding exceptional rigour in production practice and reporting, it is utilised by some impressive companies (Villa Maria, Yealands, Grove Mill and Sanctuary).
MILLTON VINEYARD RIVERPOINT VIOGNIER GISBORNE 2011
A must-drink wine, from our biodynamic pioneer. A regular on the best restaurant wine lists. Don't worry if you can't pronounce it (vee-on-yay), when you see it, order it.
Beautifully textured, it sits mid-way between sav, pinot gris and unoaked chardonnay, but is a better food wine than any of them. Riverpoint Vineyard is two kilometres from the sea and I swear you can taste a touch of salty air in this.
TE WHARE RA TORU 2012
Summer is for seduction and the blend of aromatics that make up Toru are every bit as seductive. Toru is named for the grapes which are blended in the tradition of great wine of Alsace; Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris. Te Whare Ra (TWR) is a legendary name in NZ wine - a Marlborough pioneer reborn under Jason and Anna Flowerday - whose partnership is matched by this superbly drinkable gift.
FELTON ROAD BANNOCKBURN CHARDONNAY 2012
Admittedly I love chardonnay and this is just one reason why. Lithe and muscular, more rhythmic gymnast than bodybuilder. Please don't over chill this and take your time to let the layers of texture and reward unravel. I drank this over three days. Yes, three days. Share a glass a night with someone you love and taste the unfolding story of fine Chardonnay.
PETER YEALANDS SINGLE BLOCK MARLBOROUGH SAUVIGNON BLANC 2013
In 2011 this wine snuck up on the wine world to be voted World's Best at London's International Wine Challenge and promptly sold out. You've heard the rumours about 2013 as a vintage and in the bottle it delivers everything Marlborough Sauvignon should; the pungent heady appeal that made Marlborough a world wine name.
QUARTZ REEF METHODE TRADITIONELLE SPARKLING ROSE
I have tried this alongside some far pricier French Champagnes and it doesn't just stand up, it takes the points with the grace and poise of a Dan Carter conversion. Rudi Bauer founded Quartz Reef in Bendigo with exacting plantings and vineyard management to create precisely the wine style he wanted, in this case; balanced, fragrant and delicious. BIODYNAMIC. $35
VILLA MARIA PRIVATE BIN HAWKES BAY ORGANIC MERLOT 2011
They said it couldn't be done; affordable organic wine. And red at that - merlot even - from our finest region for it. Well here's the proof; Villa Maria Private Bin is their most affordable range and familiar to every supermarket shopper, offering up a 100% organic, brightly coloured red. Open a few hours before serving and the plummy core reveals a supple appeal that wine at this price has no right to expect.