"To know who you are, you have to have a place to come from," noted American author, Carson McCullers. It's an observation that rings true in many of the long-established winemaking regions of the world, with the area from which a wine hails becoming increasingly important in a new winemaking nation like ours as it develops its regional identities.
Most winemaking nations have some kind of system of geographical designations drawing up the boundaries of their regions, often divided further into sub-regions and sometimes down to individual vineyards and properties. In some traditional "Old World" winemaking countries such as France and Italy, laws extend to specifying what grapes can be grown, vineyard practices and even how the wines are made.
Here we've yet to formalise our wine frontiers, with 2006's Geographical Indications legislation not yet in operation. However, it's looking increasingly imminent, especially following a recent industry strategic review that says it should be a priority to assist in both the marketing of our wines and to protect from misuse of our regional names overseas.
As our vineyards stand at this current geographical crossroads, debate is building over which path to take. Should we just demarcate single regions based on current political subdivisions or factor in specifics such as soils and climate? Are those ready to be split further into sub-regions, and should it go the whole hog and emulate the hierarchical systems of the Old World?
Taking into consideration soils and climate is one of the most plausible paths, as these have a direct influence on the style and quality of a region's wines. However, of the 29 GIs agreed on so far in New Zealand, most have been based on government subdivisions. It's the path of least resistance, but avoids the kind of contention witnessed in Coonawarra which was delineated along the lines of its signature terra rossa soil, spurring lengthy litigation from disgruntled producers left outside these limits.
Wide boundaries can lead to confusion over the styles wine drinkers can expect from a region. Slicing them into sub-regions is a way of overcoming this. However, while Martinborough in the wider Wairarapa has had decades to decide where it begins and ends, it's largely too early to get overly specific. Best wait and see what characters emerge from these smaller areas before having them enshrined in law.
In contrast, a region like Burgundy, has had millennia to tease out the complex threads of its geographical designations initially based on a deep understanding of the land. However, as with much of France's hierarchical and protective/restrictive Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) legislation of which these are part, they've also been shaped by political and economic influences, causing arguments that still rage today over the boundaries and rankings that dictate the price of a vineyard and its products.
Controlling what goes on within regions is another thorny question. In Marlborough a group of winegrowers are in the process of setting up a voluntary AOC-style quality assurance scheme that aims to safeguard quality and the region's reputation. However, having the law tell them when they can pick their grapes and whose vineyards make the best wine will likely be as welcome as rain at vintage in most of the country's winemaking quarters, I'd wager. Though it's timely to put some boundaries in place, New Zealand needs a system with room for individual experimentation. Drinkers should also be left to make up their own minds about which spots, or - more relevant at this early stage - which wineries produce the best wines.
We are only starting to comprehend the places our wines come from. Understanding what these have to offer is required before New Zealand as a winegrowing nation can really know who it is.
Te Pa Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011 $21.95
Zesty notes of grapefruit, melon, blackcurrant leaf and punchy dill combine in this fine example of one of the distinctive sauvignons whose provenance Marlborough understandably wants to protect in a world full of wannabes. (From Caro's, Point Wines, First Glass, Liquor King.)
Coal Pit Tiwha Central Otago Pinot Noir 2009 $42
While the Gibbston region emerges as the maker of cooler climate pinot, the best of which share the freshness and delicacy of this beguilingly floral and silky specimen with its cherry fruit and nuances of spice and herb, it's arguably still too soon for final sub-regional specification in Central Otago. (From Maison Vauron)
PLACE VS PRODUCER
Chateau La Sauvegarde Bordeaux 2009 $23
Bordeaux is one of the few regions whose top classifications are based on producers rather than specific places. This elegantly fresh claret comes from its generic regional appellation, but offers great value in its svelte blackcurrant fruit tinged with herb. (From Glengarry.)