When it comes to wine, the majority of New Zealand's most important exports have been the bottles themselves. However, as a Master of Wine, proprietor of a respected French wine estate and successful consultancy business and now author of a recently published book, it's perhaps no surprise that ex-Aucklander Sam Harrop was named one of the most influential people in British wine by a leading trade magazine.
I caught up with Sam in Queenstown when he was down for the Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration to quiz him about how he'd come to scale such oenological heights before turning 40 and find out what other projects this veritable powerhouse of vinous activity had in the pipeline.
It was a holiday job in the vineyards at Stonyridge on Waiheke Island while studying for a commerce degree that made Harrop catch the wine bug. He went on to study winemaking and then worked for Villa Maria, before heading to Australia and California to broaden his horizons.
While working at the highly respected boutique Sonoma estate Littorai, Harrop became convinced that growing grapes and making wine more naturally was the way to go - a philosophy that was to inform his work in the years to come.
Next stop was London - where Harrop is still based - to take up the position of winemaker at prestigious British supermarket, Marks & Spencer. This saw him whizzing across the world's wine regions to work with the chain's many suppliers.
While in this demanding role Harrop even managed to study for the most monumental of wine qualifications, the Master of Wine.
"I came over as a fresh Kiwi via California and Australia eager to learn and not knowing much about the wine world apart from New Zealand," recalls Harrop. "I was overseas for much of my first four years at Marks & Spencer and needed to kick-start my education and the Master of Wine was the obvious choice."
He passed it aged just 28, and if that wasn't enough of a challenge, went on to establish his own winery in the South of France, Domaine Matassa, in partnership with winemaker Tom Lubbe.
Managing it biodynamically, Harrop now had free reign to explore his burgeoning interest in natural winegrowing, which he was also embracing in the consultancy business he founded after leaving Marks & Spencer.
His work around the world has sometimes brought him back to home soil. However, one of his major projects with our flagship white has actually been in its French home territory of the Loire through a collaboration with the region's professional wine body, InterLoire, to improve the quality and perception of its sauvignon blancs.
In an increasingly homogenised world of wine, Harrop says his aim in consulting is to achieve the difficult balance of making highly commercial wines which still remain true to their origins. For him, the best way to achieve this is through minimal winemaker intervention, something he was pleased to note happening here on his trip back home.
"I haven't met a serious producer here whose winemaking approach isn't about intervening less to get more depth and complexity," he notes. "And there are examples, such as Pyramid Valley, which show that if you back off you can get that x-factor."
This philosophy is something he's explored in considerable depth in Authentic Wine: Toward natural and sustainable winemaking, the book he recently wrote with Dr Jamie Goode. It comes at a time when there's been much emotive debate and few hard facts about the "Natural Wine" movement that's been gaining ground across the world.
"We wanted to write a book that was bigger than just natural wines," Harrop explains about the scope and title of the tome. "It covers aspects such as terroir; viticultural models such as organics, biodynamics, additives, and so on that addressed scientific concepts in winemaking using layman's terms to help consumers learn more than what was provided in other wine books."
He and Goode lay their cards on the table in its introduction, declaring that they consider "wine made naturally is more interesting and tastes better, and natural wine production is more sustainable and respectful of the environment", before providing the kind of pragmatic and balanced exploration of the subject that has been lacking in the past.
So what now for Harrop? A book exploring another hotly debated and under-explored area is in the offing, probing the somewhat unglamorous world of wine faults. "It will be looking at the positives and negatives of wine faults," divulges Harrop, "and how they make both bad and good wine, while trying to shed some light on the chemistry and science."
After annually sniffing 1600 to 1800 stinky or spoiled wines out of the 20,000 entries he encounters as co-chair of the world's largest wine competition, the International Wine Challenge, Harrop is an expert on the subject of wayward wines. However, he considers that in moderation, some elements widely regarded as faults may actually be a good thing for wines.
It's a somewhat controversial position. But then Harrop obviously relishes a challenge and brings to everything he tackles the rigour that's made him such a respected figure in the world of wine today.
A NATURAL SELECTION
Quartz Reef Central Otago Pinot Noir 2010 $46
This year, Quartz Reef became just the sixth vineyard in New Zealand to achieve full biodynamic certification. This is a fine pinot from the 2010 vintage, with supple dark cherry fruit around an intense and fresh core of stony mineral (From Caro's, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Wine and More, Scenic Cellars, Glengarry, Point Wines.)
Felton Road Bannockburn Chardonnay Central Otago 2010 $38
Another winery with a long history pursuing a natural path is Felton Road, which produces some of the greatest wines in the country, such as this seriously impressive chardonnay with its intense floral-infused palate of citrus fruits supported by an exhilarating line of acid and mineral. (From fine wine retailers including First Glass, Caro's, Maison Vauron, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Peter Maude Fine Wines, Bacchus, Glengarry, Finer Wines, Scenic Cellars.)
TASTE THE TERROIR
Chateau de Ripaille Savoie, France 2009 $24.50
Chasselas can be a neutral grape variety, but this organically produced example is full of character in its taut, dry, savoury palate with notes of almond, wax and river stones. (From Maison Vauron.)
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