Winemaker Rod McDonald says Sweden, China and the UK are very exciting wine markets. He chats to Mark Story after his acclaimed syrah win at the International Wine Challenge (IWC).

To you what were the primary reasons for your big syrah win, ie, what did judges discover that got it across the line?
To be awarded a trophy, the wine has to have personality that sets it out from the other gold medal winners. It must have an x-factor. You can draw lots of comparisons to people, cars, design, food, music . . . it's difficult to know exactly what's different, but you just know. Balance is the starting point, technically correct wines showing the right levels of acidity, alcohol, extract and tannin are what it takes to achieve a gold medal.

I was at last year's Air NZ Wine Awards in Auckland where it was quite obvious that pinot noir is currently the national darling. Do you agree?
Syrah has in common with pinot noir that it can express site characters strongly in the way the grapes and resulting wine made from them tastes. This is related to soil type, microclimates, aspect, etc, etc ... but these two varieties more than most other taste like where they came from. The rise and rise of pinot noir in NZ and in many countries is a result of great leaps in quality, effort and fashion.

The vagaries of different varietal popularity is said to be led by popular cuisine. That is, food trends dictate what people are sipping.
Food trends mean people are thinking about flavour and taste. More importantly, they're thinking about where it came from. The fact that's developing is brilliant. One of the single biggest advantages wine has over other drinks is the fact that it can make food taste better and vice versa. Because of the acidity, alcohol and combination of flavours, there's always personal preference and unexpected wonderful combinations. No one is going to marginalise the classic varieties done well ... and I love trying new and interesting food and wine as much as the next man!

As a winemaker what's the hottest international wine market right now?
For NZ, it's the USA. For us it's Sweden, China and the UK believe it or not! In all markets, they seem to be looking for the next thing from New Zealand. Hawke's Bay is well placed to deliver quality, uniqueness and a regional wine growing story that has depth, tradition, diverse geography and varieties.

The first wine to disappear in the region's supermarket shelves is always the cheap cleanskins. Is there a disconnect between what we're producing and what we're drinking?
Price is always a major influence on people's buying decision, however if they're drinking in our category, wine, then we just have to ensure we deliver value at whatever price. NZ does not do cheap wine well compared to other wine producing countries. Due to our size and climate, that will never change. As a producer of wine that stacks up internationally with regards to quality, flavour, uniqueness and consistency, we will meet the demand that exists in New Zealand and then take our wines to the international market to find drinkers.