"Artisanal", "exclusive", "small production", "quality focused" "owner-operator" - these were just some of the definitions of "boutique" put forward by producers at the Boutique Wine Festival in Auckland last month. With almost as many interpretations as there were wineries, I set out to explore what the term means for wine drinkers and what these smaller wineries provide in our local wine mix.
Once upon a time most wine was made by ma-and-pa operations, very often producing just enough for the family table. But with the growing international popularity and profitability of wine, it's become big business, with much of the wine consumed today the products of massive multinational enterprises.
This is certainly true in New Zealand, where the 10 largest companies are making around 50 per cent of the country's wines. These include a number of global drinks giants such as Pernod Ricard, which owns brands such as Brancott Estate, Stoneleigh and Church Road; and Constellation, with labels such as Nobilo, Kim Crawford and Selaks.
Despite this, New Zealand is a nation of tiny wineries, most of its 698 wine companies classified as "small" by NZ Winegrowers and selling roughly less than 20,000 cases a year. In contrast, wine companies in the "large" category shift more than 450,000 cases annually and a major international brand can sell well over a million.
It's the rise of these big market-driven brands tailored for popular tastes that has sparked fears about the homogenisation of wine. Boutique wineries, in contrast, have become widely regarded as the antidote: repositories of individuality and the champions of diversity. But is this opinion warranted?
In a masterclass that I hosted at the Boutique Wine Festival, one wine I presented to support this argument was the unique example of New Zealand scheurebe produced by small Waipara winery, Dancing Water.
"As far as I know this is the only scheurebe block in New Zealand," Dancing Water's Claire Bisso told me. "It's just 1ha and the vines were originally imported from Germany. "Scheurebe is very distinctive, highly aromatic and versatile," Bisso enthuses. "With riesling as its parent, it offers different nuances and sweetness levels depending on the season, so we regard it as one of the most interesting to grow and it makes for exciting winemaking."
Scheurebe's relative obscurity makes it a hard sell, but the passion Bisso and her partner Ross Trowdsale share for it has made them persevere with the vines they inherited from their vineyard's previous owner. Many a larger company would have run it past the bean counters, who would have likely deemed it too time-consuming, and consequently costly, to be a commercial prospect. Dancing Water's approach illustrates how a small winery can add to and safeguard the diversity of the nation's wines.
It brings to mind the story veteran vigneron Nick Nobilo told me about his first plantings of gewurztraminer back in the 1970s at his large family firm. After three vintages when the vines produced next to no fruit, his father was unconvinced of their commercial viability so they were pulled out. It was only when the family's company was sold that Nobilo was able to pursue his dream as a boutique producer, establishing his Vinoptima winery devoted entirely to gewurztraminer.
It's often the drive and dedication of the smaller players that get new varieties, practices and even regions off the ground - the likes of Alan Limmer at Stonecroft in Hawkes Bay who pioneered syrah before the world's wine press tipped it as a hot prospect for New Zealand. Small players such as Rippon and Alan Brady, who pioneered grape growing in Central Otago. And boutique operations, led by the likes of Millton, embracing organics long before most major players launched their own organic wine brands.
But large companies can be sources of innovation, too, and they have the substantial research budgets to drive this. We're lucky here in New Zealand that some of our most powerful wine groups have been investing in producing top benchmark wines rather than concentrating solely on the commercial end of the market. One example is the sauvignon project instigated by Pernod Ricard, which directed local studies and international expertise into the creation of their flagship Chosen Rows sauvignon blanc.
KEEPING HANDS ON
Many global brands were once small wineries that expanded and were developed into big businesses. But though some winemakers want to grow their enterprises, others actively avoid becoming a size where they can no longer be involved with their wines from vine to bottle.
This is the case with Cambridge Road's Lance Redgewell, who, when quizzed on what it meant to be a boutique producer, mentioned the idea of 5ha being the maximum acreage one person could tend by themselves to be self-sufficient. "Technology might have altered that somewhat nowadays, but I still like the idea of being able to personally manage an area of land," he tells me.
He's slightly uncomfortable with the word "boutique" as for him, a passionate artisanal producer, it's more about mindset than simply a measure of size.
"The bigger wineries tend to lose that soul and the day-to-day operations become about efficiency of operations and costs," notes Julianne Brogdan, who's behind the small new Collaboration Wines label, but has worked for wineries of all sizes. "You tend to be given a department to work in so you don't get to see everything. Decisions are not always based on quality but may be made due to other pressures. I don't have to compete in the supermarkets where prices are driven down and decisions become about cost cutting rather than what is best for the quality.
"Working at the smaller wineries you have to be a jack-of-all-trades," she says. "From being a cellar hand, to working in the laboratory, on the bottling line, to cellar door, marketing and whatever else."
This intimate and personal connection to every part of the process - the land, vines and wines, guided by passion rather than chasing profit - does seem to result in some of the most expressive and distinctive wines.
However, it's always accompanied by an understanding and commitment to what's required to make great wines and without this, small producers can still make bad wines. Thankfully, these are increasingly rare beasts, but it still pays to examine some of the romantic notions surrounding small scale winemaking, such as the idea of a family-owned vineyard with wine made in its tiny winery by the proprietor.
Often the reality is quite different. Given the substantial costs of land and planting, some small wine companies don't own any vineyards and many make wines in shared facilities. And a not an inconsiderable number, largely who've come to wine for lifestyle or business reasons, will employ someone else to make their wines for them.
CAN BIG BE BOUTIQUE?
On the flipside, it's not uncommon for larger companies to embrace approaches common in smaller operations, such as single-vineyard wines and limited releases made in tiny quantities. But can a big business truly embrace a boutique mentality when making its wines?
"Absolutely," states Alastair Maling, chief winemaker at one of our largest wine companies, Villa Maria. "As a group there needs to be a common desire to achieve wines that stand apart from others, offer intrigue and raise eyebrows and, most importantly, do this on a regular basis. It is possible for any large company to embrace a boutique winemaking philosophy but there needs to be willingness and everyone needs to be on the same page."
Maling also explains how the company's size assists in a quest for high quality, offering opportunities not available to smaller players.
"Typically a large winery will have the option to select fruit from more than one vineyard or a range of specific areas within a vineyard," he explains. "This opens up the opportunity to be more selective, have more options both if the vintage works against you or purely from a blending perspective. As a group, size allows us to experiment, be innovative, try new techniques that if they don't work we can incorporate in another blend but if they do then we can roll out quickly and implement for the following vintage," he adds.
I thought it would be interesting to put this to the test and see if people could spot the difference between a boutique wine and one from a bigger player. So I presented a blind tasting at my masterclass that featured one of Villa Maria's Reserve wines and one from a small winery, the same variety, region, vintage and price. When it came to the vote, it was almost a 50/50 split, highlighting that when it comes to quality, good wines are made by producers both large and small.
But what is clear is that the individual voices of our smaller wineries are an important part of the diversity and distinctiveness of our country's wines. Each of their wines tells a story - of a place, a season and the people that made them - and they are well worth seeking out and hearing.
BEST OF BOUTIQUE
Some of my favourites from the recent NZ Boutique Wine Festival
BEST IN SHOW
Cambridge Road Martinborough Pinot Noir 2011 $64.99
An aromatic, elegant pinot noir that's pure, taut and linear. It unfurls to reveal complex layers of fresh black cherry, exotic spice, florals, game, smoke and earth underpinned by a vibrant freshness and powerful minerality. From Fine Wine Delivery Company, Caro's, Point Wines.
Prophet's Rock Central Otago Dry Riesling 2010 $35
There's a real intensity to this dry riesling with its notes of racy lime, subtle stonefruit and firm undercurrent of mineral. Following four years in bottle, these are joined by attractive honeyed, nutty and toasty mature characters. From Wine Direct, The Wine Barrel, Wine Circle, unitedcellars.co.nz.
Gillman Matakana 2007 $70
Generous and ripe, this blend of cabernet franc, merlot and malbec possesses a voluptuous but elegant dark berry fruit and savoury nuances overlaid with notes of spicy oak. From The Village Winery.
Ash Ridge Hawke's Bay Syrah 2013 $29.99
Aromatics of violet and spice infuse the fresh, fruit- driven plummy palate of this silky, supple syrah. From Farro Fresh, unitedcellars.co.nz.
Collaboration Wines Aurulent Chardonnay 2012 $30
Rich toasty, nutty and buttery notes in this creamy textured chardonnay are counterpoised by punchy notes of zesty grapefruit and flint. From The Village Winery, Primo Vino, collaborationwines.co.nz.