New Zealand's reputation for outstanding wines (and increasingly, ciders) is known the world over, something that's worth even more than a Michelin-starred menu.
According to New Zealand Story, our wine industry alone contributes more than $1.5 billion a year to the national economy. But most Kiwis will be completely unaware of the detective work that goes on behind the barrels to protect our hard-won reputation.
Companies such as Yealands and Southern Boundary Wines have recently faced prosecution for falsifying records, a situation that risks the reputation of our entire industry.
The former was found to have illegally added sugar to wines destined for the European market, while Southern Boundary was caught exporting more of a certain vintage than it produced, substituting blends from different regions.
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It's up to a specialist team of just 14 wine verifiers across the country to trace our vintages from vine to table, and back again, making sure you can trust what it says on the label. If you're planning to venture into viticulture, it pays to be aware of your responsibilities and what our wine verifiers are looking for.
The message is: be prepared to keep full records. All wine- and cider-makers need to abide by the Wine Standards Management Plan if they want to make, store or package wines and even juices, and applies to cider and mead as well. You're only exempt from these rules if you produce less than 20,000 litres in two years and sell solely to the New Zealand market.
Day to day, a wine verifier will visit vineyards and cideries to inspect records with an eagle eye for detail. This includes everything from the weight of the apples that went into the tank (and the volume of cider that comes out) to whether the wine's been blended or moved between barrels, any fruit has been picked during the strict withholding period after spraying or the tanks have been cleaned when they should have been. If discrepancies appear, further investigations will be made.
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The Ministry for Primary Industries has been working with the industry to develop a new Wine Standards Management Plan, which aims to simplify the process for those who run food operations as well. The standards apply to the sale of food (including tastings at the cellar door or on-site dining) as well as bottling wine, so auditors will be also looking out for poor storage or handling practices that could result in food safety issues.
And especially important in the current environment is water. Before they can start selling their products, all wineries and cideries must have completed formal testing of the water used in their operations if they're not on a town supply. No one wants to be the source of an E. Coli outbreak.
When it comes to wine and cider, the rules are strict about reflecting exactly what went in. Some major export partners require any additives such as sugar to be declared, which is where Yealands found itself in trouble. Claims regarding the blend of grapes or vintages used will also be checked. If the vintage is attributed to a single year, bottles must contain at least 85 per cent wine from that vintage.
"As a cider-making business, it's important for us that our customers can trust what it says on the label. We follow strict practices under the wine standards management plan and the national programme for our various products and the taproom we have at the cidery," says Jody Scott, Head Cidermaker at Zeffer Cider.
"When we first started out, there were a lot of requirements to learn and sometimes these change over time. Having regular audits is actually very useful rather than onerous, as they help us with anything we may have missed, especially as we rapidly grow. The auditors take the time to get to know our business and therefore offer practical solutions to help improve our systems."
While compliance may seem costly or onerous, mistakes can be much more costly to both your business and our winemaking reputation. Better to keep your wine verifier sweet than risk sour grapes.
See it as an investment into best practice.
* Philip Pinckney is a director at Baker Tilly Staples Rodway Hawkes Bay. He is one of NZ's small national team of wine verifiers.