The Mission Estate Winery picked up two big prizes at last week's Air New Zealand Wine Awards. The estate's assistant winemaker, Alex Roper, says the region's syrah is on the brink of greatness.
He talks to Mark Story.
Given the two awards, what was the top personal thrill for you at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards - the Exhibition Red category, or the Syrah?
The syrah trophy was definitely a thrill, picking up two trophies for the same wine at different shows (it was also champion syrah at the New World wine awards) really confirms the quality of the wine and the appreciation of our winemaking style. The cabernet franc winning the exhibition red class was even better. We feel that was a huge achievement because it was up against every red wine that is produced on a boutique scale; pinot noirs, syrahs, merlots, you name it ... We have always considered it a very special batch of wine, but it was really exciting to have it judged as the best small batch of red wine entered in New Zealand's most prestigious wine show.
Name both the best thing and the biggest challenge of working at the birthplace of New Zealand wine.
We have a small crew that gets on well and the work is varied and hands on. Mission hasn't grown large enough to lose that artisanal feel. The biggest challenge comes hand in hand with having a small crew; when it is time to harvest it is all hands on deck. The hours are long during vintage and it is hard physical work. It's the biggest challenge but it is also exciting and my favourite time of the year.
Wine writer Michael Cooper dubbed Hawke's Bay the "aristocrat" of wine regions - do you agree?
I think Hawke's Bay wines certainly attract the aristocratic. We produce some of the most expensive, exclusive and age-worthy wines in the country, however those wines are mostly a tool for showcasing our winemaking expertise and fantastic potential for ripening grapes in Hawke's Bay. If you spend some time getting to know the local winemakers in Hawke's Bay you will realise that they are very down-to-earth people who are making wine because they love it. The vast majority of the wine that we produce is of an exceptional quality yet really affordable and made to drink young. You certainly don't have to be an aristocrat to enjoy some of the Bay's best.
I once asked a visiting Italian chef what he thought of New Zealand wine, and he responded: "If I wanted fruit juice, I'd have asked for it." Does it make it tough to export/ compete on a global stage when tastes are often culturally ingrained?
New Zealand wine exports are a huge success story with 21 growth years in a row and 8 per cent growth this year bringing exports to $1.57 billion. NZ Winegrowers has set a target of $2 billion worth of exports in 2020. That highlights the demand for wine from New Zealand. What makes it tough to compete on a global stage is the competition from the large companies who are selling NZ wine and working on very skinny margins. Mission is finding a niche with higher end wines but I will admit that we are not exporting anything to Italy!
Is Hawke's Bay guilty of trying to do all varietals well, rather than work to our strengths?
One of the great things about Hawke's Bay is that we have many different soil types and micro climates. From the stones and heat in the Gimblett Gravels to the cool sea breezes and more fertile soils closer to the coast. Due to that diversity we are capable of producing quite a range of styles to a very high quality. Yet, we accept that the pungent and punchy sauvignon blancs of Marlborough are more popular than the richer and riper Hawke's Bay examples. That is why Mission Estate owns a vineyard in the Awatere Valley. We bring the Marlborough juice up and ferment it here; it's a model that many Hawke's Bay wineries follow. From a marketing perspective I think it is a more difficult story to sell. Marlborough sauvignon blanc and Central Otago pinot noir are recognised worldwide because they are very high quality and unique. If Hawke's Bay wanted to focus its marketing on one strength, it would have to be syrah. Our syrahs are unique and delicious. Production is small at the moment but I think there is potential for it to be the next big thing.