NZ producer embarks on fresh approach

Waiheke Island producer Cable Bay Vineyards is keen to highlight New Zealand’s strengths beyond Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir as it relaunches in the UK with a new distributor.

Cable Bay winemaker Neill Culley

Cable Bay winemaker Neill Culley

Formerly represented by Stratfords Wine Agencies, which went into administration last year, Cable Bay itself has only recently emerged from a management buy-out after what founding winemaker Neill Culley described as “a lot of debt and dysfunction.”

The company is now owned jointly by Culley, who planted Cable Bay’s first vineyards in 1998, and Loukas Petrou, who heads a New Zealand construction firm.

Having just become the first New Zealand producer in the portfolio of UK importer Connoisseur Estates, Culley highlighted a strategic shift from Cable Bay’s time with Stratfords. “We’re looking for more premium business,” he told the drinks business, adding: “The next year is about finding good distributors to work with and growing in a controlled fashion.”

With eight different wines available in the UK, ranging from Chardonnay, to Syrah, a Merlot/Malbec blend, Pinot Grigio and Viognier, all from Waiheke Island, the company also sources Central Otago Pinot Noir and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

Although around 25% of the company’s production is from the small viticultural area of Waiheke Island, Culley suggested: “In five years time that’ll probably be 5%.”

In particular he explained: “I think it would be very hard to have a sustainable export business without Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir,” as he outlined a plan to buy vineyards in both Central Otago and Marlborough during the next year.

Despite acknowledging that “nothing is going to compare in terms of volume” to these two varieties, Culley expressed particular pride in his Waiheke Island Syrah and Chardonnay, as well as highlighting the successful results this region can achieve with Malbec, of which he is currently planting more.

“You’ve got to get it ripe enough,” he explained of the latter variety. “It can be a bit one dimensional, but get it ripe and it gets really floral with some weight but a real lightness on the palate too.”

For all this success with Malbec, Culley admitted that his view of Waiheke Island’s strongest suit has changed in recent years. “If you’d asked me 10 years ago, I’d have said Bordeaux blends, but today Syrah is showing well across a broad range of producers,” he remarked.

Comparing Waiheke Island conditions with New Zealand’s main Syrah stronghold of Hawke’s Bay, Culley explained: “We’re an island so you have the sea breezes but it’s relatively dry with clay soils and most of our vineyards are on slopes. Hawke’s Bay probably has a greater diversity of soil types but it’s fair to say they’re both warmer regions of New Zealand.”

Despite his pride in these red varieties, Culley acknowledged the commercial incentive for New Zealand producers to focus on Sauvignon Blanc. In addition to the grape’s strong consumer following, he noted: “We can crop Sauvignon Blanc at a reasonable yield, depending on the vineyard 12 or 13 tonnes per hectare; Syrah is no more than 5 tonnes per hectare.”

Nevertheless, Culley expressed optimism that the UK is becoming more open-minded to expanding its New Zealand wine repertoire. Recalling his first visit to the UK two decades ago, he said: “there certainly seems much more acceptance now that New Zealand is not just Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir.”

While the UK, US and Australia remain an important focus for Cable Bay, whose production Culley aims to “grow back up to at least 50,000 cases,” he welcomed the impact of emerging markets.

“The biggest change for me in the last 10 years is the opportunity in new markets,” he told db. “There was a time when if you didn’t sell in the UK, Australia or maybe the US then that was it. Now there are other choices, which probably stops people selling wine at lower prices and screwing the market up.”

Connoisseur Estates will be exhibiting at next week’s London International Wine Fair on Stand J1.

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