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New Zealand wines in the UK on-trade

UK consumers are ready to explore the lesser-known expressions New Zealand produces, from Chardonnay to Pinot Gris, and are happy to pay good money to do so. Lucy Shaw reports.

Chantelle Nicholson, chef patron of Tredwells, and Melanie Brown of The New Zealand Cellar

As the UK restaurant scene becomes increasingly savage, with the number of casualties rising by the day, the success of New Zealand wine in the on-trade is offering a much-needed glimmer of hope to restaurateurs. Boasting the highest average bottle price in the sector, ahead of all its major competitors, year-on-year value sales of New Zealand wine in the on-trade are up by a healthy 15.5%, while volume sales are up by 9.7%, making the country one of only a few in positive growth in the UK on-trade at the moment.

As you might expect, this growth is largely being driven by Sauvignon Blanc, and, to a lesser extent, Pinot Noir, but New Zealand Pinot Gris is going gangbusters at the moment, with on-trade volume sales up by 39% and value sales spiking by a staggering 79%, albeit from a small base. Riesling is also emerging as an appealing aromatic alternative for those seeking something less ubiquitous than Sauvignon Blanc. Expressions from New Zealand are enjoying 21% value growth in the UK on-trade, proving that consumers are starting to look beyond the usual suspects for their New Zealand wine fix. While Sauvignon Blanc accounts for an incredible 94% of Bibendum’s total New Zealand wine sales, other varieties are starting to pique the interest of curious consumers.

The supplier’s New Zealand Pinot Gris volume sales are up by 134%, while Chardonnay is enjoying 30% volume growth and Syrah 20%. Matt Smith, Bibendum’s New Zealand wine buyer, believes the country has entered “a new era of elegance”, with winemakers championing balance and freshness rather than power and concentration. Couple this with increasing vine age and huge regional diversity and you have a compelling proposition. “New Zealand is seen as an aspirational country, and diners are becoming more aware of its versatility and are keen to discover its enticing offerings beyond Sauvignon Blanc,” says Smith.

One of the first restaurants in the UK to fly the flag for New Zealand was The Providores in London’s Marylebone, run by charismatic Kiwi chef Peter Gordon. Revolutionising the London brunch scene with its small-plates ethos and killer coffee when it opened on Marylebone High Street in 2001, The Providores also played a pivotal role in introducing urbanites to the delights of lesser-known New Zealand wines from all over the country. Gordon’s wine roots run deep – he dabbled in winemaking in Melbourne before becoming a chef, and once co-owned a vineyard in North Otago called Waitaki Braids, which made Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and rosé, but has since been turned into farmland.

Monica and David Galetti shine a light on New Zealand wine at Mere in Fitzrovia

Spurred on by pastry chef-turned-sommelier Melanie Brown, a decade ago Gordon made the bold decision to turn his wine list 100% Kiwi.

“It was always my dream to have a New Zealand-only wine list, but when we opened 17 years ago it was too early to do it, so we steadily built up our collection over the years and decided to take the plunge in 2008,” says Gordon. “New Zealand does so much more than Sauvignon and we wanted to show what the country was capable of.

Being able to help producers secure distribution in the UK makes us feel like proud parents.” Gordon believes the New Zealand wine selection at other London restaurants has come on in leaps and bounds since his early days in the capital, when you were lucky if there was an NZ red on the menu.

“Sommeliers used to be snobby about New Zealand wines, and there was this feeling that you had to have a token Sauvignon on the menu, but times have changed and things have improved enormously,” he says.

Pinot Noir has emerged as the red wine star at The Providores, a trend Gordon believes has developed as red wine drinkers are happier to take more risks with their choices. In a bid to get his diners to experiment, Gordon keeps the mark-ups of his more expensive New Zealand drops deliberately low to encourage people to trade up.

“We tweak our mark-ups all the time because there are some wines we’re really keen for our customers to experience,” he says, “but the New Zealand dollar is so strong against the pound at the moment that it makes the expensive wines seem even more expensive.”

Gordon happily reports that there has been “very little pushback” at the fact that he only stocks New Zealand wines, and feels their aromatics and inherent fruitiness pairs perfectly with his cuisine, which weaves together punchy flavours like chilli, ginger, cumin and coriander. But while he’s proud to fly the flag for New Zealand, he admits that this singular approach “comes at a cost”, as the majority of the wines on his list fall within the £40-£70 bracket, with more than a dozen reds topping the £100 mark.

“Sommeliers and front-of-house staff that have been to New Zealand find it a lot easier to push the wines, and brands like Felton Road, Seresin, Ata Rangi and Craggy Range are really gaining strength in the UK, along with Two Paddocks, thanks to the Sam Neill connection,” says Gordon, referring to the Central Otago winery owned by the Jurassic Park actor. “Diners view New Zealand as a place they’re prepared to invest in, almost as a brand in itself.” Inspired by The Providores’ list, trend spotter Roger Jones, head chef and owner of the Michelin-starred The Harrow at Little Bedwyn in Wiltshire, has built up what is now the largest New Zealand wine offering of any UK restaurant on a list that includes 50 back vintages of Felton Road Pinot Noir and 40 vintages of its Riesling.

“I jumped at the chance to make a hero of New Zealand, and over the years I’ve tried to buy as many of the top wines as I can and age them in my own cellar so that I can list them when they’re ready to drink,” Jones says. “It’s quite profitable to do it that way because prices for premium New Zealand wines have shot up in recent years.” Jones believes New Zealand wines have risen to prominence at UK restaurants because their flavour profile works well with the lighter cuisine being served today. “New Zealand wines are generally clean, linear, fruity and restrained in alcohol, which complements the style of food people are championing at the moment,” he says.

While many may not have noticed, Jones believes the style of Sauvignon being made in New Zealand has changed dramatically over the past few decades, and feels this change has come about as a reaction to changes in eating habits. “Food and wine trends go hand in hand. New Zealand has moved away from the cat’s piss and asparagus style of Sauvignon towards a more elegant, grassy, elderflower style, but you’ve got to remember that people were eating things like tinned asparagus that tasted like cat’s piss in the ‘80s,” he says. Having only listed a couple of Sauvignons at The Harrow five years ago, Jones is now “a big fan” of the wine, particularly aged expressions from Greywacke and Dog Point, and those that spend time in oak, on lees and benefit from the addition of Semillon.

Peter Gordon of The Providores was one of the first to champion New Zealand wines in London in a big way

However, while Sauvignon Blanc remains New Zealand’s great white hope at most UK restaurants, Chardonnay is the star of the show at The Harrow, outselling Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, though this comes as no surprise, given that Jones is a diehard fan and has been pushing it strongly in recent years. “New Zealand Chardonnay is the closest you’re going to get to top white Burgundy – for a fifth of the price,” enthuses Jones, who reveals his customers are happy to pay more than £80 for the top expressions from Neudorf and Kumeu River because they’re confident about the quality and consistency coming out of New Zealand at the top end.

On the red front, Jones’s regulars have become such fans of Felton Road and Craggy Range that they specifically request it when they come in, while Trinity Hill Homage Syrah sells well at £150 a bottle. But when it comes to Pinot Noir, Jones believes New Zealand is facing increasing competition from South Africa, which is now putting out some seriously smart examples. Looking ahead, Jones believes that Pinot Gris will be the next big thing to come out of New Zealand, and has recently been investing heavily in it to lay down. “New Zealand will never make better Riesling than Australia, but it has a star in Pinot Gris, and Martinborough is making immaculate examples that are fresh and clean but with a lick of oak that gives them a textural element that makes them great for pairing with food,” he says.

Currently accounting for just 6% of vineyard plantings in New Zealand, The Providores’ former head sommelier, Melanie Brown, who now runs boutique specialist merchant The New Zealand Cellar, in south London, also believes Pinot Gris is one to watch, with the likes of Ata Rangi and Prophet’s Rock leading the charge. “Pinot Gris is starting to be a really big focus for us, and consumers are beginning to understand it. Producers in New Zealand have found their way with the grape and are now making expressions with style and class that are rich in texture, flavour and concentration,” she says.

Michael Seresin has noticed a growing thirst for NZ Pinot in the UK on-trade

Brown is also excited by the regional diversity that Pinot Noir offers, with consumers now able to choose a Pinot to suit their palate, from the bright and juicy expressions from Marlborough through to the ethereal Burgundian styles coming out of Martinborough, via the more structured and fruit-forward Central Otago expressions.

“The New Zealand wine offering in the UK has grown phenomenally over the past 20 years, and all the big suppliers and merchants have at least a couple in their portfolios,” says Brown. “New Zealand wines have personality and poise that wines from other countries lack.

Their fruit concentration and youthful energy make them a perfect partner for a diverse array of dishes.” Brown is as enthusiastic as Jones about New Zealand Chardonnay’s potential, particularly as it is made at a high level all over the country.

“New Zealand Chardonnay offers a pure, linear, mineral style that can comfortably compete with grand cru Burgundy,” she says. Sam Bennett, who makes wine at Te Pa in Marlborough, agrees: “New Zealand Chardonnay is going from strength to strength.

There are excellent examples coming out of all the major wine regions of the country that can confidently stand up to the best examples in the world,” he says.

Another London venue championing New Zealand wine is MasterChef judge and former Le Gavroche sous chef Monica Galetti’s solo venture, Mere, in London’s Fitzrovia, which pays homage to her New Zealand upbringing.

Galetti’s French husband, David, looks after the wine list at the restaurant, and believes the commercial success of Sauvignon Blanc at retail has been beneficial in introducing consumers to New Zealand wine. He’s on a mission to get diners to explore other grape varieties from the country, and is particularly keen to convert them to the delights of New Zealand Riesling.

Nigel Greening of Felton Road believes NZ Pinots offer fantastic value for their quality

“I love Riesling, but it’s one of the hardest grapes to introduce to consumers because they often associate it with sweetness,” he says. “While that can sometimes be the case, a dry Riesling from Felton Road in Central Otago or Pegasus Bay in Waipara can offer an array of exotic aromas and diverse food pairing capabilities.” New Zealand Pinot is currently flying out of the door at Mere, and is often one of the first wines diners ask for.

“They are such fantastic value and high quality, so it’s no surprise really,” says Galetti. Nigel Greening, the British owner of Felton Road, agrees. “People find New Zealand Pinot very reliable, and very few people are disappointed when they order it,” he says.

While interest and demand in his single vineyard Pinot Noirs far outstrips supply, Greening has made a point of not raising his prices so as to keep the wines within the realms of affordability for Felton Road fans.

“We’ve been careful not to put our prices up, having heard so many of our customers complaining about feeling let down by Burgundy because of the price hikes,” he says, though understands why prices have risen, thanks to lack of availability.

“Nobody sells top Burgundy by the case unless they’re mad or dead; that’s why the wines go for such bewildering prices at auction, but New Zealand Pinot is bloody close to Burgundy in terms of quality and terroir expression, and they’re getting better all the time,” says Greening.

Another producer benefitting from Burgundy’s price hikes is cinematographer-turned winemaker Michael Seresin, who has built up his biodynamic boutique wine brand – Seresin – in the UK through the on-trade via listings at a diverse range of restaurants including fine dining venues like The Ritz and The Goring; and trendy sites including Roka, Zuma, Pollen Street Social and Tredwells. “In the premium on-trade sommeliers are looking for Burgundy alternatives that offer a better quality to price ratio for their guests and New Zealand can offer quality Pinots with great terroir expression.

We produce seven biodynamic Pinot Noirs, which is just a glimpse of the different expressions of the variety available from New Zealand,” says Seresin. “As the vines age and the winemakers gain more experience, these Pinots are only going to get better.” While Seresin has noticed that UK consumers are starting to look beyond Sauvignon Blanc and explore the other varieties the country has to offer, he believes there is still a lot of work to be done by the industry to successfully promote New Zealand’s diversity.

Diners may have begun their New Zealand wine journey with supermarket Sauvignon, but they are starting to discover the country’s other liquid treasures, from Hawkes Bay Syrah and Central Otago Pinot to Bordeaux blends and aromatic whites like Albariño and Viognier. Helping to give them this confidence to explore is New Zealand’s consistency in its quality offering.

Going in at the top end of the UK market when producers began to export was a bold move that has paid off handsomely, as consumers view New Zealand wine as an aspirational product that will deliver the consistency they crave. As Roger Jones points out: “The New Zealand name acts like a quality guarantee, and we know the wines we serve are going to be perfect day in day out. You don’t get shoddiness from New Zealand – look at their rugby team – everything they do is precise.”

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