5 top drops… wines I never thought I would love

A dead French novelist once wrote that real discoveries are not about seeing new people, places or things, but seeing the same people, places and things with new eyes.

Apparently, he was quoting someone else but I’ve always liked the idea. And it’s been top of mind in the last three weeks of travel, tasting and writing; here are the 5 most surprising wines that I gave high wine scores to in tastings.

La Marca was first made in 1968  and is now available   in New Zealand.



La Marca Prosecco $26 to $28

Joelle’s rating: 17.5/20

Meet La Marca, which is new to New Zealand this month and is a cooperative wine made from grapes grown by over 5000 growers who sell their grapes to 9 cooperative wineries to produce this bubbly. It was first made in 1968 and was awarded a ‘Top 100 wines of the year’ by Wine Spectator magazine in 2007, which is pretty surprising given the light citrus flavours, frizzante style fizziness (i.e., not fully sparkling as a champagne is) and the lack of sweetness (1.7 grams per litre of grape sugar makes this wine bone dry – a big contrast to many Proseccos). Perhaps this is exactly what I like about La Marca – it’s dry, it’s fresh, it’s too easy to drink. Forget cider. I’ll opt for a Prosecco like this one any day.


Pinot Gris

2016 Mahana Estates Pinot Gris $25 to $29

Joelle’s rating: 18.5/20

Pinot Gris pales into significance when positioned next to its terpene fuelled kin, such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer, says winemaker Michael Glover, who decided to change his methods in making wine from Pinot Gris by seeing it as a copper coloured grape rather than a white one.

Blood Moon Pinot Gris is the result. He gave the wine four days of pre fermentation skin contact, which has unlocked doors of flavour that might have been closed to Pinot Gris if made along traditional lines, with no skin contact. This is the best Pinot Gris I have ever tried (and there have been dinner parties devoted to Pinot Gris in my honour; to try and turn my head and heart onto the best Gris from around the world). This wine is fresh, dry, medium bodied, smooth and flavoursome with savoury tastes of spice, nuts and ripe orange, with refreshing acidity to carry it to a lingering conclusion. I had to check it out over three days to see if it really was that good – it is. Best Pinot Gris ever.

Buy it here: https://shop.mahana.nz/product/Mahana-Pinot-Gris1


Sauvignon blend

2016 Brancott Estate Reflection Sauvignon $60

Joelle’s rating: 18.5/20

Brancott Estate is a big company pumping out vast volumes of white wine, mostly from Marlborough, so it’s hard to see what could be done differently with yet another Sauvignon Blanc from the region that is drowning in the stuff. This wine is deliciously different, thanks to winemaker Patrick Materman’s innovative blend of 52% Sauvignon Blanc and 48% Sauvignon Gris (a natural mutation of Sauvignon Blanc). It was officially released in late October 2017 to coincide with the launch of a new eight metre high iron sculpture, designed by New York based designer Dror Benshetrit, who also designed the label on this bottle. Like the sculpture, the wine makes a big statement; it’s dry, smoky and intense with flavours of lemon grass, grapefruit and oak – only 150 cases were made and it’s also available in a magnum; both bottle sizes are sealed with screw caps. I had to eat my silent words when tasting this wine because I wondered what could work well about blending Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris from Marlborough but this blend works beautifully with the succulence of Sauvignon Blanc being balanced by Gris’ fresh green flavours. Oak fermentation adds weight and depth but the fruit flavours taste stunning in this wine.

Buy it here: https://www.brancottestate.com/en-nz/visit-our-vineyard


New look for an old classic

2015 La Vieille Ferme Cote du Ventoux $20 to $25

Joelle’s rating: 17.5/20

It’s one of those cheapies you buy for the first time when budget rules all your buying decisions, but La Vieille Ferme (‘the old farm’) has come along in fruity leaps and savoury bounds since I last tried it about five years back, which was why  importer Mark Young of Vintners New Zealand suggested I take a new look at this old classic.

Today the old farm tastes brand new with a touch of savouriness balanced by fresh red fruit flavours and a smooth, light body. It’s a long way from the dusty austerity that held this wine back in the past and I can’t help but think the screw cap plays a large part in delivering this lovely French red in a fresh-is-best style.


Sauvignon from tricky vintage

2017 Dog Point Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc $27

Joelle’s rating: 18.5/20

The 2017 harvest will be remembered as short, sharp and shocking in many parts of New Zealand. It only lasted 21 days in Marlborough, but challenging times call for innovative solutions and the Dog Point winemaking team chose theirs by spending more time in the vineyard than usual, where they indulged their Sauvignon Blanc vines to early shoot removal and crop thinning so that 2017 was, for them, “a very low harvest” with impressive fruit flavours.

The proof is in the bottle. It’s bone dry, intensely citrusy and fleshy with green fruit and herb flavours underpinned by refreshing but balanced high acidity, finishing with complex nutty flavours.

It’s fizzy and it’s (sometimes even) affordable

Tune in to RNZ National with Jesse Mulligan and yours truly this afternoon (Friday 16 December) 3.15pm

Champagne… Its name comes from Latin, its first entrepreneurs were German and up to half of its production exploded, due to high pressure  and flimsy glass in the 18th Century.

Champagne. If its name brings special occasions and high price tags to mind, it wasn’t always so. In the early 1700s, champagne with bubbles was considered inferior to the still wines of the Champagne region (the capital letter denotes the region while the lower case is the generic name of the sparkling wine). Fast forward to today and three new champagnes have arrived in New Zealand, which show it’s not always necessary to pay a small a  fortune (or a large one) to drink good quality bubbly. A new trio is imported by Master of Wine Stephen Bennett, who’s well known in this country for opening the floodgates to good quality Spanish wine, pioneering Spain’s new wave wines over the past 16+ years, or so. He’s also a fan of good champagne and the trio he has begun to import do not cost the Earth, starting at $39.99, moving up to $69.99 with a couple of prestige cuvees (that’s shorthand for flagship wines), which are also competitively priced. Here are my top bubbles of 2017 and, by the way, these wines were tasted with their labels were concealed so I was not swayed by my own preconceptions.

Joelle’s top sparkling wines of 2017

Wines  rated out of 20

Champagne Bollinger Special Cuvee $99

Buy from Regional Wines & Spirits

Bollinger is an old favourite but to ensure it was put through its paces, it was tasted blind twice and still shone brightest with its delicious flavours of hot buttered toast, ripe lemon zest, grapefruit, apple strudel, brioche, brie, and all held together with refreshing crispness. I love this wine.


Champagne Paul Louis Martin Grand Cru Bouzy is $69.99

Buy from Accent on Wine in Auckland

Master of Wine Stephen Bennett is the importer of this wine, which is new to New Zealand this year. Bouzy is one of the top quality villages in Champagne’s Montagne de Reims and is well known for rich, full bodied, intensely toasty wines like this one – a star.


Champagne Charles de Cazanove Tete de Cuvee NV $39.95 to $49.95
Buy from Fine Wine Delivery Company

Awesome champagne imported by Master of Wine Stephen Bennett. This bubbly has rich, dry, toasty flavours, is made mostly from Pinot Noir, as its yeasty flavours show. It won gold at Kingsley Wood’s New Zealand International Wine Show this year and scored 92 out of 100 in Wine Spectator magazine. 


Gatinois Grand Cru Ay Tradition NV $54.95
Buy from Regional Wines & Spirits and Maison Vauron

Grand Cru champagne is a rarity at this price and this one is richly flavoursome, massively over delivering on its price tag (even if it cost more, as is so often the case with champagne). Fantastic wine.


Ruby Bay Jewel Methode Traditionelle $38

Buy from Ruby Bay

Ruby Bay vineyard is a tiny Nelson wine producer but this is a big bubbly with incredible depth, thanks to Pinot Noir providing toasty richness and Chardonnay’s creamy smoothness.


2013 Deutz Marlborough Blanc de Blancs $32.99

Widely available.

New Zealand’s Pernod Ricard makes this rich, flavoursome, full bodied, dry, creamy bubbly, which rocks a very champagne-like style.


Col do Salici Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Brut 2015 $27 

Buy from Mineral Wines

Dry, lemony, soft and fresh prosecco, worth the extra dollars.


These wines were the stars of a far bigger sparkling wine tasting (and also two other tastings). All wines were tasted with their identities concealed. Other sparkling wines tasted alongside them came from Australia, France, Italy, New Zealand and Spain. These were the best.




Cloudy Bay Vineyards is at a turning point…

In the middle of the earthquakes, the tornado and the torrential storms that hit New Zealand last week, a visiting Frenchman discussed a new lease of life for one of this country’s oldest wine brands – Cloudy Bay Vineyards in Marlborough

Meet Jean-Guillaume Prats, president and CEO for Moët Hennessy Estates & Wines. This interview took place in Auckland, New Zealand on 17 November.

Wellington city is shaking as the plane flies through grey clouds to Auckland for an early morning interview with Jean-Guillaume Prats, president and chief exec’ for Moët Hennessy Estates & Wines. He’s here for a busy time, not for a long time, and his trip coincides with that of his newest staff member – Yang Shen.

You could say that Prats and Yang are anything but typical in their management roles.

Prats is a father of five and a keen tennis player who describes himself as very hands-off when it comes to managing wineries all over the globe. Meanwhile,  Yang Shen spends his spare time singing, playing basketball and studying wine in France. At least, that’s how he got into the wine industry.

Yang was born in China, studied wine in France and this month took up residence in Marlborough to take on the role of general manager at Cloudy Bay Vineyards. Despite his new home, his new job will be all about growing the sales of wine in China. It will be done here on the ground in New Zealand so that he is in direct touch with where that growth happens – starting from the ground up, in other words.

The announcement of his new role was made on 17 November in a softly-softly fashion when Prats met with less than a handful of writers to explain the new appointment – so that the Cloudy Bay wine brand can grow strongly in China.

Exactly how this happens is is in Yang Shen’s hands, says Prats. He manages the Moët Hennessy wineries outside of France, which is a long roll call of big names, such as Domain Chandon wineries (California, Brazil, Argentina, China, Australia and India); Cloudy Bay in Marlborough and Terrazas de los Andes in Argentina, among many others. He is not a winemaker, but Prats reveals in conversation that he’s all over winemaking methods, markets and how to make them grow. Not that he will dictate that to Yang Shen.

“Being French we are very good at giving lessons to the world and showing that we know everything when it comes to wine but that is not how we operate as a company. The winemaking and viticultural team at Cloudy Bay is currently very strong and they don’t need a leader to guide their style so it has been interesting and even strange, in a way, to appoint a new general manager when the team there are so outstanding at winemaking and in the vineyards.”

So, why appoint a new general manager?

Prats pragmatically points out that the company’s biggest focus going forward is breaking into the Chinese market and that Yang will play the biggest role in spear heading this vast new wine drinking market.

How will Cloudy Bay break into the Chinese market?

“I don’t think we can run after too many fishes. We have to stick to a few fundamentals, one being that Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc will remain a relatively limited edition wine. It’s our flagship and we are committed to keeping its high quality image,” says Prats.

Will you grow Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc production?

“Unfortunately, no. We are not able to expand within Marlborough. Today Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc is on allocation internationally and we don’t want to expand. If we go any further, we will change the style and that is something we don’t want to do.”

Which wines will grow then for the Chinese market?

Sauvignon blanc allocation may be able to be shifted from some markets to others but this is unlikely to meet the demand for high volumes that the Chinese market may require.

Pinot Noir and sparkling wine are made in volumes that will remain limited, but there is more room to manouvre, especially in terms of Central Otago  Pinot Noir and also with Pinot Noir from Marlborough.

“I truly believe that both Central Otago and Marlborough Pinot can help us to open up larger volumes of high quality wine for China,” says Prats.

When it comes to exporting New Zealand wine to China, Prats suggests the market will explode, but in limited volumes. Pinot Noir is a more expensive grape to grow (and more expensive wine to make) than Sauvignon Blanc. As is high quality sparkling wine made in the traditional method (also known, in the past, as ‘methode champenois’ – a term now outlawed in Europe, due to its close resemblance to the name Champagne). Enter Pelorus, which is Cloudy Bay’s traditional method sparkling wine. These days it is an NV (non vintage – as are most champagnes) but in the past it has been made as both an NV and a vintage sparkling wine. This may be the case again. Prats suggests a wide range of styles and possibilities for Pelorus.

“But this will be Yang’s job to decide. Not mine. I am not here to dictate what he does. He’s got a great team who know what they’re doing and we want them to have the freedom to work with what they think is going to be the best way forward to continue raising the quality of Pelorus.”

Pinot Noir will come first, however, because Cloudy Bay now has significant vineyards of its own in Central Otago at both Northburn Station and at the Calvert Vineyard. The latter is managed by Felton Road and Prats describes it as “one of the best vineyards in New Zealand, in terms of how it’s managed and the grape that come from there.

He is at pains to point out continuously during this interview that “The Pinots from Marlborough and Central Otago are equivalent to some of the great Pinots of the world and this makes Pinot Noir is the ideal starting point for major growth from New Zealand because the Chinese market is more into red wine.”

Another ideal starting point is the addition to the team of a general manager who understands the Chinese culture. The winemaking capacity at Cloudy Bay is currently being increased, which also bodes well for the significant future growth of the brand in the world’s biggest – and newest – wine drinking market.

Watch this space.