Joelle Thomson

Writer, author, journalist

Month: January 2017 (page 1 of 3)

Capital’s biggest ever wine event kicks off

Tonight’s the night.

Over 600 wine drinkers, thinkers, makers, marketers, writers and retailers descended on Wellington’s waterfront for the first evening of the biggest wine event ever in this city – Pinot Noir NZ 2017.

It is the sixth Pinot Noir conference to be held in the capital. It has attracted record numbers but is also the longest break between drinks for Pinot Noir devotees. All previous five Pinot Noir conferences in the capital were held every three years, but this one had a four year hiatus. This was due to the country’s first ever Sauvignon Blanc celebration in Marlborough last year. Organisers of both events felt that they did not wish to host competing international wine conferences, so agreed to a four yearly Pinot Noir event, going forward.

Actor and winery owner Sam Neill is among the 600 plus conference goers, as is the world’s most highly respected wine writer, Jancis Robinson; a Master of Wine and editor of The Oxford Companion to Wine, the latest edition of which was published in late 2016 and co-edited by Julia Harding, also a Master of Wine.

Winemaker Ben Glover is the chairperson of Pinot Noir 2017 and will open the conference on Tuesday 31 January at 8.30am. There will be 115 New Zealand Pinot Noir producers attending while other tastings will highlight benchmark styles of Pinot Noir from other countries.

Watch this space.

Pinot file: Ben Glover talks about NZ’s biggest ever Pinot Noir event

This column was first published in Capital magazine in January 2017.

Winemaker Ben Glover has hung up his winemaking boots to focus on the capital’s biggest ever wine gig this month

You could say Ben Glover has a knack for numbers. When asked how he got into winemaking, he describes a circuitous route, via a degree in economics, accounting and law, none of which are his forté. But while numbers may not normally be his strong suit, ticket sales to the capital’s sixth international Pinot Noir conference this month tell a rather different story.

Glover is the chairperson of the three day event and this year’s is the biggest ever to take place in the capital, due to higher ticket sales than ever before in the event’s history.

This year there will be over 700 people in attendance. Is there a change in who is coming and how they have been communicated to and sold tickets?

“Yes, there is. We have changed how we target who should come. For instance, for those working with wine, it’s no longer enough to just be a wine judge at a competition any more. You’ve got to be writing, working with or communicating about how wine fits with food or how it fits into everyday life, so that’s why we have a strong culinary element at the event,” says Glover, who was on the organizing board for the last Pinot Noir conference in  Wellington, in 2013.

There was a strong food focus back then too. Ruth and Paul Pretty were at the helm of the culinary team and will be again this year, with guest chef appearances on each of the three days.

Wellingtonian Al Brown will make the first guest chef appearance on day one. He now resides in Auckland where he heads up Depot restaurant and bar, among other projects, in the city centre.

Another guest appearance spot will be occupied by one of the key speakers, the rock star Maynard Keenan; the lead singer and lyricist for the alternative metal bands, Tool, Puscifer and A Perfect Circle. And whilst he is a rock muso’ by day, he moonlights by growing grapes and making wine in the desert, having been a mover and shaker in the establishment of Arizona’s wine industry, where he makes wine from Mourvedre, Tempranillo, Aglianico, Montepulciano, Barbera and Nebbiolo, among other grapes. His list of varietals appears to include every on-trend red grape but Pinot Noir, and his unconventional approach to wine was a strong drawcard to inviting him to attend the conference.

Movie star turned winemaker Sam Neill is another keynote speaker at Pinot Noir NZ 2017, alongside several Master of Wines, including the capital’s newest, Stephen Wong.

The biggest star of all – for wine lovers – is Jancis Robinson, who will attend the conference for the first time in its history. She was the world’s first journalist to become a Master of Wine and is also the editor of The Oxford Companion to Wine and the ground breaking encyclopedia, Wine Grapes (2012).

Stars and decadence aside, Glover says he wants people to use their grey matter to think about what is in their glass at this year’s Pinot Noir NZ conference.

“I want us to embrace our turangawaewae, to explore new ways to describe how we define greatness in a glass of wine. What’s great for one person may not be great for another, so it’s just stretching that whole thought process to think about where the wine comes from and how its flavours reveal its origins.”

The Marlborough born and bred winemaker finished a four year stint as chief winemaker there in November last year to devote most of his working hours to Pinot Noir NZ 2017, although (as winemakers do) he will also turn up the heat on his wine brand, Zephyr, which he began a decade ago. It has been a project of love while he has had full time winemaking work for others. He was the head winemaker at Wither Hills from 1998 to 2012, prior to working at Mud House, where his brother Jack remains as the general manager.

Today, the name Glover is akin to wine royalty in Marlborough but growing up in the region was hard work on the family farm and it instilled a strong work ethic in him. Not least because he was regularly up at 4.30am to milk cows. Then things changed in Marlborough.

“It seemed all of a sudden that the dairy farm was gone, and we were weeding young vines.

“It was really tough and foreign in those first formative years. The growing of a plant as opposed to feeding and milking an animal was outside of our experience. We knew how to shift irrigation, how to milk cows at 4.30am and again in the afternoon. We knew the feeding, carting and cutting of hay whereas the grape growing side of things initially was bloody tough, even though we’d grown a lot of garlic, corn and peas through the late ‘80s,” he says.

One of the biggest shocks to the family was in realizing that they had just one crop a year from which to make wine.

“My father is a fairly pedantic farmer, as all the good grape growers tended to be. He was hands on and took a long term view, so it was a pretty good way to learn how to get along in life.”

Winemaking is often like that too, says Glover.

“It takes a long time to trust people when you’re making wine because you have a certain view on how you think a wine should be and a lot of that is learning how to let go and knowing when to reign it back in.”

On the future of Pinot Noir in New Zealand, Glover sees it taking a different road to Sauvignon Blanc because by volume it’s the country’s second biggest wine but because of what it is (an oak matured red), it’s probably the most alluring.

“We know that a lot of our Pinot Noir always over delivers, even at low price points, especially compared to its counterparts from many other places in the world where the wines are the same price.”

He suggests that vine age, winemaker age and vineyard sites are now all coming together to provide an X-factor in New Zealand.

“We know how to get the most out of the land while being sympathetic to it. I think we’re lucky in having long summers that enable us to provide door opening Pinot Noirs that taste good. We always hold up France and its premier cru and grand cru wines as the holy grail but they are only 3-5% of what they make.

“We certainly over deliver for the every day wines we make from Pinot Noir compared to the French, and we are definitely making a lot of wine at a high quality-low price ratio.”

When Glover talks about having hung up his winemaking boots in November last year, he’s talking about a very temporary state of affairs.

The Zephyr wine brand that he and his family created 10 years ago has been simmering slowly on the back burner, so now is a good time to turn up the heat on the brand and start driving its recognition and sales. As any wine drinker would expect of a Marlborough wine brand, Sauvignon Blanc is the biggest, in production terms, but Gewurztraminer is closest to the hearts of the Glover family, as are Riesling and Chardonnay. “We have to keep people drinking Riesling and this trio of whites all highlight the strong quality potential of the South Island for grapes and wines other than Sauvignon Blanc.”


Fast facts

Pinot Noir 2017 is on in Wellington from Tuesday 29 January to Thursday 2 February 2017.


Brown returns to Welly

Wellingtonian Al Brown makes a return to the capital as a guest chef at the city’s biggest ever wine conference, Pinot Noir NZ 2017, which kicks off on 31 January and runs to 2 February. Brown now heads up the Auckland eateries Depot and Federal Delicatessen, as well as the Montreal-style bagel factories Best Ugly Bagels (which opened in the capital this year). He will join Ruth Pretty and her catering team followed by fellow foodies Graham Brown and Josh Emett, who will assist with food during the Pinot event.

Forage North Canterbury for food… humbling

We are luckier than we think.

Greetings from the sunny South Island of New Zealand where I have just spent 36 hours foraging for food, fishing in Kaikoura, harvesting wild edible greens and generally feeling humbled by Mother Nature’s seemingly endless supply of uncultivated food. If you look for it, you will find it.

Food is all around us, even in cities, as my own little patch of communal garden in Wellington’s ‘eco valley’ (also known as Aro Valley) show, but more on that in another blog.

The one is all about an event called Forage North Canterbury.

It’s the first year I have been to Forage North Canterbury, but the event is now in its third year and is gaining momentum, says food grower Angela Clifford, who founded the event. She describes Forage as a serendipitous relationship between a food movement and the local wine industry in North Canterbury’s rolling foothills of the Southern Alps. She also pays tribute to Kate McMillan and Melany Wright, two local women who she says were intrinsic to the start of Forage, due to their love of nature and its bountiful supply of food, sometimes in the most unexpected places.

Clifford also founded The Food Farm, which supports her assertion that the Forage event is a natural extension of the lives of those living in this rural region. The farm is 16 acres of vegetables that she owns with her life partner Nick Gill, a local viticulturist. It is also home to ducks, chickens, pigs, sheep and cows. There is no vineyard on site. The couple do make wine, however, under the tongue in cheek brand, Tongue in Groove, which they co-own with four other locals in North Canterbury. This region is significantly warmer, drier, sunnier and more sheltered than the Canterbury Plains, which spread out from Christchurch city, 40 minutes’ drive south. Prior to wine grapes being planted here, North Canterbury was home to experimental fruit and vegetable growing and some vineyards are still full of asparagus, which spreads like tasty wildfire each year.

But like many rural regions, the area is also home to wild fruit trees, wild mushrooms, such as porcini, and also to truffles, as well as being close to kaimoana (seafood). Blue cod, gurnard and perch all made an appearance on our fishing lines and our plates because the sea is nine kilometres east of the State Highway 1, just over the Teviotdale Hills, which provide much needed wind protection from the strong sea breezes.

There are wild deer, pigs, hare, rabbits and goats, some of which appeared (in a relatively minor way) on the table at this year’s Forage North Canterbury dinner. But the star attraction in most  dishes was wild greens, which tasted exceptionally fresh, crisp and, very often, very lemony – despite which, no lemons were harvested or used in the meal.

“Tonight’s meal is a snapshot of what happened today; it’s staggering how much produce we can get because there’s just so much wild food we can eat. If we just look for it, it’s there and there’s no need to go hungry,” said James Stapley, chef at  Bistro Gentil in Wanaka, and one-time chef at Pegasus Bay winery when it first won restaurant of the year from Cuisine magazine well over a decade ago. The winery’s restaurant has gone on to win the same accolade many times. It’s easy to taste why.

Stapley’s dish at Forage was slivers of fresh blue cod, caught by five of us earlier that day in Kaikoura. The explosive fresh taste of the dish came from the wild greens while its pretty appearance came from tiny purple flowers that he and I picked on the rugged beach at Kaikoura, prior to our lunch of fresh crayfish sandwiches served with 2009 Pegasus Bay Bel Canto Dry Riesling, brought by Edward Donaldson, who captained his own speed boat to take us fishing for Forage.

Other teams scoured the countryside for wild mushrooms, buckets of small, tart and incredibly tasty wild cherries, miniature wild plums ranging from pale green to red to deep purple, with flavours as varied as the colour. There were flowers and green leaves wrapped inside miniature bites of fresh mullet and a sensational dish of fish with the intensely earthy taste of truffle, which was crumbled over it.

About 70 of us attended Forage North Canterbury this year, including a handful of New Zealand’s top South Island chefs who gave their time in exchange for the privilege of being involved. While it took time out of their more lucrative lives, the privilege of taking part more than rewarded them, said chef Stapley, who enjoyed his second year at Forage.

After we had foraged for food and brought the spoils back, we were treated to aged Rieslings from the cellars of local wineries such as Pegasus Bay (where the Forage dinner was held), Terrace Edge, Tongue in Groove, Mount Brown, Bellbird Spring, The Boneline, Greystone, Black Estate and Crater Rim wineries. I think all wineries have been included, but email me, if I have missed someone. This region is known for its earthy Pinot Noirs and a growing amount of Sauvignon Blanc, but it has a long history of producing outstanding dry, medium and luscious Rieslings, all of which can age for decades and remain fresh in flavour.

With the exception of olive oil, salt and pepper, all ingredients used in the meal had been freshly foraged that day.

Two things surprised me: the discovery that I am a natural forager is one. Perhaps it’s not altogether surprising when I think back to my grandparents’ vast vegetable gardens, but it felt validating to walk along the beach with Stapley after we had been fishing, and to collect wild plants with someone else who clearly sees great edible potential in the natural world around us.

The concept of living off seasonal, unsprayed and unpolluted produce is one that’s close to my heart and my hands – I have just been allotted a segment of communal garden in Wellington’s ‘eco valley’ (also known as Aro Valley), an eight minute walk from the front door of my apartment.

Forage North Canterbury has left me feeling humbled to reconnect with the land and with Mother Nature’s seemingly endless supply of more than  we need, despite our questionable treatment of the world around us. We are luckier than we think.

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