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.
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.
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.