New Zealand only produces one percent of the world's wine, but its success has brought a lot of attention to this small country. Affordable and refreshing Sauvignon Blancs, many made by larger wineries, have led the revolution, but two recent deals show there's plenty of energy and confidence in the boutique side of New Zealand's wine industry.
Over on the North Island, the owner of Australia's Torbreck winery has acquired Escarpment, located in the Martinborough region. Escarpment was founded in 1999 by the Kirby family and winemaker Larry McKenna, who is known to many as the godfather of New Zealand Pinot Noir. McKenna will continue on as winemaker.
McKenna and Escarpment helped the Martinborough region and the entire country realize Pinot Noir's potential. In 2015, Escarpment was the first New Zealand wine to crack Wine Spectator's Top 10 with the Pinot Noir Martinborough Kupe Single Vineyard 2013.
McKenna says that the Kirby family has decided to move on from funding the winery after 10 years. The rest of the staff will keep their positions. "It's a great partnership," said McKenna. "Torbreck doesn't make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and they are very skilled at making and selling high-end wine, which will allow us to go to the next step."
McKenna adds that the outside investment is a solid endorsement of the quality of Martinborough and New Zealand wine. Torbreck is owned by American businessman Pete Kight, who also owns the California brands Quivira and La Folette.
The deal includes a winery and a 47-acre vineyard, planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. "It was important that the brand and property included vineyards that have exceptional potential," said Kight. Neither party disclosed a price.
Kight adds that there will only be modest changes at Escarpment, possibly reducing the number of bottlings while increasing production, concentrating on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. "We have a high level of confidence that we can both acquire more land to expand the owned vineyards and that we can lease vineyards of exceptional quality," he said, pointing out McKenna's experience and contacts. "He knows Martinborough as well as anyone in the world."
On the South Island, two local vintners, Ben Glover of Glover Family Vineyards and Rhyan Wardman have purchased Marlborough's Seresin winery. The sale includes 7 acres of organically farmed Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Pinot Noir, and a winery. Neither party disclosed a price.
Seresin Estate was founded in 1992 by New Zealand cinematographer Michael Seresin, whose credits include Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and War for the Planet of the Apes. His passion for wine turned him into one of the modern pioneers of the Marlborough region, known for making elegant expressions of Marlborough Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Michael Seresin will continue to make wine at the facility, but on a smaller scale, allowing him to refocus on small-parcel wines.
The new owners plan to turn the winery into a hub for a group of small-production winemakers dubbed The Coterie. Glover believes Marlborough is evolving, creating a need for this type of opportunity for small winemakers.
"There is a lot more going on underneath the Sauvignon Blanc quilt," he told Wine Spectator. "Marlborough needs this, especially to ensure that the premium story is kept, the family names or brands are known."
Some in the area worry that the world sees Marlborough as a homogenous wine region devoted to one grape and run by larger companies. Glover brings up turangawaewae, which means "a place to stand" in Maori. "The story of turangawaewae—the sense of place, or where we stand—is predominant in the fabric of what the Marlborough wine industry is."
This is the first partnership for these two friends. Glover is from a fifth-generation farming family that converted their Dillons Point farm to grapevines in 1985, starting the Zephyr brand in 2007. Glover also previously worked as director of winemaking for all of Lion Nathan's wine brands. Wardman began his winemaking career as the inaugural assistant winemaker at Seresin in the 1990s. He has also worked as wine director for Constellation Europe, Indevin and the Giesen group.
Wardman agrees that Marlborough is at a critical point in its wine production. "We both feel passionately that our fledgling industry is at a crossroad and, whilst we are small in the scheme of things, our message is pertinent—unless we innovate, pursue excellence, and broaden the perspective of brand Marlborough, our collective economic model will remain challenged."
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