New Zealand promises to be very favourable to the vine," predicted Samuel Marsden back in 1819 after making the first recorded planting of grape vines at Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands. How right he was. New Zealand has proved it can make world-class wines and it's getting better at it all the time. So, if you're not already familiar with the country, it's time to start now. And I can't think of a better place to start than with Michael Cooper's Wine Atlas of New Zealand.
I only wish this had been available when I visited the country two summers ago, as getting your bearings can be tricky. Wine is made in both the North and South Islands, with the north of the South Island producing the lion's share and the south of the South Island being the world's most southerly wine region - see what I mean.
Site selection is the current buzz word in the New Zealand wine industry (though it's hardly a new concept), and New Zealand's winemakers are a competent bunch, but to produce truly great wine, the key challenge is to understand how to fully exploit the grapes from individual sites, writes Cooper.
And he delivers. We get profiles on several of the country's most influential winemakers and how they work their sites to get the best out of the grapes - folks such as the hugely important Neil McCallum of Dry River, in Martinborough. "Dry River Pinot Noir has a grandness of scale that places it right in the vanguard of New Zealand's Pinot Noirs," declares Cooper. And I'll not disagree - McCallum makes memorable wines.
The book, though, opens with a brief history of New Zealand wine. Many will tell you that New Zealand's wine industry began just a few decades ago; but it has a much longer history, with several false starts before the boom years being experienced today.
Cooper paints a well researched picture of the early days, interspersing the story with lively commentary on the industry's founders - men such as Joe Babich, who built up his company from a "windowless tin shed on the desolate gumfields of the Far North", treading the grapes with his feet. The company (still family-owned) now ranks as one of the country's top producers. Way to go, Joe.
We get to understand New Zealand's place in the international wine trade; fundamental aspects of the country's climate and soils; the principal grape varieties and winemaking techniques; as well as how to read a New Zealand wine label; before Cooper launches into the meat of the book: a region-by-region guide to all of the significant wine producers in New Zealand with helpful, well drawn maps showing key areas of vineyard plantings and the topography of the main wine-growing areas. "The overriding goal has been to provide more information about - and greater insight to - the geographic influences on New Zealand wine than ever before," explains Cooper in his introduction. Which he does, knocking the spots of the competition.
Scattered throughout are features on topics ranging from sustainable viticulture to the impact of the Croatians (Babich was one of them), plus gorgeous photography from John McDermott. OK, so the New Zealand wine industry is still at an early stage of its development - even the more established regions have experienced just 28 vintages, and the unravelling of its various terroirs has only just begun - but it's an exciting place to make wine right now, and Cooper's book does more than just reflect this optimism.
Fiona Sims, drinks editor, Caterer & Hotelkeeperen
Wine Atlas of New Zealand
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