New Zealand AMA with buyer Sarah Knowles MW

Hello everyone!

Welcome to another Ask Me Anything LIVE Q&A. We’ll be getting started in just a few minutes.
If you’re new to AMAs, here’s our beginner’s guide to let you know what’s happening.

Sarah’s about to introduce herself, and she also wanted to do your advanced questions justice so she’s prepared some answers in advance so she can go into extra detail! She’ll start posting answers shortly after 1pm - feel free to start posting live/followup questions between 1 and 2pm!

Who’s here? Feel free to say hello if you’re watching. :slight_smile:


I’ll be dipping in an out between house chores… :blush:

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Hello, will be on an off, but keeping an eye on this.


Hi, thanks for joining me at the, my first AMA! :wave:

It is either great luck, or great planning from Laura that this comes literally 36 hours before I fly to Auckland for my annual buying trip.

The irony does not escape me that I am leaving a glorious British summer, where everyone is (or should be) drinking oodles of kiwi sauvignon, to land in the middle of a kiwi winter to blend the sauvignons that we will enjoy next summer here….

However that is the time scale of southern hemisphere winemaking. The grapes were picked in their autumn – Feb-April, and for the last two months have been going through the process of fermentation, and then settling (often on the lees). In early July winemakers start to look at the various tanks and batches of white wine, and begin blending trials, or move some wines – such as the pinots to barrel for further aging.
This is when I fly in…

It means that I can taste the embryonic sauvignons and work with some of our winemakers on bespoke blends. (Blending one sauvignon tank with another - perhaps picked on different days, or form different parts of the vineyards etc.)

I can also see our long term suppliers and discuss the vintage, and taste their blends so that I can set them up for sale as quickly as possible (I love sauvignon at its freshest).
After nearly a week and 30 visits in Marlborough I often head to another New Zealand sub region to catch up, but this year, with a quick stop at Kumeu – handily located near the airport in Auckland – I fly straight onto Australia for 2 weeks mainly focused on red wines in and around Melbourne and Adelaide…!”

I’ll start answering your advance questions now - looking forward to chatting with you! :smiley:


The Kiwis are pretty innovative and a number of wineries run large numbers of trials each year testing new or changing vinification or viticultural techniques.
At the moment a lot of focus is on trying to make “naturally” lower in alcohol wines – this can be done in different ways – picking earlier to start with a must with less sugar and therefore less potential alcohol. Different yeast strains are also being trialed to find a “less efficient one” ie one that consumes more sugar but produces less alcohol.
For more info -

Many other viticultural techniques being tested across New Zealand at the moment are focused on reducing any chemicals in the vineyard and increasing biodiversity.
Opening up canopy’s to allow air in, can mitigate the need for a spary or two when dealing with mildew for example. Or planting nitrogen fixing cover crops – like beans – can reduce how much fertilizer is needed.

New Zealand are well ahead of the curve when it comes to a genuine movement towards sustainable production – in 2016 98% of New Zealand’s vineyard producing area was Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand certified – unmatched by any voluntary scheme around the world. This is a comprehensive scheme that covers practices in the vineyard, winery and community.
For more information see this link Sustainability | New Zealand Wine

In the winery many New Zealanders are going “back to basics” rather that chasing the latest technology. Whole bunch inclusion is on the up in many pinot producing regions, older and larger format oak is popular too. Premium chardonnays are now often crushed straight to barrel for fermentation, rather than being cold settled before steel vat temperature controlled ferment – this means that a cloudier juice is being used from the beginning – which many argue makes the finished wine more complex – but can also capture some of the naturally occurring sulphite compounds which can give these wines an aroma of struck match (not dissimilar to top burgundies) on opening (known as a “reductive note”). This reduction also acts as an antioxidant meaning that the wines can cellar more securly for longer.

Over and above Sauvignon and Pinot New Zealand has plantings of many different grape varieties.
Chardonnay is the important 3rd most planted variety, with some excellent wines being made across the regions. Felton Road in Central Otago have a great example, Wither Hill’s in Marlborough is a lower price point but offers a lot of bang for buck and of course the wines from Kumeu River really show the potential that New Zealand has to produce Wold Class Chardonnays.
Plantings of Pinot Gris are also significant, interestingly with it being very popular within New Zealand with relative low exports. It is often hailed as the ““next”” big thing to be on the horizon, and we really enjoyed a wine from Brent Marris this year - Three Terraces Pinot Gris - that has been a perfect wine for this wonderful summer! :smiley:

There are also more Italian, Spanish and Austrian varieties being planted. There are now 46ha of Gruner, over 100ha of viognier, 22ha of chenin blanc, 27ha of albarino and 8ha of sangiovese! Although in small quantities relative to the New Zealand wine industry, they have often been planted by dedicated winemakers who really believe that these varieties could be perfectly suited to their specific vineyard and sub region. They are then often then hand crafted and can be a great success, we try and pick up small parcels of a few of these sorts of wines each year, when they work, and will keep an eye on them incase they become more important to the wine scene in New Zealand.


I have to confess straight away that I am a soft handed buyer and could never hack the real graft of running a vineyard/winery – so I would be relying on a lot of help from my friends! :smile:

However if you put me in New Zealand in the current market I would be a fool not to have at least some sauvignon. It is a variety perfectly suited to the climate and grows wonderfully across the regions, I’d spend some time watching talented winemaker Helen Morrison to try and make my favourite style which would be simple, picked ripe and clean made in a mouth-watering, fruit forward style for maximum immediate pleasure. Perfect.

This quick turnaround would mean that once the sauvignon is sold I would have the cash and time to focus on the “fun” stuff, and for me that has to be a mixture of Chardonnay, Rieslings and Syrah. A hero of mine is Michael Brajkovich MW – so I would need to spend a good few years watching what he does to his New Zealand Chardonnays so that I could try my hardest to emulate his style.

With my small patch of riesling I would be asking advice of Andrew Hedley and Paul Pujol who broadly could be described as having a Germanic (Framingham) and Alsatian (Prophets Rock) style. I love both and would have to discover which style my specific grapes suited best and these would be the guys I turned to.

And on to Syrah – I have to say that ever since my blind tasting competition days at university, specifically, Hawke’s bay Syrah has always captivated me. From inexpensive perfumed, light yet intense easy drinking styles to some of New Zealand’s most complex savoury and spiced examples I love them all.

I also think that they are totally unique to New Zealand showing time and time again to be regionally recognisable with a genuine stamp of their own. I would love experimenting with oak, whole bunches, picking timings and extraction but would always have Warren Gibson on speed dial!

You may notice that I have not planted any pinot – that is not because I don’t love it, but comes from a realisation that I do not possess the patience one needs for this fickly, think skinned picky variety that we all love so much!

So finally where am I – I guess with my 4 main varieties I would logically fall into Hawkes Bay, which would be a treat! Beautiful Tolkienesque rolling hills, backed by mountains running into the sweeping bays, this region really is stunning. It also have the benefit of a quirky and highly cultural town – Napier, as at my heart even in my newly planted dream vineyard – you can’t take this girl out of the city! :smiley:


Short answer - Yes! (I do hope so) :+1:

OK – I love the wines, and as vine age increases and winemakers understand their parcels of grapes more deeply I am sure that the quality can continue to grow.
However the major stumbling block is that there isn’t actually a lot of Syrah planted! Less than 0.5% of the land under vine in New Zealand is Syrah – with only 2000 tonnes of grapes in 2016.

However really interestingly – when you look at exports relative to plantings – sauvignon over-exports – ie it makes up just over 70% of the planting in NZ but nearly 85% of all exports.

All other grape varieties have a higher % planted than exported, except for Syrah which is proportionally loved in the export market….

This to me is another reason why we have hope as longterm Syrah lovers – given the global demand plantings are increasing. It’s just about finding the right sites, and then being patient….

The wine club culture in California has a long history and is a mainstay feature of the industry.

It may also be in growth, as an isolationist foreign policy may lead to a relaxing of inter-state regulations on the sales of wine – which may allow wineries to access customers directly in many more states than they are currently allowed to via the three tier American trade system.

You are right therefore in pointing out the clear challenge it poses, especially for a small winemaker who can sell direct to consumers at a full retail price. Whereas I would require a much lower wholesale price so that once shipped, duty paid and delivered to members your price is not significantly higher than their domestic retail position.
Wine club members will also buy wines on trust to gain access to iconic wines each year. Wineries can trial new things without risk of being left with stock and often wine club members are very loyal taking their allocated wines year after year.

However, many wineries also see the advantage in exporting, it’s an easy way to spread their risk a little, and it can be seen as a proof of quality. If a winemaker is prepared to allow their wines to be sold in the UK, France or Japan for example they have to be open to critical assessment – good or bad, from world respected critics.

Many Californian wineries also accept a smaller margin ability on a proportion of stock to get a more global exposure. They actively want non-Americans to try and enjoy their wines putting them in a global context.

As the buyer for the US – these wine clubs can be tricky to navigate, but so far have not caused a complete barrier to buying on any wines I truly loved and thought offered great value.
And on the positive – they can provide establishing wineries with a critical early cash flow model that will allow them to grow and improve their own quality with time.


I’ll answer both @NickP’s questions here in the same post!

I have always thought of these three regions as producing pinots that have genuinely different characteristics.

I think of it as:

  • Spice and savoury perfume with very fine grained tannins from Martinborough
  • Pure red berry and cranberry fruit forward with bright acidity from Marlborough
  • Power, cherry and truffle, complex and cellar potential from Central Otago.

Wonderfully too, I really feel that all three regions are making some examples of Fine Wine Pinots that are equally high in quality terms – I don’t see one region as outperforming another.

Man O’ War Dreadnought Syrah 2013 – I am not famillar with this wine to really give a solid opinion but I’d have though it should be good for 10 years – so 2023.

Felton Road Block 3 Pinot Noir 2015 - now comfortably to 2025 (and longer if you enjoy the more savoury style that can develop with age)

Dry River Craighall Vineyard Riesling 2016 – now comfortably to 2024 (although if you enjoy mature Rieslings – Dry rivers can go on for decades…)



Sauvignon plantings are still increasing in New Zealand, however some major regions are now nearly fully planted. The valley floor and most logical hill sides in Marlborough for instance are more or less planted – although each time I visit vineyards are cropping up in once considered marginal site (and often doing well).

Marlborough sauvignon may also feel like to us an “old trend” now in the UK. However it is still in double digit growth year on year here, and is still one of the most popular by-the-glass choices in on restaurant lists, and is still seeing growth in the multiples.

At The Wine Society we are also still seeing sales of New Zealand Sauvignon growing, and a couple of years ago Sauvignon took over as The Society’s bestselling white varietal – beating chardonnay for the first time in a long time!

So from a UK perspective it doesn’t look like the bubble is about to burst anytime soon… (fingers crossed!)

However the other long term option for most New Zealand producers is that although New Zealand Sauvignon is a very strong category in the UK, they don’t actually produce that much of it. In fact the number of hectare planted of New Zealand Sauvignon is about equal to that of Portuguese Vinho Verde!

As new markets for wine open globally, the fruit forward approachable style of New Zealand Sauvignon and consistently high quality makes it very appealing. And so as it stands the global demand easily outstrips supply.

We are seeing that as the US market start to show interest in New Zealand Sauvignon, buying anything that is going spare – meaning that our long term relationships are vital in securing our own stocks and pricing.


Stranger things have happened!

Both Forrest and Hans Herzog produce one… I guess when I was also buying wines from Austria, I often felt that we should list more St Laurent from there first, and because of the niche nature of SL’s in New Zealand they can come at quite a high price tag…

But who knows in a few years, with a spike in plantings, it could be the next big thing!

Which one have you tried and enjoyed? :slight_smile:


This is becoming a bit of a swear word nowadays. :slight_smile:


Do you mean, when a wine is described as “dry” when perhaps what we really mean is “low in sugar”?

If so, yes it is ridiculously daft for us to call a clearly wet thing dry…!
However I guess it is because the opposite of sweet is often sour – and that not what we really mean when we try to describe a wines style…

Dry can also refer to a red wines tannins and the drying effect they can have on our palate…

All in all, when you think about it, it is a bit daft however using “dry” to mean low in sugar, has just become a helpful piece on language however faulty towers esq it seems - don’t get me started on the use of “corked” Fawlty Towers corked wine - YouTube


Isn’t it jammy that’s the problem…
I love fruit!


Ata Rangi Martinborough Pinot Noir any vintage, preferably 5 – 15 years old.
Kumeu River Mates Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 The Wine Society | Free UK Delivery

However – on the topic of shipping from the “furthest corner of the globe rather than just across the channel” it is often suggested that although it seems inverse it is often better for the environment with a lower carbon footprint. This is attributed to the large number of containers that you can get onto one ship versus a single container on a lorry coming by road from mainland Europe.

A study by the National Geographic stated that getting a bottle of wine from Sydney to New York by container ship was at a significantly lower carbon cost than getting a bottle to New York by truck and road from California. See link if you are interested.


Now there is some food for thought, have never thought about it this way. Thanks for the link!

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I am delighted that you enjoy a range of Pinots, we value long term relationships and love the wines we stock, but I know that I am spoilt for choice. Hopefully as sales increase I will be able to widen the current range, but we have listed pinots from Rippon and Neudorf in the past and I always see their new vintages. I am also in touch with the winemaker at Escarpment and love the wines, but am just watching to see what happens now that they have been bought by Torbreck and I am in touch with the guys at Aurum to see what we may be able to do when they are a little bigger.

Michael Seresin and his UK agents kept us up to date with all the changes that have been going on, and interestingly it shouldn’t affect our range too much at all…

It all sounded a little more dramatic in the news then in reality – as they have only sold the “home” vineyard site and winery building. Michael is retaining the brand, has a long term rental agreement on space in the winery and has full ownership of another vineyard – Raupo – which is where the majority of his pinots are from. So our supply of Exhibition Pinot will continue from the same vines and each year we will continue to look at the range including wines such as Leah, Rachel and Sun and Moon to decide vintage by vintage if we want to ship them.

However the changes do mean that there may be an opportunity to list some new wines from the new team once they get going with the grapes and winery they now own… watch this space…

As I have mentioned in a couple of answers to these questions – I am a huge New Zealand Syrah fan, so I am delighted that you are too. Each year we tend to work with, as a minimum Te Mata, Trinity Hills, Craggy Range and Mission Estate – due to list spaces and warehouse picking bays they are often on rotation – but I promise that they are all given time through the year.

Finally, I am delighted you love the wines from Kumeu River – I couldn’t agree more. :slight_smile:


I always wanted to try and have been chasing Judge Rock in Central otago for the opportunity. I have tried and enjoyed Austrian examples, which are more accessible to me.

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Waiheke often crops up, but as you may know, many of the producers are very small operations that focus on cellar door tourist activity generated by their proximity to Auckland. The one or two larger estates, I seem to find, often struggle to export at a price that offer real value when compared to other wines from New Zealand because they are used to selling at full retail prices on premise… However I have my eye on a few, and retry every year, so we may feature wines from this sub region soon.

Thanks for the tips in Waipara/Canterbury – I have tried wines from both, and I fall back on the “spoilt for choice” line – which really rings true with New Zealand, what I really need is for more members to buy more of our current premium NZ range (especially the reds) so that I can push the budget to buy more…!

Thanks for all your help.

Given the dominance of Marlborough – with over 2/3rds of New Zealand’s vines, really all other regions can be seen as discovery!

However I love some of the aromatic whites coming out of Nelson and hope to list more going forward, the pinots from Martinborough continue to get better and better, and now sub regions of Central Otago are really starting to show their unique characters – bannockburn vs Bendigo for example show totally different flavours (try Felton Road vs Prophets Rock)! :smiley:


Its a complicated issue, working out the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine but it is a hot topic! A lot of the study goes into the purchase of dry goods and where they are from,
foe example shipping barrels or where screw caps are made…!
Water use - in the vineyard but also in the winey is under huge scrutiny too…
It starts to get very detailed very quickly but there are some great winemakers who really care - and in the process of understanding it more, they are making reductions to become more truly sustainable!