From the Old to the New

Karl Wells
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An interview with New Zealand’s French winemaker Georges Michel

I tasted a couple of new wines recently. The first was a sauvignon blanc. It gave the most powerful scent of grapefruit I’ve ever experienced in sauvignon blanc.

New Zealand wine maker Georges Michel. — Photo Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram

The citrusy aroma was most pleasant. This wine made a good impression on my palate, as well. It was crisp and tasted of grapefruit, lime and even red pepper. After tasting it, my first thought was that it would pair beautifully with broiled lobster.

Then I tasted the pinot noir. I found this wine smelled of raspberry and cherry. It had a subtle taste of plum and was less in-your-face fruity than other pinot noir wines I’ve tasted. I imagined it would make a great partner for a meal of pan-roasted duck breast.

Both of these wines came from the Marlborough region of New Zealand. They were made by the Georges Michel Wine Estate, and Georges Michel himself was sitting beside me when I tasted them. Michel appeared to be especially proud of his pinot noir. It’s made in the style of French Burgundy (pinot noir) which is considered by some to be more elegant than New World pinot noir.

Michel is from France, and for many years he made wine in Burgundy. In the late ’90s he discovered New Zealand and soon after moved his business to that country’s Marlborough region. Here’s my interview with the very personable Georges Michel.

Why did you move to New Zealand?

GM: Actually it was in 1996 that I discovered New Zealand was probably among the best places in the world to make wine. And I was especially impressed by the quality of the white wines. The system in France was becoming more and more complicated for small producers.

What was complicated about the French system?

GM: I was in the Beaujolais-Burgundy region and Beaujolais is a region where you struggle every year to get a nice crop.

Then you have people from outside the wine industry telling you what to do, like when to harvest your grapes.

They’ll say, “OK, you are going to harvest this year on the 18th of September (whatever the ripeness of your grapes is) because the whole region is ready.” But you could have a lot of differences between the blocks of vineyards. There may be a microclimate where you are. It’s very frustrating.

Another example is that they control the yields. Every year, somebody says, “Well, this year it will be 53 hectolitres per hectare and that’s all.” So, if you have more grapes, you have to drop them on the ground. When you’ve been growing grapes for one year and you have people telling you that you have to throw them on the ground, it takes you to your limits.

When did you produce your first wine in New Zealand?

GM: We moved to New Zealand in 1997. We made the first wine in 1998 from a vineyard that was existing. I rebuilt the winery. It’s all brand new, new barrels, etc. I blended more grapes; we diversified varieties. We started with sauvignon and pinot noir but now we have viognier and syrah as well.

We make 13 different wines and the good thing is that my daughter, Swan, followed in my footsteps. In 2005 she decided that because she already had a chemistry degree, and one in biology, that she would do the winemaking courses. So she did that.

She got involved with the winery, and my old winemaker from Burgundy taught her some tricks of the trade. She was also lucky enough, because I have a lot of friends in France, to spend some time in places like Château Le Grand Verdus in Bordeaux, and she went to Henri Bourgeois in Sancerre to do the vintages. I was very pleased that she was lucky enough to spend a vintage at Domaine des Lambrays, which is one of the icons in Burgundy. That was a great experience for a young winemaker like Swan.

It’s probably because of the experience she had in France that our wine, and especially the pinot noir and the chardonnay, are very much French Burgundian rather than typical New World wines.

What first impressed you about New Zealand wines?

GM: I found some flavours that I’d never tasted in a sauvignon blanc, for example. But it’s all about the microclimate we have in Marlborough. I think in Marlborough we have the best combination you could find to develop fruity, aromatic wines. Sauvignon blanc loves this kind of combination, like hot days and cool nights. We have a very particular autumn and ripening season because the sugar goes up, the acidity down, and you have a balance during six weeks. This is the best combination you could have. That’s probably why the New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and especially the Marlborough sauvignon blanc, is so special. It’s winning all the awards at the moment.

There’s been a huge improvement in the last 15 years in the reds. You have some cabernet blends or syrah which are always closer to the European style than the Australians will make. That’s probably because of the climate. The climate that we have in New Zealand is much cooler. We have long and steady ripening periods. So, yes, I was very impressed by that country and the winemakers who focus on quality and not mass production. That was very new for me.

What is the biggest winemaking challenge that you face in New Zealand?

GM: To focus on quality without compromising. You have to struggle against the biggest producers. And you have to show your wine differently. You have to tell people, “I know you like that wine; it’s cheap, but I can’t do the same.” If you like my wines they will be more expensive because we don’t have the economy of scale. It’s the same in any industry. I have a press that works only four weeks a year and it only crushes 250 tonnes. I don’t crush 20,000 tonnes. So all that works in a way that, at the end, a boutique winery like us will probably make great wine, but they will always be a bit more expensive than the rest.

At the same time, I think there is a clientele for any type of wine and there are always people prepared to pay a bit more for higher quality.

• • •

For regular updates on “One Chef One Critic,” my Telegram Dining Out column and the latest developments on the local culinary scene, please follow me on Twitter @karl_wells.

Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. He is also a restaurant panellist with enRoute Magazine. Contact him through his website, www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: Canadian Culinary Federation, Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: New Zealand, Marlborough, France Burgundy Château Le Grand Verdus Bordeaux Sancerre

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