A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See NZ beyond Sauvignon and Pinot for my tasting notes.
While I tasted a biodynamic Viognier from Gisborne on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island, reggae was thudding across the yard. Spicy jerk chicken smells wafted in to the old shipping container that is now the focus of New Zealand's export drive in its most important market by volume, the UK.
The New Zealand Cellar wine bar and wine shop is no cellar. It is very much above ground, in Pop Brixton, a colourful site almost under the local railway line. It has been transformed into a space for 50 small enterprises including a free tutoring service, a community garden, a theatre studio, a radio station, a record shop, and providers of food with accents that include Venezuelan, Japanese, Caribbean and Mexican. Three years ago the local council invited suggestions for what to do with what was then a derelict brownfield site. Carl Turner Architects won with a proposal that has creatively made much of used shipping containers and foraged recycled materials.
Kiwi Melanie Brown, who was already advising NZ chef Peter Gordon on the wine list at his London restaurant Providores and had an online retail operation, decided she wanted to open a bricks and mortar operation. Or rather, in this case, an upcycled wood and metal operation. In May 2015 she set up a crowdfunding initiative to pay for it and reached her target of £42,000 within five days. Today in the somewhat cramped ex container, round a corner from the re-used orange boxes that serve as her retail shelves, is a tall, rather beautifully engraved slate listing all those who promised her more than £250. The first group lists New Zealand wineries, the second British companies, including quite a few wine importers, and then comes a list of benevolent individuals.
Things are going so well that she has just extended her lease to October 2020 and it's all pretty convenient since she lives with her family nearby. But what seems rather an anomaly is that her wines are surely relatively expensive for the locale. When I was there a young woman came in asking for a bottle of Chardonnay, adding a little plaintively, 'but I know I'll have to spend about £30 here'. Brown helpfully and somewhat triumphantly steered her towards a Neudorf, Rosie's Block Chardonnay at £28. The young woman was thrilled. 'And my name's Rose!'
She was far from the only visitor during the hour or two I spent there on a boiling hot weekday afternoon recently. Brown had invited me to taste some of her selections and had to work hard alternating bottles in buckets full of ice and water to keep them all, even the reds, cool enough. Others included a young couple looking for a bottle they'd encountered in New Zealand, and the man in charge of promoting New Zealand wine generically in the UK.
His offices are in New Zealand House, the 15-storey office block just south of Piccadilly Circus – very quiet, very sixties and very formal. Chris Stroud clearly relishes his trips to Brixton and told me delightedly that this new outpost, and Brown's notable presence on social media, had resulted in many more Kiwi winemakers coming to London to do events and tastings than was the case before. As a wine writer, I can tell you that, however spectacular the views from the top of New Zealand House where generic tastings have always been held, and however spacious the room, the shipping container has it beat for atmoshere and energy.
Brown is a charismatic, driven character (she's now planning a similar online operation for Australian wine). A recent tweet with arresting black and white portrait of her in front of her bottles and sheepskin-draped bench reads: 'We don't ask for much, because it's not about us, we act as a conduit to bring #nzwine wine to life, offering experiences & to evoke tastebuds. Next time you buy a bottle of mass produced own label supermarket wine, ask yourself; who am I supporting? Because it certainly isn't us.'
One potential problem was solved from the start by the entire Pop Brixton space having an alcohol licence for on and off sales. Brown's model is to add a relatively low mark-up on wine served on the premises in glasses. She provides plastic glasses to those who want to roam around the food trucks or sit at the communal tables. The New Zealand Cellar is open all evening but rarely in the morning. But anyway, she said a little wearily as though answering my question for the nth time, 'the local community has proved much more diverse than we initially thought. The upmarket suburb of Dulwich is just up the road. We appeal to the better-heeled millennials and up.'
She is cunning too. As a lure to get me to stir my north-of-the-river stumps, she suggested I come and taste a hand-picked range of NZ wines made from grapes other than the country's dominant Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. It's true that, however popular these two wine styles are, they are hardly newsworthy. In fact I find it rather shocking that the NZ wine industry depends so heavily on these two varieties, grown on 60 and 15% respectively of all of the country's vineyard. (And Sauvignon Blanc is so productive that it represents far more than 60% of Kiwi wine output.)
Mostly when I taste through a retailer's range, I find highs and lows but the 24 wines she presented me with were of uniformly high quality. Admittedly prices were far from bargain basement, and there were no producers that were completely new to me (which was a shame), but the quality of some these more obscure New Zealand varietals was a revelation – especially the Zweigelt.
Prices ranged from £14.90 for a convincing 2017 Albariño, the classic grape of the Galician coast, from Te Awa in Marlborough and also for a zippy 2016 Pinot Gris from North Island Chardonnay specialists Kumeu River to £43 for Giesen's fully mature 2012 Syrah from the organic, densely planted Clayvin vineyard on a Marlborough hillside. The single standout wine was a Chardonnay (New Zealand's strongest suit in my view), the 2016 from the Home Vineyard of Black Estate in North Canterbury, another product of particularly mature vines. Yours for £33 from the New Zealand Cellar.
All of these wines reminded me of the extent to which New Zealand's North and South Islands are currently being buffeted by what now seem to be called 'weather events'. Last year they suffered not just one but three cyclones, shrinking the 2017 vintage considerably, and this year temperatures soared to a previously unknown 40 ºC.
New Zealand's winemakers will have to continue to adapt if they are to keep the export markets that are so vital to their survival.
Kumeu River Pinot Gris 2016 Auckland £14.90
Millton, Riverpoint Viognier 2015 Gisborne £19.80
Bellbird Spring, Home Block White aromatic blend 2015 North Canterbury £28
Greywacke Riesling 2015 Marlborough £24
Dog Point Chardonnay 2014 Marlborough £24.30
Trinity Hill Marsanne/Viognier 2016 Hawkes Bay £24.80
Seresin Estate, Reserve Chardonnay 2015 Marlborough £27
Ata Rangi Pinot Gris 2016 Wairarapa £27.60
Black Estate, Home Chardonnay 2016 North Canterbury £33
Burn Cottage Riesling/Grüner Veltliner 2015 Central Otago £49
Churton Petit Manseng sweet 2015 Marlborough £44 for 50 cl
Seifried Zweigelt 2014 Nelson £16.80
Craggy Range, Single Vineyard Syrah 2016 Hawkes Bay £24
Giesen, Clayvin Syrah 2012 Marlborough £43