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Michael Cooper’s latest book, New Zealand Wines 2017: Michael Cooper’s Buyer’s Guide, will be the 25th edition – with no other annual (with the exception of a cricket almanac and rugby annual) coming close to the quarter century mark.
The soft cover book that first made its presence felt in 1992, has become somewhat of a bible for wine lovers here at home and more recently via his website, overseas. However, it was almost an accidental birth, Cooper says.
In 1990 he released a book called Michael Cooper’s Pocket Guide to New Zealand Wines and Vintages. It was in fact a book based on the wineries throughout the country.
“But at the back, making up about 20 percent of the book,” Cooper says, “I added a list of all the significant wines made in New Zealand and simply star rated them. There were no descriptors, just a star rating for each wine. What I couldn’t believe was the response to it.
People were mesmerized by the stars and what the publisher noted, and we noted in the reviews, was that everybody was referring to these star ratings. We had just seen it as an adjunct, as an exciting addition.”
It got both Cooper and the publishers thinking about how they could capitalize on that. The end result was he decided to write a book that abandoned the traditional style where wineries were highlighted [although winery profiles were still a feature of his big, hard cover books, five editions of The Wines and Vineyards of New Zealand, followed by Wine Atlas of New Zealand, currently in its second edition], and instead concentrate on the wines those wineries were producing. In November 1992, just in time for Christmas, New Zealand Wines: Michael Cooper’s Buyer’s Guide was born. The first edition sold over 10,000 copies, reaching number two on the national bestseller list.
Cooper had a clear philosophy when he began, to “unabashedly focus on which wine (a buyer) should buy and which they should avoid buying.”
He went a step further as well, by rating the wines not only for quality, but also for value. “There is no shortage of good wine, so therefore the art of wine buying is to find good wine that over delivers in terms of its price.”
The book has become larger as the years have flown, and that is a telling reflection of the growth of the wine industry over the ensuing years. Back in 1992, there were 800 wines listed. Compare that with the just under 3,000 wines in the 2017 edition.
It is not only the exponential growth of the wine industry that shows in the 25 years of Cooper’s annual. Varieties too have changed over the years.
In 1992, the section covering Muller Thurgau was five times more than the section covering Pinot Gris. In fact only six Pinot Gris were rated in 1992. In the 2017 edition there are more than 300. The same goes for Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1992 the space devoted to rating this variety was three times greater than that focusing on Pinot Noir. The latest book requires 110 pages to cover the Pinots in New Zealand. In 1992, the variety was summed up in just 14 pages.
Surprisingly though, Cooper admits the number of Sauvignon Blanc ratings haven’t grown to the extent that many would expect. In 1992 there were 100 Sauvignons listed. In 2017 there are close to 400. Interesting when you consider how Sauvignon Blanc volume has grown exponentially since 1992. But Cooper has a theory on that.
“What happens is all these companies around New Zealand want a Sauvignon, but they only want one. They need it as part of their portfolio, if they want to go off shore. If they want to sell their Waiheke reds or Martinborough Pinot Noirs, their distributor wants them to have a Sauvignon. But they only need the one. Whereas everyone who is into Pinot Noir is making about six. So you get people in Otago who start with a $40 Pinot and quickly realise that there are not all that many people who can afford a $40 Pinot. So a couple of years later they have a $30 Pinot Noir and now they probably have a $23 Pinot as well. Then they start doing single vineyard Pinots. So there is this bewildering array of these wines. So although Sauvignon Blanc dominates in volume terms, the number of labels isn’t actually that daunting.”
He also points out that some of the bigger wine companies are producing in excess of a million cases of Sauvignon Blanc – but just the one label.
As for the future, he isn’t expecting the recent surge in growth to continue.
“What I noticed in writing this year’s Buyer’s Guide, is the number of wineries that are getting snapped up. Like Lake Chalice being bought by Saint Clair. Now Pask is on the market, Carrick was sold earlier this year. It seems to me that we are now living through an era of consolidation.”
After 25 years of producing the Buyer’s Guide, does Cooper look back and view any vintage as better than any other? And what about disappointing vintages? In terms of the greatest – he says it would have to be 2013 and 2014 for different reasons.
“Going back and tasting those Hawke’s Bay reds from 2013 now, a lot of them are still way too young. I actually get more pleasure from the 2014s, which was a warmer year. To me the Hawke’s Bay reds from 2014 have a generosity, a ripeness and a roundness and an x-factor in terms of being delicious, that the 2013s will have in time but you have to wait. And although the 2014s are a year younger, currently they are better drinking.
“But the 2013 white wines from around the country were very vibrant, had a lovely balance of ripeness and acidity.”
As for the most forgettable – well we don’t have to look back too far, as he straight off says it was 2012.
“A lot of the wines are mean. And a lot of the top wines weren’t actually made, the winemakers were quite open about that aspect, that they didn’t get that top end quality. For example Te Mata didn’t make Coleraine.”
It wasn’t just the Hawke’s Bay reds he described as “looking green with more leafy characteristics,” it was also the South Island Pinot Noirs.
“It was an unusually cool year where some of the grapes failed to ripen fully. By and large I would rate 2012 as one of the disappointing years.”
The 25th edition of New Zealand Wines 2017: Michael Cooper’s Buyer’s Guide went on sale in November. Cooper is already working on material for next year’s release.