The Battle of Bannockburn

The (other) battle of Bannockburn

 

To GI or not to GI? That is the Bannockburn question. John Saker heads south to investigate a thorny issue.

 

Blair Walter reached for his phone and showed me a photo he had stored there. It was a picture of a wine label, one with a background image of snow-capped mountains very like the ones that surrounded us at that moment in Bannockburn, Central Otago. The label read: ‘Lake Wanaka Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’.

It was a jarring combination of words. Here was a wine label which seemed to be trying to tell two different place of origin stories simultaneously. It was at best naïve; at worst irresponsible, stupid and just plain wrong.

“That gives you an idea of why we’re doing this,” said Walter, winemaker at Felton Road. “At the moment there’s nothing to prevent someone – anyone – coming out with something like ‘Bannockburn Hills’ as a brand name. Creating a Geographical Indication (GI) for Bannockburn will prevent that.”

The proposal by a collective of Bannockburn winegrowers to apply for GI status for their sub-region has tripped off tremors in our southernmost wine region. Central Otago, for so long held up as an example of a region whose ‘one for all, all for one’ ethos has been instrumental to its success, has found itself riven by an issue that is not just about places and names but about how a young, free wine country such as ours might best shape its future. That makes it a story of relevance to every wine region in the country.

 

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It all began with a map.  After consulting with other Bannockburn wineries, Felton Road proprietor Nigel Greening began work in 2012 creating a diagrammatic representation of the Bannockburn sub-region. When Greening and his family relocated to the UK, the task was taken over by Blair Walter and completed in 2016.

On the map, vineyards are identified by their names and coloured according to plantings (a burnt rose shade for pinot, yellow for chardonnay and so forth). A key along one side links the vineyards to their wineries. Precisely where the sub-region starts and ends was decided by a consensus of Bannockburn wineries. That process was smooth, with no objections being raised before, during or since, says Walter.

“No-one’s miffed at missing out, that I’ve heard. Mount Difficulty used to own a vineyard on the northern side of the Kawarau. They said that vineyard wouldn’t go into Bannockburn. We see the gorge and the river as a natural boundary. Another vineyard on that side that is quite close but not included is the former Georgetown vineyard near the entrance to the gorge. There have been no rumblings.”

It may have invoked an eye roll here or there, but the map in itself was not problematic. It was the media release that accompanied its dissemination in August 2016 that drew fire. The document stated that the wineries of Bannockburn had decided they would apply for a GI for their sub-region.

This was two months in advance of a bill being passed by the New Zealand Parliament that would pave the way for the country’s wine regions and sub-regions to register their names as GIs with the New Zealand Intellectual Property Office (IPONZ). Doing so would afford them a ‘heightened level of protection’, in the words of the New Zealand Winegrowers website.

Nick Mills, co-proprietor and winemaker at Rippon Vineyard in Wanaka, came out immediately against the Bannockburn initiative.

His protest is multi-layered. Firstly, he and others were not happy that Bannockburn was prepared to apply for the GI without consulting or even informing the Central Otago Winegrowers Association (COWA), which had already decided to apply for a GI for the whole region.

The Bannockburn GI idea itself he finds flawed and troubling. He says he is all for articulating and celebrating the special, unique characters of a place. But at the same time he is wary about saddling locations with human constructs such as boundaries. He feels that is something that should be approached with extreme caution, especially in this case.

“Before Bannockburn began doing its thing, we’d set our sights on having a GI for the whole region,” he says. “We all wanted that. Central Otago had a strong sense of place long before viticulture. It’s inland, it’s hemmed in on all sides. It doesn’t matter from which direction you arrive, you know you’ve come to Central, you know you’ve come to a different place.

“But are we ready for this? Sticking a legal boundary around a few of our vineyards? Mostly because of Burgundy, everybody thinks their patch of dirt needs to be recognised and ring-fenced. That’s the cultural reference we have and people feel instinctively it’s the way to go, that that’s what growing pinot noir is about.

“So let’s look at Burgundy for a moment. Its structural approach to terroir started with the religious orders – how relevant is that to us? Its appellation system was created in the 1930s at a time of upheaval and loss of national and cultural identity. They set about rebuilding that through pastoralism and regionalism. It was political, as was the creation of much of the 1936 classification. Why does Gevrey-Chambertin have more Grand Cru vineyards than any other village? Because they banged the table loudest.

“Today in Burgundy they have overlay upon overlay… villages, vineyards, parts of vineyards. There are things we can learn from that, but we should also be exploring our own notions of terroir, proud of what we have here, rather than just emulating them. Because they have lost things. They’ve lost the ability to be free and their sense of community.

“There’s no COWA in Burgundy – they’ve lost that. COWA was started in the early 1980s by a tiny group from Wanaka, Alexandra, Gibbston, Queenstown. They decided they would be a community and work together for a common cause. That has carried on and everyone knows that a lot of Central Otago’s success is because everyone has bought into that ideal. For me, that’s a GI. And that’s what we’re in danger of losing.”

Mills – whose Rippon vineyard reaches down almost to the shore of Lake Wanaka – is not fazed by the Lake Wanaka Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc label, nor does he think the name protection argument is a strong one.

“There will always be people doing that kind of thing. That’s a cheap bulk wine. It doesn’t concern me. Now, if he was making something called Lake Wanaka Marlborough Pinot Noir and selling it in London for $60 a bottle, then I would take action.

“If Bannockburn did get a GI, it could well attract someone like that into the sub-region. That person could start making shit wine and selling it for an inflated price because it had Bannockburn on the label. That to me is worse – poor work would be protected.

“I don’t see fraud as a big risk. The big risk is losing what we have now. From the very beginning my message to the Bannockburn guys has been – ‘have you thought this through?’”

 

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Mills is not a lone dissenting voice in all of this. Others in the region, influential players like Lucie Lawrence (Aurum Wines) and Rudi Bauer (Quartz Reef) have also voiced concerns about Bannockburn’s GI plans. For Bauer, an historical example to the north is worth remembering.

“Martinborough was the pioneering and leading pinot noir region in the country – they had everything going for them. But early on in the piece some of them created the Martinborough Terrace – an unspoken appellation – and you were in or you were out. It split them apart.

“Our history as a region has been based on our ability to work together, deciding what we needed to do together and then making it happen. It was about Central Otago being more important than the individual producer. We came to it with a global outlook – many of us have had a lot of experience overseas. We are what we are because of our history.”

However, that regional spirit and togetherness will not be threatened if Bannockburn does end up having its own GI, says James Dicey, co-proprietor of Bannockburn’s Ceres label.

“This is simply a geographical classification which provides protection for a place name. It’s a piece of paper in a cupboard. Exclusivity and division is not the intent. Yes, it can be seen as a risk, but we’ve all invested a lot of time and money in developing Central Otago – it will always come first, and Bannockburn second.

“Pinot noir is, and will always be, about creating a wine of place. As we’ve evolved, our wines have achieved greater precision along with their expression of place. So it’s no longer just Central Otago pinot noir, it’s Bannockburn and it’s this vineyard and maybe this block of this vineyard. As that becomes more important, so does the need for legal protection.

“I will add this: the winery that needs Central Otago and Bannockburn the least is Felton Road, which is leading this proposal. That’s an important point.”

Both Dicey and Walter are of the opinion that the protection and celebration of smaller areas such as sub-regions is inevitable. Says Walter: “Better to grapple with the issue now, because as a sub-region we’re ready. If we leave it longer, we’re leaving ourselves open to someone abusing our name.”

He does concede that EU labelling regulations do loom as a “potential issue”. These rules stipulate that only one GI can appear on the front label of a bottle of wine. For the EU market, Bannockburn producers may be forced to make a choice – do they fly the flag of their region or their sub-region?

Everyone I spoke to is of a mind that should Bannockburn become a GI, other Central Otago sub-regions will probably follow suit. Walter sees that as a positive thing – it would end ambiguity over what is currently a fuzzily delineated patchwork of entities. Mills is repelled by the idea – “the last thing I want to be doing is discussing with Queensberry whether or not they’re part of Wanaka.” Says Burgundy expert and frequent visitor to New Zealand Jasper Morris MW: “If lots more do it, how widely do you spread it? You could get up to eight or more and then you’re going way, way too far.”

 

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The issue is, for the time being, on hold. The Bannockburn wineries agreed that it was not something they should pursue alone and COWA is now involved. Associate Professor Christine Woods of the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Business and Economics has been commissioned to carry out a wide-ranging independent review of the state of the region, with the GI conundrum included as part of her brief. Her review will be completed in five months time.

Rudi Bauer is confident the right process is now in place.

“If a group went their own way, created a GI and the membership did nothing, then I think it would have haunted us. But now COWA is driving this. After the review is completed, there must be true consultation led by COWA, and everyone in the region must be fully aware of the pros and cons of the proposed GI. Then it’s up to the members of COWA to decide democratically if they’re in favour or not. And that will be a decision we will all accept and then move on.”

Adds James Dicey: ”This is a mature conversation held by a region growing up. We do not want to get to the Coonawarra or Napa stage where self-interest becomes too entrenched and this destroys collegiality. So it’s important to have this discussion now. Regardless of the disagreement we all recognise and value – above all else – the strength that collaboration provides us.”



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