Conversation with Winetopia founder Rob Eliott

We spoke to Winetopia founder Rob Eliott about the success of the wine event and what guests can experience and expect when attending the biggest celebration of wine event in New Zealand.

How and when was Winetopia founded?

Winetopia presented by Singapore Airlines was launched in 2016.

My company Lemongrass Productions was already working on events like Auckland’s Restaurant Month, Street Eats and the Taste of Auckland Festival but we decided that the blossoming NZ wine scene was worthy of a big event in the city each year. Somewhere you could go to get to grips with all the best of NZ wine in one afternoon. Thankfully, enough NZ wineries shared our vision!

Would people who don’t know that much about wine enjoy the event and come out with a greater knowledge of the wine they’re tasting?

Absolutely! The event is not stuffy at all – it’s a welcoming atmosphere with lots of smiling faces from the event team to all the winery staff.

We have heaps of talks and tastings set up at the main stage so you can just rock up with the Spiegelau glass you are given on entry and enjoy an introduction to a new wine style while someone pours you a taster. No prior knowledge necessary!

Is it all New Zealand wines at Winetopia?

Mostly. There are around 700 wineries in Aotearoa now and so there is a lot to discover from Northland to Otago and everywhere in between.

How do wine lovers get to ‘tour’ each region of the country at Winetopia?

We lay the event out by region, so you can experience all the Northland wineries, for example, then move to Auckland before heading down to meet the wine makers from Hawkes Bay, etc.

This we think makes the event more fun, but also gives you a chance to understand what the different regions specialise in and see how a Syrah from Waiheke might differ from one from Gisborne.

Does Winetopia keep up to date with wine trends? If so, what are the trends for 2022?

If there is a trend happing in wine, then you’ll find it at Winetopia! With over 50 wineries per event, there is always a new style launching, and that is the fun thing about the NZ wine scene – it is still quite young and so there is loads of experimentation with new varietals and wine making styles.

There is an ever-increasing amount of organic, biodynamic and natural wine being made and so whereas a few years back organic wine might have only come from specialist producers, at this year’s events you’ll find a lot of the wineries now have at least some organics in their range.

 I think this just mirrors the food movement – we are all keen to understand what is going into our food and drink now. Plus, we care about the state of the environment, so knowing there is less reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides is a good thing.

Telling the story behind the wine is something that wine people have always been great at, but wine companies are now getting better at amplifying. I believe story telling improves the wine experience and this is a fast emerging trend.

Is there a best time of the year to buy and enjoy wine?

Yes, if it is good, then buy it now. Enjoy it soon, with someone important to you. Sharing a glass of wine with someone dear to you is one of life’s simple, great moments.

How has the pandemic affected the harvesting of wine-grapes and creating delicious wine?

The first big curve ball was the lockdown in early 2020, which happened right on harvest and took the industry by surprise.

Harvest is a herculean effort of late nights and constant weather monitoring even without a pandemic.

It happened to be a bumper vintage and so winery teams around the country went into overdrive designing new team bubbles, finding temporary accommodation to keep people onsite, roping in every pair of hands that didn’t need to cross a regional boundary to help take the grapes from the vines before they spoiled.

The silver lining was that the fruit across the country was so good the hard work was worth it!

The pandemic has thrown other curve balls; many of the fine wine makers have suffered from restaurants being closed around the world, meaning that people relied on large volume supermarket varieties.

Many wineries were well supported by their local customer base which is a positive!

What are the most common types of wines? And which one is the most popular among Kiwis?

NZ’s export success story is Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, and we export more of this than all the other wine styles combined.

That unmistakable freshness took the world by storm. But what we see from the Winetopia events in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch is that our local palates are much more varied.

Pinot Noir is really popular, Albarino is popping up more and more, the big hitters – Cabernet/Merlot/Syrah blends and the bold chardonnays are very much considered “wines to try”.

NZ also has a small number of very good sparkling wine makers, our Methode Traditionelle is truly exceptional and we see a big demand for these at our events too.

How do wines get their different aromas and flavours?

Alchemy! This is the beauty of wine as so much of it is down to nature and how the Viticulturalist interplays with nature.

First, we start with the selection of the grape variety, then select the appreciate genetics. Soil structure, amount of sunshine, amount of water, types of fertiliser and important in the Biodynamic model – what other animals and organisms are involved on the farm? All of this will determine flavour before the fruit is even picked.

Following harvest, the grapes are passed to the Wine Maker who will then determine how the wine is pressed to extract the juice, will skins be left on or skins off? Poured into barrels, vats or ambrosia?

There are bewildering options available to the wine maker, some specific to the type of wine they are aiming to make, some of them simply down to how long they think the wine needs to ferment and age before being bottled.

Of course, even in a screw cap your wine will continue to develop in flavour over time and so how long you keep it for is one way you can influence the aroma and flavour, too.

Are there any cliques you’d like for people to banish about wine?

That it’s for snobs. I fell in love with wine fairly early, but I think often people even into their 20’s these days are reaching for an RTD without enjoying the subtle differences one wine will have over another.

Do you have any tips to share for anyone who is going wine tasting?

  1. There’s no bad question and no bad palate – you’re there to have a good time and to try something new, so make the most of it and find something you really like by trying them all.

  2. Leave any preconceptions at the door and keep an open mind. Had a bad Chardonnay once that put you off trying it again? Guess what, there are a million different Chardonnays, and they all taste different. You’re bound to like some of them.

  3. Try it with food. Some great wines make most sense when you put something with them – even if you aren’t a fan of it on its own. Ketchup works the same way. Think, what could I put with this that would balance it out or make it pop?

What usually happens at Winetopia?

People come through the doors, get given a glass and some tokens, then are greeted by over 100 smiling faces ready to pour them some of the most delicious wines ever made.

They get to try different food, drop into a talk or special tasting, attend a masterclass or “share a glass” with a local celebrity.

All this before the band kicks off to ensure everyone leaves on a high note. It’s just a great day out for anyone with an interest in wine.

Oh yeah, then someone will win a pair of flights to Singapore flying… Singapore Airlines!

To find more information about Winetopia and book your tickets, visit here.

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