I have a lot of admiration for what Michael Cooper has achieved in his writing about the New Zealand wine industry. Since 1991 when he embarked on writing professionally, he’s published around 40 books, the best being the ‘Wine Atlas of New Zealand’ which serves as the essential reference. His other most notable publication is his ‘Buyer’s Guide to New Zealand Wines’, released annually. The edition for 2016 has recently appeared on the bookshelves and it is Michael’s 24th book in the series.
The heart of the book is the collection of Michael’s tasting notes for nearly 3,000 wines. The notes are arranged into White Wines, Sweet Wines, Sparkling Wines, Rosé Wines and Red Wines, the ‘White’ and ‘Red’ wine sections broken down into variety or style. The varieties are listed alphabetically, with the producers’ names then listed alphabetically also, so searching for a wine is very easy.
Michael’s tasting notes for the wines do vary in usefulness, however. Important and noteworthy wines with a track record have the most written about them, with history, style and what they taste like being noted. All of the wines are rated to a 5-star system, but the author ‘adjusts’ this with ratings of current vintages, these ratings possibly different to the overall star rating. Cooper also notes whether the wine fits into one of his special categories, such as a ‘Super Classic’, ‘Classic’, or ‘Potential Classic’. He also gives an indication of how dry or sweet a wine is and his estimation of its value. This is all good information for the reader, buyer and consumer.
The usefulness of the ‘Buyers Guide’ goes well beyond the tasting notes, with vintage charts, a report of the latest 2015 vintage across all of the country’s growing regions, and advice on cellaring. Michael is not afraid of voicing his opinions too, and his classification system of the best wines into the aforementioned ‘Super Classics’, ‘Classics’ and ‘Potential Classics’ holds considerable credence among consumers and producers. Also important are his annual awards of ‘Best Buys of the Year’, this year, the Starborough ‘Family Estate’ Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2015 and Church Road ‘McDonald Series’ Hawke’s Bay Merlot 2013 taking the honours for white and red respectively. Michael’s been around long enough to make critical judgements such as these, as well as making his call on the star ratings for each of the near 3,000 wines.
The Role of the Critic
I’m in the same place as Michael Cooper as a one-man wine critic – as is Bob Campbell MW, Sam Kim, and any of the other wine reviewers and writers. Most consumers and producers know that we one-man bands have our idiosyncrasies, foibles and preferences. Generally, all of the critics are on the same page, but occasionally one stands out from the rest, whether positively or negatively. I must say that I agree with much of Michael’s ratings and assessments but I find that I’m just a little more generous in my scores. This is because Michael has the consumers’ view foremost, and I’m looking at how well the producer has achieved their aims. The most interesting comparison is the single-critics’ score with those of wine shows, which are essentially the result of a consensus of three-man panels. Again, the agreement is remarkably good, but the panel rating plays it safe, and panels don’t seem to reward or identify some of the more characterful and individual wines. The reader should be aware of these two approaches, and take each with a ‘grain of salt’, and put their trust in their own preferences and palates.
The Future for the Buyer’s Guide
Last year, I voiced my concerns about the annual publication of this buyer’s guide, based on the explosion of on-line accessibility to information. The best on-line writers are up-to-date with their work, whereas a book is out-of-date as soon as it is published. Indeed, this 2016 Buyer’s Guide to New Zealand Wines lists wines that are no longer current. Michael has his own pay-to-access website www.michaelcooper.co.nz which has practically all of, if not more than what’s in the book. This is easier to maintain and keep up-to-date. But his website is one of a number that readers, buyers and consumers can go to for information and assessments. And as noted above, they all have an opinion that is valid.
I suppose it’s great to be able to add another book to the wine library, and this volume is still of a size that can be carried into wine shops, and possibly restaurants, but the tablet or mobile phone is much less intrusive. Again, I pose the question, how much longer is Michael Cooper’s Buyer’s Guide to New Zealand Wines’ viable in hard copy?
New Zealand Wines 2016 – Michael Cooper’s Buyer’s Guide, By Michael Cooper
Upstart Press, Auckland, 2016, ISBN 978-1-927262-41-2