Mark Cairns, Riverside Wines, Hawke’s Bay

Name: Mark Cairns

Mark Cairns was born in Auckland, New Zealand. He has 14 years wine industry experience having started with Villa Maria in 1994 as a cellarhand before moving to assistant winemaker at Vidal Estate. He is currently the winemaker for Riverside Wines in Hawke's Bay. Mark has worked vintages at Hugel et Fils and M. Chapoutier in France and has established his own vineyards over the past six years.

What inspired you to become a winemaker and how have you got to where you are now?
I was working for a French-based oilfield company in the late 1980s, early '90s in several countries including Europe and this sparked my interest in wine. I was looking for a change of career and wanting to come back to NZ for the lifestyle. I knew NZ had a good reputation for winemaking and thought that this might be an industry to pursue a career. I got a job at Villa Maria as a cellarhand, enjoyed the industry and have never looked back.

Who do you think is the most influential person in the New Zealand wine industry today - who inspires you most?
George Fistonich. He has done a lot for the profile of New Zealand wine overseas and is one of the industry's visionaries.

Which of your wines do you most enjoy making, and why?
I enjoy making Chardonnay as this is a variety over which the winemaker has some influence in adding layers of complexity and integrating them, but the old saying 'Great wine begins in the vineyard' still holds.

What is your favourite time of year in the winery, and why?
Vintage, when all the hard work in the vineyard and the winemaking come together to create great wines.

Tell us about your most memorable wine-tasting experience.
There have been several, but one that stands out was an evening at the home of Marc Hugel, tasting old vintages of Rieslings from his cellar. I had to try to guess the vintage which was not that easy as some of the wines had aged gracefully.

What do you like to do when you're not making wine?
Spending time with my family, travelling, fishing, diving and entertaining friends. Wine and food are an integral part of our lives. Angela my wife, and I, own a couple of small vineyards which take up some of our free time.

What keeps you awake at night?
The threat of late spring frosts on our vineyards.

How do you de-stress after vintage?
Spending time with my family and socialising with friends.

What styles or varieties do you see dominating wine production in New Zealand in the future?
Sauvignon Blanc does and will dominate for a long while yet, but there is some movement away from the pure fruit-driven styles to wines with more complexity. Pinot Noir dominates the red wine varieties. As for other varieties there are a couple that interest me such as Syrah and Viognier. We can grow these well in Hawke's Bay, but they are far from becoming dominant varieties.

Which export markets are of most interest to you for your wines, and what do you think is the key thing that will help you succeed in that market?
There is a huge rush to export into China; however, lack of distribution will initially inhibit the market. India may also suffer from poor distribution networks. We will continue to develop the US and Australian markets. The key to succeeding in these markets is to start with Sauvignon Blanc which NZ is known for. This will get a foothold in the market, then we can follow with good fruit-driven styles followed by more complex styles.

What do you think is New Zealand's biggest challenge and what is your solution to the problem.
Our biggest challenge is to overcome our dependence on Sauvignon Blanc and to find alternative varieties to take the world by storm.

The Ark question. The world is flooding... which two wines (white and red) would you take onto the Ark?
Two would not be enough but an Alsace Riesling and a 2001 Chapoutier Ermitage l'Ermite would be my choices.

This article was first published in the July issue of the Grapegrower & Winemaker. To take out a subscription to the Grapegrower & Winemaker, telephone +618 8292 0888 or visit

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