Saturday, August 7, 2010

So I headed over the mountains and on to the West Coast. I stopped along the way at a natural sight I’d been told of by Nick Mills, a particularly clear stream that was quite beautiful, and a short hike that I could fit into my schedule. Nonetheless I was quite worried that I’d be cutting things too close, so I literally ran to the stream. It was quite pretty, and under almost any other conditions I would have climbed down to the river to jump in, as is my tendency whenever I see water. But with my hurry, I merely ran back to the car and continued down the road. I had to take the trip slow, as there were patches of ice and bad conditions requiring caution. By sunset I was near Fox Glacier, and caught the sunset at a beautiful beach spot. Visitors had posted up driftwood into impromptu sculptures, for 100s of meters along the beach line. I admired the pieces, and the sunset, and at the end found an area where lovers had left mementos of their love, for each other, and for a lover not there. “Billy and Jonny Heart 4ever” and so on. I left a simple symbol of love, on a small piece of sandstone, hidden between several larger rocks. By now it must be gone.

I finished the drive to Fox Glacier township and holed up in a hostel with a sauna, where I worked off the stress of my rough schedule of wine tasting and touring. What a tough life I lived during this trip!

The next day I slipped in a couple of hikes, one around the lake in town, which was meant to have amazing views of the glaciers and of Mt. Cook. It was no lie, and the lake and it’s surrounding flora and fauna were gorgeous. I then hurried on to Franz Joseph Glacier and a quick hike. The day finished with a long drive all the way to Upper Moutere, where I arrived at the home of John and Ness Kavanaugh. They and their two children made me incredibly welcome, and I felt like an honored guest. Their kids were awesome and full of energy, even if a decent amount of that energy was directed at the computer video game they were obsessed with at the moment. We shared dinner and wine and planned the morrow.

I started out the day by visiting John at Neudorf, where I hung out with John and his team, and received a nice tour of their small but excellent facility. It’s a smaller place, allowing for better focus on small lots and quality. They seemed like a good group that knew how to make good wine and be happy doing it. John and I talked at length about Pinot, its many clones and expressions of terroir and variation due to barrels and processing and so on. It should suffice to say that John clearly knows his stuff, utilizing his knowledge of each vineyard lot combined with understanding of how to best express that vineyard’s terroir, and adjust and refine it as necessary using the tools at hand.

I next went over to Woolaston where John’s wife Ness was running the tasting room. I tasted through their wines with her (excellent Sauvignon blanc) before heading over to their awesomely equipped cellar. They are well set up for expansion as need be, and were using some of their tank space to store some Feijoa fruit wine for a local fruit winery. It was delicious in its way, blowing you away with sweet feijoa. Down in the wine cellar, the enologist Esther Frei tasted me through a number of tanks and barrels. It was during the tour that we realized that my friend Doug Webber had worked with them the previous harvest! They showed me his favorite spots, his shack in the fields, and sent along their love for him.

I then down the road to Rimu Grove, where I paid a casual visit with Barbara, the wife of the winemaker Patrick Stowe, who was unfortunately away when I visited. Their cellar is the tiniest I had seen so far, being essentially some tanks and barrels in a garage. They usually have a sign up saying “help yourself,” and while she was distracted by another visitor, Barbara told me to continue tasting at will. They specialized in Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, and I was impressed that they could maintain such quality across so many small lots, in such a small setting. Sometimes such small facilities lose the production cleanliness of larger wineries, but they clearly knew what they were doing, and were making fantastic wines.

That night I went out with John and Ness to the local pub for some local brews and live music. It was an excellent evening spent with wonderful people, the perfect ending to an amazing trip! The next day I would travel down to the ferry to return to the north island, and eventually Hawke’s Bay and beyond, home to California. The trip had been epic, an unmatchable journey through the finest of New Zealand wine and countryside, and I was immensely grateful for my experiences.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Central Otago

So after my weekend of fun and games hanging out with my friend Cris in Christchurch, I drove the boring seven hour drive to Central Otago. It would have been a beautiful 4 hour drive, but the weather was so bad that the Linden Pass through the mountains (including Mt. Cook, the highest mountain in the nation) was closed. So I had to go around. Such is life. To be fair, even the "boring" route would have been beautiful by any standards but New Zealand South Island standards. Snow lined the road on all sides and fog obscured the distance in the dusk as I neared my destination.
Eventually I made it there, and stayed the night in an apartment at Felton Road Vineyard. It was a nice apartment, all set up for me and stocked with cooking supplies. I found out later that the kitchen is so well stocked because the owner is an enthusiastic cook, making lunches for the crew most days. I used the spice rack on a pasta the next night, which was amazing, if I do say so myself.

Anyways, the next day I started out by visiting Quartz Reef, a tiny but excellent winery in Cromwell, Central Otago. Central Otago is known for being a prime Pinot Noir area of New Zealand, and being a bit of a Pinot-phile myself, I was quite excited to visit a winery making some of the best Pinot in the region. The winemaker there, Rudi Bauer, has been recognized for his winemaking talent quite a bit of late. He makes some excellent age-worthy, complex Pinot, as well as Pinot Gris and sparkling wine. He's been a seminal figure in the history of Central Otago winemaking, particularly in relation to Pinot Noir. Unfortunately, he was quite busy when I visited, but his assistant winemaker Sam Jary gave me an excellent tour and tasting of their winery. Sam is both the assistant winemaker and biodynamics man, so I quizzed him a bit about biodynamics before moving on to the winemaking stuff.

The pinot in barrel was all excellent, showing a lot of weight and depth. As with seemingly every New Zealand Pinot Noir winemaker, they will leave the wine on skins post-fermentation for as long as it takes for the tannins to soften and taste right. This is in addition to a pre-fermentation maceration and a natural yeast fermentation, such that in the end, there is a lot of skin contact, resulting in very full tannins. Some whole bunch fermentation is also used, adding complexity and further tannins. The Pinot Gris is made in a quite crisp dry style, with good acid and viscosity adding palate rather than residual sugar, as many winemakers will do with Pinot Gris.

They also had a setup for doing sparkling wine in-house, quite unusual for such a small winery. Usually wineries will just make the base wine on-site, and send it off to a larger sparkling house that will process it the rest of the way. But Quartz Reef does it all on site, using traditional methods aka Methode Traditionnelle. They are aged on lees, bottle fermented, riddled and disgorged at the winery. Their sparkling is roughly 3/4 Pinot Noir, the rest Chardonnay, a higher proportion Pinot than is commonly seen.

My next stop was at Olssens, where the winemaker Jen Parr showed me around. Jen worked with Douglas Wisor during the early years at Craggy Range, twice as a harvest worker. Jen is also from the United States.

We tasted through some tanks of Pinot Gris and Riesling and Gewurztraminer. The key aspect of making these wines seems to be acid/sugar balance, and you could see that Jen liked to work each wine at a different balance point. So much depends on what the vineyard gives you, and Jen would tailor each wine's balance accordingly, and furthermore to her taste. She makes some wine for clients as well, and sometimes has to work with what the client wants, while still ensuring that the wine achieves the best expression of its potential. Her Rieslings were nice and furthered my increasing love for that variety, and I really liked her Gewurztraminer as well.

In the barrel hall we tasted through some Pinot Noir, and they had a lot of density and strength, showing the acid and tannin of a young wine that should calm down with time and age well. We tasted through different clones and barrels, seeing the influence of each factor.

I then head over to Carrick, where my friend and former coworker Cris Carter had worked the harvest. He'd spoken well of the winemaker, Jane Docherty. Jane had worked as assistant winemaker at Felton Road until a couple of years ago. She gave me a nice view of the region from a vantage point in her vineyard, then tasted me through some stuff from her cellar.

It was an excellent lineup, and we talked about the delicate and complicated balance of a Riesling. Jane pointed out the quandaries facing the winemaker in placing a Riesling stylistically for the market. It is a difficult call to decide whether to balance a Riesling on the sweet side (which is often the better true balance for the highly acidic Rieslings) or more dry, which comes very sharp and generally needs to be paired with food. The issue is further complicated by the fact that consumers claim to prefer dry Rieslings, but tend to actually prefer them off-dry or sweeter. It seems that with many Rieslings there are multiple points of balance, depending on the style desired, and what market you are aiming for.

I finished the day at the winery I was staying at, Felton Road. Todd Stevens showed me around, heading out to the Calvert vineyard, the fruit of which is made into single-vineyard wines by Felton Road, Pyramid Valley, and Craggy Range. It was a beautiful, well-cared for vineyard, producing excellent fruit, and excellent wines, from all three wineries. Todd gave a brief overview of their fledgling biodynamic-ish vineyard management. I later met Gareth King, the viticulturalist, who takes care of such things. Apparently they are utilizing many organic and biodynamic principles, but not swallowing the thing whole; taking the best and mixing it with other techniques to produce the best grapes possible.

In the winery their setup appeared efficient. They had many medium and smaller tanks to do individual lot fermentations, and were setup in a multi-lever manner so that much of the winemaking can be done by use of gravity rather than pumps.

We tasted first through some of the Chardonnay, which was excellent, aging in barrels. It had a crisp acidity that balanced the richness of the fruit and barrel influence. Then we tasted through some Rieslings, discussing the same issues of balance as I've mentioned above. Even in the dry Rieslings, it seems best to leave 5 to 10 grams of sugar to balance out some of the acidity, because even at that rate it will still taste completely dry to the average drinker. The sweeter Riesling, in the 55g/L range, was well balanced in its own, sweeter, way. The Pinot Noir's that we then tasted were excellent as well, deep and rich and balanced. An impressive array across the board.

That night I tasted the Felton Road Calvert wine, and found it excellent.

The next day I visited Amisfield, where the assistant winemaker showed me around and tasted me through some tanks and barrels. It was another excellent range of wines, accentuated by the frost-covered vineyards and snow-capped mountains in the distance. It was a practical winery, which appeared to be set up for efficient winemaking. Someday I'll have to visit their Bistro near Queenstown, which is apparently gorgeous.

From there I visited Rippon, where Nick Mills toured me around. I was required to clean my shoes thoroughly before arrival, the avoid potential contamination of their pristine and clean fully biodynamic vineyards. The first people I met upon arriving were Nick Mills' sister and two friends who were planting the hillside (too steep for vines) to native vegetation. They told me that they also have projects around the property, down by the lakeside, replanting to native trees.

Nick was a very passionate guy, and seems to believe deeply in the central concepts of biodynamics. He spoke intensely about creating flows of energy through his vineyard, using composts composed of organic matter from the winery and vineyards, and redistributing this outwards from the center of the property out to the various parts of the vineyard, from which the energy would return and be redistributed. The winery and compost being developed while I was there will be at the center of the property, important if they are to be the energetic heart of the property. It was a very passionate, exciting organization of wine growing and making.

The wines in barrel were absolutely amazing; I was blown away. I also noticed a little still in the corner, and when I inquired, Nick gave me a sample of some Riesling grappa. It was delicious grappa, and when I said so, he filled up a 375mL bottlle, corked it, and sent me home with it. It was an excellent visit.

So I headed down the road towards the west coast, making it to Fox Glacier by nightfall for a night's sleep and some sightseeing in the morning before heading up the coast toward Moutere and some excellent wineries there.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


My next leg of the trip was down to the Waipara valley, about an hour north of Christchurch. Approaching the valley, everything in every direction was covered in frost. My first appointment was with Muddy Water (the English translation of the Maori word Waipara) Vineyards, a very difficult winery to locate. I think there is some unwritten rule that the better the wine, the smaller the winery’s sign and the larger the potholes on the road leading to it. I can say without reservation that Muddy Water is a prime example of this phenomena. I arrived slightly late but was made to look punctual by the much tardier arrival of a concurrent visitor from the new New Zealand government's new $1.2 million initiative to promote high end New Zealand wine in United States markets. I was quite happy to wait and we took the tour together.

The viticulturalist, Miranda Brown, took us on a walk through the vineyards. She showed us their vineyards, all of which are managed and cared for by Miranda and the rest of the team. They are certified organic and utilize many biodynamic practices, using cover crops, compost, and animals to eat weeds. Cover crops are any plant that, when planted between rows of vines, produces a beneficial effect of some sort. Many cover crops provide a habitat for beneficial insects or microbial life, legumes fix nitrogen in the soil, while other cover crops break up the soil and provide better drainage. From beginning to end of the season, the vineyard is cared for by Miranda and the rest of the winery crew, without outside labor. This is part of the ethic of Muddy Waters, of having the same hands on the wine from beginning to end. This is followed down to the Nth degree: even the harvesting is done solely by the permanent crew.

In the winery, where Belinda Gould is winemaker, we tasted through an impressive array of wines from a vertical range of vintages. The Rieslings were amazing, ranging in style quite widely. My favorite had a lower amount of residual sugar, close to dry, balanced but sharp and with focus. The Pinot Noir’s were excellent as well, showing the ability to age, as the older vintages tasted the best. As during previous tasting with screwcap enclosed wines, I could see that wines under screwcap are able to age quite well, maintaining their fresh young character while also developing aged aromas and softened tannins. All in all, it was perhaps the happiest day of my life.

I then visited Mountford Estate just down the road. I was greeted by Takahiro, the assistant winemaker who works closely with the wine. He led me through a tasting of their wines. My favorite, as he predicted, was the 2007 Mountford Estate Pinot, from all estate grown fruit. It had a nice balance of brooding aromas and masculine tannins that I enjoyed thoroughly. Mountford has the interesting distinction of having a blind winemaker, C.P. Lin. C.P.'s background is well summarized here:

From Mountford I moved on to Pegasus Bay, a beautiful winery with a beautiful restaurant. I sat down with one of the brothers, Paul Donaldson. He was a top man, very welcoming, starting the tour with a generous lunch and tasting through a wide range of their wines, over various vintages. Perhaps the most interesting was a side by side comparison of 2003 Pinot Noirs, one under screwcap and the other under cork. After seven years of aging, the cork-enclosed wine was tasting well but was showing it's age and had lost much of its youthful aromas. The screwcap wine tasted aged as well, having softened on the palate and developed some aged aromas. But it had also preserved an intensity of fruit and youthful character. I think I am finally convinced: screwcap wines age better than cork wines.

It was another good day on the wine trail. I quickly hurried into Christchurch, where I would spend the night. I was able to meet up with Cris Carter, who was the assistant winemaker at Penner-Ash winery when I worked a vintage there in 2008. We went to a concert that night, the New Zealand group “Fat Freddy’s Drop.” They played an excellent show, and Cris and I were able to catch up on what we’d been up to over the years. Most recently, he had been working at Carrick Winery in Central Otago, one of the wineries I would visit on the next leg of my tour.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


I arrived at Nautilus Estate in Marlborough after dark and was warmly greeted by two excellent men, Brett Bermingham and Mike Collins, who are the assistant winemaker and viticulturalist, respectively. They had a couple of bottles open, and I sampled some of their excellent four barriques wines, a selection of the best barrels in a given year (and only made in certain years), before Brett showed me to their “vineyard cottage” where I would stay for the night. It was closer to a vineyard mansion, with five bedrooms, four bathrooms, a large kitchen and dining area and common room. Having just stayed in a vineyard cottage about a quarter the size, I was quite impressed by their phrasing. They later told me that the terminology was about “expectation management.“ Most importantly to me, it was well stocked with bacon, eggs, bread and drinks. Needless to say, I was quite happy, cooking up a storm with the radio blasting, as is my wont.

I started the next day by visiting Fromm, a very interesting Marlborough rebel. Until very recently, they did no produce Sauvignon blanc, an incredible oddity in the region most famous in the world for that variety. But Hatsch Kalberer, the winemaker, is a man of vision and principles, and you receive the impression that he would never concede to populist practicality. His style of winemaking makes for some excellent wines, in what he calls an old world style. Hatsch seems to be in the camp that believes that expression of place and terroir is about the most natural, non-interventionalist winemaking possible. This means that his old-world style is utilized to try to express the best of this new-world terroir.

His reds sit in a cold soak at around 12 degrees Celsius for 3-4 days until the fermentation commences. The battle between various yeast and bacteria in such a situation creates interesting aromatics, a bit wild and dark. As the fermentation ramps up and the strong yeast dominate the fermentation, Hatsch will pump the wine over regularly. Oxygen is also fed into the wine. This is done for two reasons. Firstly, oxygen is a nutrient allowing the yeast to ferment healthy and completely (yeast with sufficient oxygen during their growth have cell walls more able to resist high alcohol conditions such as exist late in fermention, i.e. such yeast will ferment a wine to dryness). Secondly, to convert reduced characters developing in the wine by oxidizing reduced sulfur compounds. As fermentation slows to a crawl and the wine reaches dryness, pumpovers will eventually cease. The cap will be compressed down to minimize air flow, and the variable-capacity lid will be lowered down to the cap. The wine will sit with the floating cap of skins for a long extended maceration (aka a long extended contact between skins, seeds, and wine). This works to develop the perfect tannin structure through continued extraction from the seeds; during this extended maceration the bitterness and astringency of the wine will fluctuate from intensely undrinkable to round and full, and it is the latter that is desired. The biggest downside of an extended maceration is that off-aromas can develop such as acetic acid, ethyl acetate, a generally aldehydic aroma. To the non-winemaker, this means that the wine will smell sharp and funky, a bit like nail polish at its worst. Most winemakers who practice extended maceration count on these aromas going away with time (they generally do), but Hatsch is more careful. To minimize this effect, Hatsch will skim off the top layer of grapes, where most of this off aroma has developed. The good, clean grapes and wine on the bottom will be drained and pressed off.

The result of this winemaking approach is wines big on tannin and age-ability, full of interesting aromas. The early wines in barrel are quite rough, but with a year of aging they mellow out considerably and are quite smooth though still full and masculine. I like that Fromm uses only aged barrels, avoiding new barrels; their wines express the viticulture and winemaking more clearly for it. Fromm will actually purchase old barrels from the barrel companies, not liking the strong oak extraction of new barrels, such that the influence of oak is merely as a minor character in the wines, rather than an overt aromatic of its own.

This oak regime works well for the white wines, where the style is more about clarity, with less oak and butter and more of a focus. Barrel fermentations and good fruit results in a well rounded wine.

I enjoy speaking with passionate winemakers, especially when they explain their techniques and tricks of winemaking. But perhaps even more, I enjoy when they reveal their winemaking style and theory. You see, winemaking is as much about artistic philosophy as it is about practical craftsmanship. Hatsch kept coming back to a coaching analogy: you must coach the players you have on your team. Perhaps you are a coach who likes to coach a smooth and finessed style. But one year you get a team of clumsy strong players. You can teach these fellas some finesse, but in the end you must acknowledge their strengths, and coach to them. To quote from their website: "It's the grapes that tell us what to do rather than us forcing them into a preconceived style."

Next I went to a very different winery, the much larger and more modern Wither Hills. The assistant winemaker Sally Williams gave me an excellent tour. They are a larger but well set-up winery, efficiently run to produce excellent wines. Apparently the last few years have seen a considerable increase in size, and it's impressive to see how well they've coped.

The white winemaking at Wither Hills was very interesting. Nearly all of the whites are left in tank on the less for around 8 months, though the lees are not mixed. While the yeast lees sit, the yeast die and undergo autolysis, releases all sorts of interesting compounds. Lees are able to contribute viscosity and mouthfeel to the developing wine, from some of these compounds. There are also aromatic compounds, from both yeast autolysis and the secondary bacterial fermentation of wines called malolactic fermentation, which can be released into the wine during this stage. But Wither Hills keeps the wines quite cold, which inhibits malolactic fermentation, and minimizes the acquisition of any other aromas. The lees contact is to develop proper taste and balance, rather than for aroma. Sally was a firm believer that the wine improves with more time, but noted that the reality of a commercial winery is that sometimes it has to be bottled before it has fully resolved. This theme, of the balance between commercial reality and winemaking artistic perfectionist philosophy, it at the crux of the winemaking industry.

She also showed me an excellent toy they have. Not a plastic race car, no, much better. A Bucher brand Vistaylis sorter! It is a machine that sorts good grapes from bad grapes using sensors! It can sort out grapes by color (taking out anything too green, for example, as well as any green leaves or stems) or by size and shape (anything non-ovoid, such as leaves, stems, and shriveled or diseased grapes). What an amazing technology! Compare such a machine to the 15 sorters of Hiro Kusuda! It's like the Jack Henry's Hammer tale all over again. Technology versus man. The machine is of course imperfect, and Sally said they are still zeroing in on the right settings to make it sort perfectly. While I can appreciate that there will always be a place for the human hand, I welcome any technology that eliminates monotonous mindless work. Such mindless work is the perfect use for technology, especially if you are trying to make wine in some scale.

I ended the day back at Nautilus, where Mike and Brett gave me a tour around the valley to their various vineyards. The newer Clay Hills vineyard, has different slopes facing in different directions for just about every block, and the grapes show the effect of their soil and slope, as I saw when tasting through the wines made from those grapes. The Lannock Lane vineyard has naturally more vigorous and productive vines, more suited to Sauvignon blanc. The Renwick Vineyard, the original site, has an incredibly diverse planting on very strong soil. And so on….each vineyard producing different grapes, which provide the winemakers with plenty of options down the road for blending different characters to create balance and complexity.

We tasted through the barrel room, and it was very interesting to taste through the various vineyards after having seen them and discussed them. It was also interesting to see the effect that barrel choice has on a wine. I won't get too deep into it at the moment, but simply put, the source and producer of a given barrel has a huge effect on the quality of the barrel, and the quality of the wine which is stored in the barrel. For example, Sylvan barrels give a wine palate weight, but does not influence aroma very much. Remond provides a sweet mid-palate, while the Mercier high-end barrel called Francis is a beast of a barrel, boosting a wine heavily in the direction of big fruit, big gaminess, and a big palate. Barrel choice is another of the million variables in winemaking that a winemaker can toggle to create a balanced wine.

The next day I finished Marlborough by visiting Seresin, a biodynamic producer. They were incredibly friendly and warm people, and I liked them immediately. Alexis Goodman, the assistant winemaker, introduced me to the crew and showed me their biodynamic processes and winemaking. Perhaps most interesting was the cow pat pits, where cow manure was aging into biodynamic preparations. The manure is first stirred when fresh, and once sufficiently creamy, it is put into the pits to age. Various mixes can be added to the pit, things such as chamomile or valerian root, which, in seemingly homeopathic amounts, are meant to seed soil life. This is in strong contrast to the common approach to agriculture, in which pesticides and fertilizers are dumped onto vines, producing direct effects of death and growth, whereas biodynamics seems to be about giving the vineyard elements which result in the vineyard being healthy and balanced. The overall process and means of doing it seems mystifying at times, but the basic principle is clear: produce life and health in your vineyard, a living soil and balance ecology, and your vines and wine will be the better for it.

Their biodynamic approach seems all-encompassing. They also have heaps of olive trees which are farmed biodynamically to produce the olive oil they sell on site. Animals, gardens, cover crops, there was life everywhere. The vineyard was cared for by a small team, a family, year round, rather than short-term workers. Everyone seemed inspired and passionate, and their love for the vineyard and winemaking showed.

Saying goodbye to the awesome people of Marlborough, I headed off to see more of New Zealand. My next stop was Kaikoura for the night, then on to Waipara Valley for more excellent wines.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

So with harvest finished and all of the 2009 wines pressed, fermented, and in barrel and tank, tucked away for the winter, interns such as I became unnecessary. Just not much work left. So with that in mind, they cut me loose to move on to better things.

Namely, that my post-vintage tour of New Zealand has begun. As part of the Douglas Wisor Scholarship, I receive an invaluable experience: the opportunity to tour New Zealand and visit most of the best wineries in the country. The Craggy Range winemaker Adrian Baker has chosen a selection of wineries designed to expose me to a wide range of styles and approaches to winemaking, small to large, traditional to modern. The list includes most of the Family of Twelve, a group of some of the best wineries of the country, a list which includes ourselves, Craggy Range. The rest are on par in terms of quality.

So my first stop on this tour was the only North Island wine region included, Martinborough. Joining me on this leg of the trip was my harvest flatmate, James. Our first day was composed of a stellar lineup: Escarpment, Ata Rangi, and Dry River. This is basically the best of Martinborough, the legends and figureheads of the region. Escarpment was our first visit.

The winemaker and proprietor of Escarpment Vineyards is variously known as the King of Pinot, Pope of Pinot, and simply the master of this fickle grape. He ran Martinborough Vineyards and earned them a reputation as top producers. He’s also sometimes called Larry McKenna (that's a picture above of he and I, in front of a cut in the hill which reveals the soil profile). At first introduction I almost wondered if he would be a stony man, wary of sharing his hard-won wisdom, and I would have trouble getting any winemaking secrets out of him. As it turned out, he was an immensely friendly and talkative guy, happy to discuss his approach to making Pinot Noir. And it’s easy to see why so many people see him as a king of Pinot. His approach is multi-faceted and thoughtful, full of tricks to get what he can out of the grape. Many of those tricks involve working in the vineyard to get the grapes at peak quality, of course, but once in the winery he doesn’t slack. Natural ferments are utilized to give the wine an extra character, something darker, brooding, funky and wild. The natural fruit is not covered up, but rather balanced and melded, by this extra character.

Which brings up an important, though overlooked, aspects of the famous concept of terroir. People talk about true expression of terroir and usually they claim that their winemaking approach emphasizes terroir. But how can a winemaker best emphasize terroir? Is it by practicing clean, modern winemaking that brings out pure fruit and vineyard character? Or is it by practicing natural and traditional winemaking that brings out a whole different level of character in the vineyard's fruit? Even before we reach the winemaking, we can break down the terroir into so many facets. People tend to think of terroir as vineyard character, the soils and climate and viticultural practices. But a soil and climate does not always produce the same grape or wine; the character depends on what clone of grape is used as well. Simply put, nothing is simply or straightforward with terroir: it is a complex and difficult concept. I think perhaps it is best to abandon the concept of terroir as too complex to be defined. If it must be referenced, we should think of terroir as the final expression of the grape, the end result of all inputs from vineyard to winery, resulting in a coherent style in the end.

You see, different clones of Pinot Noir express distinctly different characters from each other, and each clone expresses differently on any given soil type and climate. But the impressions I received lead me to believe that some common trends can be identified. Larry McKenna uses the Abel clone, Dijon clones, and 10/5, amongst others (we tasted some of the above in barrel). The Abel clone is also sometimes called the Ata Rangi clone, because it first hit the scene as the prime clone used by Ata Rangi...but it apparently originates from France, and was brought over illegally, apparently in a gumboot, thus it's other pseudonym, the Gumboot Clone. It provides a certain tannin structure and backbone, and a savory character well liked by the Martinborough winemakers, amongst them Larry. Dijon clones add a different character depending on the exact clone (they include 667, 777, 115, and 114), but can be spicier, fruitier, and often prettier in aromatics and tannin, compared to Abel.

Of all of the winemakers I visited in Martinborough, Larry was the biggest fan of whole bunch fermentation, a technique used on Pinot Noir traditionall in Burgundy. To do this, you simply do not destem the berries, putting the bunches in tank whole. Larry does anywhere from 10-100% whole bunch, perhaps most typically in the range of 30-40% but increasing every year. This technique adds tannins which are extracted from the stems during fermentation, enhancing mouthfeel, weight of palate, and age-ability. It also adds a stemmy, herbaceous or tea-like component in the early wine (think of chewing on plant stems or tea leaves). According to Larry, these green aromatics will develop into a forest floor, visceral aromatic in the finished wine. This is the funkiness that many great Burgundies possess, and it is a characteristic in Pinot with which I am obsessed. This dark quality is balanced by the fresh uplifted fruitiness that is contributed by the fermentation of the whole berries still connected to the bunches. This kind of fermentation, which occurs in part due to internal enzymes of the grape berry and partly by normal fermentation, is called carbonic maceration, and it produces a very distinct aroma.

So we tasted through a wide range of barrels, sampling the result of these techniques. I would say that the techniques work, creating a dark, dense, funky but fruity wine. It is wonderful stuff with endless potential to age.

Next we moved on to Ata Rangi, where the kingdom is ruled by Helen Masters, the sister-in-law of my boss at Craggy, Adrian Baker. Helen and her crew make quite a few wines, including Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon blanc, Syrah and Bordeaux varieties. Talking to Helen, she showed us around her tanks and barrels and explained her approach to winemaking, clarifying and illuminating where and when we delved deeper with questions.

Helen seems to like the practice of leaving her white wines on lees. The lees add a texture and roundness to the wine the longer they are in contact. But to minimize malolactic fermentation (MLF) characteristics, the juice is cooled down and sulfured, which stops the MLF. But the lees are left to continue adding palate character, until the point that Helen decides they are better off left alone. You can see the effect of this in her wines: they have a texture that comes through as viscous. But the palate has other characters as well. Her acidity is solid, adding freshness and making your mouth salivate a bit, but not feeling tart or sour. Also, the phenolics are there a bit, adding another layer. In some wines, such as Pinot Gris in some cases, a small amount of residual sugar (still nominally dry) adds to the feeling of fullness. But she emphasized: the wine must finish dry, leaving you wanting another sip. If a wine is detectably sweet, the drinker feels sick drinking a full glass, let alone a full bottle. The wine must be balanced and dry. All in all, it is white winemaking creating texture and fullness; the aromatics which she also achieves are just an extra bonus.

We also went through her red wine barrels. She showed us through some clones of Pinot, and had a similar impression about many of the clones. She also liked Abel for it's darkness and depth. To quote from the Ata Rangi website: "We love the texture, and length of palate it delivers. Its tannins are substantial, yet are incredibly silky and fine. From our site, it brings dark cherry, and a brooding, savoury feel." They also use 10/5, dijon clones, and davis clone 5 (aka Pommard). Pommard contributes a character that is light and pretty, filling the early palate but ending light.

The Syrah we tried was incredible. I really liked the mix of characters it possessed. I'd just spend three months in Hawke's Bay, where the Syrah is a powerhouse of black and white pepper with some anis if you're lucky. Ata Rangi's Syrah was a subtler (but not subtle) mix of pepper, spice, earthiness, and fruit. It was lovely and rich on the palate.

Helen took us and her cellar crew to lunch in Martinborough town. It is a small town of a few shops and restaurants, and in the nature of small towns everyone seemed to know Helen. From there two of her cellar workers, Alex and Greg, joined us for our visit to Dry River.

There the winemaker Katy Hammond led us through a fantastic tour of their tiny winery. She broke down the process and approach of her and chief winemaker Neil McCallum for us. The winemaking is straightforward and solid, creating excellent wine. I was incredibly impressed by the results, and was incredibly excited by their viticultural approach. Talking to Katy we received a strong impression of the Carbon Zero approach they use, balancing their carbon output and pursuing a natural viticulture and winemaking.

I couldn't help but return and quiz them some more about biological viticulture. I liked in principal that they were treating their vineyard like an ecosystem, but not trying to follow a trend or an absolute such as organics or biodynamics strictly. I like the ideas of both systems, but wonder whether the strictures of each can limit best decision-making. Shayne Hammond, the viticulturalist, explained to me some of the details of their approach. In a nutshell, the vineyard is made alive and healthy. The soil is fed by compost and careful viticulture. Molasses, seasweed, apple cider vinegar, whatever is necessary. Molasses provides nutrients for bacterial and fungal growth, apple cider vinegar aids the digestive system of the fungi, and seaweed adds heaps of nutrients. Along with the fertilizer and good viticulture, the result seems to be healthy soil (looks great, and tons of worms) and healthy vines. Hard to argue with that.

All in all, it was an amazing day in Martinborough! I won't go into great detail about the beers and wine that were consumed later that night with the friendly locals, but let's just say it was a great time.

In the morning we had a great visit to the home of Hiro Kusuda. He is an impressive man, aside from his wine. His life story is very interesting, much of which he shared with us. Rather than go into detail, I'll link an excellent article by Jancis Robinson: In short: he came to make wine in New Zealand by a very circuitous route, and due to a great passion. The result is a very meticulously made wine. The grapes are selected very very carefully. In the vineyard, he carefully drops bunches to limit crops. Then he goes through and cuts off any marginal parts of each cluster, a practice I have never heard of to such extents. He will even cut off berries that might touch another cluster of wire. Only the perfect, free hanging berries survive. These clusters are eventually harvested, and then 15 sorters go one by one through the bunches, pulling off any berry that is imperfect. Even a slight sunburn or dimple or touch of disease is not acceptable. Finally, the grapes are destemmed and put into fermentors.

During ferment they are pumped over, a practice not very popular with fine Pinot producers. Hiro feels noetheless that it produces the style he wants. He tried to explain the style to me, but apparently the perfect word in Japanese has no direct translation. But he gave me some synonyms: clarity, purity, focus. The style is subtle but not lacking in complexity. It never jumps out at you, but requires you to work to find it. The winemaking is minimalistic, not using fining or enzymes as do many winemakers. The result is amazing. It is very different from, say, Larry McKenna's style. It really drives home the fact that Pinot is a stylistic grape. There is no right or wrong style. Different approaches make different wine, and all are valid.

Lastly I stopped briefly at Martinborough Vineyards and tasted through a few things rapidly. Again we worked through the clonal selections and again I saw that Abel adds character. 115 and 667 were looked to for their spice and fruit aromas.

From Martinborough I continued on to Wellington and took the ferry over to the south island, where I would go on to tour the most famous wine region of New Zealand, Marlborough, the notorious land of Sauvignon blanc. But I would soon learn that Marlborough is no one trick pony.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Drain and Press and Barrel down

As we continue to drain and press tanks, we must then put the pressed wine into barrels for aging, or elevage, as the French call it. The French term emphasizes the fact that the wine's quality is elevated during the barrel aging process. A young wine, fresh from the press, has a distinctly juicy, rough flavor. There are rough tannins, rough solids, bitterness and astringency, a strong smell of ethanol and other undesirable aromatics, and a smell which is mostly of wine, not a complicated bouquet of suble aromas. With time, some of the rough young juicy and ethanol smells will round into a nicer, subtler wine smell, and only time can do this. But another factor besides time is necessary to calm the tannins and smooth out the mouthfeel, as well as evolving the aromatics into a more aged style: oxygen. Oxygen is a very useful tool to help a wine develop, but you cannot simply slam the wine with large volumes of oxygen one day and say "there we go! It's delicious!" Like most things in wine, a subtle approach is necessary. Too much oxygen will create a plethora of faults in your wine, including the growth of acetic acid bacteria leading to the formation of acetic acid and ethyl acetate, in effect turning your wine into vinegar. Also, your wine would lose it's aromatic components, which would be oxidized and destroyed. These negative effects occur when too much oxygen reaches your wine. But when small amounts of oxygen enter your wine over long periods of time, a beneficial aging process occurs.

The best way to get small amounts of oxygen into your wine is by putting the wine in oak barrels. Oak has a porosity perfect for aging wine. It is dense enough to ensure that the wine will not leak out in fluid form, aka it will hold the wine. But it is porous enough that small amounts of oxygen can enter the wine from the surrounding air.

In recent years, wineries have experimented with other ways to get small amounts of oxygen into a wine over long periods of time. Micro-oxygenation is a technique in which minute volumes of oxygen are fed into a tank of wine via a compressed oxygen canister. This technique has become quite a fad, because it ages the wine quicker than barrels, but does not have the negative effects of over-oxygenation. Also, it negates the need for barrels, which are very expensive (a French oak barrel runs for over $1000 these days and the price is ever increasing). But this technique is mostly used for cheaper wines, whereas higher quality producers generally stick with the traditional, and pay whatever is necessary to obtain barrels for elevage.

All of which is to say, we're barreling down like mad men! Every day we put several tanks of wine into barrel, filling as many as 200 barrels in a given day. The barrels are retrieved from storage, where they have been storing last years wine. The 2009 Pinot Noir barrels would be emptied into a tank (from which it will be eventually bottled). These same barrels would then be cleaned, and the old and bad smelling barrels would be culled out of the lot. New unused barrels are then added to the lot, and these barrels would all now be filled with the 2010 Pinot Noir! It's a magical process really, involving a tangle of pumps, hoses, clamps, gaskets, valves and rods.

We are emptying tanks rapidly, and on the horizon the end can be seen. Harvest is definitely tailing off, and everyone is getting this weekend off, the first weekend since harvest kicked in full speed back in April.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The sticky

Every winemaker will tell you the same thing: great wine is made in the vineyard. You cannot make great wine out of bad grapes, simply put. This is a basic truism of winemaking, and it is the reason why many winemakers spend more time out in the vineyard than in the winery. I mentioned before the special love many winemakers have for Pinot Noir. This is in part because it is a grape which vividly reflects the vineyard and land (aka terroir) that produced it. So a lover of Pinot, like Adrian Baker, takes great care to preserve that vineyard character in his Pinot Noirs.

But sometimes, especially when one is often engaged in such subtle winemaking, a more interactive approach can just be fun. So Adrian has been having some fun with a bit or Riesling. The grapes were solid but lacked that special something in their inherent vineyard character. WineMAKING was necessary to turn this into a great wine. So the approach was to leave the grapes out on the vine longer into the season and ripen them to the point of sticky sweetness. Accompanying this ripening is a vineyard issue called "Botrytus Bunch Rot." I say issue to maintain ambiguity, because in spite of being a rot, it is not universally detrimental to your grapes and wine. If it is the right kind of Botrytus, it does not detract from the wine quality, in fact it contributes a honey and floral aroma which is quite lovely. Botrycized wines can be very expensive and very good. This Riesling was picked with partial Botrytus, perhaps 30% infection, but it was the best kind of infection: a dry rot. This means that the rot is growing in a reserved clean sort of manner, with clean neat clusters, rather than a mess of broken wet berries as can happen (and which is the bad kind of Botrytus). So the grapes were looking promising when they came in the other day.

We layered the grapes into a large bin, filling the bin halfway. We then hopped into the bin and stomped them with our feet. I wish I could say we were barefoot, but actually we were wearing sanitized rubber boots (the modern world and heath standards can be a real bummer sometimes). In any case I had the opportunity to dance a jig, stomping the grapes with my feet. Then we added acid (to balance the taste of the wine, which will be quite sweet and will need good acidity to balance it out), sulfur dioxide (to keep the grapes from spoiling), extraction enzymes (to increase the release of juice from the grapes), and dry ice (to protect the wine in the short term). Then the grapes were left overnight, to extract some phenolics (for weight and mouthfeel) and aroma (that special honeyed Botrytus character I spoke of earlier) in the soak. The next day we took the bins and filled up a small press with them. We then put them through an incredibly long, gentle press cycle. This way, the juice was collected in a manner ensuring that the quality was high, and that the Botrytus character (which was largely dry, and therefore difficult to extract as juice during a shorter pressing) was intense. It was interesting to taste the juice over the course of the press cycle. Early on, the juice was only a little sweet, fresh, but with some Botrytus character. With time, the juice was sweeter, and picked up a darker denser aroma, like a wild honey or oxidized pear. The different levels of the pressings were separated into two tanks, the sticky stuff and the really really sticky sweet stuff.

It's fun stuff, this type of wine work, because it diverts from the usual minimalistic path of winemaking, while still maintaining the highest integrity of natural processes. It is a matter of the winemaker utilizing the tools at his disposal to get the best wine possible, with the assistance of Botrytus and yeast.