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Is Pinot Noir Humanity? Reflections from the Central Otago Pinot Fest

OutdoorsNorthburn

Lakeside view of Northburn Winery.

This past January and February, I attended the 10th Central Otago Pinot Celebration. I was asked to reflect on my time at this year’s event by New Zealand Winegrowers, but will start with the story of a tree…

Strolling around Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown a few days after the event, the girth of an unusual trunk, a species of which I’d never beheld, drew my gaze up along its grand frame, and into the intertwined branches of its shadowy canopy. I stood for a while, watching the interplay of the waning sunlight on dappled leaves. Habit triggered me to reach for my camera. I twirled the machine in my hands, trying different angles to determine how to collect the moment digitally, forever, but I just couldn’t frame it as I experienced it in life.

Suddenly I was struck by a duality of emotions brought on by the paradox of great beauty: it has the ability to ignite immense joy and sorrow in the beholder, simultaneously. I could not take with me the beauty of this tree, and recognized the ephemeral state of the moment, meaning my brief interaction with it was only that. I felt oddly saddened.

So why do I ramble on about a tree when I should be talking wine? Because the tree left me pondering the various manifestations of beauty experienced at this year’s 3-day Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration, and the emotional arc each one created.

MtHelicopter

Beauty is a complex and highly subjective concept, with several definitions in the dictionary, the first being “the combination of all the qualities of a person or thing that delight the senses and please the mind.” Considering that definition, I start with the obvious: the scenery of Central Otago. Set within the magnificence of the region’s natural good looks, the festival utilized various winery and restaurant sites nestled beneath the jagged peaks that ring Otago’s neat rows of vineyards, and at the center of which sits the sparkling, aquamarine-hued Lake Wakatipu.

LakeandFogMorning

The Grand Tasting featured participating wineries inside The Shed at Northburn, a former station (ranch) picturesquely set on a ridge, now home to a winery and a rustic-chic barn. Each producer supplied its 2012 Pinot for vintage comparison, and a second bottle of its choosing.

We tasted the beauty of local foods. Vineyards and wineries hosted festival goers for a sunny, outdoor repast. I was fortunate to dine at Amisfield on sensationally fresh produce such as zucchini and leeks. The highlight, however, was a 20-hour, spit-roasted whole lamb, delivered with unintentional theatrics via a pitchfork, to our tables fringing Amisfield’s vineyards and duck-filled pond.

AmisfieldMenu

On the first night, welcome canapés and drinks — a showcase of white wines from the Pinot producers — started the evening off at Rata, a stylish, contemporary spot in downtown Queenstown. On our last evening, we celebrated at Skyline, a restaurant perched high above the glittering town, with a menu of regional highlights such as cured Aoraki salmon and tender venison filet.

Despite the stunning backdrop and fare, most attendees joined the celebration for one reason: their devotion to Pinot Noir. In Central Otago, Pinot especially is beauty in pure form. Through a colorful spectrum of hues from vivid ruby to gentle garnet in mature vintages, to nose and palate tendering floral notes; the garrigue of local, rampant growths of thyme; warm spices; and red and dark fruits, washed forward in waves of silk and velvet.

FeltonRoad3

But Pinot isn’t merely a sensual, shallow pleasure; it expresses beauty conceptually. Love drives folks to rationalize crazy decisions, and the Central Otago winemakers who’ve fallen for the finicky grape have enduringly committed their souls to her care. Pinot vines cling to vineyards at the end of the earth, such as those of Two Paddock’s Last Chance Vineyard, arguably the furthest place south in the world that a grape can be nurtured to ripeness while struggling against a marginal, frost-prone climate and hellacious winds. These dedicated stewards bottle each vintage’s expression of site, weather, and toil, telling the love story of their year, no matter how tragic.

Considering further the notion of beauty as “an outstanding example of its kind”, many Pinots at the festival demonstrated Central Otago sub-regions do, quite prominently, exist. Wanaka trended towards minerality; Alexandra, a land of great diurnal range, explored spice and fragrance; Wanaka Road, e.g., Pisa, Cromwell, and Lowburn, tendered sweet fruit and florals, while Gibbston, the highest elevation, celebrated the savory balanced with fine red fruit character. Bannockburn developed natural structure, and riper tannins, while Bendigo, the warmest region, added blue fruits and more powerful tannin.

We also explored the beauty of vineyard site: Felton Road Cornish Point. Beauty of vine age: Terra Sancta Slapjack Block. Beauty in viticultural philosophy: Burn Cottage. Beauty of clones, and even in Steve Davies’ Doctor’s Flat soil microbes, or so he would argue.

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Sam Neill, owner of Two Paddocks, near his Last Chance Vineyard.

There were beautiful displays of generosity and collaboration. Skilled orator John Hawkesby coaxed bidders out of nearly ten-thousand dollars at the charity auction to benefit Mercy Hospital Charitable Outreach and the Sport Otago Trust. The winemakers of Central Otago demonstrated a deeply ingrained spirit of sharing and partnership not just with each other, but also in the region’s bond with Burgundy, illustrated by the presence of French delegates who traveled thousands of miles to join, including Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

But the conundrum of the immense joy wrought by beauty is the equal measure of sadness derived from knowing it and losing it, each glass drunk, another bottle gone, never again to be tasted; each festival event concluded, that day never to be regained.

This may appear a glum ending for a recap of an ebullient occasion, but it’s not meant to be. By recognizing the fleetingness of life and the unstoppable passage of moments, I’m drawn to conclude, all from meeting a tree one evening in Queenstown, that Pinot people don’t spend life in anticipation of tomorrow, or focused on regret. They are present, alive in each moment, and lovers of life. To quote the Pinot celebration’s spokesperson Jen Parr of Terra Sancta: “Pinot is humanity.” Pinot lovers accept that what we cannot take to the grave makes precious what we have before us now, and for that, I will always be a Pinot person.

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Pyramid Valley Vineyards, North Canterbury, New Zealand

Gorgeous lunch prepared by Claudia

Gorgeous lunch prepared by Claudia Weersing

After departing Pinot-centric Central Otago, I carried on north to the next New Zealand wine region of Canterbury, located about 45 minutes outside of Christchurch. One of my three winemaker visits included the eye-opening Pyramid Valley, known for being the first vineyard in New Zealand — and one of only a few in the world — to be established from nascency under strict biodynamic principles, as well as stick to a strong non-interventionist/natural winemaking philosophy.

My lovely host for the afternoon, Brittany Thompson, Assistant Winemaker and Production Manager, picked me up in her truck full of energetic dogs. Our visit started not with a traditional winery tasting, but rather a picnic on top of a nearby hill with wine box “baskets” prepared by winery co-owner Claudia Weersing, who dabbles, quite effectively, in cooking. Apparently, I was the guinea pig for the wine box-cum-picnic basket concept, and I wholeheartedly gave it a green light, suggesting they make it available to future customers. The box included a clever dessert in a jar, smartly wrapped sandwiches, and the elusive greengage plum–my first. I was also introduced to the country fun of sliding down a hillside hay field on one’s belly or back, an activity apparently never endeavored with journalists — until meeting me.

Set in Northern Canterbury, Pyramid Valley Vineyards, was founded in 2000 by Mike and Claudia Weersing. They spent ten years working to find the perfect tract of land with the ideal limestone and geology make-up for the vines they wished to plant. They knew they’d hit proverbial paydirt when the consultant back in France reviewing their soil sample asked where they were in Burgundy. After pulling the hay from my hair and out of my shirt, and socks, and pants, we sat down at the tasting bar to go through their entire line-up of wines. I had a hard time holding back my surprise at how characterful, how evocative of place each wine was. Certainly no poker face could I project. I was particularly fond of the Cab Franc — it was the best I tasted in all of New Zealand. I recommend tracking down their Pinots, Chardonnays–frankly, anything from this winery.

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THE OWNERS MIKE AND CLAUDIA:

Mike and Claudia Weersing came to New Zealand in 1996, when Mike began making wine with Tim and Judy Finn at Neudorf Vineyards in Nelson. After a long and intensive search to find a site for their own vineyard, they purchased a farm in the Pyramid Valley, near Waikari in North Canterbury, in 2000.

Mike studied oenology and viticulture in Burgundy, beginning at the Lycee Viticole in Beaune, and continuing at the Universite de Bourgogne in Dijon. He has worked extensively in the vineyards and cellars of Europe, for producers such as Hubert de Montille, Domaine de la Pousse d’Or, and Nicolas Potel in Burgundy; Jean-Michel Deiss and Marc Kreydenweiss in Alsace; and Ernst Loosen in the Mosel. He has made wine in France and in Spain for Randall Grahm of Bonny DoonVineyards, vinifying in the Rhone Valley, the Languedoc-Roussillon, and the Navarra. New world vintages include apprenticeships with James Halliday at Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley of Australia, and with Russ Raney at Evesham Wood in Oregon’s Eola Hills.

Claudia was born in Schleswig, Germany.  A fashion student and skilled clothesmaker by trade, she  is now a committed biodynamicist which guides her approach to the land.

WINEMAKING PHILOSOPHY:

Wine to us is a genie, genius loci; our job is to coax it from its rock to bottle. Every gesture we make, in vineyard and winery, is a summons to this spirit of place. Biodynamics, hand-based viticulture, low yields, natural winemaking – these are some of the means we’ve adopted better to record and transmit this voice.

For example, all of our wines are fermented with their own yeast starters, cultured every year, from the vineyard itself. If wine is meant to be the bottled breath of a certain place, from a certain moment in time, then we feel that working with yeasts from that site, of that season, is an important step towards transparency and authenticity. Our cultures allow very long, very regular ferments: most of our whites ferment for more than a year. During this time, the wine is protected, so no sulphur is necessary. After so long a ferment, the wine is stable: thus most of our wines are bottled unfiltered, again with little or no sulphur.

Each wine is allowed to flower as it wishes. If the Pinot Blanc stops with 4 grams RS, so be it. If the Gewurztraminer ferments to dryness, that is its choice. As my friend and hero Edmond Vatan once replied when I asked him about malolactic fermentation, “Pwah, le malo, si ca se fait, ca se fait.”

So, at home we’ve sponsored a marriage of clay-limestone soils to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, hoping to bring to the wine world a special, new place-voice. With the Growers Collection, we are allowed to work with admired colleagues, and with sites, soils, varieties different than those at home. All of our wines are devoted to people and place; all bring rich rewards of community.

BACKGROUND ON THE VINEYARD:

The home vineyard has been established according to rules that Mike grew to respect and inherently to trust during his time studying and working in Burgundy: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have been planted, on clay-limestone soils on scarp slopes, at a density of 10,000-12,000 vines per hectare. The vineyard has been biodynamically managed from inception.

Each block is planted to reflect a specific soil type hence the somewhat irregular looking blocks. In total we have only 2.2 hectares planted in 4 separate blocks. The differences you can taste reflects the soil and climatic differences between each block, which is never more than 400 metres at most. We vinify each block and variety separately but identically in a mixture of old oak and clay amphorae so  the outside influences on the grape are minimised.

The blocks themselves were named by Claudia after the weed varieties predominant in each, which also reflect the different soil. The Angel Flower is a more exposed block, north facing that reflects a lightness, delicacy and an ethereal scent. The Lions Tooth with its golden dandelions and obvious lime rich soil shows a rich golden colour with a toasty sulphite nose. The Earth Smoke is a heavier clay, with a denser, wild, gamey outcome. The Field of Fire slopes away to an eastern aspect and into the heaviest clay and makes typically a green-hued delicate wine.

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Northburn Station, Cromwell, Central Otago, New Zealand

TomRichardLaurenNorthburn

Northburn Station Winery near Cromwell in Central Otago, had a previous life as a sheep station, founded back  in 1882. Tom Pinckney, co-owner  with his wife Jan, purchased the property in 1993, and planted vines in 1999–their first vintage was a Pinot Noir from the 10×5 clone.  Jan’s brother Richard Broadhead (above in photo) is the company wine operations manager and winemaker. They’ve since built an event space/barn they call The Shed and run a restaurant, and farmgate shop from the property. They also serve a wine and small bite pairing menu.

Before my arrival in Otago, Tom took some time to answer questions about his winemaking philosophy and distaste for corned beef.

Signature Wines and Prices:

  • Northburn Station Reserve Pinot Noir RRP NZ$45
  • Northburn Station Riesling RRP NZ$25

What philosophy guides your viticulture and/or enology? We are organic and  bio-grow certified, and practice biodynamics.

What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)? Attracting people to our facility (cellar door), and selling volumes at appropriate prices; expense-to-income ratio always a problem mainly due to the low volumes we produce, therefore fixed costs are spread over a small revenue base. However, sales are growing strongly!

What are the benefits and drawbacks of grape growing/winemaking in your region? We are ‘on the edge’ therefore yields are low and canopy management costs high.

NorthburnVineyard

What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? Their quality and potential to maintain high prices.

How do you think Americans perceive NZ wines? High quality, high cost.

What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Bordeaux. Least? Southern England.

Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected? Riesling. People still don’t get this grape.

What do you drink at home when relaxing? Our own Riesling and Pinot Noir and a wide range of European wines.

How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? I play a lot of sports with my young family.

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? Japan to go skiing.

Give one surprising fact about yourself. Hate corned beef….too much at boarding school!

TomPNorthburnVineyard

 

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Pisa Range, Central Otago, New Zealand

PisaRangeJennyWarwick

Pisa Range Estate and Winery, established in 1995, is located at the bottom of the Pisa Ranges of Central Otago, New Zealand, hence the suitable–if unimaginative–name, as Jenny Hawker professed to me during my visit last week with her and husband Warwick, son Andrew, and playful dog Pinot. Prior to my visit at the winery, Jenny answered a few questions about the property, the challenges of selling wine and why she’s passionate about her garden vegetables.

Signature Wines and Prices: 

  • Pisa Range Estate ‘Black Poplar Block’ Pinot Noir RRP NZ$56
  • Pisa Range Estate ‘RUN 245’ Pinot Noir RRP NZ$32
  • Pisa Range Estate Riesling  RRP NZ$28

What philosophy guides your viticulture and/or enology? ‘Minimal intervention’: allowing the wine to express its sense of place or terroir.

What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)? Challenges occur every season since no two are the same;  volatility of international markets.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing/winemaking in your region? Benefits are the climate, purity of sunlight, and our geographical position which results in minimal pest and disease pressure. The greatest drawbacks are climate, e.g., frosts, as well as labour availability.

What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? We are still very young, but many vines are coming into maturity or at least now have some age on them.  Our future looks very exciting.

How do you think Americans perceive NZ wines? There is little or no knowledge of NZ or its wines.  NZ has a very low profile in the USA and there is a great need to raise awareness.

PisaRangeWinery

What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Least? Burgundy is special. Least would be South Africa — their  focus is on production of bulk wine rather than fine wine.

Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected? Possibly Grüner Veltliner. It’s a wonderful food wine.

What do you drink at home when relaxing? Depends very much on what we are eating, but usually Pinot Noir or Riesling.

How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Gardening. The background to this answer is somewhat long. I grew up on a ¼ acre in Hawke’s Bay—everyone grew up on a ¼ acre after the war—plots were neatly defined. At the time, we grew everything at home and thus had the luxury of plucking passion fruit, peaches, apricots, and our own asparagus. You never ever forget those tastes. They stay with you forever. We then had seven overseas postings, for varying lengths of time, and what you need when you are away most is comfort, which food provides.

We were posted in Beijing at one point. We tried to grow tomatoes on the 13th floor of an apartment by hand pollinating them. They grew, although we weren’t overrun, but we got a sense a satisfaction from it. We always dreamt of having land of our own, so after we completed this last posting in Kuala Lumpur, we started to think about what we wanted to do when we returned to New Zealand.

We looked around Nelson and Martinborough, but moving here was rather serendipitous—we went to a dinner with some people who needed to sell a block of vineyard land in Pisa, so we decided to buy it.

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? Singapore — it’s vibrant, interesting, and always reinventing itself.

Give one surprising fact about yourself.  I spent almost 30 years living in many different countries around the world!

PisaRangeBottles

 

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Crossroads Wines, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand

CrossroadsWines

My last Hawke’s Bay meet-up was hosted in a hip little pseudo-Mexican restaurant called Mamagita in Haverlock with Miles Dineen and assistant winemaker George Leete of Crossroads Wines. I appreciated the gear shift from a winery visit to a casual cantina, allowing me to feel like a normal human just hanging with a couple of winemaker buddies, casually tasting 20 serious wines with platters of guac and tacos. Nearly tempted to guzzle a margarita, I, rather, kept my eye on the prize — the flagship wine “Talisman” that we would be tasting at the end (called, un-poetically, RGF in America due to somebody’s lame claim to the name). Talisman is a secret proprietary blend of five or so grapes, one of which is not a Bordeaux grape nor one grown by anyone else in the region. Threatening to sneak through the vineyards at night plucking leaf samples for lab analysis, I had good fun trying to trip Miles up in revealing the formula; alas, he kept it tight.

About Miles, he has been the winemaker at Crossroads since 2004.  Born and bred in Hawke’s Bay, Miles’ first vintage was in 1996 as a cellar hand in New Zealand and then over in the US before completing a post-graduate diploma in viticulture and oenology at Lincoln University, Christchurch, in 2003. Miles chats about Mother Nature as a winemaker’s biggest challenge, compares Hawkes Bay to Sonoma, and wishes he could be traveling in the U.S.A.

I should also add a thank you to Miles (hopefully you read this one day) for transporting me to the Art Deco town of Napier to shoot photos. I would not have otherwise had a chance to see it, and am grateful for your hospitality in taking me. Thank you!

A little info from the Crossroads website:

Crossroads was started in 1987 with the aim to produce the best possible wine from an exceptional place in an exceptional country – Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand. To achieve this, it became clear we had to have total control of our winegrowing and winemaking from start to finish. To that end, Crossroads purposely sourced and developed more vineyards. Today, all our Hawke’s Bay wines come from our own vineyards. 

Signature Wines and Prices:

  • Talisman $48
  • Winemakers Collection $38
  • Milestone Series $26/20

What philosophy guides your viticulture and/or enology? Simplicity, respecting the earth and its fruit, making delicious wine that is a pleasure to drink.

What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)? The weather is still the greatest human challenge.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of grape growing and winemaking in your region? Hawkes Bay is an awesome grape growing region for a whole range of varieties and wine styles due to our diverse soils and temperate climate. We are a long way from many major markets and trade blocs, but if anything, this makes us stronger as there is no room for complacency or bad wine.

Talisman

What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? New Zealand is one of the most dynamic wine producers in the world with ongoing rapid evolution; standards are high and the wines just keep getting better.

How do you think Americans perceive NZ wines? New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is now well respected and widely distributed and is going well in the states. There is less familiarity with our other varieties, but Americans are generally open to trying new things and the future looks very exciting for our wines stateside.

What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Sonoma, California–it has many similarities to Hawkes Bay on a slightly warmer base. Least? They all have their appeal.

Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected? Muller Thurgau, the light, fruity, low-alcohol white wine that has been with us all along.

What do you drink at home when relaxing? Preferably a different wine every time. I stay with a style or region to get a good feel for what is going on; I am just coming out of a Cotes du Rhone vs California phase .

How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Hiking, hunting, and hanging out with my family.

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? U.S.A.

 

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Te Mata Estate, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand

 

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Te Mata Estate in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, was founded in 1896. The property was acquired by John and Wendy Buck in 1978, and is currently run by Nicholas Buck, the Estate Director, who has been with the winery, as he puts it, for “life”.   Fortunately, I met Nick in person today, since his answers to my Q&A (below) in advance of my trip, were terse and cheeky. Turns out, he’s a super affable guy surrounded by a lovely team of folks that treat each other like family. Winemaker Peter Cowley has been crafting their iconic Bordeaux blend Coleraine for the nearly 30 years of its production, and this afternoon, the fantastic Mr. Larry Morgan drove me around vineyard sites, and introduced me to the hardworking Czechs (not chicks, as I later found out) who help net the vines to prevent birds from nibbling grapes as they ripen.

A few words from the winery’s site:

Te Mata Estate was established in 1896, specialising in high-quality wines of classical style. All steps in the production of our wines are undertaken by us, from grape growing and pruning through to winemaking and bottling. Today, Te Mata Estate is recognized as one of New Zealand’s most iconic and prestigious wine producers, making nearly 40,000 cases a year of premium wine and exporting to over 40 countries.

Regarding the physical winery, horse stables, constructed in the 1870s, were converted into a winery by the Chambers family in the 1890s, and are today the centre of Te Mata Estate’s winemaking. The winery has since been updated in design, with the aim to create a modern wine-making complex that reflected the character of the landscape. Specializing in in-fill architecture and innovative modernist design, Athfield Architects created a series of buildings to reflect the art deco heritage of Hawke’s Bay and the art nouveau heritage of the original Chambers homestead.

Signature Wines and Prices:

  • Coleraine NZ$90
  • Awatea Cabernet/Merlot NZ$40
  • Bullnose Syrah NZ$50
  • Elston Chardonnay NZ$40
  • Cape Crest Sauvignon Blanc NZ$30
  • Zara Viognier NZ$30

What philosophy guides your viticulture and/or enology? Maximising the potential of Te Mata Estate.

What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)? Disrupting the wine world status quo.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing/winemaking in your region? Hawke’s bay’s ability to produce world leading wines across an array of wine styles.

What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? The growing international recognition of the absolute quality of Hawke’s Bay’s best wines.

How do you think Americans perceive NZ wines? Source of widely available, inexpensive, reliable, good qpr, light-bodied, straight-forward, aromatic, fruity, white wines.

What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Least? Favorite = Sonoma; Least = Napa.

Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected? Cabernet Sauvignon.

What do you drink at home when relaxing? Wine.

How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Family.

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? Mars.

Give one surprising fact about yourself. Alternative career ambition was an astronaut.

 

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Man O’War Vineyards, Waiheke Island, New Zealand

ManOWarwithDuncan

Man O’War Vineyards was my last stop yesterday on Waiheke Island before heading off to the mainland wine regions and Hawke’s Bay. Duncan McTavish, Winemaker for the last five years, and Matt Allen, Vineyard Manager, showed me around the tasting room and property, the grapevines for which were first planted in the late 1990s. We tasted through their line-up, including the wild ferment Valhalla Chardonnay and two vintages of the dense, smoky Dreadnought Syrah, one of their signature wines that’s also available in the States (and by the glass at The Musket Room in NYC). Duncan took time to answer a few questions about the winery’s viticulture philosophy and the pros and cons to winemaking on Waiheke. 

Signature Wines:

  • Dreadnought Syrah NZD$55
  • Valhalla Chardonnay NZD$34

What philosophy guides your viticulture?  We have 76 vineyards spread over 175 acres so a lot of small parcels of fruit arrive at the winery. We want to understand each vineyard so the approach is to let each parcel speak for itself by doing as little as possible in the winery.

What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine? All of the above!
 
What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing/winemaking in your region? The benefits are that 90% of our property is bordered by the ocean giving us a unique maritime climate coupled with volcanic soils and a varied topography allowing us to produce a diverse range of wines from a single estate. The drawbacks are that it is a challenging landscape and very labour intensive.
 
What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? The people–there are some interesting characters in NZ making interesting wines.
 
How do you think Americans (or the outside world generally) perceive NZ wines? I would hope they are regarded as premium wines.
 
What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Favourite would be a tie between the Mosel and Burgundy (like, probably, 90% of kiwi winemakers).  I’d love to travel to Portugal, but as I haven’t been there yet, I can’t call it my favourite.  Least? I don’t have one.

ManOWarWaiheke 
Which wine or grape is the least understood or respected? Pinot Gris.
 
What do you drink at home when relaxing? Depends on the season but white Burgundy and Northern Rhone.
 
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Fishing and 2 young kids.
 
If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? I’ve just come back from a two week around-the-world sales trip so I would travel down the road to my local beach; that or be transported to the Maldives.
 
Give one surprising fact about yourself. I’d be surprised if I could answer that…

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Destiny Bay Winery, Waiheke Island, New Zealand

DestinyBayMikeLaurenSean

Sean Spratt (an American by birth) is a very busy, multiple-hat wearing General Manager, Co-Owner (with his parents Mike and Anne) and Winemaker at Destiny Bay on Waiheke Island–aka Wine Island–New Zealand. My first stop on a 3-week journey across the country, Spratt took time to answer a long-distance interview before my arrival on January 26th (which is now today). We touched on topics such as the cost of doing business as a winery on a very expensive, little island; his predilection for scuba diving; and the “Sideways” effect on Merlot.

A little about the winery:

Destiny Bay Vineyards is located in a small, north facing valley on Waiheke Island, New Zealand. Established in 2000, Destiny Bay grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot from top-grade clones selected from premium wine districts around the world.

Destiny Bay’s Signature Wines and Prices (Prices are in USD and include taxes and shipping to customer door within 48 Continental US States. Must order in multiples of 8, 12 or 15 bottles):

  • Magna Praemia RRP $330 / $180 Patron Club
  • Mystae RRP $150 / $85 Patron Club
  • Destinae RRP $100 / $60 Patron ClubDestinyBayBottles

What philosophy guides your viticulture and enology practices? We produce New Zealand’s highest rated and most expensive wine.  We have an obligation to our patrons to uphold this tradition based on quality and artistic expression of our site through the wines.  All decisions from grape to bottling are guided by this philosophy.  That being said, our belief is that great wines are made in the vineyard not in the winery.  Furthermore, we feel that expression of the fruit and vineyard is critical and that is why we do a level of grading and sorting that is unparalleled in New Zealand.

What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)?  Adapting to changing conditions without lowering any standard.  It means our vintage volume swings wildly from year to year, wreaking havoc on capacity, oak barrel ordering, supplies and the psyche of our whole team.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing and winemaking on Waiheke? Waiheke’s unique weather and soils allow us to grow grapes of uncommon character – especially the Bordeaux varieties at our site.  The drawback is that it is ridiculously expensive to do this.

What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now?  Hopefully we are about to shift our global narrative to remind the world that nobody makes fine wine with the same commitment to protecting the planet as New Zealand does.

How do you think Americans perceive NZ wines?  As an American by birth I have a pretty good idea.  By and large most who know us recognize us for being a value priced, good quality, Sauvignon Blanc.  In very small circles, Destiny Bay has cultivated a distinctly different perception.

What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Your least? Santa Cruz Mountains and Howell Mountain. Least is Romania, although even they are improving (slowly).

Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected? That is tough.  I am going to say Merlot because of the effect the movie “Sideways” had on popular culture.  I’m amazed at how often people still talk about that scene from the movie.  Otherwise, probably Riesling.  Riesling is the grape that winemakers and wine-writers love and always seem flummoxed over why it isn’t more popular in the marketplace.

What do you drink at home when relaxing?  A wide range of red and white wines from all over the world.  I love the obscure varieties that aren’t common place (Marsanne, Roussanne, Picpoul de Pinet, Nebbiolo, etc…) Of course, I drink our wines, but as a winemaker, I am constantly looking to taste and explore wines from everywhere.

How do you spend your free time (if you have any)?  I had a little bit of a chuckle when I read this question.  You realize you are asking this question of a winemaker who is also an owner in what has to be one of the most vertically integrated global wineries that produces less than 2500 cases per year, right?  Joking aside, with what little free time I have, I run/swim/cycle to stay healthy in body and mind since winemaking at the level which we operate requires a lot of concentration.  Recreationally, I have a monthly wine club with friends, and when I travel, I try to hit wine regions I haven’t been to before, but also try to make sure I get a stopover in a tropical location where there is great scuba diving.

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? I would love to visit Portugal and explore their wine regions.  Also, I have yet to make it to the Margaret River in West Australia.  Otherwise, I try to make a trip to California each year to see family and friends.

Give one surprising fact about yourself.  I used to be a stage actor and I am also a PADI Dive Instructor.

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