Waipara & Canterbury

“What makes me want to make wine is its ability to talk about where it comes from,” says Belinda Gould. Part and parcel of ‘making the soil talk’ is to intervene as little as possible in the winemaking – minimal intervention is a catch-cry in Waipara and Canterbury these days. Gould, winemaker at Muddy Water (tastings) since 2000, worked two prior vintages at icon California pinot noir winery Calera (tastings), a choice she made because “Calera was an estate concept (with a raft of single-vineyard pinots), and it used native yeasts.”

“I use no additives,” she says, as we browse the straw-bale Muddy Water winery tasting from barrels. “Not even DAP (a common yeast nutrient). Everything is as natural as possible. If you are going to reflect the terroir you can’t go adding things, or you change it all.” Syrah, for example, often develops sulphide during vinification, and winemakers often do a copper sulphate fining to get rid of it. “I don’t use copper because it changes the palate texture.”

The natural winemaking trend is a popular one now, not only in New Zealand but all over the world. It is tied closely to the notion of terroir, and the desire of winemakers to make wines that reflect their vineyard site and are therefore unique to their terroir. The challenge to discover their terroir is what drives many of today’s winemakers.

Pioneer Mike Weersing, of Pyramid Valley (tastings), articulates this thought clearly: “I wanted to find a place which might have a voice that could be added to the vast chorus of great wine sites in the world.” And…”People asked ‘Why aren’t you in Marlborough or Hawkes Bay or Waipara?’ And the answer lies in the soil type: limestone. Soil is what I wanted to drive the concept.”

Until his own vineyards are fully producing on the exciting site he and his wife Claudia have planted, Weersing is sourcing grapes from all about: Marlborough, Hawkes Bay and Central Otago. The first wines from Pyramid Valley are very promising. The ’07 Angel Flower Block Pinot Noir is very fragrant, ethereal and delicate with just 11.8% alcohol. But the ’07 is scarcely representative of what the land might produce: its early picking was forced, and the wine is a bit too lean and slightly bitter.

But the ’06 Earth Smoke Pinot Noir, from a different block, is a triumph for a first crop off six-year-old vines. It’s sweetly floral and spicy/tobaccoey, and has plenty of amplitude thanks to full ripeness and 13% alcohol, with soft tannins and nicely mellowing personality.

The Weersings have planted four vineyards in the bowl that encircles their home over the last nine years, two to chardonnay, two to pinot noir. All vines are close-spaced (10,000 to 12,000 vines per hectare) and managed biodynamically. Pyramid Valley is an exciting project, full of promise.

Limestone is also the raison d’etre of Bell Hill (tastings), and the first time I tasted the ’04 chardonnay, about four years ago, I was rivetted by its restrained power, its delicacy and finesse, its precise minerally fruit and taut length. For years I had wondered why New Zealand never produced a good Chablis style, and this was exactly what I’d been searching for. The ’06 is also superb in a richer, less restrained style. The first, ‘experimental’, vintage of chardonnay was 2002.

Seeing the steep, terraced slope for the first time, with individually staked vines reminiscent of the Mosel Valley, it’s tempting to observe that extraordinary sites yield extraordinary wines.

A unique site? “Well, we don’t know anywhere else in New Zealand that’s remotely like this,” said Marcel. It’s just six acres all up, and already the different blocks have shown distinct characters.

But limestone can come with its drawbacks. The pH of the soil in what Sherwin and Marcel call the Limeworks block is so high that the pinot noir vines were dying of chlorosis. They had to be pulled out and replaced with vines grafted to a special lime-resistant rootstock.

“We stayed away the day the vines were pulled,” says Sherwin. “We couldn’t bear to be here. It was 12 years down the drain.” But Rome wasn’t built in a day and maybe pioneers should expect the odd setback. “They don’t call pinot the heartbreak grape for nothing,” Marcel added.

Belinda Gould is very interested in soil. She worked for a time at Neudorf (tastings) in Nelson, where – she says – the clay gave volume to the wines: they were big, fat, soft wines. But she wanted ‘more than just bulbous fruit’. Limestone, on the other hand, gives firm, tight wines with aging ability – like the chardonnay of Chablis.

“Soil isn’t everything,” she concedes, “but if you’re going out into a paddock to plant, you’d be silly not to take notice of what they’ve learnt in the Old World over centuries.”

Pegasus Bay is of course not on the calcareous soils of the eastern hills, nor the upturned limestone slab faults of Canterbury’s Pyramid Valley/Bell Hill area. It’s on the gravelly, pebbly, silty old river flats of the Waipara Valley proper. Here, vignerons run the gauntlet of frost every year, and one pair of adjoining vineyards on the flats are reputed to have 53 wind machines. These huge fans aim to stir up the freezing cold air in an effort to prevent frost damage to vines. Helicopters are also in big demand for the same reason.

The region is New Zealand’s fourth biggest but still only has 12 wineries (with 25 to 30 producers and about 70 grapegrowers). Its future is limited by the frost threat, and also by water – which seems odd in a country as wet as New Zealand. But it’s quite a dry climate with 600 mm average rainfall and big demand on irrigation water, largely from the dairy industry.

“This is not a region suited to industrial viticulture,” says Belinda Gould, pointing to the hardships of the ’05 and ’07 seasons, when yields were paltry. Indeed, Muddy Water was on the market for a period, Danny Schuster’s winery was in receivership at time of visiting and there have been some amalgamations, such as Waipara Hills (tastings) being absorbed into Mud House (tastings).

In 2005 and ’07 the yields were only 25 to 30% of a normal crop. With a recession on top of that, a lot of owners are feeling the pinch. Despite Belinda Gould’s statement, there are several large vineyards, notably Pernod Ricard and the Mud House group, which are on the flats, where higher yields are expected. She, like other locals, think they’re mistaken if they think they can do broad-acre, low-cost viticulture. “We can never compete with Marlborough here. We shouldn’t even try. We’re more like Yarra Valley or Mornington Peninsula. This district has very good potential for boutique winemaking and winery tourism.”

Muddy Water’s 15 hectares of vineyards are in conversion to organic. Like most wine regions, there’s growing interest in caring for the land. Pegasus Bay‘s Edward Donaldson, who is marketing manager and runs the restaurant, says Pegasus’s vineyard (tastings) is virtually organic, but they’re not interested in going biodynamic. And they’re probably not going to certify themselves organic. Like many vignerons, they espouse sustainable principles but don’t want to make a fuss about it. It’s a happy coincidence that at a time of great concern over sustainability and the health of the environment, chemical-free and low-input viticulture is also increasingly seen as part of making wines with terroir, or a sense of place.

While the valley flats may be frost-prone, they can make superb wines, and Pegasus Bay is the shining example. The Donaldson family, a bunch of characters if ever there was one, have always made idiosyncratic wines since they started in 1986. They have a substantial vineyard of 35 hectares and their second label, often containing excellent and characterful wines in their own right, is Main Divide (tastings).

Phenolics seem to be a signature of these wines: the rieslings have a decided Alsace-like grip, and the pinot noirs are some of New Zealand’s most firmly structured.

Like my travelling companion in Waipara, Nick Bulleid, I was most impressed by the region’s rieslings. They are its hidden gems: beautifully fragrant wines of delicacy and taut mineral/citrus flavours, often laced with honey and apricot from botrytis. They vary in their phenolic grip according to the maker’s whim, Pegasus Bay and Muddy Water (on quite different dirt) being pro-phenolics. As Belinda Gould said: “I’m not a Mosel girl. I prefer Alsace – I like texture and structure.” And a higher level of alcohol…around 12.5 to 13% which is higher than cool-grown German rieslings. She also likes her rieslings dry, ferments with natural yeasts and likes to ferment and mature in barrels of seasoned oak. The result is that Muddy Water’s are rieslings of an individual style, with more backbone and savouriness – but not necessarily lacking fragrance or delicacy.

Similar remarks might be made about Pegasus Bay’s rieslings, where Lynnette Hudson (co-winemaker with husband Matthew Donaldson) likes to make wines of character and complexity: anything but pristine and delicate. They’re often full in the mouth, with plenty of alcohol (say 13%), some phenolics and often noticeable sweetness, and frequently a touch of botrytis (which tends to raise the phenolic level even further).

“The phenolics are natural Waipara,” says Lynnette, and their grip helps dry the finish in wines with some residual sweetness. It all adds up to a very individual interpretation of riesling, one which I personally like but which may polarise tasters. “We believe strongly in riesling for this area,” she added.

Pegasus Bay make several styles: Main Divide tends to have some botrytis and the highest sweetness; Pegasus Bay has more pristine fruit and a drier balance despite also having notable sweetness; and Bel Canto is the driest (the ’08 had 8 grams per litre residual sugar) (tastings) and is rich, full and forward. And there are two sweeties: Aria Late Harvest (tastings), which is very rich, sweet and opulent, and Encore Noble Riesling (tastings), which is a real ‘sticky’: lots of botrytis, harvested in June, not made every year but in years like ’07 (tastings) a magical wine.

All Pegasus Bay wines are different. The Donaldsons simply don’t “do” conventional. Sauvignon blanc is as far removed from middle-of-the-road Marlborough as it’s possible to be: it’s blended with semillon, fermented in old barrels, has some struck-flint character and is quite Graves-like.

Chardonnay (tastings) is where Pegasus really sprouts wings and leaves terra firma behind. The winemakers don’t like to see fruit. They prefer lots of pongy, reductive sulfides, and the wines can be quite confronting. “I hate simple, fruity New Zealand chardonnay,” Lynnette said emphatically. She certainly succeeds in avoiding that style! Wild ferments, older barrels, high solids in the juice, 50 to 60% malolactic, stirred lees – it’s all happening here, and all adds character. These are rich, multi-layered chardonnays that really deliver a mouthful of flavour. And it’s not all funk: you’ll find mealy, buttery, toasted hazelnut characters aplenty.

And finally, pinot noir (tastings). Again, character is maximised and Lynnette doesn’t shy away from tannin or body. They are big, rich, flavourful wines with “backbone and pinosity”, to use her own expression. Even the Main Divide has flavour, weight and character in spadefuls. She, like other winemakers in the area, is very excited about 2009 (tastings), “A wicked vintage for pinot noir – the best I’ve ever seen.” The stalks and tannins were so lignified, they used a lot of whole bunches in the ferments. The wines should be very powerful and very structured. A pointer to what we can expect is the ’06 Prima Donna (tastings), the reserve-level pinot noir, which is a barrel selection – usually off the West Block, the first to be picked most years. It has a shy nose and a tannic, solid, chunky palate in which you have to go hunting for the fruit. “I do like linear styles of pinot noir, that’s ’06. Big tannins; high acid. The best vintage prior to ’09.” But this is a big brute of a pinot, by her own admission. “Tannin is what it’s all about. Pinot noir needs tannins. Too many New Zealand pinots are sweet and fruity and have no structure or ability to develop.” Whole berries and whole bunches lead to softer, rounder tannins, and post fermentation maceration leads to finer, longer tannins. “You lose primary up-front flavours but you gain structure.”

Do these monsters ever soften up, mellow out and show off their pinot charms?

By way of reply, Lynnette dusts off a bottle of the ’98. And it is delicious: complex, earthy, meaty/gamy and full of personality. Soft, rich and deep in the mouth with appropriate maturity. It still has lots of body and soft tannins galore, but it’s mellow and ready. “The ’06 should mature like that,” she says.

First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine – Feb-Mar 2010.

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