2013 Vintage

Arriving hard on vintage were our 110 barrels from Matahiwi – here on the front lawn – over $1 million worth. It looked daunting while they were still on the truck, but once in the winery, on the specially reinforced area reserved for them, they looked as if they were always meant to be there, stacked four high.


Everyone’s been talking up the 2013 harvest, saying it’s a perfect year, but I reckon it’s never a perfect vintage until it’s in the bottle. True enough, the night before we were due to start picking the Pinot Noir, April 5th, I woke up to the sound of the frost machines, starting up and down the valley. However, all was okay and we picked in perfect weather.

The winery worked perfectly. The first grapes to come off were some premium Pinot Noir grown for Rod Easthope, a highly regarded independent winemaker in Hawke’s Bay, and some specially grown for Cloudy Bay, who want to make a Martinborough Pinot Noir.

After their grapes had gone, our first grapes came into our new winery. The first to arrive went into a vat for whole bunch fermentation. Then the main pick went into the destemmer for ferment. Colin of course had the honour of tipping the first bin into the destemmer.


Simon Groves is our winemaker. He has huge experience internationally and in New Zealand. His “cellar rat” (who has actually also had substantial experience winemaking internationally and in New Zealand) is Geoffrey Franklin.

Rowan Hoskins, viticulturalist and vineyard manager supervises the picking, with Tony and Steve, and of course the dogs – Hawk and Whetu and Rowan’s dog Jet – help too.


And me? What’s my job now? Making lunches like a good kiwi girl. Sandwiches mostly. Buying pies, scones, muffins from Roger at Providore when I’m too busy with my journalism duties. I felt like my mother when she made food for the shearers.

Just over a week later we finished the Pinot Noir and the Pinot Gris. The Noir came in at 24.5 brix; the Gris at 25, about where everyone wanted it to be, ie, not too hot and alcoholic.

So far the Viognier and Syrah is chugging along nicely. We just want another couple of weeks of balmy autumn weather, then we can get them off, and hopefully say, Yes, 2013 is a very good year.


Martinborough Syrah – James 2008

Last Sunday we had lunch with our friends the McCallums – Dawn and Neil who founded Dry River and built it into the most amazingly successful company. Neil is one of the greatest wine makers I’ve ever met, I think, and he’s also very funny. Great company. Dawn’s a marriage celebrant and one of my biking mates – The Pinot Pedallers. One of the interesting things Neil said – and his knowledge is astounding – was that about three years ago he wrote an article predicting New Zealand would get into the mess it is in now with sauvignon blanc, especially in Marlborough. Now he predicts we will soon be in a similiar mess with pinot noir, particularly also in Marlborough and Central Otago. New Zealanders, unfortunately, are such band-wagon jumpers.

Which is why we are pleased we have stuck to our guns and our gut instincts, and stayed with just one primary label, (that is, have not pushed cheaper wine out there under a secondary label) kept our tonnage down (ie bunch-dropped), kept the quality high, and not sacrified quality for quantity. Despite the urgings of those who think they know best, we have not rushed out and found “a distributor”, but carried on quietly selling our wine by word of mouth, and it is solidly selling. There is nothing worse than a distributor mucking up and selling cheap, because you’ll never get the price back up again.

Anyway, all this preamble brings me to our other diversification – the Syrah, from the hot Rhone corner of the vineyard. The 2008 Syrah, which Martinborough’s other master winemaker, Larry McKenna helped us make (and I’d have to say, he’s also the best winemaker I’ve ever met – but let’s face it, I know so little about making wine I’m easy to impress), has now been in the barrels for 18 months. So last Saturday we began racking it off to aerate it a little and freshen it up. racking syrah 001We saved some to drink and it is drinking just lovely. Quite full on the mouth when you first take it in, but holding its flavour well all the way down. A good hearty syrah, I’d say, which will mature very well. We left it in two tanks for a couple of days then pumped it back into the barrels, and it will go into bottles, barely (if at all) filtered, very soon. racking syrah 002This is very exciting – we have six barrels of this to be released, probably in about late 2010, 2011.racking syrah 004What a lovely colour!

Processing Syrah

Queen’s Birthday Weekend in New Zealand – the first weekend in June – means we have a public holiday on the Monday, and this year it was the coldest weekend I can remember in many a long year. We woke up on Sunday to snow on the hills:processing syrah 005

We’d made the decision to press the Syrah on the Saturday. Ben, Colin’s youngest son, came over from Wellington on the train for the day, it being his birthday. First we pumped 1000 litres of free-flow Syrah into ‘Annabel’, the stainless steel tank. Then I changed into shorts and an old hoodie, with only a baker-boy hat for warmth, and climbed into the 2000 litre tank and shovelled the fruit into buckets for Colin to haul up and out and tip into the white 550 litre tank, on to the trailer. A messy business:processing syrah 001







processing syrah 002The fruit filled one 550 litre tank, and about a quarter of a second. This was taken next door to Te Hera Vineyard, the winery of our neighbour John Douglas, and pressed in his red wine press. It’s a slow process.


processing syrah 003John’s on the left, with Ben centre and Colin on the right, slightly out of focus but it was a freezing cold day and we weren’t standing still for long.

The Syrah berries were interesting. Unlike Pinot Noir, they stubbornly hold their shape as long as they can, even in the press, and burst through those wooden slats you can see, even exploding up to the ceiling of John’s winery, dripping down over his hair and back. We had quite a fun time over there. But it’s great seeing the cassis-coloured juice pour out from the fruit – we pressed another 500 litres out of the fruit before we stopped when the tannins started to taste too bitter.processing syrah 004

This took the whole day – 8am to 5.30pm with no stops for lunch or cuppas. Hard work but very satisfying, and boy do you appreciate that glass of wine at the end of the day, and the long hot bath. The other two very happy customers were the pigs, who are still gorging themselves on the pressed grapes taken out of the wine press. I fully expected to go down on Sunday morning and find them moaning about having hangovers, but no. They have red snouts, and they’ve made a good job of levelling the pile of fruit, but they are really enjoying their diet of sweet Syrah.

For now the pressed juice is settling. Tomorrow we’ll pump it all back together into the 2000 litre tank, then this weekend it will go into barrels.

The Un-Glamorous Side to Wine Making

Today I realised one of the benefits of being a thin wine maker when I had to clean out the tanks and containers. Yesterday, after we tested the Viognier and the Ph was down to the required level, we pumped the premier 200 litres off into our new Italian stainless steel tank which has a lid with an inflatable seal and a fermenting bung so it keeps all oxygen off the wine:cleaning 004

Then we blended the remainder of the premier ferment with the ferment which we’d left in the “Annabel” tank, which had been fermenting too fast (becomes too dry) and pumped it into an oak barrel. It will still have some yeast cells in it, but the yeast will counteract the oak. We don’t want to over-oak the fruit. Here it is in the barrel, with its own little fermenting bung:cleaning 003

So just now I had to crawl into this little hole in “Annabel” and scrub out her insides with a steel wool so she’s ready to take the Syrah juice this weekend. Lord knows what anyone would have thought if they’d come to the door of the winery and seen my butt sticking out out of the 1200 litre stainless steel tank, legs, stretched across the winery floor, gumboots attached. I must say though, it was a lovely smell inside that tank.

The cap on the Syrah has dropped and we’ll let it sit this week. It’s a gorgeous colour with the look and smell of cassis. Would make a lovely fabric:cleaning 001

To put it in context, this is a shot taken a bit further back:cleaning 002

So it’s been too busy to go riding, to go biking, to do anything else but look after the wine. The Pinot Gris is selling like hot cakes. I called into Martinborough Winemaker Services this morning to collect another ten cases to take to Wellington tomorrow, and Lewis was as pleased as Punch in their brand new, huge, warehouse. It was amazing to see all our James wines in their own special corner, now much easier to locate when we need them. Quite inspiring to see all those cases stacked up high, knowing all that wine comes out of our ground here. But, enough romanticising, back to the steel wool, the rubber gloves, head down, butt up.

It just gets better

I ended the last journal entry with a note about some thrilling news. Well, there have been two lots. First, we collected our labelled 2008 Pinot Gris, and we think it looks really classy:pinot gris 08 006

The day I brought ten boxes home from Martinborough Winemakers’ Services, Simon Grove from the Martinborough Wine Centre came out and took two boxes for a promotion. The next day, before we could even get it to Wellington, Shed 5 restaurant, and Pravda restaurant, from the Nourish Group, already had it on their wine lists. Then three days later, Arbitrageur also added it to their wine list.

Once again, this wine was made by Jane Cooper at Matahiwi and she’s very pleased with the result. It’s a lovely pinot gris, not too dry. You can still taste the fruit.

The other good news came from over the road at Escarpment. I dropped off samples of our 2008 Syrah, which was made by Larry McKenna, and our 2009 Syrah, to test for the total acid (t/a) and ph.  The 2008 has been in six oak barrels in our winery since May 2008, topped up by us, and Larry confirmed the malo has now completed and it is “exactly where we want it to be, it’s about right” with the ph at 3.59 and the t/a at 6.2. So when we’ve finished plunging the 2009 syrah and racked it off into barrels, we’ll look at bottling that 2008 syrah.

The 2009 syrah’s test results were also very good with the ph at 3.42 and the t/a at 7, according to Larry “it’s okay…I’d personally leave it alone, maybe add acid when it’s finished fermenting.” This from the master winemaker himself, who doesn’t tell you what you want to hear. So we are well pleased.

Que Syrah Syrah

Whatever will be, will be. A damn fine wine, that’s what it will be.

Jancis Robinson  calls Syrah “one of the noblest black grape varieties, if nobility is bestowed by an ability to produce serious red wines capable of ageing magestically for decades” (The Oxford Companion to Wine, 1994, Oxford University Press). Of all our four grape varieties, Syrah certainly looks the most picturesque in the vineyard.


The bunches almost look like those wax or plastic grapes your nana used to have in fruit bowls, when grapes were far too expensive for working people to buy. It’s a tricky grape for us to grow (like Viognier) because for our cool climate it ripens late and we have to wait for the grapes to shrivel a little, to soften, before we harvest. On the other hand, there’s a risk that if they’re left too long on the vine they lose a lot of their flavour. We have 2000 vines, and we picked on Monday, with Nick’s pickers. John Porter brought his destemmer over to Redbank, which sat over our new Italian 2000 litre stainless steel tank. Here are the grapes falling into the tank:vintage-014

It was hard work, lifting the picking bins up to John on the new platform, but fun, with everyone working away trying to keep up with the pickers. vintage-016That’s John up on the platform, Nick Hoskins passing up bins, and me in the background (I think I’m washing equipment having just poured the yeast into the Viognier). We quickly filled our tank – almost too full as it turned out – so we have 2000 litres of Syrah 2009. The brix came in at 25 – perfect. We couldn’t have asked for better. Today I took a sample over to Larry McKenna at Escarpment and he’s doing a Ph and T/A (total acid) test for us so it will be interesting to see what that comes in at. I also took a sample of our 2008 Syrah, which Larry made and which has been in barrels in our winery since May 2008, for the same tests, so we’ll see if that’s ready for bottling.

Last night, Wednesday, Colin and I mixed up the Syrah yeast – it takes two hours to get it to the right temperature – then innoculated the Syrah. Now we have to plunge the cap four times a day. Colin gets up at 6am for the first plunge. I do two during the day, and he does the fourth when he gets home at night. It’s incredibly hard, physical work, and when you lift the lid off the tank the CO2 hits you in the face. But it’s nice working in the winery; taking the temperature of the juice, making sure it’s not getting too warm, putting your ear to the tanks and listening to the incredible noises of the ferment. When I do my plunging I put on some Maria Callas and work my way through about 20 arias, figuring if the diva can put so much energy into her voice, I can try and equal the energy into the Syrah. And who knows, maybe some good Verdi and Puccini helps make some beautiful wine. Did you ever read “Like Water For Chocolate”? Well, there you go.

And in the middle of all this excitement, we had some more thrilling news. You can read about that in the next blog instalment…

Holy Wine

Last Sunday was Harvest Festival at St Andrew’s Church in Martinborough. church

Mum, as per expected, was loaded down with beetroot, rhubarb, bottled fruit, pickles and jams, when we arrived to collect her. We took some fruit jellies and a bottle of James 2006 Pinot Noir. May Croft, our fabulous vicar, who is actually an archdeacon, used our James Pinot Noir as the communion wine that day and I can tell you we were pretty chuffed. As was the rest of the congregation that morning. It was a wonderful service, actually, with all the children set to work making vegetable animals. Honor, who has an olive grove, had made an enormous loaf of fresh bread and May consecrated that as well for the communion bread, upon which nobody choked. It was lovely. Then afterwards we retired to the parish hall for more wine, local cheeses, fresh bread and local olive oil.

Katherine Jacobs and Jeremy Corban, who have Big Sky Wines further along Te Muna Road, also attend our church. As you do at this time of the year, we immediately compared notes and they’ve picked a few tonnes already to make their first methode. Very exciting – no chardonnay involved, just pure pinot noir, but in two years’ time it will be very interesting to see what it is like. Katherine works so hard, I see her driving up and down our road to their vineyard (they live in the village, and Jeremy works in the city), some days I swear she’s going to drop in the dust. But she seems to have endless energy. So much, in fact, that she occasionally walks to work over the farms, about five kilometres up and down hills, then cycles home again, about seven kilometres. They deserve every success from their Big Sky Wines.

I guess it’s not every vineyard can boast their product has been used in a spiritual service, and Colin said he had a tear in his eye during the service. But as I look out the window at the ripe grapes just now, I realise that’s what the harvest festival is all about. But before I get too sentimental, I chuckle at what Colin said when I asked him what James, his late son after whom the wine is named, would have thought of its consecration on Sunday. “He probably would have asked me what the hell I was playing at,” was his reply.