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‘Less is More’ – Fromm Winery, Marlborough
William ‘Will’ Hoare made his first wine in Marlborough when he was 11 years old, and was later kicked out of high school for selling bottles of it to his friends, and fellow students.
“As punishment, I had to help out at Cloudy Bay, making boxes up by hand, for about eight months,” recalls Will. “Every day, I’d ask if I could go into the wine cellar until, one day, they finally let me in.”
Will is now General Manager of Fromm Winery, in Marlborough, New Zealand, and, together with Fromm’s original and highly revered Swiss-born winemaker, Hätsch Kalberer, makes some of the best examples of wine from the region.
“George and Ruth Fromm were Swiss and came out to New Zealand, in the late 1980’s, to retrace the steps of some ancestors who had been here 100 years before,” explains Will, “and, when they arrived in Marlborough, George, who was a fifth generation winegrower in Switzerland, thought that this would be a great place to grow grapes.”
George returned to Marlborough in the early 90’s with the ambition of planting a vineyard. During this time, the region was still finding its feet on the New World wine stage, but growers in the area had already begun to latch onto the unique flavours of sauvignon blanc emanating from the free draining alluvial soils of the Wairau plains. Back then, many grape growers simply planted vines on large swathes of land, spaced far apart, with the same grape variety dominating the entire site, and not taking much notice of the shifting differences in soil structure which usually happens beneath a particular patch of earth.
“The cool thing that George did,” says Will, “was that, at the time, Marlborough was all about sauvignon blanc and people were looking at 20 acres like it was just one bit of dirt. But, George had experience and understood site and soil variation, and he knew that 20 acres wasn’t made up of just one soil type. So, he planted one of the first vineyards in Marlborough where they really looked at each different soil type within a site and tried to match particular red grape varieties to a specific patch of ground.”
With the inevitable commercialisation of wine, one where just about anyone and everyone can (and does) make the same type of wine for an undiscerning market, the influx of me-too wines has seen growers in Marlborough take a second look at their ‘bits of dirt’ in an attempt to try and find some individuality within the uniqueness of the Marlborough palate.
“For a while there, so long as you didn’t make a bad wine, it would just fly out the door,” says Will, “whereas now, there’s wine everywhere and it’s tough to differentiate yourself. In that respect, it’s like we’re a generation ahead of everyone else, because of what George originally did (when he planted the vineyard).”
Fromm make wines from three main vineyards sites within Marlborough, all of which are managed certified organically. The Quarters and Clayvin vineyards are both growers vineyards where the winery makes chardonnay and pinot noir from. Clayvin gets its name from the clay soils underneath the hills and slopes that rise up from the Wairau Valley floor. The 5 ha Fromm, or Home vineyard, which borders the winery and cellar door, lies on Marlborough’s famous silt and alluvial gravels (the result of many ancient flood events across the Wairau Valley floor) and is planted with riesling, gewürztraminer and pinot gris, malbec, pinot noir and syrah. The syrah makes up around 1 ha and was originally planted in 1992, with more planted in 2000, after Will and Hätsch recognised the grape’s potential to make outstanding wine from this site.
“Marlborough syrah has always gotten a bad wrap,” explains Will, “and I don’t know why. I think it’s quite exciting because it’s not as naturally tannic as pinot. I reckon it’s almost the perfect variety for Marlborough, which sounds funny because there’s only 2 ha of it in total production.”
It takes almost the entire season for Marlborough syrah to fully ripen, because of the cool climate. In fact, it’s usually not ready to be picked until quite late in the season, when all the leaves have started to turn brown.
“I always call it ‘double concentrated pinot’,” Will continues, “because you get the classic hallmarks of syrah, like the primary black fruit and leatheriness, but it’s not as heavy or dull as it could be, but rather light and more lifted, showing violet and plum characteristics.”
Recently, the Fromm 2010 La Strada Syrah received the highest rating for a New Zealand syrah, from The World of Fine Wine Magazine, which is something Will is quite proud of. He credits much of this to not only Hätsch’s skills as a great winemaker, but to the way in which the Fromm vineyards, including Quarters and Clayvin, are managed using an organic (and sometimes biodynamic) regime.
“We converted over to organics because we knew we could make better wines,” says Will. “Even in the very beginning, we’d never sprayed the vines with pesticides, so it was fairly simple to convert over… Also, in Marlborough, it’s dry and windy, and the soils aren’t massively vigorous, so it’s actually easy to be organic here,” he adds.
Fromm are certified organic by BioGro and are members of Marlborough Natural Winegrowers, or MaNa for short.
“There’s a real difference between being organic and being certified organic,” says Will. “Being certified adds a whole other level of integrity to what you’re doing, because you can prove it, and have it validated by an independent third party organisation, which goes beyond some perceivable marketing advantage.”
Since inception, the goal for Fromm has been to make site specific, terroir driven wine, and the organic regime is proving to be a great tool to help them achieve that. Will explains that he’s not interested in being organic for marketing purposes, and would much rather have his wine sold in the New Zealand fine wine section of a bottle shop, because it deserves to be there, rather than only in the organic section, just because that’s what it is.
“First and foremost, it’s always been about the quality of wine we make, rather than how it’s grown,” says Will. “I’ve given up trying to prove to people that organics works, and that it has the potential to help you make better wine. I’d rather just show the wines to people and let them judge the quality for themselves.”
In addition to a chemical free regime, it helps to have one of New Zealand’s most respected and accomplished winemakers transforming your grapes into wine. As the story goes, Hätsch Kalberer arrived in New Zealand, trying to escape the nuclear tensions of the Cold War enveloping Europe, including his homeland of Switzerland, in the early 1980’s. Able to go no further, he got a job as a hose dragger for a winery in Gisborne and slowly learnt the art of winemaking, before a chance meeting in the late 80’s with fellow Swiss, George Fromm, who asked if he would help him to establish the Fromm vineyard and winery in 1992. Hätsch agreed and has been making wine there ever since.
“Pretty much, both Hätsch and I learnt by doing,” says Will, with regards to how they both learnt to make wine. ” I don’t think it’s really something you can learn from just reading a text book. You have to learn what to do by doing it, and eventually, you’ll come to know it.”
Fromm make most of their wines in much the same way. The grapes are hand picked into small 10kg bins to avoid squashing the fruit, and therefore reducing the need for sulphur. The grapes are then put through a de-stemmer, and transferred into open fermenters, where they’re left to cold soak at room temperature, and wait for the wild ferment to start. For the riesling, Hätsch and Will will add a packet yeast to control the ferment, “because we really want to capture the purity of the fruit, and also, because we make Spätlese (a late harvest German style wine),” explains Will. Usually, no other additions are made to Fromm’s wine, because, as Will again explains, “we’ve never needed to, and I don’t really like the idea of making unnecessary additions.”
“We take the “less is more” approach to wine growing,” says Will, “because, we believe that this approach allows us to be able to reflect what each year’s vintage gives us from our unique vineyards here, in Marlborough.”
D// – The Wine Idealist
Links and Further Reading –
- Fromm Winery
- Marlborough (Wikipedia)
- MaNa Group of Winegrowers
- Fromm Here to Eternity (World of Fine Wine article, 2009)
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