Flying over the Southern Alps of New Zealand’s south island, giant folds of earth burst up towards the sky, kissing the long white cloud that hangs silently on the wind, and leaves a white lipstick mark dusted on its peak. All of a sudden, these mountains fall away and are replaced by the Canterbury plains. Giant swathes of land that are filled with generous pastures and fields that lie in stark contrast to those soaring ruptures, to the west. Within these flat lands lies Waipara, a small town on the banks of a river, which goes by the same name, and a vineyard known as Muddy Water, which is the literal translation of the Māori words, Wai (water) and Para (sediment).
The vineyard was planted in 1993 and is spread over 10ha of heavy clay soils and slivers of limestone. It is managed certified (Assure Quality) organically, with some biodynamic preparations, by Miranda Brown, Muddy Water’s viticulturist. Miranda grows the grapes, and Dominic Maxwell makes the wine. Both Miranda and Dominic are New Zealand natives who attended Lincoln University in Canterbury. Miranda studied horticulture, completing a post-grad in viticulture and ecology, while Dominic studied commerce and management, before travelling overseas and living in London for a few years.
“I was pretty disillusioned with what I was doing as a job (in London),” says Dominic, “and I’d always wanted to be involved with making something more tangible. Around that same time, I was starting to become aware of wine.”
Wine wasn’t something Dominic grew up with, but upon returning home to New Zealand, he took up studying again at Lincoln University, completing a post-grad diploma in winemaking. He then spent 6 months working in a number of vineyards in order to see if he really wanted to go down this new path of wine. These days, he’s the full time winemaker for Muddy Water and Greystone’s Wines, which was recently award Best International Pinot Noir by Decanter magazine. Both Dominic and Miranda work closely together to make sure the fruit coming in from the Muddy Water vineyard is the best that it can be, and Miranda says that it’s organics that allows them to do that.
“Organics seems to be the logical thing to do,” says Miranda. “If you don’t have to use chemicals to grow grapes, then why would you? We’re pretty lucky where we are in New Zealand, especially in Waipara,” continues Miranda, “because we don’t have a lot of really nasty seasons. It’s mostly dry, so we don’t have that much disease pressure.”
Muddy Water is located near the limestone slopes of the Omihi Hills and the vineyard is protected on both sides from east and westerly winds, enabling a slightly longer growing season and ‘hang time’ that allows the fruit to ripen more evenly. From 1993 the vineyard was managed conventionally (that is with chemicals) until 2007, when the owners decided to convert the site over to an organic regime.
“The conversion process wasn’t too difficult,” says Miranda, “because the environment is pretty well suited to it. The biggest issue, for us, is probably botrytis,” continues Miranda, “and 2008, which was our first organic growing season, was probably one of the wettest seasons on record and we lost a lot of crop. But, we kept going, and since then it’s been pretty smooth sailing.”
Practicing organic viticulture usually means a slight reduction in yields, (and therefore production and potential profit), which is mainly why many larger brands choose not to convert. But, lower cropping levels can result in higher quality parcels of fruit. Generally speaking, if vines are cropped with a higher amount of bunches, this can create an imbalance between the leaf and fruit ratio and result in slow, uneven and insufficient ripening of the fruit. If a vine is imbalanced, so are the grapes, which can lead to problems later on, back in the winery, where the winemaker will need to create balance, artificially, in the wine by relying heavily on the 89 or so legal additives that are allowed to be used in winemaking today. One of the most desired traits in a wine is good balance, where the concentration of fruit, acidity, and levels of tannin (for red/orange wines) are in total harmony. Without good balance in the vineyard, first, there can be no good wine.
“Our yields have always been at the lower end of spectrum,” explains Miranda, “because we’re aiming for higher quality in our wines. So, we crop our pinot at about 5 tonne to the hectare, and since converting over to organics, it hasn’t really dropped off that much.”
Growing grapes organically is a good step forward, if you intend to make good wine, but balance dictates that you will need an equally as good a winemaker at the helm, in order to be able to create a good bottle of wine. If your winemaker is winning international recognition for their pinot noir, then you’re probably already in safe hands.
“Everything that’s good about a bottle of wine stems from the vineyard,” says Dominic Maxwell, Muddy Water’s winemaker. “With Miranda being out there, looking after our relatively small vineyard, she’s got a good feel for what’s going on.”
The Muddy Water vineyard consists of riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir and a little bit of pinotage, (a signature South African grape variety that is a cross between pinot noir and cinsault). Dominic makes the Muddy Water wines, in the Greystone winery on site, as naturally as possible, so that they can express their provenance with absolute clarity.
“Our focus here is to make really interesting, organic, terroir driven wines,” explains Dominic. “There might be some fluctuations from vintage to vintage, but the wines should always be expressive of the place they’re from.”
“There’s a real earthy quality to the fruit when it comes in,” continues Dominic, “and we’re trying to convey those vineyard soils into the wine. I think the less you add, the more opportunity you have to show the place.”
Dominic uses wild yeast ferments for every one of the Muddy Water wines, and makes very few additions, usually using only minimal amounts of sulphur.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a $20 pinot, or an $80 pinot, it’s all fermented using indigenous yeasts,” says Dominic. “We try to add nothing to all our wines, including nutrients for the ferment, otherwise I’d be undoing all of Miranda’s great work, out in the vineyard.”
“I’ll add sulphur to anything with residual sugar, such as our riesling, and to our pinots as well, because we try to do that unfiltered,” says Dominic. “Most of our wines usually end up being around 55-65 ppm of total sulphur, after bottling.”
In order to make good wine, a winegrower needs to be able to regulate their yields and ensure quality over quantity. Organic methods of viticulture help a grower to do this by allowing the plant to be healthy and in balance with its environment, and only produce as much fruit as it needs to. Thus, ensuring consistent and more even ripening during the growing season (whims of Mother Nature not withstanding), and with the aid of a skilled winemaker, create better balanced wine.
“We’re organic because everything has to be in balance,” says Dominic, “and wine encompasses everything that you get from the fruit. So, we need it to be in balance for the wine to be as well.”
D// – The Wine Idealist