Arriving in Central Otago in 1857, the landscape would have been just as spectacular as it is today, but with an added layer of foreboding and isolation. Apart from any number of native Māori tribes, no one had yet fully explored the area and mapped or recorded its existence. Experienced surveyor, John Turnbull Thomson, who’d gained experience and recognition for his precise mapping and engineering work in Singapore, arrived in New Zealand and was awarded the position of chief surveyor of Otago. Thomson’s primary objective was to explore and map the previously unobserved and undocumented wilderness of this huge inland territory.
Thomson’s pioneering cartography paved the way for much of Central Otago’s European settlement, which in subsequent years, saw the gold rush of the 1860’s, New Zealand’s biggest gold strike. This was followed by the establishment of farms and orchards, and, much later, vineyards, which today, along with tourism, provides much of the economic prosperity for the region. Our ability to visit and explore the relentless and breathtaking beauty of Central Otago nowadays, owes much to those first lonely efforts of John Turnbull Thomson, back in 1857.
Today this surveyor, Thomson, is honored by his great-great-grandson, who owns a 22 ha patch of land that overlooks Lake Dunstan in the Lowburn region, in the Cromwell Basin sub-appellation of Central Otago. Thomson’s great-great-grandson, David Hall-Jones, who lives in Hong Kong with his wife, PM Chan, has called this 22 ha property, Surveyor Thomson, in honour of his pioneering relative, John Turnbull Thomson. The vineyard management and winemaking duties are contracted out to two specialised businesses in Central Otago, namely, Vinewise (for the viticulture) and Central Otago Wine Company, or COWCo (for the winemaking). Su Hoskin works for Vinewise, and manages the 22 ha property using biodynamics, which is planted exclusively with Pinot Noir, while Dean Shaw from COWCo, transforms these grapes into wine.
“We’re just sluts,” laughs Dean, “… even though we’re a contract facility, we still want to make the best wine we can from the best grapes that Su grows.”
English born, Su Hoskin arrived in Central Otago and became aware of biodynamics while working at Burn Cottage. From there, she formalised her biodynamic training at Taruna College, in Hawke’s Bay, before coming back to Central Otago to begin teaching what she’d learnt to other interested farmers and winegrowers in the region. At the end of one of her classes, Su was asked to join Vinewise and look after the Surveyor Thomson vineyard, and convert it over to biodynamics, which she began doing in 2013.
“For me, being able to grow healthy food and not having to use chemicals, and being able to do it all quite easily without having any major problems, just seems sensible to me,” says Su.
Su has been give the mammoth task of establishing a biodynamic regime on the Surveyor Thomson site, from scratch. Of the total 22 ha property, 14 ha is planted with Pinot Noir on a patchwork of four distinct blocks known as North, South, Terraces and Moon. Coincidently, Moon was already called that before biodynamics was implemented.
“The vineyard rests on a gentle slope with good air drainage,” explains Su, “overlooking Lake Dunstan, and at the foot of Mt. Pisa… so, it’s pretty much paradise. Quite often,” Su continues, “we’ll get rain clouds going right around the vineyard with no rain actually falling on the property, so we use a drip irrigation system to help the vines receive water.”
The vineyard was first planted in 2000, and managed conventionally up until 2012, when some organic processes were implemented. Owner, David Hall-Jones’ mission was to stop using synthetic agrochemicals altogether, and join the many other, well established, winegrowers in the region pursuing a more natural system of land care.
“The vineyard wasn’t in a devastated state, by any means,” says Su, “but the first thing I noticed, after we started using biodynamics was the amount of life that was brought back onto the land. Biodynamics just enhances everything.”
Su and her team built a preparations hut to house the critical biodynamic preparations (500-508), using natural materials, and installed twelve cow pat pits, or CPP, which are compost pits for cow dung that has been mixed with powdered eggshell and basalt dust, then combined with the biodynamic preps 502-507. Each pit has been labelled after the constellations, so Su can identify, record and monitor what’s going on in each pit. A small herd of Highland Cattle have been incorporated onto the property to feed the cow pat pits, and apparently, nothing, or no one, else.
“The cows have brought a huge animal presence to the vineyard,” says Su, “taking it from only stark machinery, like tractors, moving through the vineyard, to a peaceful herd of cows. They bring a peaceful rhythm to the place, as well as providing good fertiliser… they’re just a dung herd, we won’t be eating them, I hope!”
Apart from the obvious benefits of not poisoning such a pristine environment like Central Otago, with a swathe of potentially toxic and harmful chemicals, biodynamics brings out the true taste of whatever it is that it’s helping to grow, highlighting nuances and increasing the nourishing elements that all foodstuffs should inherently possess.
“As consumers we’ve been seduced by so many foods that have colouring and flavours added to them that the true taste is masked or missing, so we don’t really what it is we are tasting,” says Su.
Allowing these transparent and subtle tastes and flavours to shine through is the job of Surveyor Thomson’s winemaker, Dean Shaw, from Central Otago Wine Company, who subscribes to the benefits that biodynamics brings to wine, but only as far as a sceptic will allow.
“I’m not a card carrying member of biodynamics, but I believe in the fact that it can help improve the quality of the wine,” says Dean. “I’m a sceptic, but what I do love about biodynamics is that people (who practice it) really do try hard.”
Dean Shaw’s approach to transforming the Davis and Dijon Pinot Noir clones into wine is as hands off as necessary, or as Dean self-deprecatingly describes, “I try to be lazy in my approach to winemaking.”
Dean arrived in Central Otago in 1993, after completing a post-grad winemaking degree, working at Rippon and then with Rudi Bauer at Geisen in 1996 and ’97. The first wine he made for Surveyor Thomson was in 2003.
Utilising wild yeasts, Dean explains, “I’d love for the ferment to finish by itself. If it does, then I’m not getting involved, even if it goes in a direction that I don’t want it to. I just try and steer it in the right direction, however sometimes it doesn’t want to do that, and if I went and manipulated that ferment somehow, then I would miss the opportunity to learn.”
This is not to say that Dean will sit and watch a perfectly good bunch of grapes ferment and spoil. On the contrary.
“Half the problem, for me,” explains Dean, “is learning and knowing what to do and then trying not to do anything. But, in order to have that kind of attitude, you need good material and that means good grapes, and so really, it’s all about the vineyard, which it always is.”
Dean is under no illusions about trying to emulate, or make a Burgundian style Pinot Noir in Central Otago. To do that would be, “pointless,” he says. But, Dean has developed a working knowledge of what a Central Otago Pinot could be, based on the uniqueness of the place where the Pinot he makes, grows.
“Pinot is a low tannin varietal,” explains Dean, “and I want to get some tannin out of it. So, we add a lot of riper stems, rather than greener stems, and I love the complexity that that creates. It seems to add a whole other dimension to the wine… there are big calls I make, such as when to pick, which will shape a wine, but the less I can do, the better, so that the vineyard speaks.”
Surveyor Thomson are currently in conversion to biodynamics, and are seeking certification through BioGro. Su is also implementing all of the required objectives to receive Demeter certification, in case the owners decide to pursue that as well.
Despite being, “just sluts,” as Dean surmises, Su and Dean take their roles as caretakers and custodians for the Surveyor Thomson land very seriously, and with great pride and accomplishment. Something that the original European pioneer through these dramatic lands, John Turnbull, aka Surveyor Thomson, no doubt would have wanted.
D// – The Wine Idealist