“There’s nothing sadder than having great fruit that you’ve toiled over for almost a year, pruning and shoot thinning and growing it to get it to perfection, and then something goes wrong in the winery and you have to throw all that fruit away,” says vigneron Lance Redgwell from Cambridge Road, in Martinborough.
Thankfully, that hasn’t happened to Lance yet. In the 8 vintages he’s been growing wine on his 5.5 acre vineyard, located in the small village of Martinborough, on the southern end of New Zealand’s north island, Lance has been toiling away, farming biodynamically, and experimenting with whole block ferments to try and unlock the secrets within the soil of this unique wine growing region.
The Martinborough wine reigon, sometimes referred to as Wairarapa – not to be confused with Waipara on the south island – is a unique place for wine growing as it is relatively flat and lies at the confluence of the Ruamahanga and Huangarua rivers. According to Lance, these two water ways contribute rich alluvial soils, which are deposited over a lot of ancient volcanic activity. This, says Lance, “results in a more diverse mineral makeup in the subsoil, courtesy of these two streams.”
“Martinborough is not your typically brilliant vineyard area,” says Lance, “because it’s not on a hillside, but the wines from here still have a fairly solid reputation, and they are delicious to drink. They feature textual elements that are unique to Martinborough, particularly in the Pinot… they’re complete wines, with good tannic length, but enough generosity as well, and that comes from the diversity of our soils.”
Lance bought the property from its previous owners, Murdoch James, who had been managing the vineyard organically for a while, before a period of neglect saw the vineyard fall into a pretty shabby state, with some herbicide sprays being introduced to control weeds.
“Just before they sold it, they decided to stop doing organics and started spraying a bit of herbicide under the vines,” says Lance. “By the time we bought it, it was pretty over-grown and looking pretty tired.”
To bring the vineyard back to life, Lance introduced biodynamics, which he’d spent some time studying at Taruna College, in Hawkes Bay, on the advice of James Millton, the Godfather of biodynamic viticulture in New Zealand.
“We began cultivating the vineyard as soon as we bought the place,” says Lance, “and we threw some (preparation) 500 over the property to activate the soil and get it living again. Then, we brought in some rock dust, lime and sulphur to make some more adjustments to the soil, and, within 8 months, the vineyard was absolutely cranking… we went from stunted yellow canopies to fully vigorous green canopies in no time at all.”
The Cambridge Road vineyard runs north-south and the vine rows are 220m long. Despite its small size, the vineyard features three distinct microclimates, with each having a unique effect on the ripening times of the Pinot Noir and Syrah that the vineyard has been planted with.
“The first 60m of the vineyard has the protection of a shelf belt,” says Lance, “and those vines perform massively different than the rest of site. They’re more lush, more vigourous, with bigger canes, and the wind doesn’t dry them out as much. Then,” continues Lance, “in the middle, the vines get smashed by the winds sort of spiraling over the windbreak and then collapsing in the centre of the field, and that’s the lowest vigour section of the site. The vines here are half the size as the rest of the vineyard. And then further towards the back of the vineyard, you start to get heavier soils and a more balanced wind effect, and that’s a whole different kettle of fish,” says Lance.
The three separate microclimates brought on by the winds swirling overhead, combined with the different the soils underneath the vineyard, means that the fruit that grows on the vines will ripen at different times to each other, which is something Lance has slowly gotten used to.
“In the early days (with Pinot), we’d look for similarities in ripeness with the fruit, and so we’d pick in patches… but I’ve since realised that natural variation is a positive thing,” explains Lance. “Once I accepted these different microclimates within the vineyard, I stopped trying to pick the fruit separately, based on their vigour, or soil type, and now I just pick all of it together. The trick for me,” says Lance, “is finding balance in the must, right from day one. So, with all the fruit co-fermenting together, it’s already a balanced wine when it comes off skins, instead of having to try and find balance in a blend, later on.”
“It’s not uncommon for me, nowadays, to chuck the whole Pinot block into one big fermenter and just run with it,” says Lance. “For example, in 2011 when we did it, it ended up being a 4.5 tonne ferment.”
Lance takes a rational, minimal interventionist approach to winemaking, and is not adverse to making the necessary adjustments, if need be, to stop the wine from going bad. It’s really just a case of how you define, ‘going bad’.
“One thing I’ll never do is serve people shit,” says Lance. “We’re in business, at the end of the day, and if something’s too funky I’ve got to either fix it, or ditch it, and I don’t have the budget to ditch it. But,” continues Lance, “the good news is, that I seldom have a wine that is dodgy or goes too funky… (even though) I actually like a bit of biological corruption. I think a good wine is often funky on the fringes, because that’s what makes them interesting… so long as it’s in balance.”
Over recent vintages, Lance has increased his faith in using the wild yeasts from his vineyard to ferment his wines. This is done more successfully by utilising the ‘pied de cuve’ method of isolating a certain yeast culture from the vineyard by picking a few grapes and having them start fermenting, before the rest of the grapes are picked, so that you have a pre-prepared, but wild starter culture ready to add to the final ferment.
“I have used cultured yeast before,” says Lance, “in fact I have a particular favourite because it adds a nice, clean, fruited perspective to the wine, but all things in moderation and we’re getting better at using wild cultures, to the point where we’re trying to build up specific ones from certain parts of the vineyard.”
Ultimately, it comes back to all the hard work that’s done out in the vineyard first, so that the raw materials are the best they can be. Then, all that needs to be done in the winery is a process of careful transformation.
“By farming the vineyard properly and timing things correctly, we can grow grapes that are full of vitality and energy… then my job as a winemaker is not to interfere with that essence and vitality, and just try to retain it, so that when we consume it as humans, we’re getting that same wonderfully positive energy that the wine contains.”
D// – The Wine Idealist