A great wine is nothing without a great vineyard, a vigilant viticulturist and a careful winemaker. Sometimes throughout history, some people have been blessed to be all three, but in the new world, this is rare. In most cases it takes a great team to make a great wine.
“We all work together really well and I have complete confidence in my team,” says Philippa Shepherd, owner of Domain Rewa in the Lowburn subregion of Cental Otago, New Zealand. “It’s hugely comforting to have Grant and Pete, and I honestly couldn’t do what I’m trying to do, without them.”
Philippa is a native New Zealander, who lives and works in the banking sector, in London. She purchased the Domaine Rewa property in 2010, after realising that it was as good a time as any to buy some land in Central Otago, with the view of returning there, one day, and fulfill her dream of wanting to live the farming lifestyle her family lives, and one in which she grew up.
“I grew up just outside of Dunedin on a sheep and beef farm, and I’ve always wanted to get involved in the family business,” says Philippa, “and I’ve always had a passion for food and wine, so my father encouraged me to buy some land.”
After a number of years researching different properties in Central Otago, in a time when vineyards seemed to be for sale left, right and centre, Philippa, on the advice of her parents, purchased an already established vineyard, which was planted in 1996 by Aurum Wines and, today, is known as Domaine Rewa. The vineyard was named after Philippa’s grandmother who, in turn, had been named after the native New Zealand honeysuckle, the rewarewa tree, which is more common to the dual island’s northern half that it is in the south.
“My parents were the one’s who had seen the property and they said it was amazing, and in such good condition,” recalls Philippa, “and they told me, ‘you’ve got to buy this’. So, I put in an offer, and within four days, I was the owner of a vineyard in Central Otago… Honestly, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, but, fortunately, I’d met Grant Rolston from Vinewise, and he and his partner Gary (Ford) have helped me all the way through… they look after everything on the vineyard.”
Grant Rolston is one half of Vinewise, a viticultural services company who specialises in organic and biodynamic vineyard management. Vinewise works with a number of respected wine labels, including Quartz Reef and Surveyor Thomson. On the instructions of Philippa, Grant set about converting the vineyard over to a biodynamic regime.
“It was Philippa’s idea to be biodynamic on the property,” says Grant, “and that’s what we do best here, so we set about converting the site to BD.”
“I’m friendly with Michael Seresin,” explains Philippa,” and I sought some advice from him about how the vineyard should be managed. Grant is passionate about biodynamics, so it was all very natural for it to be managed in this way.”
Domaine Rewa is a 12.5 ha piece of land, of which 5.5 ha is planted with pinot noir, riesling, chardonnay and pinot gris. The bottom half of the vineyard starts near the road side, which leads to Wanaka from Cromwell, and goes back up towards a terrace, where the riesling is planted, on the foothills of Mount Pisa.
“The site is fairly flat near the road, where all the pinot and chardonnay is planted,” says Grant, “on good soils that have been affected by ancient glacial outwashes, typical of Central Otago, which is a mixture of schist and river granite.”
Domaine Rewa is right next door to Surveyor Thomson, which is also cared for biodynamically by Vinewise, under the guidance of Su Hoskin, who prepares individual biodynamic regimes for both properties. They both share the Highland cattle dung herd, which are able to roam freely between the two pieces of land, and provide the manure essential for making preparation 500, on each property. Plans are already in place to have the property certified by BioGro, which will add extra weight to Philippa’s commitment to properly looking after the land.
“To be successful at biodynamics, you need to be a good farmer, for a start,” explains Grant, “and you need to be totally committed to it, and that needs to come from the top, from the owner… and if that’s not there you will struggle. But, if it is, it’s a lot easier to achieve success.”
“I’m of the view that if Grant is happy and passionate about managing the property using biodynamics,” says Philippa, “then they’re going to do the best possible job they can, which is ultimately what I want, and the same goes for the winemaking. If Pete can make what he loves, then we’ll get the best possible wine from the site.”
Like the vineyard management, Philippa hires a contract winemaking facility to turn her biodynamic grapes into Central Otago wine. Peter Bartle works for VinPro, a company that offers winemaking services for those vineyards and their owners who don’t own or have access to a winery of their own. This doesn’t mean, though, that Peter only interacts with the vineyard once the fruit arrives in the winery during vintage.
“The best way to learn about how to make wine is to learn about the vineyard and get to know it really well,” says Peter, “so, during the growing season, I’ll visit the vineyard at least once a month and talk with the guys running it, to try to get a sense of where they think the season is going.”
Having regular contact with the fruit is important, and Peter’s been interacting with this vineyard long before it was known as Domaine Rewa.
“It’s an interesting site,” says Peter. “It’s suffered from a lot of disease pressure over the years, but I’ve noticed that it’s now a lot better, especially in the last couple of years since Grant and Su have been looking after the place. This last year the fruit looked really nice, with good balance.”
Peter puts down the shift from previously disease prone fruit to healthy fruit to the introduction of biodynamics by Grant and Su from Vinewise.
“Biodynamics has definitely had something to do with the improving health of the site,” explains Peter, “especially in the chardonnay. It’s just amazing… if you were picking by numbers that vineyard spits them out perfectly.”
Peter makes three wines from the Domaine Rewa vineyard – pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling… the pinot gris is sold to another wine label in Central. The pinot and chardonnay are carefully transitioned from grape juice to wine via a wild ferment, but Peter still prefers to inoculate the riesling, for now, because of the vineyards history with excessive botrytis. Peter’s aim is to reflect the site in the final wines, but also try and reduce the presence of power and muscle that many Central Otago pinot’s are usually known for, compared to, say, their Burgundian benchmarks.
“I try to make varietal wines with balance, especially with the pinot (noir),” explains Peter. “I prefer to head into the feminine end of the spectrum, rather than the masculine… the picking decision is one of the most important decisions I can make, as a winemaker. The second, especially with the pinot, is deciding when to press off.”
Philippa, again, puts her utmost trust and respect into the work that Peter does with her Domaine Rewa fruit, encouraging him to exercise his own creativity and control over how the wines will ultimately end up.
“My directive to Pete is, ‘make what you like’, and that way he will make the best wine he possibly can,” explains Philippa.
“At some point, when I return home, I’d like to learn about the viticultural side of things and spend a lot more time on the property, and maybe think about establishing a winery on site where the wines can be made,” says Philippa.
Until that time comes, Philippa and Domaine Rewa are in good hands, under the stewardship of Grant Rolston and Peter Bartle. All together, they make a great team that is able to produce some deliciously pure tasting wine from Central Otago, New Zealand.
D// – The Wine Idealist