“There’s a really nice balance that a vineyard has between its rural setting and its closeness with the land, and wine as a product that you can take and showcase around the world,” says Nicholas Brown, winemaker at Black Estate. “And, it’s a product that New Zealand seems to be doing some pretty good things with.”
Nicholas Brown is in pursuit of place and wants to express that in his wines. For the last eight years, he and his family have been slowly building on their dream of owning and managing their own vineyards, in the Omihi Hills of Waipara, New Zealand. To help him achieve this goal, Nicholas is using an organic/biodynamic (currently in conversion to certification with BioGro) regime in the vineyards, and is taking a ‘less is more’ approach in the winery.
Black Estate was established back in 1994 by Russell Black, for whom the estate is named after. The property sprawls across a total of 16ha, and was initially planted with 4ha of Chardonnay and 4ha of Pinot Noir, all on their own roots. Nicholas has worked in Waipara since 2005, making wines for Daniel Schuster, after completing a post-graduate diploma in viticulture and oenology at Lincoln University and doing vintages at Wither Hills, as well as stints in Italy and America. In 2007, Nicholas and his family, led by his father-in-law, and Director of Black Estate, Rod Naish, purchased Black Estate, from its founder.
“We saw Waipara as an emerging district… and, we could see a real potential for the region to make wines of great quality,” says Nicholas. “The property had a 4ha piece of (unplanted) land in a valley above the original vineyard, that I thought had the best potential for growing grapes. Plus, we had the opportunity to plant the vineyard ourselves, the way we wanted too.”
The Home block, as it is called, was already planted with Mendoza clone Chardonnay and the 10/5 clone of Pinot Noir, so Nicholas made the decision to plant four more clonal varieties of Chardonnay (1ha) and six different clones of Pinot Noir (2ha). In addition to this, he also planted half a hectare of Chenin Blanc (x3 clones), and a third of a hectare of Cabernet Franc (x3 clones).
“We already knew that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir worked well and were proven on this site, but we also wanted to experiment with possible future varieties that we liked,” explains Nicholas, “and we thought both of those varietals would work well here, sitting on the edge of ripeness… We really love the Cabernet Francs that come out of the Loire Valley, which give you beautiful earthy, leafy-ness, without the green-ness.”
(In Other News: In addition to the mind-melting rapture of Castagna’s 2009 Genesis Syrah, which was the main culprit for this here website, Loire Valley Cabernet Franc, from the dusty shelves of Albertine wine bar, must also take some of the blame for my straying off the straight and narrow, and onto the monetarily impoverished wine path, for which I am always grateful for… most days.)
While expanding the planting on the Home block, Black Estate set about purchasing two more vineyard sites, which they had been buying fruit from since 2008. Both are located within the same region of Waipara. First was the Damsteep vineyard, planted in 1999, which grows 5.5ha of Pinot Noir and 2ha of Riesling. Second was the Netherwood vineyard, which is now the oldest vineyard that Black Estate owns, having been planted in 1986 by Nicholas’ former employer, Daniel Schuster, along with Russell Black. It was one of the first hillside vineyards to be planted in North Canterbury. The Netherwood vineyard features 4.5ha of dry grown Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, from which Nicholas makes an intriguing rosé, by co-fermenting the two varieties together. Now, Black Estate is in the process of consolidating all three vineyards under the Black Estate label while recognising each vineyards unique character and potential to make great wine.
“We now have three individual hillside vineyards, all in the Omihi sub-district,” explains Nicholas. “Each have similar limestone and clay soils, but with unique structures, and we want to be able to bring out the best in all three of these sites.”
According to Nicholas, the Home block features sedimentary clays, which sit on a north-facing slope. The Damsteep vineyard consists of predominately limestone derived soils that ripens individual sections of the vineyard differently, which Nicholas is keen to take advantage of, from a winemaking perspective.
“For Damsteep, we aim our viticulture at a number of individual parcels,” says Nicholas, “which allows us to make two separate single vineyard wines from the same block… We’re able to build in a lot of complexity into our winemaking, in the vineyard, before the fruit has even arrived in the winery. For the Pinot Noir’s,” continues Nicholas, “(the soils) give a really silken, quite expansive palate weight, but with fine minerality.”
The Netherwood vineyard sits on a combination of calcareous clay fan, mudstone and sandstone soils. The complexity of the soils from these three vineyards provides Nicholas with isolated and unique characters for him to make wine from, and it’s for this reason why Black Estate chose to utilise biodynamics to manage their vineyards.
“Because we grow our vines on interesting soils, we want to ignite this soil and its microbes, to emphasise the uniqueness coming through in our wines,” says Nicholas. “A chemical free farming practice, using organics and biodynamics, seems, to me, to be the best way to do that.”
With such intense attention to detail, on each of the three Black Estate vineyards, in conjunction with their biodynamic approach to viticulture, Nicholas is able to let the vineyard, ultimately, dictate what traits and characteristics will be inherent in the wines that he makes.
“The whole idea with the winemaking is to try and get the vineyard to give a real expression of itself, in the wine, whatever that may be,” says Nicholas.
One of the benefits of an organic and biodynamic regime is that you get a healthy yeast population, living in the vineyard, which means wild ferments are generally easier to accomplish. To be able to really get the vineyard to express itself, Nicholas ferments all his wines with wild yeast, using a variation of a pied de cuve technique that he picked up from Pyramid Valley’s, Mike Weersing.
“Mike showed me how to inoculate each ferment with it’s own specific vineyard yeast culture,” explains Nicholas. “So, say for example, the Pinot Noir that we pick off Damsteep will have a separate starter culture, compared with the Netherwood or Home Pinot. I basically go out, about a week before we think we might harvest that block, and pick a bucketful or so of bunches, crush them and leave them to start fermenting in the vineyard, for an hour or so. Then, I’ll strain out the macerated juice and transfer it into separate replicates, and just monitor it over the week… this can tell us a lot about what’s going on in the vineyard in that season.
“Then,” continues Nicholas, “when we harvest that block and as the first parcel comes in, I’ll take out a portion of the juice, warm it up, and add one of the yeast replicates I started the week before, which makes a kind of yeast bomb, which then gets added back to the rest of the juice that’s been soaking in ambient temperatures in the winery, for about three of four days… We’ve tweaked it a bit, since the first time we did it, but we’re finding that all our ferments are going through to dryness a lot smoother, and with a lot less reduction than what I’ve experienced in the past.”
It’s a complicated and fastidious process, doing it this way as well as managing all three vineyards organically and biodynamically, but Nicholas is adamant that it provides him with the ability to be able to fully express each Black Estate vineyard in a precise and honest way.
“Yeast does alter the flavour of wine, a lot,” says Nicholas, “so if we can get yeasts from each specific site to ferment each wine, then it helps to capture the site and season a whole lot better.”
“A lot of the wines I’ve drunk and admired have been grown under an organic or biodynamic regime,” continues Nicholas, “and that’s what I want to try and achieve with our wines, here. We eventually want our wines to have all the hallmarks of not only Waipara, but more importantly for them to express their own unique Black Estate character.”
D// – The Wine Idealist
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