“Everything we do is really to look after a very singular and unique piece of land,” says Nick Mills, from Rippon.
Rippon is the name of (probably) the most beautiful piece of land in the world that grows wine. It’s located “on a bit of dead end road,” on the outskirts of the resort town of Wanaka, in Central Otago, New Zealand. In Maori, ‘Wanaka’ means ‘school’, and this area was once used as a summer camp by Otago tribes. The women would stay and teach the children crafts, and hunting and gathering skills, while the men would head off into the mountains and search for pounamu, or greenstone, which was found on the West Coast.
The property was established in 1912 and was named after Emma Rippon, who arrived in Australia from England, with her husband, Frederick James Sargood in 1850. Their son, Frederick Thomas Sargood, went on to to build the historic Melbourne estate, Rippon Lea, and named it in honour of his mother. Frederick Thomas’ son, Percy Rolfe Sargood, moved to New Zealand in 1891. He eventually arrived in Wanaka, fell in love with the place, and established Wanaka Station. Wanaka Station is where Nick Mills’s father, Rolfe and the rest of Nick’s family grew up.
As a young boy, Rolfe Mills would sit on the top of the hill of his family’s property and look out over the dramatic landscape before him; the serene azure blue of Lake Wanaka contrasting against the striking white peaks of the Southern Alps that reach up towards the bright blue sky, which is painted with wispy streaks of white cirrus clouds. Up here he’d sit and dream about what he might be able to grow, one day, on this special piece of land.
“If Rippon was found to grow carrots better than anything else, then we’d probably be carrot farmers,” says Nick, sitting on the same hill where his father once sat. “But, it turns out that this north facing escarpment fulfills its potential with viticulture.”
The decision to plant grape vines at Rippon was made by Rolfe Mills, who was serving as a Submarine Lieutenant in World War II while he was traveling through Portugal’s Douro Valley. The soils of the Douro reminded him of the schist soils back home, in Wanaka. Rolfe returned to Rippon in the 1970’s and began experimenting. He started by planting grape vines on the same patch of earth he used to dream about when he was boy. By 1982, Rolfe MIlls had narrowed down the types of varieties that best suited the unique climate and soils of Rippon, which mainly consists of Pinot Noir, but also grows Sauvignon Blanc, Rielsing, Gewürztraminer, Gamay, and, curiously, two rows each of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
“We weren’t Pinot Noir nuts, we just cultivated those vines which we saw performing the best on the site,” explains Nick. “My job as a kid, in the school holidays was to take cuttings off the best parcels, and plant them in our own nursery, grown them up and then eventually plant them out, parcel by parcel, until we got what we have planted here today, which just happens to be more Pinot than anything else.”
The climate and the soils of Rippon are very unique, compared to the rest of the Central Otago region.
The Roaring Forties are strong westerly winds that blow through the southern hemisphere from the South Pole and don’t encounter any substantial land mass until they reach South America and New Zealand. This cold air rushes over an enormous body of water, picking up moisture as it goes, until it slams into the 3000m peaks of the Southern Alps and dumps between five and ten metres of rain. By the time this air mass reaches Wanaka, on the eastern side of the Alps, it’s become no more than a rain shadow, and all but dried out. What remains continues and spills out into the naturally occurring basin of Central Otago, where it becomes much calmer. Because of this particular weather phenomena, Wanaka is much more temperate than the rest of Central Otago, and the grape vines at Rippon benefit from this.
“We’re not quite as hot, or quite as cold, or quite as dry as the rest of Central (Otago),” explains Nick. “The lake, in front of the vineyard, acts as a big thermal mass, so it cools things down on a hot day, and warms things up on a cold night. The small island just in front of the vineyard buffers any winds that come through, so we have a sort of a pseudo-continental climate, with more temperate and softer conditions.
“This temperance gives our wines more texture, because of the smaller diurnal range,” continues Nick, “and it creates a unique shape and feel to our wines. I think they become more articulate and expressive because of our unique environment, compared with some other parts of Otago.”
The vineyards at Rippon are all planted on varying degrees of schist. Schist is a metamorphic rock that is formed when molten substances, like clay and mud, chemically transform under heat and pressure. This transformation then cools very quickly, forming thin, brittle sheets of mica that layer with other minerals to form a type of rock. If the molten clay cools fast enough, you can see quartz crystals sparkling throughout the schist. The schist soils at Rippon were formed from greywacke when the Australasian and Pacific plates pushed violently together and created the Southern Alps.
“We’ve dug soil pits in the vineyard and found that the roots from the vines have infested the stacked layers of schist as they go in search of nutrients and water,” says Nick, “and because we don’t irrigate or use any soluble fertilisers, then, wherever there’s water there’s life, and so all the bacteria and nematodes and microarthropods and fungi are in there, dividing in the water, and they start metabolising the minerals out of the rock into a form that the vines can then feed off, and that’s when you can start talking about terroir.”
Before becoming a winegrower, Nick Mills was a talented skier. He was New Zealand’s freestyle champion, at age 21, but just as he was getting ready to represent his country at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, in Japan, he suffered a career ending knee injury and was no longer able to compete. Instead, he went to France and studied winegrowing in Burgundy, which included a year at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Here, Nick was exposed to biodynamics, and shown some of the secrets for how to unlock the mysteries of terroir. The Rippon vineyard had been managed organically since the the beginning, but in 2002, when Nick returned home, he took the absence of chemicals further, by applying ideas of biodynamics.
“Biodynamics, for me, is quite a personal thing,” says Nick. “It’s an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your land and helps you to bring out the lands own identity and unique personality…. Biodynamics,” continues Nick, “allows you to develop a real personal relationship with your land.”
Nick and the team at Rippon make their own 500 and Cow Pat Pit, as well as compost heaps on site. The rest of the preparations, including 501, are purchased from the local biodynamic association. Nick is a firm believer in dry growing the vineyard in order to maximise the expression of place, once the grapes have been transformed from vine to wine. The whole team and family begins the day by hand hoeing the weeds for an hour and a half, every morning,” which, Nick says, “is good exercise, and helps develop a good culture on the farm, because we get to connect with each other, first thing, every day.”
As well as providing the opportunity for a winegrower to have a deeper relationship with their land, Nick reckons that biodynamics helps him to better articulate the unique voice of his landscape. And, with proficient skill in the winery this unique voice can be coaxed out of this place and become expressed exclusively in a bottle or glass of Rippon wine.
“Biodynamics helps us get to a high level of quality noble fruit and seed matter, and once you have that,” says Nick, “it’s important to make your winemaking decisions based on what you see and smell and taste, not what you want to see and smell and taste.
“With our Pinot, we want to highlight and express the whole Rippon site, which is why we call our mature vine Pinot, Rippon ‘Rippon’, because, collectively, it’s an expression of the whole voice of ‘Rippon’,” continues Nick. “This is made up of all of our mature (Pinot) vines blended together. Then, we have Jeunesse, which is made from our young vines, which supports and strengthens the Rippon voice.”
“Rippon is a bit like an orchestra” says Nick, “and in it we have a couple of distinguished soloists. Tinker’s Field, which is planted on pure schist gravels, and Emma’s Block (named after Emma Rippon, who was, apparently, a tee totaler), which is closer to the shoreline (of Lake Wanaka) and has a lateral line of blue schist clay running through it. Both of these wines appear together in the Rippon, like the whole orchestra, but we also bottle both of these blocks separately, to highlight this place’s two distinct voices.”
It takes a long time to properly make a bottle of wine. Those winegrowers, like Nick Mills and his family at Rippon, who truly wish to honour wine by taking the time to see it be created and expressed properly, are, these days, largely, few and far between. Of course, it helps if you are fortunate enough to have access to one of the most beautiful places in the world to grow and make wine, but having access owes a lot to custodianship, and Nick is more aware than most about his role as the privileged caretaker for such a precious piece of earth. This is why he speaks so deeply and passionately about his role as the winegrower at Rippon.
“Rippon is a place, not a brand,” says Nick, “and wine is not something that is made in a single year, or in a single generation. It’s something which spans across multiple generations, and that’s something we’re only just starting to celebrate in the New World. As a family we’ve been given custodianship of this land, for only a very short amount of time, but our family’s commitment and relationship with this place is something that is really important to us. We want to try and honour that every year when we make our wine.”
D// – The Wine Idealist
Buy Prints, Links, and Further Reading
- See More Photos from Rippon
- Irrigation…. A Sense of Place? (feat. Nick Mills)
- Wanaka, Central Otago (Wikipedia)
- Wanaka, Central Otago (Map)