“In the end, there’s a certain amount of luck in choosing to plant chardonnay on the Moutere Hills,” says Tim Finn from Neudorf Vineyards in Nelson, New Zealand.
“We suspected the potential for New Zealand to make great wine…”
Neudorf was first planted by Tim and his wife Judy in the late 70’s. They were pioneers, and, on a sliding scale, hippies. They moved to Nelson during the ‘back to the land’ movement of the late 1960’s.
Tim is a scientist, with a Masters in Animal Science, and Judy was an aspiring journalist. In those days, intelligent industry around grape and wine growing was virtually non existent, so the decision to plant grape vines in Nelson and attempt to make New Zealand wine was a case of the blind leading the blind.
“We’ve basically been feeling our way all this time, and there’s been a lot of trial and error,” explains Tim. “Judy and I used to be guinea pigs and taste trial wines from Te Kauwhata research station, and that’s where we first suspected the potential for New Zealand to make great wine, which it certainly wasn’t doing at the time.”
Prohibition in New Zealand has a lot to answer for in terms of halting the progress of wine growing in the country. Despite having earlier success with wine in the 19th century – courtesy of the pioneering efforts of Samuel Marsden, James Busby, and Romeo Bragato – the New Zealand wine industry stalled for a long time during the turn of the century, and winegrowing was all but forgotten. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that vineyards started to be replanted for trials, with the intention of making New Zealand wine, again.
“Lincoln University was starting to conduct grape and vineyard research around the time Judy and I were thinking about planting some vines of our own,” says Tim. “Being associated with their tasting group was a great source of knowledge and information for us.”
Nelson is reputed to be New Zealand’s sunniest region, with an average of 2405 hours of sunshine, and only 970mm of rainfall, per year. It’s flanked on three sides by mountain ranges to the south, east, and west, which provides a rain shadow effect, while the great thermal mass of the Tasman Bay, to the north, ensures that the diurnal temperature range is kept fairly moderate.
“Chardonnay is particularly well suited to the climate here,” says Tim. “We have long, warm days, and cool nights, so we never get any baked characters in our fruit, because it never gets hot enough.”
The acclaimed soils of the Moutere Hills are famous for producing Nelson’s world class chardonnays, especially Neudorf’s Moutere Chardonnay, which is regarded as one of New Zealand’s greatest wines.
“We have long, warm days, and cool nights, so we never get any baked characters in our fruit…”
The soils are made up of a shallow sandy loam on top of ancient clay gravels that can go for over 1000m deep in some areas.
“Whenever we’ve dug holes to see how our vines grow in the Moutere Hills, we’ve always found ancient layers of sedimentary river bed at the bottom,” says Tim, “which is mixed in with stones and clay gravels that are layered on top of each other as they go down.”
The Neudorf vineyards were managed conventionally, using agrochemicals, right up until 2010, when Richard Flatman took over the property and wanted to convert the vines over to organics.
“Organics just makes sense…”
“I wanted to go organic because my wife got pregnant and I didn’t want to come home having been exposed to so many chemicals,” explains Richard. “I had to convince Tim and Judy that organic was the way to go. They were keen on the idea and let me start with the Moutere Chardonnay block.”
“This might sound flippant,” says Judy Finn, “but organics just makes sense. We’ve got three vege gardens here, and we wouldn’t dream of spraying poisons on the food we’re eventually going to eat, so we embraced Richard’s idea to convert to organics pretty well straight away.”
Neudorf still manage a small block of young sauvignon blanc, riesling and pinot gris vines with agrochemicals, down by Ruby Bay, but the idea is to eventually convert it over to organics, as well.
“You need to be able to react quicker when you’re organic,” explains Richard, “but the point is to be prepared so you can reduce the reaction times and get on top of problems earlier, as they arise.”
Neudorf’s winemaker, Todd Stevens has only every worked with organic or biodynamic fruit. Before making wine at Neudorf, he worked down in Central Otago, at Felton Road.
“I’ve always worked with organic fruit,” says Todd, “so I can’t really do any comparisons, in terms of quality, but the vines do seem a little more resilient to disease, and Richard’s organic management in the vineyard more closely aligns with what I do in the winery.”
Todd takes a minimal interventionist approach to transforming the Neudorf vineyard wine grapes into wine, although he stops short of describing it as natural winemaking.
“It’s a very hands off approach to winemaking, because, obviously, I want to express the great quality fruit we get from the vineyard,” says Todd. “Without using the word natural, I’d say we’re as close to that as we can be, but I wouldn’t call it natural winemaking.”
All of the Neudorf wines are fermented using the wild and ambient yeast that exist on the grapes in the vineyard, and in the winery, and all go through natural malo. Except for the sauvignon blanc, which, for now, still has commercial yeast added to it to ensure the whole 20,000L tank of wine goes through without difficulty.
“The context is to do nothing, unless we feel we’re being too cavalier and start compromising on the quality of wines we’re known to produce,” explains Todd. “Neudorf has been making wines for over 3o years, so there’s got to be some give and take each vintage to ensure we’re still making the absolute best wine possible from these vineyards.”
When I visited Neudorf Vineyards in April 2015, Nelson must have clocked up it’s sunshine hours for the annum, because it was cloudy, grey, and drizzling with rain. It reminded me of England in October. The leaves on the Moutere Chardonnay vineyard were slowly turning yellow and orange, the grass between the mid-row was green and lush, the vine trunks were brown and beginning to gnarl, and the eaves of the Neudorf homestead burned red against the gloom.
“The leaves on the Moutere Chardonnay vineyard were slowly turning yellow and orange…”
We sat on the deck and tasted through the most current range of Neudorf wines with Richard, Todd, and Tim. There can be no doubt that every wine I tasted that day was superb, but here are just a few highlights…
- 2014, Neudorf, Moutere Riesling Dry – Like powerboat racing on Lake Rotoiti. Powerful lime and green apple aromatics leap from the glass leaving behind a wake of white floral scents splashed onto shoreline rocks, and left to linger in the fresh air… 12.5%, $25-$30.
- 2013, Neudorf, Moutere Chardonnay – Golden despite the clouds. Vibrant swirls of elemental stone fruit pithiness, and flintiness billows like crisp linen sheets being made over a soft bed of fresh tropical fruit fleshiness. More thrilling than a total eclipse of the heart… 14%, Sold Out.
- 2012, Neudorf, Moutere Pinot Noir – Shadowy red fruit aromatics of black cherry and red current shimmer like satin. Opulent black fruits are veiled by savoury flavours of beets and earth, clove and other spice. Fine, chalky tannins linger long… 14%, $54-$60.
D// – The Wine Idealist
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