It’s official – there’s a lot of passion going around in New Zealand. And not just the passionfruit flavor in NZ’s all-important Sauvignon Blanc. The intense passion so poignant in the Old World winemakers I met in Europe is rampant in New Zealand as well. I started to notice it when I met Tim Finn, owner of Neudorf Vineyards (sorry – no photos of Neudorf because of the torrential rain, but I promise it’s gorgeous!) near Nelson. We sat down to chat over a glass of Chardonnay (and then a glass of Riesling… and Pinot noir… and Viognier… yes, it’s hard work but someone has to do it!), and had quite a frank discussion about terroir. Tim told me that he notices that his oldest vines show a more ‘authentic’ expression of their terroir, and posited that maybe this is due to the time they’ve had to establish a comprehensive network of microflora (namely, mycorrhizal fungus which develops a symbiotic relationship with plant roots and can help vines obtain nutrients – especially phosphorous, but others are under investigation – from parts of the soil that the roots otherwise wouldn’t be able to access). We agreed that there are a lot of ‘conclusions’ out there that are just based on associations, but that there is great value in doing the work to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship, if one exists. This is a huge issue in the world of terroir, as there are so many ideas derived from centuries of tradition that it can be difficult to tease them apart and determine those that actually have logical bases. But Tim told me that he feels the best wine comes from people who are actually out in their vineyards watching what is happening all of the time. He really stressed this, and to me, it is an interesting embodiment of art and science in wine. Because really what this is all about is keen observation – and that is a trait that is often attributed to both scientists and to artists. For both, the closer they keep an eye on the world around them, the better they can do their job – for the scientist, it’s a way of finding answers, and for the artist, a way of finding inspiration. And if you’re making wine, both rational answers and creative inspiration are of the utmost importance.
While in the Nelson area I also met Cam Trott, Cellar Hand at Woolaston Estates, a gorgeous gravity-flow winery that was built with Pinot Noir in mind (Woolaston’s owners brought in Larry Ferar, a winery architect from Oregon to design the building). The idea behind gravity-flow is that each step of the winemaking process occurs at a level lower than the previous so that musts and wines can be transferred using the power of gravity rather than pumps, which can be damaging to the wine, particularly when dealing with grapes as delicate as Pinot Noir.
Cam and I talked about a lot of things (particularly about minerality, as that is kind of my pet project at the moment, and what I’ve been spending a whole lot of time thinking about with Chris Oze at University of Canterbury), but he was particularly excited to talk about biodynamics, as he had just spent a week doing some work at Seresin in Marlborough. Though they’re not biodynamic at Woolaston (they are fully organic though – and Neudorf is moving in that direction), Cam appreciates the biodynamic treatment of the vineyard as a self-contained, self-sufficient entity – really, as its own organism (though in regards to the cosmic aspects of biodynamics he said “I’m not quite there yet” – a perspective that reflects many I’ve heard, even from fairly strong supporters of the methodology). The key here, for Cam, is working with the land and harnessing all it can do for the vines. He said that there are people who work with the land because they believe in it, and people who just use ‘sustainable,’ ‘organic,’ ‘biodynamic’ etc. because they see it as a good marketing tool, and that the latter are the ones who run into trouble. And though I’d be the first to admit that there’s plenty to debate about whether or not you can taste the minerals in the soil, I must say that I’m pretty convinced you can taste passion in a wine. And it’s delicious.