Southern Hemisphere vintage wrap

My work at Terra Sancta finished on Sunday, so I’ve taken a few days in Queenstown to relax and reflect on what has been a hectic time.

Now that my string of Southern Hemisphere vintages is at an end, my most immediate, visceral reaction is to feel somewhat at a loose end. Harvest is such a busy time, with no shortage of things to do at any point in the day, that having to search for things to occupy my time seems alien. Moreover, as much as I might have wished for breaks during vintage to rest a bit, now that I’m no longer actively engaged in making wine, I miss it. A lot. And it’s only been a few days.

Harvest at Terra Sancta proceeded as smoothly as it started, which is to say remarkably so given the new winery. A few niggles here and there, mostly with equipment and electrics, but no more so than one might expect at any winery. The winemaking team seemed pleased with how things went, and certainly from a quality perspective I saw a lot of very exciting batches come through.

If I’m in a position to give advice to the few people less experienced than I, I would suggest doing a vintage with a good deal of lab time as well as cellar work. I did about half-half at Terra Sancta, and while cellar work is massively enjoyable, being in the lab meant I monitored and tasted everything, from the largest open fermenters to individual barrels, which isn’t always possible if one is confined solely to a busy cellar. As with previous vintages at Lake’s Folly and Dowie Doole, I was exceptionally fortunate to work with a chief winemaker whose enthusiasm manifested in a willingness to share thoughts and experiences on a daily basis. Jen Parr, just last year awarded New Zealand Winemaker of the Year at the New Zealand International Wine Show, is a very intuitive winemaker, and it was enormously educational to discuss with her the progress of each ferment, how to respond to changes, when to make additions and initiate key actions such as pressing or arresting fermentations. I’m not sure how much I was able to contribute other than to provide data, but it certainly fascinated me on a daily basis watching Jen steer each batch through to safe completion.

Jody Pagey, other half of the winemaking team, looks after cellar operations and does so most ably, as he is highly experienced across the full range of cellar activities. I will always remember a particularly fast forklift session Jody performed to weigh a large batch of fruit that was delivered just moments before home time. I’m still not a sensationally good forklift driver, but to my surprise I found myself doing the full range of forklift duties and generally zipping around the cellar when not in the lab. I still feel like I need to deepen my experience of cellar tasks, but this vintage was another step forward in that regard, especially in terms of reductively handled white wines. Towards the end of vintage, it was personally satisfying to be able to be given job by Jody and to not have to ask him to talk me through each aspect of how it should be done. Progress, I hope.

I suppose it’s natural to reflect on the differences between each experience I’ve had so far. Going from regions like the Hunter and McLaren Vale, both amongst Australia’s oldest and most traditional, to an upstart like Central Otago, provides plenty to think about.

One obvious difference, apart from simply the styles made in all three regions, is an apparent freedom to experiment in Central that may not be so readily available (or accepted by the market) in more established regions. While Pinot Noir winemaking here seems pretty consistent, with some key practices that don’t vary much between producers, there is a lot of energy and excitement directed at white and rosé styles, and much variation to be found between producers. Pinot Gris ranges from dry to moderately sweet, Riesling even more so, and I was surprised at the amount of oxidative handling given to all whites and rosés, often as a component to be blended into a larger amount of more simply handled material. Mount Difficulty’s rosé is a good case in point – it’s quite un-aromatic in style, all barrel fermented, and all the more interesting for it. Another especially interesting example is a batch of Pinot Gris we made at Terra Sancta, fermented to dryness on skins. That was really educational to taste each day, and I was fascinated by how far removed its aromas and flavours were from more traditionally handled Gris.

One might interpret all this experimentation as an ongoing search for the region’s proper styles; wine does seem to gravitate towards stylistic consensus within regions. But it’s also a lot of fun and I sense, as much as Pinot Noir is the main deal here, that more creativity is to be found in whites and rosés, even allowing for the inherent potential for more winemaking trickery with these styles compared to dry reds.

Equally, however, I continue to find satisfaction in well established styles that have been honed over many years by guardians of particular regions. Lake’s Folly Chardonnay, for example, has been consistently made over many years, and to my mind is a pinnacle of its region and style. To improve on it, one would have to branch out in a different direction, which is what Rod Kempe has done with his Hill Block bottling. It’s too easy to dismiss classic New World styles in the rush to discover even newer regions and varieties, and part of my personal wine mission is to value New World wines whose styles represent an authentic winemaking tradition, whether fashionable or not.

Not to posit regions in opposition to one another; if anything, working in three very different regions so far has elevated my sense of the diversity of wine, which is a large part of the pleasure of loving wine. As a drinker, I’d not want to be without any of the key styles I’ve worked with so far – luscious Hunter Chardonnay (yes, it’s good), flavoursome McLaren Vale reds, mysterious Central Otago Pinot Noir. They can all house beautiful wines that have a place in any sort of vinous canon one might want define.

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