IN THE COURSE of my travels to the vineyards of New Zealand, I’ve never failed to be amazed by the collective ability of its winemakers to harness the tricky triumph of viticulture that is Pinot Noir. The gentle grape usually associated with Burgundy is finicky and hard to grow, so it isn’t surprising that the resulting wines account for just nine percent of New Zealand’s total wine output and a mere six percent of its wine exports, though this testifies no less to the importance of quality over quantity.
That quality stems partially from the abundance of warm days and cool nights, with sea breezes aiding long ripening seasons and the diurnal temperature variations perfect for grape growing. Two Kiwi winemakers whose work I’ve long admired, Brian Bicknell and Nick Mills, work in the country’s South Island, though their wines differ somewhat in provenance; Bicknell is the founder, owner and chief winemaker of Mahi Wines in Marlborough, while Mills heads his family’s Rippon estate in Central Otago. The one thing they share is the deeply-held belief that what they do is immensely personal.
“The wine you make has to be part of your personality,” says Bicknell, who hails from Auckland, “especially since you put so much into it. When people are tasting it, they’re judging it and, by association, judging me. After a while doing this, you realise how subjective wine is and across your career, hopefully, you’ll make a number of wines you know are good. I actually like this subjective kind of business, because it really comes down to you. Anybody can make a decent wine but it’s about how you picked your fruit at the right time and how you did the right stuff. And, weirdly enough, you can make a stunner.”
One such stunner for me was his Marlborough Pinot Noir 2012. He’d also made others, with names like Rive and Ward (after the respective single vineyards they hail from), but it was this one I particularly liked, all the grapes sourced from the Wairau Valley but from five different blocks with differing characteristics. To Bicknell’s credit, he’d managed to blend them into a single, highly expressive wine that’s medium-bodied yet fragrant and slightly spicy, with notes of cherries and plums. And, to my astonishment, he’d made only 500 cases of it, a paltry production some would deem hardly worthwhile.
“That’s not typical for all our wines, although we are pretty small,“ he clarifies. “Our biggest one is our regionally blended Sauvignon Blanc, usually 8,000 cases, which is still quite small. When you make a distinctive style of wine, every wine under your label is very much an expression of what you like. All you can hope for is that year on year you want to be in people’s top five or top ten.” Mahi means “work” or “craft” in the Maori language, and he knew he wanted an indigenous word. “Maori culture is so important to New Zealand, but a big part of it was how we were then, and now still are, only five people. I wanted to show that this is our work, our craft, our total life. If it falls over, I lose my house.”
That kind of devil-may-care work ethos also applies to Nick Mills, who literally could lose the house – his family’s, on a picturesque stretch of land near Queenstown called Wanaka, now 15 hectares under vine. “Rippon has been in the family for five generations, since my great-grandfather bought it in 1912, and the third generation on the farm was his grandson, my father Rolfe Mills,” Mills tells me. “He was in the submarines in the Second World War and came back from the Atlantic via Portugal, and the schist in the soils of the Douro Valley sparked his interest in viticulture. But it wasn’t until he moved back with his wife Lois, my mother, in 1974 that he began getting into it. They developed it from a section of Wanaka Station, a well-defined piece of land that they called Rippon Hill, after my great-great-great-grandmother’s name – she was Emma Rippon – and, through experimentation, felt that something was possible. It was an unproven thing because nobody had planted down in Central Otago at that stage.
“I was born the same time as the vines were and it was my school holiday job so I was there from the beginning, but I only came back to run the farm in 2002 after four years in Burgundy. I did all my studies in Beaune and worked in Burgundy with some wonderful mentors at some very special domaines – Jean-Jacques Confuron, Domaine de la Romanée Conti and Domaine de la Vougeraie – and then my father passed away in 2000. I came home after my mother gave me the call, to continue the family tradition.”
The key to his Pinot Noir, he believes, is the unique terroir of Wanaka, the soils defined by “the schist, which is tectonic, metamorphic rock that is not sedimentary like limestone or clay and not volcanic. This schist is clean and heat-efficient and so the wines are defined by a compactness, a linear sort of thread running through them. Our lake here, Lake Wanaka, has a thermal mass that changes two degrees from summer to winter, creating a temperance to the surrounding land, so the wines are detailed and articulate, more about compression than volume.”
From the 2008 vintage to the present, Mills and his wife Jo have crafted their lovely Rippon Mature Vine Pinot Noir, distinguishing it from their two other Pinot Noirs (single-vineyard wines respectively called Emma’s Block and Tinker’s Field). “Rippon is indeed a place, a complete farm entity with its own identity, and it in turn lends its name to the wine,” he says. “Rippon Mature Vine Pinot Noir is this individuality expressed in vinous form, issued from parcels of mature vine Pinot Noir throughout the whole property.” The 2011 vintage resembles the 2009; I once brought a bottle of his 2009 to a Thanksgiving dinner party and the bottle was gone in under 10 minutes (since nobody could be satisfied with merely one glass). “Yes, our 2011 is from a cooler year, like our 2009 and like 2001 Burgundy,” he agrees. “The wines are very, very fine and honed down, precise with a lot of articulation, quite beautiful in that sense, whereas the 2010 and 2008 were warmer years so they had more flesh and warmth.”
Meantime, up north in Marlborough, Bicknell didn’t have the luxury of a family farm. After his postgraduate wine studies at Roseworthy Agricultural College in South Australia, he worked at some Marlborough estates (notably Selaks and Babich) before heading for the Aconcagua Valley of Chile, where he became chief winemaker at the acclaimed Viña Errazuriz estate in 1994. A few years later, he returned home to establish Seresin Estate for its owner, film producer Michael Seresin, before starting Mahi in 2001.
Like his wines, however, his life story is slightly more complicated than that. “I was studying botany at university and doing research on seaweeds,” he recalls, “because I wanted to do marine botany. I was then also looking for a weekend job and my girlfriend Nicola, who is now my wife, saw this job opening. It was for a wine shop. And it was from working there that I fell in love with wine – so much so that for my botany studies, every new project I did had something to do with wine. For instance, I was doing mycology, the study of fungus, so my project was based on how that affected wine. I then wanted to work at wineries during my summer break and wrote to a lot of them but only one guy replied, Randy Weaver from Coopers Creek, so I went to work there for two summers before going to Bordeaux to work for a couple of chateaux and then to Roseworthy in 1990. But really, if I’m honest about it, my getting into the wine industry was a fluke because it all started with that wine shop.”
How so? He’d secured that position in the most unorthodox of ways. It came down to three people and the employer decided to base his final decision on, of all things, astrological charts. “Apparently, the day I was born, my three major planets lined up in a perfect triangle, which apparently is a lucky charm and it means that I will be lucky. This guy knew two other people who had the same thing and they’d both done well in business, so he employed me. And I’ve had a lucky life, really.”
And as all veterans of the vineyards surely know, winemaking doesn’t only require luck but also the right circumstances, as Mills concurs when I ask him if Rippon aims to make wines that are elegant in style: “It’s not our aim, per se, and I wouldn’t use the word ‘style’ either. It’s just the character of our site and what our terroir has provided us with. From the beginning, the vineyard was planted with Vitis vinifera straight into the ground, run organically and weaned off irrigation early. All that attaches the vine to the rock, and what you’re going to be getting is much more about texture and feel and shape rather than fruit and power – more about digestive characters rather than olfactory ones, if that makes any sense.”
It does, to those of us who love Pinot Noir and care about the subtleties that define the greatness of this thin-skinned, temperamental grape. The planets might even be aligned for you, should you be fortunate enough to be drinking the results of an exceptional harvest.