JOHN SAKER meets a wine­maker who’s march­ing to the beat of her own drum.

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John Saker meets a wine­maker who’s do­ing it her way

THIS STORY IS FOR Cui­sine’s en­ter­tain­ment is­sue, I tell Ju­lianne Brog­den (who likes to be called Julz). So I ask her to imag­ine there’s a big get-to­gether at her place and all the peo­ple she loves most are sit­ting around the ta­ble. What’s go­ing to land on their plates?

She be­gins: “Well, I’m a caber­net girl, so…” Let’s pause there. Those words de­mand it. There’s noth­ing sur­pris­ing about her start­ing thought be­ing a wine thought – she’s a wine­maker, after all. It’s her rev­er­ence for caber­net sau­vi­gnon.

In a coun­try where pinot noir is the pre­vail­ing red-wine or­tho­doxy and syrah’s ador­ing flock is steadily grow­ing, there’s a whiff of re­bel­lion, even de­fi­ance, in that stance.

She com­pletes her cater­ing mus­ings: “… so I’d go with lamb, herb-en­crusted, maybe us­ing a tape­nade, served with spuds and crusty baked kale with lemon juice. Just a big rus­tic cook-up.”

The caber­net she’d pour would be Col­lab­o­ra­tion Wines Ar­gent 2010. It’s OK, you’re al­lowed to look blank. Col­lab­o­ra­tion Wines is hardly a house­hold name. It’s rel­a­tively new and very bou­tique – no more than 100 cases are made of each of its wines. The Hawke’s Bay brand was cre­ated in 2010 by Brog­den. She named it Col­lab­o­ra­tion be­cause she sources all the fruit for her wines from grow­ers, with whom she works closely. Each la­bel fea­tures a piece of strong, at­mo­spheric vis­ual art, the work of an Amer­i­can painter friend, An­gela Tir­rell. There’s a mes­sage in those la­bels that can be read this way: this wine is not mass-pro­duced – it’s a per­sonal ex­plo­ration of beauty and mean­ing.

There are cur­rently four Col­lab­o­ra­tion wines avail­able: Cere­sia 2013 (a blend of mer­lot and caber­net franc), Au­ru­lent 2015 (chardon­nay, pic­tured above right), The Im­pres­sion Red 2012 (a Bordeaux blend) and Ar­gent 2011 (caber­net sau­vi­gnon, above left).

Brog­den’s wine­mak­ing man­i­festo was largely drawn up in Amer­ica. She ar­rived in Cal­i­for­nia’s Napa Val­ley in 2000 as a 21 year old with a Bach­e­lor of Wine Science from Hawke’s Bay’s Eastern In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy. Eight years later she re­turned a formed, con­fi­dent wine­maker.

“After a few years in the Napa I man­aged to get a foot in the door of a small, cult win­ery [Lewis Cel­lars]. The at­ten­tion to de­tail, ev­ery­one be­ing im­mersed in want­ing to make the best wines pos­si­ble… I just loved it. I re­mem­ber the 2006 vin­tage at Lewis… ev­ery fer­ment was di­alled in, I was go­ing for it and that’s when I started to learn. The long hours didn’t mat­ter be­cause ev­ery­one just loved what they were do­ing. I couldn’t have asked for a bet­ter ground­ing.”

She came back to a very dif­fer­ent world in Hawke’s Bay. There were no wine­mak­ing jobs, Brog­den dis­cov­ered, al­though even if there were, she would still have felt the urge to do her own thing: “For me to be happy, I need to make wines that I feel good about.”

And what kind of wine is that? “Acid­ity is key. I don’t want big, rich wines. I want wines with lay­ers, with in­ter­est­ing texture and length, wines that aren’t boring. For me a boring wine is just fruit – sim­ple and short and with­out much weight.”

Which brings us back to caber­net sau­vi­gnon, a va­ri­ety that has been tak­ing a hid­ing in this coun­try for a while. In 2002, the ma­jes­tic red grape of Bordeaux’s Me­doc oc­cu­pied 745 Kiwi hectares. To­day, that is down to 283ha. “Won’t ripen, too hard,” is a line you’re likely to hear from grow­ers. Julz Brog­den is hav­ing no truck with any of it.

“Caber­net hasn’t been well treated in New Zealand. It de­pends on the site and how ev­ery­thing is man­aged, both in the vine­yard and in the win­ery. It’s hard if it’s not picked at op­ti­mum ripeness. I also like to work it with oxy­gen. I love caber­net! I love it when you have those dark cas­sis char­ac­ters, and it’s not rich and ripe. It’s a wine that can be gutsy but el­e­gant.”

Brog­den’s caber­nets are fas­ci­nat­ing. They em­brace a dis­tinc­tive, risk-tak­ing style in the New Zealand con­text, with leafy, goose­berry-like high­lights danc­ing over the darker fruit flavours. The ef­fect is com­plex­ity and an up­lift­ing fresh­ness. For many, like my­self, that is ex­actly how à point caber­net sau­vi­gnon should be­have; oth­ers balk at th­ese char­ac­ters, which they see as green or veg­e­tal. Brog­den: “I don’t care. I’m go­ing to do what I like.”

Whiff of re­bel­lion? More like open protest. In an in­dus­try that at­tracts its share of free spir­its and al­ter­na­tive prac­ti­tion­ers, Brog­den’s act is very off-Broad­way. She’s cham­pi­oning an un­fash­ion­able va­ri­ety in a style that is con­tentious with a new la­bel that has lim­ited re­sources. And mak­ing the path­way tougher is the fact that Hawke’s Bay is not the Napa, where the cult winer­ies have San Fran­cisco and in­deed the en­tire Cal­i­for­nian econ­omy at their backs.

“It’s a strug­gle, here. There’s not enough money, which in turn is in­flu­enc­ing the qual­ity of the wine be­ing made in Hawke’s Bay. I’d love it long-term to stay small and ded­i­cated to qual­ity. Many winer­ies I’ve spo­ken to here have said their big­gest mis­take was grow­ing too big. But the fi­nan­cial side of things is hard. I can’t see how I’ll ever own my own vine­yard. It can be dis­heart­en­ing.”

And yet… de­spite all that, and de­spite the fact that it’s a moon­light­ing op­er­a­tion (Brog­den fits Col­lab­o­ra­tion work in around her full-time gig at Pask Win­ery on the bot­tling line and in the lab), the qual­ity of her wines has been at­tract­ing at­ten­tion.

Smart restau­rants that look be­yond the main­stream, such as Si­dart and Co­coro in Auck­land, have added them to their lists. Welling­ton’s hot new wine bar, Noble Rot, was re­cently serv­ing the Col­lab­o­ra­tion Aru­lent Chardon­nay 2014 by the glass. “Peo­ple loved it – it went very well,” re­ported co-owner Ma­ciej Zimny. Crit­ics have also been im­pressed, my­self in­cluded. I rated the Col­lab­o­ra­tion Wines Ar­gent 2013 (to be re­leased next year) as the best Kiwi caber­net sau­vi­gnon I’d tasted in 2015. Brog­den is happy with how it’s track­ing. “Over the last cou­ple of years, I’ve sensed a door open­ing. I think I can make it work. I’m see­ing an in­crease in sales. Talk to me in a few years… but right now I feel I’ve barely touched the sur­face.”

Let’s re­turn to that gath­er­ing she’s host­ing. I quiz her about the mu­sic she’d play. The ques­tion ne­ces­si­tates a con­sul­ta­tion with her part­ner Richard Painter, also a wine­maker (at Te Awa and yes, they talk shop con­stantly ap­par­ently). She comes back with: “Rich knows what I like. He said to say ‘down­beat elec­tron­ica’”.

I nod, won­der­ing what on earth that might sound like, and then ask what she might wear. “A cheongsam, over jeans, and prob­a­bly bare feet. I’m not a high heels kind of girl.”

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