Wine­maker De­bra Cruick­shank is mak­ing a name for her­self with a hands- on ap­proach to grow­ers’ grapes

NZ Life & Leisure - - Contents - WORDS NATHALI E BROWN

WHAT IS IT that dis­tin­guishes one Cen­tral Otago wine­grower’s vin­tage from an­other’s? Some say it could be the residue from their feet as they tread the grapes. Oth­ers claim the wine is im­bued with the hoots and laugh­ter of said wine­grow­ers as they tram­ple. Ei­ther way, Cromwell’s bou­tique wine pro­duc­ers are more than happy with the qual­ity of their wine when it comes out of De­bra Cruick­shank’s mi­cro-win­ery in Cromwell.

A con­tract wine­maker, De­bra pro­duces 30 dif­fer­ent wines – in­clud­ing pinot noir, pinot gris, rose and Ries­ling – for the in­creas­ing num­ber of Cen­tral res­i­dents with a small plot of land and a few vines. She in­vites her clients to take part in the process, tread­ing the fruit, bot­tling the wine.

“Af­ter work­ing in the Cen­tral Otago wine in­dus­try for about 17 years I saw the frus­tra­tion of smaller pro­duc­ers as they watched their precious grapes dis­ap­pear­ing into es­tate blends,” she says. “I’m here to help bou­tique grow­ers en­joy their own vin­tages by pro­vid­ing a high­qual­ity ser­vice for small-batch wine pro­duc­tion.”

She es­tab­lished her con­tract wine­mak­ing fa­cil­ity DC Wines in 2012, and moved into a block of stor­age sheds in Cromwell. It was a mod­est be­gin­ning but she had all the equip­ment she needed to deal with about nine tonnes of grapes com­ing in at the time.

Com­pare this with other lo­cal winer­ies. “When I was work­ing at Akarua they did about 300 tonnes. Au­rum Wines does 20 tonnes and they use ma­chines. This is my sixth vin­tage com­ing up. Last year I did 30 tonnes of grapes – 30 dif­fer­ent wines rang­ing from 100 litres to 5000 litres in grapes – and all dug with a shovel into the crusher, then from the crusher into the tanks. That’s 30 tonnes shov­eled twice in a sea­son. It’s a great way to keep fit. I cer­tainly don’t need to go to the gym.”

She made the move from the fam­ily farm in South Otago to Cromwell af­ter high school in 1998 and it was her good for­tune to land a job at Akarua Vine­yard where her im­pres­sive work ethic was re­warded with three pay rises in as many months.

“I started right at the bot­tom but I made sure I was in there the whole time,” she says. Cleaning floors and do­ing the type of grunt work that doesn’t usu­ally ap­peal paid off when the wine­maker Carol Bunn de­cided the com­pany should put De­bra through uni­ver­sity while she stayed on to work at the win­ery.

Four years later she had her oenol­ogy de­gree by cor­re­spon­dence through the East­ern In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and Massey Uni­ver­sity. Not long af­ter she had com­pleted her stud­ies, her men­tors told her it was time she broad­ened her ex­pe­ri­ence by vis­it­ing overseas winer­ies. So she went to Mar­garet River in Western Aus­tralia for a year or so and loved it.

“I was lured back to Cromwell to work for a small-batch win­ery and af­ter sev­eral years there, I fol­lowed the ad­vice of peo­ple in the lo­cal in­dus­try who en­cour­aged me to es­tab­lish my own bou­tique win­ery.

“By then I re­ally knew what I was do­ing but I had to start out small,” she says. “Pre-har­vest I go around ev­ery one of my clients’ vine­yards and do the anal­y­sis on all the dif­fer­ent grapes so I know where they’re sit­ting and when the client needs to pick them.

“I use a bas­ket press. It’s old-style wine­mak­ing and a lot gen­tler on the fruit than a bag press but it’s very small and I have to do sev­eral loads to press each client’s grapes.” Three peo­ple work­ing at her lit­tle four-headed bot­tling ma­chine and a one-headed screw-cap ma­chine can put through 600 bot­tles in an hour.

“I lease a lit­tle vine­yard down Wanaka Road to pro­duce my own

‘I saw the frus­tra­tion of smaller pro­duc­ers as they watched their precious grapes dis­ap­pear­ing into es­tate blends’

la­bel – Tan­nacrieff. It’s the name of the farm I grew up on down south, and comes orig­i­nally from Ayr­shire in Scot­land. Mum and Dad have given me the tem­plate we used to spray paint on the wool­sacks. I do a pinot noir, pinot gris, rosé and ries­ling from half a hectare. But I wanted to try a port from pinot noir be­cause Cen­tral Otago is pinot noir and no one else is mak­ing port here so it is a good wee niche. I use a base of pure al­co­hol.”

Duck shoot­ing has also al­ways been a big part of De­bra’s life and in ev­ery maimai there is a bot­tle of port. She ap­proached Cen­tral artist Tui John­son to cre­ate the la­bel for her own va­ri­ety.

“Mum took shots of Dad in camo gear in mid-sum­mer while I had photos of my black labrador Jade and Tui used them to make a beau­ti­ful la­bel for the Duck Shoot­ers port. In two weeks it sold out, all through the NZ Wa­ter Fowler and NZ Wild Habi­tat Face­book pages (both closed mem­ber-only sites). And then there is the Red Stag Ruby with an­other la­bel by Tui. So now the port is the main wine that I sell for my­self. I hand-wax and hand-la­bel the bot­tles. And around Cen­tral I’ve be­come known as the Port Lady.

“My ruby ports are young. They’re made in April and I start bot­tling them in Oc­to­ber. The longer they’re in bar­rel the bet­ter but they’re sought af­ter and I’m open to per­sua­sion. I have a five-year-old tawny that I add to each year. The pinot noir is in bar­rels for 10 months while the white wines are made in April, and bot­tled in Sep­tem­ber.

“I also make a very pop­u­lar fruit port for the Jone­ses at Sun­crest Or­chard who have a tast­ing room in their enor­mous Cromwell fruit shop. The fruit ports don’t need too much time in bar­rels – they’re made in Jan­uary or Fe­bru­ary and I start bot­tling them in Oc­to­ber. The fruit ports are made to be drunk im­me­di­ately but ev­ery­thing im­proves with age in the bot­tle.”


CLOCK­WISE THESE PAGES: Jade, the seven-year old DC Wines labrador, goes ev­ery­where with De­bra; a hand- blown glass sip­per is the best way to taste De­bra’s Duck Shoot­ers port – or any other port for that mat­ter; Old World- style wine- mak­ing – very few...

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