Grape ex­pec­ta­tions

A good har­vest means great things for wine­mak­ers and wine drinkers alike.

NZ Life & Leisure - - Tasting Notes -

WINE­MAKER NICK PICONE starts imag­in­ing what next year’s wine will be like while the grapes are still hang­ing on the vines. Af­ter 20 years he knows how im­por­tant the har­vest pe­riod is to wine­mak­ers and wine drinkers alike.

“It’s a pretty short win­dow and it’s im­por­tant to get it right. Each har­vest has at least a three-year ef­fect – it’s one year to grow the grapes, a year to make the wine (or longer, de­pend­ing on what it is), then the time the wine is out in the mar­ket, rep­re­sent­ing our work. It’s a key mo­ment for us, the de­ci­sions we make at har­vest have a lot rest­ing on them. When you pick the grapes will have a key im­pact on that par­tic­u­lar wine.”

As Group Chief Wine­maker for Villa Maria, Nick has a lot of de­ci­sions to make. Now a global brand, the vine­yard was started in the early 1960s by Sir George Fis­tonich. His ini­tial five-acre plot of leased land has grown to nu­mer­ous vine­yards in the four ma­jor re­gions of Auck­land, Gis­borne, Hawke’s Bay and Marl­bor­ough. Villa Maria has been New Zealand’s most awarded win­ery at na­tional and in­ter­na­tional wine com­pe­ti­tions for nearly 40 years. In April this year, Villa Maria was named the fourth most-ad­mired wine brand in the world for the sec­ond time in three years by Drinks In­ter­na­tional, and is the only New Zealand win­ery to make the top 10.

Nick’s fi rst har­vest was in 1997, un­der wine­maker Gor­don Rus­sell at Esk Val­ley Es­tate. Af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a few har­vests abroad, he joined Villa Maria full time in Marl­bor­ough in 2003. He now over­sees the na­tional wine­mak­ing team from his home in Hawke’s Bay.

“The com­pany has grown a lot in 20 years,” he says. “As a team, we all work closely to­gether to get the best out of a har­vest. For me, it’s great to have peo­ple I can rely on. Ev­ery­one goes into the sea­son know­ing what needs to be done. There’s a buzz in the air at har­vest, we’re all work­ing hard and work­ing to­gether.”

One of the peo­ple who Nick works most closely with is Com­pany Viti­cul­tur­ist Ol­lie Powrie. Ol­lie, who is also based in Hawke’s Bay, has been with Villa Maria for a decade. Like Nick, he still gets ex­cited about har­vest.

“I love be­ing part of the de­ci­sion mak­ing process and see­ing ev­ery­thing come to­gether, from the grapes be­ing picked to the fruit be­ing pressed,” he says.

The pair spend a lot of time trav­el­ing around the vine­yards, as­sess­ing the grapes’ con­di­tion and fore­cast­ing when they should be picked. In the­ory, that should be as soon as the flavours are per­fectly ripe – but that’s without ac­count­ing for the va­garies of the cli­mate or the state of the vines. In re­al­ity, it’s part science, part ex­pe­ri­ence and part in­tu­ition, Nick and Ol­lie say.

“Com­ing into har­vest, we need to be test­ing sug­ars and acids, so we can keep an eye on the ripen­ing process,” Nick ex­plains.

“As things get a bit closer, we make reg­u­lar trips into the

vine­yards. Wine­mak­ers start to taste the grapes and mon­i­tor the process closely.”

Har­vest typ­i­cally be­gins at Villa Maria’s Auck­land vine­yards first, where the pick­ing of Gewürz­traminer, Chardon­nay, Pinot Noir and Verdelho grapes can start as early as mid-Fe­bru­ary. The sun-drenched vine­yards of Gis­borne and Hawke’s Bay are gen­er­ally picked next, though wine­mak­ers and viti­cul­tur­ists keep a keen eye on the weather to make sure the har­vest isn’t sub­ject to early au­tumn rain. Grapes from the Marl­bor­ough vine­yards come in last, some­times as late as early May. Most of the grapes are har­vested over a four to six-week win­dow at each win­ery.

“We have a lot of ground to cover, so when you have at least a cou­ple of peo­ple mak­ing de­ci­sions to­gether you can come up with the best plan,” Ol­lie says.

“It’s all go, ev­ery day is dif­fer­ent,” Nick adds. “In some ar­eas, the cli­mate is the same year in year out, and I think that shows in the wine. Here in New Zealand, there’s a lot more di­ver­sity within sea­sons, which de­fines and shapes the wines.”

The role of viti­cul­tur­ist and wine­maker are in­tri­cately linked, he says. “It’s ex­cit­ing and re­ward­ing to work closely with the viti­cul­tur­ists, and it’s cru­cial for me to spend a huge amount of time in the vine­yards. I wouldn’t change that.”

When the last load of grapes rolls in, it sig­nals the end of the har­vest process and the start of the next stage of the wine’s jour­ney from vine­yard to glass. Not sur­pris­ingly, this is tra­di­tion­ally marked by a good old-fash­ioned knees-up.

“There’s lots of wine,” laughs Nick. “And some awk­ward danc­ing,” adds Ol­lie.

“We have a party and bring all the staff to­gether from the vine­yards and winer­ies,” Nick says.

“We tell a few sto­ries, have a few laughs and look to send ev­ery­one home safe and happy in the knowl­edge that they have worked hard and con­trib­uted to what we do. Ev­ery­one does long hours dur­ing har­vest so it’s good to have a bit of time-out be­fore we move on to the next stage.

“Even if the sea­son is chal­leng­ing, we still man­age to make great wine. That’s the sign of a fan­tas­tic com­pany.”

Col­lab­o­ra­tion is a key in­gre­di­ent in great wine – wine­maker Nick Picone ( left) and viti­cul­tur­ist Ol­lie Powrie work closely to­gether all year round, es­pe­cially at har­vest time when they spend a lot of time on the road vis­it­ing vine­yards.

There’s a real buzz in the air at har­vest, we’re all work­ing hard and work­ing to­gether.

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