Cherry wine blossoms in Cromwell
Dave McMillan’s reject cherries used to go in a hole and were buried. Now they are poured into glasses.
Wine glasses to be exact.
Since the 2014-2015 harvest, his cherries which are too small or weather damaged go a couple of kilometres down the road to VinPro in Cromwell and are made into wine.
“I’d known for a while they make cherries into wine in the States but it’s quite cheap to buy there, only $8 a bottle, so I didn’t really think much about it then my son Andrew thought I should give it a go,” Dave said.
One of Andrew’s friends designed the bottle labels and wine maker Pete Bartle at VinPro made the first vintage of cherry wine in 2015 under the label Ripponvale Cherry Wine, named after the road the orchard is on.
That year they produced two wines – one from each of the two varieties of cherries grown at the orchard which are Lapins and the Sweetheart.
Lapins produced a wine with spice aromas, floral notes and red cherry and plum fruit flavours while Sweetheart made a dryer wine with black cherry aromas and hints of vanilla, coconut, tropical fruit and peach.
However, Dave said, people seemed to get confused between the two and they have decided this year one vintage was enough and have mixed the two varieties together.
He planted the 8ha orchard under the stunning Mount Pisa in 1995 back when the local council rules dictated small blocks of land had to have a commercial enterprise on them before a house was built. “I looked at walnuts to start with but they take so long, eight years before your first harvest. Cherries are a lot quicker. You get your first crop after only three years.”
He’s still to build the house but the orchard allowed him to resign from the Police in 1998 and join the ranks instead of the many Central Otago cherry orchardists.
Last season 20T went to the winemaker which included some cherries from other growers.
“The cherries that go for wine are either undersize or are cracked or split. Or they have a ring around the top which is from where the rain sits,” Dave said.
“There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re still great to eat but they are just not cosmetically right for the market.”
And the market these days is the highly demanding Chinese and Taiwan consumer.
The nearby packhouse 45 South grades and packs the fruit with the professional picking gang arriving at Dave’s orchard between December 15 and 20.
“The cherries in the Teviot Valley start flowering before us, they seem to have an earlier spring, but then we catch up with the Central Otago heat.”
His harvest finishes usually about January 20 and for the last few years Dave said the returns from the export market have been good. About 75% of the crop go to export, another 15% to the local market and the rest go to Pete at VinPro.
Pete made last year’s Air New Zealand Wine Awards champion winner – Lowburn Ferry Home Block Pinot Noir Central Otago 2014 – so Dave said he knows what he’s doing.
However, Pete wasn’t too keen to try making cherry wine at first.
“He’d never made it before so it was guesswork for him. He was pretty reluctant and then finally he said he would give it a go.”
The wine is sold for $24.95 and $26.95 a bottle through the website www. ripponvale.co.nz, although Dave has tried retailing it direct as well.
“Any wine can be made but it’s the selling of it that’s hard.”
At this stage he’s not interested in the supermarket or wine shop trade but is hopeful of future export orders, trading on the reputation of Central Otago wine as well as its famous fresh cherries – especially as he has two vats at VinPro of the 2016-2017 harvest ready to be bottled in November.
For Pete it is the only non-grape wine he has made, and he’s not too keen to try others just in case other orchardists are thinking of it.
The process starts with the juice removed in a press. About four to five tonnes are pressed at once and it takes five to six hours.
The juice is then pumped into a vat and left to settle for a couple of days before the solids are removed and then filtered to get the last of the liquid.
“We take the solids and they go into the hole at the orchard that the reject cherries would have gone,” Dave said.
VinPro are not only winemakers but also handle the bottling, supplying the bottles and packaging, storage and distribution logistics for local grape growers.
But cherries were new to the business.
“We decided to treat it like a white wine which is a cool ferment for about three weeks,” Pete said. “We use a white wine yeast.”
The difference is the red grapes, such as Central Otago’s famous Pinot Noirs, are fermented before their skins and seeds are removed.
“I had to do some research into it and in the end I was really reluctant to ferment it like a red wine,” Pete said.
“I had a really close look at the cherry stone and it’s not completely sealed so I was worried about the bitterness of the kernel getting into the wine. It’s not a seed like a grape seed.”
He said the wine was unusual but most people wouldn’t pick it to be cherry wine if they weren’t told. “They would be trying to figure out what grape variety it was, or whether it was some sort of sherry or port.
“People really like it and I think each year we’re getting better at it.
“Getting the right pressure to get the juice at the start has been difficult. I think we were pressing it too hard. Now we are going for a medium press and we’re getting a lot more juice.”
“Originally we wanted the Lapins to be more of a rosé style but it came out really dark,” Dave said. “You can’t hide the colour of the cherries.”
“A glass of it chilled is really nice on a hot Central Otago day.”
Clockwise from top left: Dave McMillan in the cherry orchard near Cromwell. The start of a new season. The cherry trees in full bloom at the start of October. Young cherry trees already with blossom on them in the orchard under Mount Pisa.
From top: VinPro winemaker Pete Bartle pours a glass of this year’s Ripponvale Cherry Wine from the vat. This year’s vintage in a vat at VinPro in Cromwell.
VinPro winemaker Pete Bartle (left) and cherry grower Dave McMillan toast to the new season with a glass of Ripponvale Cherry Wine.