Spotting an expert wine maker isn’t always that easy. However, red stained finger nails and the ability to rattle off the history of Syrah in the Hawkes Bay, from its clonal inception at Te Kauwhata to it’s evolution throughout the region, are a bit of a give away.
And thus it was, meeting Geoff King at the cellar door at Te Awa, accommodating the requests of a visitor with a penchant for Syrah, before whisking me around the winery for what proved to be a Diploma in wine making, a tank sampling and a cellar door tasting in under two hours.
Te Awa has an interesting history for what would be considered a smallish producer making on average only 250-300 tonnes a year. Owned originally by the Billionaire hedge funder turned winemaker Julian Robertson, also responsible for the Cape Kidnappers Golf Course, the winery expanded quickly to produce a diverse range: The Leftfield wines for fruit driven easy drinking (although this loose turn of phrase does them a disservice), the Te Awa range showing greater secondary characteristics courtesy of further winemaker interaction, and the Cape Kidnappers selection, sold under cork and with a need for bottle ageing to reach its apogee.
In the latest twist in its story, Te Awa was recently bought by the wine giant Villa Maria. Reminiscent of recent acquisitions of craft brewers by larger drinks companies (one thinks of the purchase of Emmerson’s by Lion Nathan in particular), Te Awa is to retain its creative control after only a cull of it’s less profitable varietally driven wines. This hands off approach is very much a win win; a winemaker like Geoff might sacrifice the pleasure of playing around with a few parcels of vines to create his own vinous baby, but will gain massively through a well developed support system, from lab sampling at a drop of a hat, to the slightly less glamorous world of general on site maintenance. In addition, the well oiled commercial machine that is Villa Maria provides further outlets for wine that can’t be made and sold under the Te Awa brand in poorer vintages, such as 2012 – an important factor in maintaining profitability.
The winery is an impressive set up of stainless steel vinifiers and storage space, which all seem to be temperature controlled, and hard to appreciate when stood in the cosy, wooden confines of the cellar door, only metres away. Geoff spares no detail leading us through the finer points of both white and red wine production, but only after a quick history of the Gimblett gravels, on which the vineyard site is perched. Formed only 160 years prior by the alluvial remnants of a massive river diverted by a tumultuous flood, this soil is young, which sounds strange in wine terms – but is so fitting in a country whose wine industry is only decades old, and is now forging its own wine identity.
I am introduced to the grape baskets and the pneumatic crusher, the hammer and chisel of the winemaker, and then meet the vast array of other tools that are deftly used to create the detail, depending on the wine to be sculpted. Stainless steel open top tanks for punching down, and closed tanks for pumping over – depending on the desired level of phenolic extraction for reds. Stainless steel or barrel fermentation for the whites, and even stainless steel barrels for those not wanting oak, but that will benefit from some time on lees. Rather like staring into a Mandelbrot Set, it would appear that at every level, wine making gains in complexity. Micro-oxygenation in oak to fix and polymerise tannins, and different barrels from different coopers, whose recipe of provenance of oak and level of toast will play a huge factor. Wild vineyard yeasts for varied rolling ferments that are higher risk, but reward with greater complexity, and cultured yeasts for a certain mouth-feel or flavour profile that are more guaranteed and can be bought off the shelf from the yeast rep. The list goes on.
A continuation into the realms of chemistry continues, as the artistry of wine gives way to a certain level of science (it is a form of alchemy after all), and we enter the lab. An array of vials and tubes on one bench is juxtaposed nicely by a tray of eggs on the other, but Geoff’s explanation of the use of egg white for fining, with its negative ions attracting the positive ions of tannins, is a nice reminder of the science behind every stage of wine making.
Descending back into the winery proper, it is a welcome relief that Geoff suggests we taste some samples from the tank, the dry theory having left my head in a gentle spin, and my palate parched. We taste the 2011 Chardonnay which is ready to be bottled, spitting liberally and inaccurately into a drain on the floor (why can’t all tastings be like this) and the 2011 Te Awa Syrah which has a keen acidity, and which Geoff feels he might revisit. The vats are cool and tasting reds at this temperature is not easy, the tannins and acids being more pronounced than they otherwise would, but we continue with the Cape Kidnappers Syrah and the Ariki (Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec), which are both big wine and showing plenty of fruit and phenolic structure.
The whole experience has been an education, and the tank samples are the perfect precursor to a perfect finish at the cellar door, where Geoff passionately shows off the end result of all the back room labour. The deeper structured Bordeaux Blends show exactly why this region has become so famous – but it is the Syrah that points to a possible future. Geoff explains that there is currently a lot of buzz about Syrah but that the slow process of vintage production means only time will really tell. Importantly, it is a new and unique style that seems to be developing, but then that’s the Kiwi way after all.