I cut my vinous teeth in the Barossa Valley, South Australia. It’s a wine region where 120 year old Riesling vines hold up a single wire trellis, centennial bush vines mark time on terraces and Cabernet blocks are picked each year off the ground, the vines having given up their vertical ways with age.
For that reason one of my first impressions of the New Zealand wine industry was how young it was. I still think that’s true. However, a recent conversation with Nick Mills from Rippon in Central Otago made me question how we define young and old.
2012 is a big year for Rippon. 100 years of the same family on this one piece of land in Wanaka, 30 years since the first vines were planted and 10 years since Nick Mills returned to the farm. It’s certainly a time for reflection.
Nick tells a great story about a Probus (similar to Rotarians) group he addressed in 2005. He painted a picture to them of the piece of land and vineyard his mother & father had planted. The same piece of land he’d come home to, a couple of years earlier.
He said, for many reasons, it was both visually and viticulturally beautiful. It had a proximity to the Main Divide (Southern Alps), therefore on the very cusp of the rain-shadow, making it a more temperate climate than other drier and hotter parts of Central Otago. There was an ejection cone of schist gravels which made up Tinker’s Field. These were plate-like rocks with lots of surface area. They provided a torturous route for the roots of the grape vines. He pointed out that Lake Wanaka acted as a large thermal mass which regulated any extreme changes in temperature and mentioned the island in front of the vineyard which spoiled the fiercest of Nor’ Westers.
When he’d finished describing what he felt where some of the sites key attributes, a man at the front of the room, a pragmatist for sure, looked at Nick directly and asked the question; “Do you think Rolfe appreciated these viticultural assets? Surely your father just planted this because it was his piece of land?”
Nick duly had a crack at the question, talking of Rolfe, who looked over his family’s land from boyhood. Over many decades Rolfe took in the land’s characters, considered well its farming potential and then later carried out extensive research as to the viability of Vitis vinifera to succeed there. Nick surmised that, although Rolfe never qualified these land values to him in exactly the same terms, one can only assume that he had an extremely developed feeling for it.
It was at this moment that a very old man at the back of the room piped up, “Not true” he said, in only the slightest of chiding tones, “I sat on a rock with your father, thirty-odd years ago, looking over the same piece of land you just described; well before it was planted to grapes, and he told me all that you have presented – and a whole lot more.”
Rolfe looking over Tinker’s Field, circa 1975
In 1912 when Sir Percy Sargood bought Wanaka Station- 18,000 acres of the Upper Clutha Basin, he already had a passion for fine wines and imported them annually from London. His successive generations would follow his passion.
Nick’s father Rolfe Mills had the opportunity to travel the world and bring home an international perspective to the piece of land he’d inherited.
Nick spent four years working, studying and living in Burgundy. Nick talks about his own rediscovery of this land on his return “I asked a question of the land, who are you, what have you got to show for yourself?”
So this all leads to the question, is vine age everything? Thirty years is not insubstantial in itself, but how important is 100 years of accumulated knowledge, observation and passion? And what if those who hold the knowledge, observation and passion are also open to lessons much older than that?
Nick Mills: “The true Burgundian approach to land, heavily informed by the Cistercians and the Benedictines before them, is one of humility towards what the French call “la matière première”: nature’s raw materials – soil and fruit. This is where the core of our winegrowing endeavours should lie”.
“It’s clear: this focus instils in us an aspiration to not just project our own goals on a piece of land, but to view the land as a living entity, one whose character and rhythms are best respected and considered as much as our own, if we wish to see them presented in the bottle”.
I know Nick would want to focus on the land itself, but as the fifth generation climbs onto the swing under the Oak tree his forbearers planted, surely there is time for reflection on the culture and nature of the people who’ve called it home.Filed under Central Otago
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