Wines by Jenny Dobson; The Story of a Legendary Wine Producer

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Jenny Dobson: winemaker, boutique wine producer, icon in the New Zealand wine industry. When I had the chance to sit down with her to hear and write her story, I was honoured, to say the least.

Jenny, a born and raised Kiwi, grew up in a time where licensed restaurants were rare in New Zealand. The wine industry was basically non-existent. Her father was English, and for her parents, wine was a regular part of any meal; they drank it, and shared it with the children as per their cultural norms. Although they chose wine mostly from South Africa and France, Jenny’s father had a special love for Chateauneuf du Pape. Jenny remembers adding McDonald wines to their table when they began gaining popularity in the 70’s.

Even as a child, Jenny had a fascination with aromas, and most of her memories are linked through scent. She can vividly remember the smell of the Rosemary bush and the Lily of the Valley at her childhood homes, along with a fascination with the diversity of smells and flavours in wines; she wanted to discover the underlying reasoning for this. She is scientific by nature, so she entered a Science programme in University, but couldn’t envision herself inside a lab full time and wanted to be part of nature. She discovered that working in wine could provide that.

Vineyard at Harvest time in 1989 – Chateau Sénéjac

With the Wine Science degree not yet established, she transferred to Food Science, where she took a course on sensory observation; she realizes now how “invaluable” that course was to her “understanding of taste and the importance” of it. With a professor passionate about wine, Jenny was able to focus her schoolwork in that direction. As an independent learner, she spent her personal time reading every book, article and study she could get her hands on about tasting or making wine. There is a book shelf in every room of her house, full of wine books, that she graciously offered to lend to me! It was at the end of her 3rd year in University, after all of her school-driven and personal research, that she knew wine was her passion, and she says “if you don’t have passion you could not work in the industry.” 

Jenny in the old cellar at Chateau Sénéjac in 1986, 6 months pregnant

She’s always excelled at science and maths, and used to think she “had no artistic bones,” but her opinion has changed.

“Fine winemaking is art. So many of the decisions are felt. They’re a sense of what is going to be right. [Winemaking] so deftly combines science and art…You need scientific rigour but artistic license and openness of thinking to push boundaries. I love the fact that wine can not be made to a chemical formula.”

As soon as she graduated, she travelled to France, motivated to learn from some of the “best and oldest” winemakers in the world. She says she was “very naive” in her move there, but was “lucky enough to get a job at Domaine Dujac in Burgundy.”

Her job at Domaine Dujac involved her living with the family, and doing everything from “babysitting, cleaning, vineyard work, cellar work,” to eating and drinking with the family. She realizes how fortunate she was to be able to “drink so widely with Jacques and Roz,” and she explains the rarity of his wine collection.

“I had a glorious introduction to wine. In most wine producing areas in France in those days you only drank the area you were in. You wouldn’t find anything else in the Supermarket. Because Jacques’s Dad was Parisian, he had started a cellar for Jacques when he was young including wines from around Europe; Jacques added to it with wines from the new world, so I had the pleasure of drinking and getting to know fine Burgundy, but also wines from around the world.”

Bottling Blanc de Sénéjac in 1988

Jenny attributes much of her wine making philosophy back to the time she worked at Domaine Dujac. From Jacques she learned the value of “reflecting vineyard vintage variety,” and that “wine is made for people to enjoy.” She also learned that she values “integrity and authenticity” in her winemaking. “It’s working hard at every stage, especially in the vineyard, not tweaking at the end,” and if you drink Jenny’s wine, you can be sure she’s taken pride in it’s authenticity at every stage.

After working at Domaine Dujac, Jenny moved to Paris to work with the famed Steven Spurrier, who started a very controversial wine school. If you’re a wine enthusiast, you’ll know his name. Steven Spurrier organized the iconic and history-making Paris Tasting in 1976, in which the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from Napa Valley won the blind tasting, to everyone’s shock, putting California on the wine map. He was instrumental in beginning to bring Californian wines into France in the 70’s. Jenny comments about Steven that he had a similar philosophy to Jacques, in that the “diversity of wine is the beauty of wine. Every bottle, every property is different.”

Jenny began working with him in 1981, and her role was enough to make any wine lover jealous! She explained that after the historical 1976 Paris Tasting, winemakers from all over the world wanted to be featured in Steven’s shop. She was part of the selection process; she tasted applicant’s wines, and helped chose those lucky few that would be fortunate enough to grace Steven’s shelves. She also worked in his wine school, and gave 2 hour courses on French wine, appropriate cheese pairings, and French regions and helped organize and participated in many tutored tastings run by L’Académie du Vin.

In Paris, Jenny expanded her world palate, had one of the best jobs any wine lover could ask for, and on top of that, met Charles, the English grandson of a wine merchant with offices in London and Bordeaux, and the love of her life. Before you think it was all sunshine and roses though, imagine her living in a flat on the 6th floor in the building’s roof, with no toilet, in which she could literally touch both walls at once with arms stretched. The toilet was on the 4th floor and was a squat toilet. There was no lift. She jokes about a huge upgrade from that place when she moved to her second flat with a toilet and a bedroom! Despite the quirky places she called home, Jenny says with fondness, “I loved living in Paris.”

Vineyard, Autumn 1988

She did miss winemaking though, so she moved to Bordeaux and got a vintage job in Graves at Chateau Rahoul, which was part owned by an Australian man and wine industry icon, Len Evens. This also happened to be in 1982, one of the most iconic vintages in Bordeaux’s history.

One evening, she went along to a magazine wine tasting, and as Charlie was in the merchant business, he was there. They met casually; she went back to Chateau Rahoul to finish her vintage job, but then moved back to Paris. She was at a wine bar one evening, when she met the owner of Chateau Sénéjac, who offered her a cellar hand job in Bordeaux. She moved again, back to Bordeaux, in Steven Spurrier’s delivery van of all things! The day she arrived in Bordeaux, she was out for lunch, and there was Charlie, at the same restaurant. Eventually they found themselves in the same social circles, and “the rest is history,” as Jenny says. They were married in 1984.

Jenny, Charles and their children in 2000 – New Zealand.

Charlie being a wine merchant has contributed to Jenny’s diverse palate. She explained how the businesses operated at that time. Bordeaux Negociants, wine merchants, would buy wine “en primeur” from the properties (Chateaux) around 6 to 8 months after harvest. The wine was then sold at a later date, sometimes before and sometimes after bottling to other merchants in and outside of Bordeaux and to private clients. This pre-purchase of wine by the Bordeaux merchants helped shoulder the cost of production for the Chateaux. The Chateaux would present barrel samples to the merchants for tasting and Charlie would bring them home at the end of the day for Jenny to evaluate as well. Jenny commented that “in retrospect, that was a huge advantage” for her, because she “got to taste the finest Bordeaux wines when young and also drink them when mature. It gave [her] a benchmark for the young wines she had in barrel at Chateau Sénéjac.”

Vineyard in Winter, 1984/85

She has also made 13 vintages of Bordeaux, and because she stayed all year long, she gained knowledge of the vineyards, what to do in the cellar, and onwards; she saw the entire process. She learned “the effects of ferments on the wine in bottle, 2 years later, 3 years later, and how the vineyard choices translated into the wine.” She realizes that is something else that has helped develop her skill in winemaking; she “had a vision of where the wine was going in years and years of time.”

We discussed not only making wine, but what it’s made for. Jenny believes that wine is made to be consumed and enjoyed, and that the industry today is pushing towards simply selling an alcoholic beverage, rather than appreciating an art form, as it was meant to be. “It’s made to sell product for people to drink and get drunk rather than educating them about wine so that it’s looked more so as an art form than a beverage.”

She shares how they had “wine every day” in France. There was “no such thing as a non-wine day. Sometimes we finished the bottle, sometimes we didn’t. It depends on your attitude. We always looked on wine with pleasure and enjoyment, not as a guilty sin… If it’s always there, there’s no compulsion.”

Jenny explains what the enjoyment of wine brings to her. “I drink wine for it’s diversity. For it’s intellectual stimulation. For it’s flavour and taste.” She explained it so beautifully, and I couldn’t help but completely agree.

Jenny and a friend, Norma, tasting Pinotage at Te Awa in 2000 – Hawke’s Bay

“It’s like music or painting, or any form of art. If you just have background music, anything can be there. If you’re actually listening and understanding then you have a greater appreciation.

Jenny believes “the more people know about wine and get excited about it, there will be less mass consumption.” These are the kinds of palates she is mindful of in her work.

Jenny and Charlie had their 3 children while in Bordeaux, but eventually decided to move to Jenny’s home country, New Zealand. When I asked why she chose Hawke’s Bay, she answered that it seemed the “logical place” because “you can ripen the Bordeaux grape varieties” that she was used to working with. She had also done a vintage in Western Australia, where she gained experience with Chardonnay and Syrah, also key varietals in Hawke’s Bay. She and Charlie visited every single wine region in the country before making their final decision, just to be sure!

When she first arrived in the Bay, Jenny began working as a wine consultant, but found it to be “isolating.” She noticed she was only getting to be involved when things went wrong with wine, and customers needed her to fix it. A job came open at Te Awa Farm, and Jenny spent a “glorious” 12 years as the winemaker there. She got to really know the vineyards and the wines; when it went through a change of ownership, she decided to move on. The consultancy she does now is hands on. (Jenny had been racking barrels all day before her interview with me.)

Jenny with a press in the new winery in 1987

New winery, 1987

With Jenny’s experience and clear appreciation of the artistic side of wine, I was curious why it took her until now to start her own label. First, Jenny believes wine starts in the vineyard, so she wasn’t ready to do something for herself if she had to be buying fruit. She has her own now, that she fell upon quite interestingly. She had a client in 2009 that had some land on Ngatarawa Road, and asked her what he should plant. She had been reading studies about the Italian grape, Fiano, and thought it would be great for the Bay, as it was interesting, and had good acitity. It was a “throw-away comment,” as she describes it, but she told him to plant Fiano. She came back a year later, and he had planted it, and said to her, “well, are you going to make it?”

She made the first Fiano in 2013 for her client, and again in 2014. The plan was for her to continue making it for him, but due to personal reasons in 2015, he asked if Jenny wanted to take it over. She agreed, and made a small batch of the first Jenny Dobson Fiano. In 2016, she realized, “it was more wine than I could drink myself!” She released it to the public in 2017. Another reason she hadn’t started her label sooner was simply because she “was getting enough enjoyment out of helping other people make their own wines,” but she has realized, “if I don’t do this now I will never do it.”

Jenny’s Fiano

In 2018, she was inspired to add a red wine to her label, but wanted a unique one. She began exploring Hawke’s Bay Merlot with the aim to give it the “appeal that people like about Pinot Noir,” like “fragrance [and] texture but lightness and freshness in the mouth.”

As she works as the winemaker for William Murdoch Wines, and adores the character of their organic vineyard, she bought some fruit from them. She wild fermented it in oak, with whole bunch Malbec and Cab Franc “for texture and fragrance.” She explains that she “didn’t know what was going to happen” and that she was “being guided by the wine.” She basket pressed it and aged it in barrel, taking it out 18 months later in mid-September. Her red wine will be called “Doris” after her grandmother; Doris was “formidable, way ahead of her time, had vision, [and] didn’t follow any conventions.” Jenny’s favorite memory of her is her purple hair, so watch for that on the label. For the wine to represent its unconventional style, Jenny is also putting it in a Burgundy bottle, not a Bordeaux bottle, like other Merlots. She doesn’t want people to “taste it as a Merlot,” but rather “a red wine.” Doris is being bottled in October, and will likely be released next Autumn, “based on how she looks.” Jenny has carried on with Doris in this past 2019 vintage, and has some ideas to expand her label in 2020. She describes her current production as “tiny” at 80 cases or less of Fiano.

Because Jenny is always reading and learning, the 2019 Fiano has some new elements in the winemaking. She had read a study about Fiano that claimed that the skins have a compound in them that can contribute additional flavours, and that soaking some skins in the juice could enhance the character of the wine. Jenny did a 4 L trial tank to test out that theory. She bottled off a small amount of the trial tank for future testing to determine what she wants to do for the 2020 vintage. She says, “even with tiny amounts, you have to always be open minded and thinking of what you can do. Can I make a better wine? A different wine?”

When I asked Jenny out of all the wines she’s made, which she’s most proud of, she answered, “all of them!” She said they’re “like my children.” Some of her favorites are from the “difficult vintages, where you come out with something so good. It’s not the standout best in a line-up, but it’s best because you know the elements and Mother Nature were against you, but you’ve worked with it to produce something so good; it makes you feel really satisfied.”

Jenny’s story is amazing, but it’s not without challenges, many of which have been related to her gender. She says that being a woman is “an extra challenge that men don’t have to factor in.” When she was working in France in the 80’s, there were “signs outside cellars saying women weren’t allowed to enter the cellar.” They had “funny ideas” like the fact that “women had funny acids in their body that turned wine to vinegar, or if a woman had her period and came into the cellar the wine would re-ferment every month.”

Jenny was the first female maitre de chai in the Medoc; being a history maker leaves an incredible legacy, but it’s never easy. “It was a male dominated business” and people wondered how women would be able to manage the home, a family, and a career in wine. “Women were shut out because the industry people knew it was all encompassing.” When she did eventually have her children, she took a few days off, and was then right back into the work. She breast fed in the vineyard, with her baby strapped to her chest. She was bottling (not milk – wine) 3 days after giving birth. She lived on site, and the kids grew up around the vineyard and the winery. She successfully accomplished being a wife, mother and a winemaker. She had to overcome being the only woman making wine in the Medoc, but she did it. How? “My wines spoke for themselves.” She proved herself to the French people. She truly is a legend.

Winemaking is also a very physically demanding job. Jenny admits that she’s tired at the end of the day, but also points out that “so is a man working in a cellar.” There are different challenges for women today than when she began her career, yet she is confident we are moving in the right direction and knows that “a woman starting today will not face the same challenges” that she had to. “It was all men but me,” Jenny says. It’s “a lot closer to equal now; we are growing up with women and men in it together now.”

She doesn’t want to be known as a “woman winemaker.” She just wants to be known as a “winemaker,” like anyone else. She makes it clear that she doesn’t think “women or men are better winemakers. There are people that are better winemakers” than other people. She is also clear to point out that she knows it’s not all men that discriminate. “There are people that discriminate, not just men.”

With her current label, there are the challenges of selling the wine. Jenny has thought to herself, “[consider] the amount of money I make on each bottle – am I crazy? Why am I doing this?” She is doing it because she is creating “wines of distinction and individuality.” This also makes them “a bit harder to sell,” especially in the small Hawke’s Bay.

When I asked Jenny if she thinks it’s worth all the challenges, she gave a resounding, “yes! I wouldn’t be starting my own label so late in life if I didn’t!”

2019 was her 40th vintage.

Patsy the Rose is coming soon too! Patsy is named after her Aunt, and unlike most Hawke’s Bay rosés, it will be Cabernet Franc dominant. Being let in on Jenny’s thought process as she described how she wants to make Patsy was very intriguing to me. Here I was, sitting with the Medoc’s first female winemaker, who selected wines for Steven Spurier’s shop, who has 40 years of experience, and she was debating back and forth on what she should do, or might do, still undecided, still exploring ideas. I commented on this, and she responded by saying that it’s important to always be willing to experiment and learn because no one can ever just know what’s coming for any vintage or any wine. Greg had made a Cab Franc Rose in 2019, so he and Jenny discussed some ideas for the next vintage. It was surreal to listen to that conversation.

Doris Merlot grapes

Jenny at Chateau Sénéjac
Emma in the vines at Franklin Estate, 1995
Chris at age 1 in the cellar
Richard finishing breakfast while the bottling truck sets up, 1992
Jenny with son, Chris, 1988
Family labeling in 1992

Jenny, 1991

Jenny has learned some beautiful lessons in her career as a winemaker that I feel can reach beyond the wine industry to inspire; I have left them in her words.

“It’s all learning. You continue learning. There was a stage when I was looking for perfection in wine. Perfection’s boring. If everything’s perfect, it’s boring. You’re striving for perfection but the goal posts keep moving.”

“The best tool a winemaker has is the palatte. You have to keep it diverse. Natural wines challenge your palette. Things that challenge are the extremes that move the middle.”

“Recipe wine making has its place, but is one of the worst things. There’s so much unknown about wine that when you formulate a recipe you can only make good wine. You can’t make great wine.”

“You can not make a wine that will please everyone or else you’re making Coca Cola. You have to be okay with some people not liking your wine, but for everyone that doesn’t like it, there will be someone that does.”

Are you that someone?

To find out, you can purchase Wines by Jenny Dobson via mail order, through Boutique Connection, @boutiqueconnection or her Instagram @jenny_dobson_wines. Several establishments stock her wines, like Liquor King, Urban Winery, restaurants around Hawkes Bay and Wellington, Regional Wines and Spirits in Wellington, Vino Fino in Christchurch, and soon, the Auckland market.

Cheers to Jenny for following her passions, making history, sharing her story and for making interesting and authentic wines of quality; cheers to you as you enjoy them!

The de la terre Story; Boutique Hawke’s Bay Winemakers

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“de la terre:” from the earth.

Those three words sum up what Tony and Kaye Prichard of de la terre are all about: provenance.

“Own what’s in the glass, grow your own grapes, do it yourself. That’s really important to us.” – Tony

When you pull up to Tony and Kaye’s winery, after a relaxing, beautiful drive through the winding country-side of Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, you’ll instantly notice you’re somewhere special.

You will feel like you’re a visitor to an old, French country cottage. Gracie, the friendly dog, will greet you as you begin walking the path to the solid cedar double doors. You will hear the gravel crunch underneath your feet, and as you survey the hilly landscape, you’ll take in the scent of freshly cut grass, blooming flowers, and clean air. You’ll also notice the aroma of a warm loaf of Kaye’s home made bread, or a from-scratch pizza baking in the clay oven, and take note to pop over to the cafe as soon as you’re finished your tasting.

As you set foot inside the earth brick winery, you will meet Tony himself, who will take you through your selected choices from 13 of his 16 wines, kept fresh in his personally designed and home-made wine dispensing machine. He’ll explain how he has made each of the unique and distinctive wines he produces, and you’ll be amazed at the exceptional quality, depth and complexity of each of them. When you purchase your wine, you’ll notice that each bottle has been hand numbered by Kaye, just one example of the incredible detail that goes into every single element of what de la terre does.

After your degustation, you will partake in a beautiful meal or platter of Kaye’s delicious, home made food, perfectly paired with the de la terre wines of your choice. While you eat, the three-tiered pergola water feature above you (that Tony built himself) or a crackling log fire in the pizza oven will bring calm serenity to relax you before you head off . . . until next time. You already know you’ll be back.

So how did Tony and Kaye create this incredibly special place for their customers to experience?

It all began when they met each other in their early 20’s as Food Tech students at Massey University in Palmerston North. Kaye was enrolled in the product development side of the programme and Tony was enrolled in the engineering side. On their first days of school, neither Tony or Kaye thought they’d graduate from a Food Tech programme and eventually own their own winery, but low and behold, that’s what happened.

Kaye had been raised visiting the vineyards of her father’s winemaker friends, and remembers really liking a popular, sweet, sparkling wine as a young girl. Tony had also tried a sparkling in his early years at his brother’s wedding, in an old-style goblet, and remembers not liking it, yet being mesmerized by it; he was curious as to how it was made.

They give the real credit though, for the spark of their wine journey, to an influential lecturer, Malcolm Reeves, co-founder of Crossroad Winery, who used to put on wine tastings for his students on Friday’s. As you can imagine, wine tastings on Friday afternoons were very well received by the students, so Tony and Kaye began attending. Tony recalls one afternoon where Malcolm poured a Chardonnay, a Sauvignon Blanc and a Riesling, then put them in bags to disguise them before pouring them again, blind. Tony guessed them correctly, and thought to himself, “this winemaking stuff is easy. I can do this!”

He couldn’t picture himself as a food tech engineer, wearing a white uniform in a dairy factory somewhere for the rest of his life. He knew in his soul that he was a “maker of things,” and wanted to make wine.

Upon graduating, Tony found an advertisement in the paper for an Assistant Winemaker position at the Montana Winery in Gisborne. Many people in his class applied, but Tony was chosen for the job. When I asked him why, he said he isn’t sure, but it could have been to do with his passion. Knowing how passionate and skilled he is today, I would agree that Montana made the right choice. Tony explains that in those days, there weren’t winemaking degrees like there are now. Two of the decision makers for Montana also had Food Tech degrees, like Tony, and perhaps wanted someone without any winemaking ideas of his own, who could be trained and moulded. His Food Tech course had indeed prepared him quite well for the science of winemaking; everything else he learned on the job.

The two were married in 1983.

Tony worked as Assistant Winemaker for Montana for 3 years, doing huge volumes (for example, 15,000 tonne vintages). He was promoted to Chief Winemaker in 1986. As Tony began working at Montana, Kaye completed a Cordon Bleu Certificate Course in Auckland.

In 1989, Montana bought Church Road Winery and re-opened it, making Tony the Chief Winemaker at both the Gisborne Winery, and Church Road. Running both places in two locations was exhausting. Tony and Kaye moved to Hawke’s Bay in 1990 so Tony could focus solely on Church Road, where he spent 15 years in total.

He remembers many of the early years at Church Road with fondness. “It was family and fun in the early days,” Tony says, but unfortunately, through a couple of ownership changes, Tony eventually tired of the increasing corporate reporting and compliance in those companies; he also tired of not being able to see the wines he made into the bottle, as the bottling plant was in Auckland.

Tony and Kaye remember a specific afternoon drive they took, where through the conversation, Tony realized that he was ready to move on. He had always told his staff, “if you’re driving to work and you’re not happy, and you don’t want to be going here, you should be looking for something else.” Tony realized he needed to take his own advice; they both already knew what to do.

They had visited Burgundy in 1995, and remember it vividly.

We would be “driving through little streets, and see a small house and underground cellars and there’s a press and some barrels and a few tanks, and you go along and there’s another one, and here were people living and breathing wine, and that was their livelihood and that struck a chord. Even before that we’ve always been makers of things. Having been trained in winemaking it seemed like a logical progression to make our own.”

Tony and Kaye had previously found their property in 1992, when it was just a green paddock with nothing on it. Being the makers of things that they are, they had built their house and workshop from scratch. After Tony left Church Road in 2005, he started a successful wine consulting business, and set about designing and building the winery. Ever since Tony can remember, he’s been building and making anything from furniture to beer; he wanted to make the winery too. It took them 4 years to get the winery up, and although Tony had begun producing some wines in the meantime with some of his consulting clients’ grapes, de la terre’s first vintage in the new winery was in 2009.

The name “de la terre” doesn’t just represent the way Tony makes his wine. The principle of using what is from the earth (de la terre) is weaved throughout the whole place. The winery is built with “earth bricks” that came from a local earth brick maker, who uses highly compressed soil to make them. Tony and Kaye’s house is built in the sustainable “rammed earth” style, and is made completely of raw, natural materials. Tony built both himself, along with the wine dispensing machine he uses to serve his tasting wines.

The couple believes in doing as much as they can themselves, by hand, and not relying on other people; they wanted the control to determine how the winery was shaped, as well as how the wine turns out. Tony’s currently just finished the three-tiered water feature pergola that sits above their cafe patio, and the pizza oven that acts as centrepiece. This time though, now that the recent projects are done, he said he’ll “never build again.” Kaye just laughed and said, “I’ve heard that before!”

As for the vineyards, they took over the lease on their Hill Country Vineyard in 2013, which is 5.5 hectares in the Havelock North area, and they also lease a 0.5 hectare satellite vineyard down the road. All of their grapes come from those vineyards, and they employ a Vineyard Manager and some part time staff to ensure premium grape quality. The main vineyard is a unique terroir of very steep limestone terraces that create an individualized minerality in de la terre wines. Tony explains that “it’s less obvious in the reds, but people can pick it in the whites,” and he purposely tries to highlight the land and its minerality in the wine.

Tony and Kaye stand out in Hawke’s Bay for more than just their sustainable earth brick buildings and their terrior. Tony believes there are enough Bordeaux blends and Pinots around, and prides himself on producing unique varietals. “The last thing we need is another Merlot,” he says. He produces some really rare wines in New Zealand, like Tannat, Barbara, Tempranillo, Montepulciano, and a Chablis-style Chardonnay. Although you’ll find a few Viogniers in the Bay, Tony’s is quite different. He also makes late harvest and Noble wines from Viognier grapes.

While at Church Road, Tony had the opportunity to work closely with some French winemakers, and one of the key things he learned from them is to let the wine speak for itself. He believes that provenance, representing the land on which it was grown, is the most important thing for wine, rather than trying to manipulate it into what that varietal is “supposed” to taste like. It is for that reason that Tony chooses not to enter wine shows.

Despite not entering shows, de la terre wines are still highly reviewed by the best in the business, and often receive points well into the 90’s, and 5 stars, by writers like Bob Campbell and Michael Cooper.

Tony’s also launched a relatively new series called “The Cloud Series,” that is particularly unique, and actually started as a joke in 2016, with Chardonnay. It’s made almost in complete opposition to most Chards in the Bay, being unfined, and unfiltered, with “its own personality.” To make it, he did a hard press on Reserve quality grapes, wild fermented the must, used huge amounts of fully toasted Hungarian oak from his favourite producer… and couldn’t keep it on the shelves! It was wildly popular with its rich butterscotch, and savoury burnt butter character. It reminded me of popcorn, and I loved it! He has now added a Viognier to the Cloud Series, and the name is there to remind people that if it looks a little cloudy, that’s okay.

Tony uses many traditional winemaking techniques, and he is of the opinion that most winemakers these days use too many fining ingredients. As of 2014, he also doesn’t filter any of his reds. He prefers to do the more natural process of racking his wines every few months, as it increases the intensity and mouthfeel of them. He’s even done some unfiltered whites. Tony is entirely confident in what he puts into the bottle, and pours into each glass in the Cellar Door. Kaye quipped that the wines “don’t get into the bottle unless he’s completely happy with them.”

He’s most proud of his Reserve Viognier, for a reason most wouldn’t suspect. “It doesn’t taste anything like Viognier, and to me, that’s a beautiful thing.” His Montepulciano is a pride and joy because of its “brooding black fruit, black olive” character, and its tannin structure that “isn’t over-polished, but rough with coarseness.” Bob Campbell also seemed to like it, as it was his wine of the week in early September.

Tony’s favourite wine to make though, is his Blanc de Blancs! He makes it old-school like they do in Champagne, right down to the traditional riddling racks, and even disgorges à la volée, or “on the fly,” as the French monks once did. When I asked him how long it took to get the hang of that process, he said there’s definitely a trick to it, and proceeded to show me how precise he has to be with the bottle and the tools.

Although Tony makes a wide range of wines, de la terre is still quite small in production. He makes about 2500 to 3000 cases (of 12) per year, and jokes that at Church Road, he “used to spill that much before lunch time.” Being small, Tony and Kaye find it can be a challenge to get the de la terre name out. They don’t want to sell in supermarkets, but they do have a distributor who arranges en premise, fine wine and liquor store contracts for them throughout the country. They have been known to export a few wines to China, the UK, America, and even Canada! The sales side of the business, and promoting themselves, has been one of the biggest challenges they’ve had to overcome. They never know when the next sale will be. There are other stresses that they face, like losing staff, or having people move on that they love. With such a small team, training new people, or finding those that have aligning philosophies can prove to be a challenge too.

They’ve learned some important lessons over the years, one being that despite experience, you can never be sure of exactly what’s going to happen. Tony phrased it so genuinely.

“You start as a beginner, learn some stuff, think you’re red hot…your ego goes through the roof. The lesson is on the other side. You can never know it all. There are always so many variables that you don’t know about. You can very easily convince yourselves that you’re smarter than you are. You’re not. The more you make wine, the easier you think it will get. Well it doesn’t. We’re always fine tuning techniques. I look at what’s happened in the past and if it’s not where I want to be, [I use] my best guess in my experience and push the odds. If you have a problem and you’re not sure what to do, you throw a swack of things to it and try to fix it.”

I was awed by his attitude to become humble, realize what he doesn’t know, yet stay determined and persistent, and continue to deal with what comes at him; he chooses to learn from his past experience and do the best he knows how, while never giving up. I find this to be great advice for all of us, no matter what stage of life or industry we may be in.

Tony remembers the first Monday after he resigned at Church Road, when he had a moment that so many of us have amidst a big life change: did I make a mistake? Despite any challenges, Tony and Kaye feel in their hearts that it’s all been completely worth it. “I can’t think of doing anything else,” Tony says. “We’d be a lot wealthier, but would we be happier? I can’t ever imagine going back… everything you have, every ounce, goes into it. It’s very passionate.” They are truly living their passion.

I believe it is that passion that makes visiting Tony and Kaye so much more than just any winery visit. As Tony explains, “once people drive into de la terre, it goes beyond what’s just in the glass. It’s about a winery experience.” He loves hosting people in the Cellar Door, and pouring his wines himself. It’s a beautiful, “rustic and artisan” space to be in, that he’s created with his own hands. Tony describes the Cellar Door and his winery as his “happy place.”

Tony and Kaye invite you to head out to de la terre this season to experience the many things they can offer you from the earth. They are open from 10:00am to 5:00pm, Friday’s through Sunday’s, and most public holidays, from the first weekend in October to the first weekend in June. Visit their website at delaterre.co.nz for more info on the winery, wines or special events. You can purchase wine on their website as well, or contact them at sales@delaterre.co.nz.

So make the beautiful drive to experience de la terre for yourself. From the earth brick Cellar Door and restaurant, to Tony’s personalized tasting of his terroir driven wines, paired exceptionally at the cafe with Kaye’s fresh, home-made food . . . you really will experience de la terre.

Saorsa Wines; A story of Freedom, Liberty, Salvation

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“Freedom from the bullshit of the wine industry.”

“Liberty to make honest wines without manipulation.”

“Salvation from the industry binds.”

THAT is Saorsa, and is everything Alex Hendry and Hana Montaperto-Hendry stand for.

Never have I seen one word on a wine bottle describe not only a company mandate, but a deeply rooted personal philosophy in such a beautifully succinct way.


Hana and Alex are some of the most bad-ass people I know, yet are down to earth, humble people of integrity, and great friends. Their style is so cool; when you walk up to their place you’re greeted by Sailor and Bam Bam, their Thai Ridgeback and Rhodesian Ridgeback Cross dogs. When you enter, you find Hana’s motorcycle sitting in the kitchen, and family photos and artistic, statement posters on every wall. There are beautiful antiques and vintage pieces galore, but everything is well organized. Hana’s usually got something amazing cooking for dinner, which is followed by a new dessert she’s baked from scratch. Isla and Taj, their kids, are there to welcome you into the family, and you’re served some amazing wine in a funky antique wine glass.

Alex had what many would consider to be a regular childhood. He’s from a “quiet” family of four, and grew up in Auckland with his sister and parents, attending a prestigious boarding school. He ended up in Hawke’s Bay when he decided to enrol at the Eastern Institute of Technology (EIT) to study Wine Science and Viticulture.

Hana is one of four children, from Italian roots, born in Hawke’s Bay, who grew up “old school,” as she describes it, with a mechanic, hunting-enthusiast father, who taught her that everything can be fixed, and a nurse mother, who raised her “non-gender specific;” she show jumped horses across the country, but also raced motocross (which lead her to breaking her back not once, but twice).

Hana is tough as nails. She was a teen Mum, having had her son, Taj, at the age of 18. “Everyone said having him was going to stop me from things; Taj hasn’t stopped me from anything.” She already had her diploma in Video and Electronic Media and a great job when she gave birth, and purchased her first house shortly after, by the age of 19. Although it wasn’t easy, Hana is no stranger to hard work and perseverance.

Alex and Hana do things differently than most, which is a huge part of their charm. How they got together was different as well, and I wouldn’t have expected anything less. They met at a Rock and Roll show, held at an old youth church that had been converted into a concert venue, ironically named, “The Vineyard.” Hana was used to most guys hitting on her; Alex, however, rocking Mohawk hair, piercings and tattoos, walked past, looked at her over the fence, screamed like a punk in her face, and kept going. She thought he was “so cool.” He had her at “blaaahhhh!” Hana says “he met his match,” but agrees that she met hers as well. Alex jokes that Hana had told him “she was a well-mannered Catholic girl.”

They began meeting up as friends at rock shows around the Bay, and Hana found she was hanging out with Alex’s group at their house frequently. Even though Hana’s house was nicer, she had “nothing good to eat in the fridge!” Hana remembers a pivotal moment when she realized how amazing Alex is. She had gone through a difficult time, and he completely supported her through it. It was then that she fell in love with Alex.

It was in 2008 when they met, and when Alex graduated from EIT. They had their beautiful and spunky daughter, Isla, in 2014, and were married in January of 2015. They got engaged and found out they were expecting Isla in the same week! Alex had been having the ring designed for 3 months already, and they had been hoping for Isla, but when the timing all collided, Alex wondered if he should still go ahead with his elaborate proposal plan. He decided he didn’t care how it looked; he knew he wanted to marry Hana.

He sent her on a treasure hunt for clues around Hawke’s Bay on her Cruiser. Hana thought he had planned it as a special last ride and was preparing to tell her she couldn’t ride pregnant! Alex figured it would take her 3 hours tops, but after what became a 7 hour, 700km ride, an exhausted and newly pregnant Hana rolled up at home to find Taj beside Alex, waiting on one knee. Isla was born 8 months later, and they were married when she was 10 months old.

Wine was not a huge part of either Alex or Hana’s upbringings, so I was curious to find out how their lives revolve so much around it now.

Alex had a lot of friends choosing corporate careers after high school; he didn’t know for sure what he wanted to do, but he knew it wasn’t that world. He had been enjoying brewing his own beer, heard about winemaking, and “thought it sounded interesting,” and he’d “give it a shot and find out.” Once he got into school, he found he actually really enjoyed making wine.

Alex has currently done 13 vintages, and has full time experience in Vineyard Manager, Cellar Hand, and Assistant Winemaker positions across 4 wineries in the Bay over the last 12 years.

He remembers working for a larger company in his early industry days, and seeing “truck loads of garbage” coming in from the vineyard, and thinking, “why am I doing this? How can we do better?”

Those key questions lead Alex to start personally researching biodynamics, and to discover that everything about great wine “comes down to the vineyard.” He left that big company, and began working for Warren at La Collina, where he had creative run of a beautiful, hillside vineyard.

His passion now is the vineyard, which is so ironic, because Alex had dropped the additional year at EIT that focused on Viticulture, in order to graduate faster. He believes it’s actually “the best thing he’s done,” because he has “taught [himself] what he needs to know based on real experience working.” Although he didn’t originally plan on focusing on Viticulture, it has slowly emerged as not only his passion, but one of his main areas of expertise.

Once Alex had learned a sufficient amount about how to care for the vines, he wanted to make a quality wine that was a true representation of the place in which the grapes grew: the terroir. He wanted to make a counter-cultural wine that showed the features of when it was picked, and what the weather and fruit were like that year; he didn’t want to showcase what so many others do: winemaking.

For a wine like that, site selection is critical. Since Alex and Hana don’t own their own vineyard, they purchase fruit from growers. Alex admits that by not owning the vineyard, he does lose some control. When I asked him if he’d like to own his own one day, he said “yes and no; yes, in a whimsical world where it’s perfect, but it takes so much work and time.” Alex loves being in the vineyard, but that’s not Hana’s passion. She prefers to fabricate the wine tanks! In addition, she loves the relational side of the industry, and is in the business to support Alex’s dream; she’s also realistic to accept that they have a young family, and both work full time. Alex is confident in his ability to find amazing fruit without having the stress of a huge mortgage on a vineyard. He knows the vineyards he uses inside and out, and has personal relationships with the owners. He specifies how Saorsa’s rows are to be managed, and even does a lot of the work himself, on top of his full time day job.

The first Saorsa wine was a 2015 Viognier; however, Alex has been making his own wine at home since his last year at EIT, when he entered a student Vintage Port-Style wine competition. Alex being Alex, and anti-wine industry bullshit, he thought, “what can I do to sabotage the whole thing?” and decided to give his wine an edgy name “to take the piss,” calling it, “The Day the Wine Industry Died.” He ended up winning a Bronze Award at the Mercedes Benz Wine Awards with that wine, and having that name publicized and printed. He started producing wine under that label for the next several years, but when he and Hana decided to start selling wine, and created the business, he chose to set that label to the side. He calls it a “watch this space moment,” because when he knows what he wants to do with it, it’ll be back.

“Saorsa” is a Scottish word, and although Hana and Alex both have Scottish blood in them, they more so chose it because of what it meant, and how it completely represents what they believe in. It is also quite unique, as they are.

As for their logo, you’ll notice that it’s, again, extremely unique. The design is a collaboration between Hana, Alex and their friend, renowned photographer, Richard Wood. The logo represents Hana’s fire as an engineer, Alex’s heart for what he does, and the grapes, as well as the “massive crossover” between science and religion, and its association with wine as the blood of Christ. As they phrase it, “you can’t have religion and wine without science. You need science to create wine, but they don’t believe in each other.”

Their label is also a statement that rebels against marketing and everything industry standards promote. Rather than have any information on the front, they’ve chosen to put it all on the back, including their name. Hana explains, “I wanted a void. Wine labels are competitive and busy. You want people to look for the good, but some look for faults. If you have nothing, it’s a void.” Hana also makes the point that “people are inquisitive and want to know more.” People that are drawn to their wine are willing to pick it up and look at the back.

All you’ll see on the front of the bottle is their logo, which again, is very strategically placed. Research told them it needed to be in the top left corner, because that’s where the eye is naturally drawn. So where do you think it appears on Saorsa’s label? In the bottom right corner. It may seem as though they’ve chosen simply to thwart what society says, but in fact, every decision they’ve made has been purposeful, and depicts the kind of wine that’s in the bottle. Alex has rebelled against everything he hates about the wine industry, so why should the label not follow suit?

Hana stated it so elegantly: “If you see the beauty in what is wrong, you clearly want to drink this wine.”

It should not surprise you by now to read that Saorsa’s wine making philosophy is different than those held by many who are making the typical commercial wines on the market. As Alex has based his entire winemaking mandate on going against “wine industry bullshit,” I feel I should fill you in on what that means to him.

“There’s a romanticism about the industry . . . the whole modern process of efficiency is bullshit. We’ve taken a 10,000 year old art form and ruined it to keep up with demand and revolution. When you see industrial size wineries, you might as well work in a sweat shop or any factory. You can make any wine, any year, and adjust anything to make it taste the same. The modern world has lost the yearly aspect of it. You can manipulate wine like making Coke.” – Alex

“The pretence is something that annoys me about it. It’s not romantic; it’s hard work. Wait until he jumps in bed during vintage after a 19 hour day and he’s sticky. Your sheets will be Syrah red. I don’t have white sheets anymore.” – Hana

“We also disagree with so much of how it’s done and how much you’re lied to; consumer expectation – ‘you have to do this or no one will buy it.’ Why? We want to do it the way we want to do it.” – Hana

Alex believes in “taking it back to basics, before marketing and manipulation were involved.” They hand pick, foot crush, use wild yeast for fermentation in old oak barrels where the wines mature for at least a year and undergo natural malolactic fermentation.

Saorsa has made a 2015 Viognier, and both Syrah and Viognier in 2016, 2018 and 2019. They didn’t make wine in 2017 because the vintage wasn’t good enough. Some may assume that a new, boutique winemaker would have wanted to get his wine on the market quickly, but the 2015 Saorsa Viognier wasn’t released until 2018. Alex will only release his wines when they’re ready. He keeps tasting them, and “allows what’s there to shine.”

Alex and Hana make Viognier because they enjoy drinking it as a varietal, but also because of the amazing parcel of fruit they were given the chance to lease. As for Syrah, Alex has a “love affair” with it, because of its “wild, crazy side,” its “power and structure yet delicacy and florals,” and that it’s a “flamboyant, wild variety that’s in your face.” He loves the “histories of Hermitage,” and the “crazy wild-hills, romantic side” of Syrah, but also that it’s the variety that’s “most at home in Hawke’s Bay.” He knows it’s got a “sense of place,” and is “ideal here,” and he specifically loves the “limestone shallow soil,” at the vineyard site he uses.

Saorsa makes “honest wine,” meaning Alex is happy with their name being on the back of the bottle. Honest wine, to them, is wine without manipulation. Alex asks, “how would it have been made 100 years ago before we had additives to make everyone think they’re drinking something good, but it’s full of crap?” Alex believes in making the wine right from day one, rather than having to correct it in the winery.

Honest wine, to him, means having the wine represent the truth of where it came from and when it was made, rather than “stylistically making something.” He gives the example of Gimblett Gravels Syrah in Hawke’s Bay, and how there are characters that so obviously scream “sense of place,” but he hates that so many of them are the same from one producer to the next. Alex strives for Saorsa to be unique. “For me it’s more about not using large amounts of new oak, or any new oak, or additions or adjustments, [and] no acid adjustments. What I can pick is what I want in the bottle. If I pick too late, that’s my fault, and I won’t rely on a packet of tartaric acid [to fix it].” It makes complete sense to me after learning their philosophy that entering wine shows is of no interest to them.

As you can imagine, being a boutique wine maker on the side of your full time job, having made the decision to go against the industry grain, and make wine with no manipulation, is extremely challenging. Time is one of Alex and Hana’s biggest challenges; they both work full time to support their family, and pay for their house and rental houses. Alex is sharing his time to be Winemaker for Saorsa, along with Assistant Winemaker for his day job’s label. Hana says, “for 3 months of the year I don’t see him.” She identifies with the common nickname of “vintage widow,” and says jokingly, “don’t marry a winemaker. They earn shit money and work shit hours.”

The cost of running a small business is challenging as well, as Saorsa has to legally pay the same fees and taxes on every bottle that the bigger companies are paying. They’re very small production, making only a few barrels per year. Doing things naturally is hard too; even though it’s what Saorsa stands for, “it takes longer waiting on everything to go naturally, but that’s part of the ethos and what happens.”

After all the ups and downs of life and wine, Alex and Hana still love spending time together. That’s something the couple wants readers to know; “we actually love being together. The Instagram is real. The whole thing is real.”

They also want customers to understand that Saorsa doesn’t support them financially. They’re not “doing it for a quick buck,” they’re doing it because Alex is truly passionate about it, and Hana backs him to the end, even to the point of unloading grapes in 2014 after giving birth, and getting reprimanded by her midwife. Although balancing full time jobs with everything else sucks their time, it allows them to “stay true to it,” and to wait until they have a product that Alex is completely happy with for Saorsa. “There is no rush; it can sit as long as it needs. The integrity of the wine is never compromised by a need to release.”

As for what they’ve learned, the “good things about wine are really good.” Alex loves the “culture, people, [and] whimsical” side of the industry, and comments that “when you meet people that are really invested, you see the amazing good side of it.”

The satisfaction Alex gets from knowing people have enjoyed the wine he’s made continues to motivate him. “You see people review it, and how much they love it, and you get the warm fuzzies. It makes sense in your head. Financially no, but whimsically, yes. For the people, yes.” Hana enjoys the people, and that they can do it as a family. She, Taj and Isla have all helped harvest, foot crush, and do other jobs along the way.

Alex thrives in the practical application of his work, in that he is passionate about what he does. It’s “science and magic at the same time.” He loves being out in the vines, and that wine has been made for tens of thousands of years, but that it’s only made once a year. Winemakers get “one chance” each year to make that vintage of wine, and it “can never be repeated.”

They both agree that their whole lives have been taken over to a certain degree by wine, but they are happy. “We work for what we have, we’re all in on Saorsa. We love what we have, and our life, our partnership.”

So what is Saorsa wine actually like?

It IS honest, it IS different, and it IS amazing.

Their 2016 Viognier is one of my favourite Viogniers ever. They’re sold out of it (and I’m not opening my last bottle just yet) so I’ve currently made a couple of trips to a wine bar in town for a glass, and last I heard they were on their last bottle. Tasting notes I made were “fruity and apricoty with dried mango and the perfect amount of floral; it’s aromatic, smooth, oily and rich.”

When I asked for some key features of the wines, Hana joked, “features? Our feet. Yours included this year!” (That’s right, my feet were in the 2019 Saorsa Syrah, and Greg’s were in the Viognier.) All kidding aside, Hana does describe them by saying, “they taste like Alex. I know that sounds odd, but they taste like his passion and love.” When describing the Syrah, she notes “earthy chocolate berries and a bit of attitude mixed with gentle and humble flavours.” Both varietals are “elegant, effeminate, flamboyant.”

If you’re curious to try these incredible, counter-cultural, down to earth, honest wines, get in touch with Saorsa via Instagram by following them @saorsawines and sending them a message. Their website just launched today; you can now find them at http://www.saorsawines.co.nz.

So cheers to freedom from bullshit, to the liberty to be your honest self, and to salvation from your binds.

Saorsa, my friends.

The Element Wines Story; Boutique Wine Producers in Hawke’s Bay

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The story of how Dom and Rachelle met is so adorable, it could be made into a movie.  The setting was their hometown, Auckland, New Zealand, and it was Tuesday, the 14th of January, 2002.  Rachelle was out for lunch, celebrating her cousin’s birthday.  Her cousin joked with the server that she should get a free drink as it was her birthday; the server told her she couldn’t, dampening the mood, so the girls decided to take their business elsewhere.  Little did she know, Rachelle was about to walk into the restaurant where her future life and wine partner worked.  The girls entered Wildfire, and took their places at the bar.  Dom casually sat down next to them, and was minding his own business; Rachelle goofily wacked the new patron next to her on the leg and told him that they had great drinks at this place, and he should try one.  He mentioned that he’d actually tried, and made, all of the drinks there, before turning to show her his work t-shirt with the Wildfire logo on it.  He took the rest of the night off, and bought dinner for the girls.  At the end of the night, he wanted Rachelle’s number.  Feeling a bit serendipitous, Rachelle told him she’d give it to him, but she wouldn’t allow him to write it down; if he could remember it, he could call her.  Thank goodness for Dom’s memory, because he did retain the number after hearing it only once, and as they say, the rest is history. 

Fast forward to 2019, and Dom and Rachelle now own and run Element Wines, a boutique vineyard and wine label in the Gimblett Gravels micro-climate of Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, with their two daughters, Zoë and Zaymia, a couple of cats, Turbo and Bubbles, and one big German Pointer, Brewski, all in tow! 

So how did two Auckland-raised Kiwi’s end up in the Gimblett Gravels, running a vineyard and wine label?  The simple answer, is that they decided that life was too short not to follow their dreams.  The longer, more complicated story includes tonnes of courage, some definite ups and downs, overcoming a lot of hurdles, and binding together to spend their days creating something they love and are proud of, while enjoying their lives as a family.

A day in the life of the Smith family includes high school for the girls, and everything that comes with that, like homework, sport, friends and slumber parties. The girls have spent the last several years helping in the vineyard when they’re finished their schoolwork, and it’s definitely a family affair.  They help with everything from pruning to harvest, and have developed an impressive knowledge of wine-making for their ages.  In addition to running Element, Dom also works full time at Sacred Hill Winery as the Cellar Supervisor.  Rachelle spends her days tending to the vineyard, and running her family.  A typical weekend includes playing with the pets, sitting on their beautiful deck that overlooks their vineyard, and enjoying delicious food, once the vineyard work is done, of course.  Zoë and Zaymia make the Sunday pancakes or waffles, but Rachelle makes the best French Toast.  Dom can craft a mean, made from scratch pizza in his clay oven, or roast incredibly tender and flavourful meats, but whatever the menu, there is always a delicious wine pairing to complete the meal, along with satisfaction after a day’s hard work. 

Owning a vineyard seems romantic, and ideal, and in some respects, it can be.  Most of the time though, it’s really tiresome, and the work never ends.  There’s something to be done in every season of the year.  If it’s spring, the vines are beginning to bud, and need to be watched and protected from frost.  Summer brings growth and ripening, and lots of vineyard and machinery maintenance.  With autumn comes harvest time, unpredictable weather that could potentially destroy a whole season’s fruit, as well as the pressures of making the right decision of when to harvest. Then, the grapes need to be processed, and the wine needs to be made, and maintained, while winter requires pruning in the vineyard to set it up for a healthy spring, when the work cycle repeats. I was curious to find out how all of this became the couple’s dream.

Rachelle didn’t grow up in an industry family, but she was around wine as a child.  She has memories of her god-mother letting her try watered down wines to see what they tasted like.  She also had family and friends with wine labels or vineyards, and she would spend time at their houses; this lead to her developing a comfort and familiarity with the vineyard environment.  Dom didn’t grow up industry either, but was the son of two teachers.  Although his parents drank wine, it was Dom’s hospitality work that opened his eyes to amazing wine. He remembers feeling like he had the world at his fingertips when it came to the wines he was able to experience, both from the old and new worlds. When he used to go out with his buddies as a teen, he noticed that he was among the few whose alcohol choice for the night was a fine wine; he realized that he was actually quite fond of it.  He found satisfaction in making the perfect recommendation for guests in his restaurant, or showing them something different; he once made a recommendation to a Wine Spectator writer, without realizing it, and was thanked and acknowledged by the writer’s wife for making an exceptional pairing.  

Once Dom and Rachelle got together, wine became a big part of their dating life.  They talked about their bucket-list wines, and tried many of them together.  (Trying those bucket-list wines is still something they do today; they can both recall the specific flavours and intensities of a 2006 Dom-Perignon they shared as a celebration of overcoming vineyard hardships.)  Owning a vineyard became their “Lotto-dream.”  If they ever struck it rich, they’d buy one! Ironically, due to hard times, they were put in a position with the business they owned in Auckland where they either had to rebuild, or move on. They were at a fork in their road, and they knew it. Dom had a memorable conversation with a good neighbour friend one evening who recommended that Rachelle and Dom see this as an opportunity to follow their dreams.  They felt the same way, so they did.  

It was the 19th of November, 2012, when Element was born. 

Dom had been able to find employment at a winery in the Bay, so they began looking at Hawke’s Bay properties for their own vineyard.  They also favoured the wines that come out of the region; they love Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.  Dom quipped that he would rather make “not-Sauvinon Blanc and have no money, than make Sauv Blanc and have money!” He’d been commuting between his job in the Bay and his family in Auckland since that August.  The couple had hummed and hawed over which property to go with, but kept coming back to a special one in the Gimblett Gravels.  It was a 4.2 hectare property, with 2.6 hectares under vine.  The vineyard had Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet and Viognier, the wines they wanted to make, not to mention gorgeous lavender that caught Rachelle’s eye. They ended up choosing the property for the vineyard, and not really caring about the specific layout or décor of the house! They got possession on that November day, and the girls still hadn’t seen the house. Rachelle took them to meet Dom to see it together, but Dom was held up at work, so they went for a drink down the road to wait. It really is a family affair! Then, all together, the family complete, Dom, Rachelle, Zoë and Zaymia walked into their new home, to begin a new life and a new adventure. 

Vineyard life didn’t exactly welcome them with rainbows and butterflies.  They had no furniture, and slept on air beds for a couple of months. The girls remember waking up that Christmas together in their half deflated air bed, that they were sharing to save on linen.  The vineyard had been damaged by frost that spring.  Dom had to learn to drive a tractor.  He had to learn to spray.  He had never done any vineyard work before.  He describes it as just having to “jump on board and figure it out.”  He tells the story of one particular night, where a storm was coming in, and he was trying to hook up some hydraulics on a machine.  It was 3.00am by the time he got it going and was able to spray.  To top it all off, he stepped on his sunglasses and broke them.  It was a long, hard night, to say the least. This wasn’t exactly the romantic dream they had envisioned!  It wasn’t all bad though.  The family has lots of fun memories of being together, all learning how to run the vineyard.  Everything was a novelty at first, even for the girls, and they enjoyed lifting wires, bud rubbing, and doing other jobs together.  Although Dom is quite certified now, in the beginning, they were largely self-taught, but they had some helpful neighbours and colleagues that supported them along the way.

After spending time with Dom and Rachelle this year, and seeing how challenging it can be to own a vineyard, I asked them why they chose that route, rather than just purchasing fruit for their label, like so many others do.  Why bother with the work?  Dom replied that it “seemed logical that you grow it and make it.”  They wanted the whole process.  Starting from the beginning, and having control over their fruit is part of their wine-making philosophy.  “Our story is that we grow everything that we make,” explains Dom.  A holistic approach is very important to them.

They strongly believe in nurturing the land, and that less is more.  “We have to tread lightly and look after the land,” Dom shares.  Although they’re not certified organic, they prefer all organic practices. They don’t use any harmful chemicals or sprays on their vineyard.  “My kids and my dog play here,” Dom says about their land.  It’s their home, and they take pride in caring for it. 

Another important company mandate to mention is that Element strives for a “true, terrior driven wine,” which is why they don’t mind to break away from popular trends and make wines that aren’t influenced by oak.  They currently use no new oak in any of their wines (even the reds) and are moving towards eliminating all oak use soon.  Many of Dom’s favourite wines from the old world haven’t touched new oak.  He remembers some specific wines from France that were made in either neutral oak or concrete, and he describes that “they get this intensity and expression from the vineyard and fruit not manipulated by anything else.”

After hearing their wine-making practices and philosophies, it made perfect sense to me why they chose their name, Element.  Their wines, born of the earth, from the vine, through the grapes, and into the bottle, truly reflect a sense of place, and are something completely unique to them. 

So where can I find this special, unique wine?  Customers can order directly from Element via their Instagram handle, @element_wines, their website, http://www.elementwines.co.nz, or see it on some wine lists throughout New Zealand. Rachelle offers tastings by appointment (021 146 8925) as well.

Options are Viognier, Cabernet Merlot blends, and Syrah from Element, as well as potentially a 2018 vintage 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Although they don’t enter wine shows, their Syrah has been their most highly accoladed wine with their 2016 Syrah getting 93 points from Cameron Douglas, Master Sommelier, and 93 points with The Wine Front in Australia.  Their Cabernet Merlots have certainly been popular among customers as well, and are often quick to sell out.  Element is truly boutique, meaning they produce only around 100 cases of wine per year, so if you want to get your hands on some, do it soon!

Their Viognier is aromatic, fresh and floral, with a beautiful oiliness to it that melts in your mouth. The Syrahs have that classic pepper spice, loads of cherry and liquorice, and a flinty minerality that can only come from the soil. The Cabernet Merlots have great structure, red and dark plum and black currants, a lovely hint of cocoa and beautiful soft, round tannins.

In reflecting on their wines and their journey, Dom and Rachelle realized they’ve already overcome several challenges.  They definitely had an uphill journey, especially at the start.  They had to learn how to manage a vineyard, while running a family. This means they have to sacrifice a lot of their personal time, and days off, to ensure that the girls and the vineyard both get the dedication they require.  Trying to find a trustworthy place to make and store their wine was a challenge as well.  They don’t have a winery on site, so to find a safe place where they could make their wine that would allow them creative control was a journey, but one that has rewarded them with a currently great home for their wines, and the all important creative freedom.  Having a vineyard is a lot like farming; the weather interferes negatively sometimes, and then they’re faced with challenges of how to work around that.  “It’s hard work, and hard work has to go in, in order to get the rewards,” Rachelle says. “When you’re small, you have to do more to reap the rewards.”  Lots of others also want to have their share, and have tried to get wine for less than nothing. 

When I asked them if owning the vineyard has been worth it, they both replied in a heartbeat, with a resounding, “absolutely!”  They’ve learned a lot about themselves, and each other, their relationship and their family.  It’s taught them that they still love each other at the end of the day.  It gives Rachelle the freedom to be a stay at home parent, who can be available when the girls need their Mom.  Dom shared that they’ve learned that “wine can bring amazing people together, because it has.”  They have made amazing friends within this industry, and the friendships they’ve gained, have been “the coolest thing it’s done.”  If there are three passions that consistently come through when spending time with Dom and Rachelle, they’re family first, relationships, and of course, wine. 

Pictured left to right: Dom, Zaymia, Rachelle, Zoë

We met Dom and Rachelle in the exact way adults always warn children to never make friends – over the internet!  When Greg and I decided to move to Hawke’s Bay, I started Instagram messenging every winery in the Bay that I could find.  Instagram used to lock me out after so many, and I would have to wait 24 hours before I could send more messages.  A lot of them never replied, but Dom did.  He was the first to reply to me, actually, and explained that they were a small winery, and couldn’t offer us jobs, but that he would help in any way he could.  After conversing with Dom for a few days, he invited us to come for a wine with him and his partner when we arrived.  I wasn’t sure if it would actually happen, but I said that we would love to.  I continued to message back and forth with Dom over the last month we were in Canada, with so many random New Zealand questions.  I think I actually asked him if they had peanut butter here! He was extremely helpful the whole time.  Once we had arrived, it was Dom that I sent a picture to of the first cockroach I had killed asking what it was and if it was poisonous! (We don’t have them in Canada.)  We did end up going for a wine with Dom and Rachelle, on only our second day here, and that wine turned into a dinner, 5 hours of conversation, and the start of a great friendship.

In the time we have gotten to know Dom, Rachelle and the girls, I can clearly see their strength, resilience, perseverance and dedication.  They were so brave to leave their life, family and everything they knew in Auckland, to move to the Bay and follow their dream.  They didn’t know if it would work out or not, and they took a huge risk; I have found though, that the greatest risks in life can lead to some of the greatest rewards.  Dom and Rachelle still work incredibly hard, and they invest their hearts, souls, and pocketbooks into Element.  They love their daughters more than anything in the world, and they’re doing a great job raising the girls; Zoë and Zaymia are beautiful inside and out.  Dom and Rachelle are some of the kindest, most hospitable, generous, and down to earth people we know. We are honoured to call them our friends.

Oh, and by the way…

…they make some pretty exceptional wine!

#nzv19

New Zealand Vintage 2019… is done.

The end of vintage brings mixed feelings. On one hand, it’s sad to say goodbye to the time of year when everything the industry people have been working towards for the rest of the year is finally realized. It’s also time for all the vintage staff to be on their way back to their home countries, or on to the Northern Hemisphere for the next vintage. Saying goodbye to a team of people who have spent more time with each other than anyone else for the last 6 to 8 weeks can be difficult, especially if it was a great team that got along well and bonded over late nights and long days.

On the other hand, for all the Cellar Hands out there, vintage is exhausting, stressful, and can be all consuming, so it’s a relief to get back to a normal schedule, start sleeping again, and get the occasional day off. The “wine widows” are happy to have their partners back too.

As promised, I’ll outline briefly what our experiences of our first vintage were, and better explain some of the photos you saw on our social media profiles in the last 2 months.


Vintage for my winery started on the 26th of February. I’ll remind you here that I work in the Cellar Door, not the winery, (which my boss had to remind me of a couple times – sorry Mitch) so any time I got to spend in the winery was really special to me. I didn’t personally have the long days, no time off, and night shifts that all the Cellar Hands did (and wow, do I admire them for their work). I certainly did clock some hours out there when the Cellar Door was slow, on my days off, and after work, to hang out with the crew and get my hands on everything I was allowed to touch.

I was fortunate to be able to participate in the annual First Crush Ceremony, which was an unexpected honour for me. The grapes were loaded into the hopper, and before it was turned on, we had a speech with some high-ups in the company, and some of our Blanc de Noir (Champagne-style wine). Traditionally, everyone has a sip or two, and then throws the remainder of their wine into the hopper over the grapes. It’s a way of “blessing,” if you will, the next harvest with some wine from previous harvests. Ceremonies like this are practiced all over the world, and have been for years. Traditionally, the ceremony shows thanksgiving for the vineyards, the grapes, the workers, and begins the new vintage with a united team, hopeful for the vintage ahead.

My face when one of the Cellar Hands told me not to throw the entire wine glass in! 😂 Obviously.

I stuck around to watch the first crush, and tried some of the juice straight out of the press. It was a great day! I had no idea then just how many things I was actually going to experience this vintage.

The team began by bringing in Chardonnay for our bubbles, as well as some aromatic whites, like Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc, and then moved onto Chardonnay. Whites lasted for weeks, and I made sure to try each type of grape as they came in, and each grape juice as it was pressed out of the tanks.

During this time, I learned how the hopper, auger, crusher and presses work in a lot more detail, how to rack a tank, how the barrels are filled, and got to try my hand at some Battonage (yeast lees stirring). I also got to learn about the process of several loads of grapes arriving in both trucks and in bins, and how the winery coordinates with the vineyards, pickers and truck drivers to manage it all.

Hand harvested Sauvignon Blanc being loaded up into the press

Meanwhile, Greg was doing his own vintage at his workplace. After seeing our first crush ceremony, Greg suggested his team do one as well; they took his suggestion and involved everyone there, including the Cellar Door team, to launch the vintage with Champagne. Greg’s First Crush Ceremony was on the 14th of March, when they brought in some Merlot for Rose. For his very first crush, he mostly cleaned equipment and learned how to do a thorough job of that. He helped run pumps, move hoses, de-stem and get the juice off of the skins.

Two weeks later, Greg’s winery brought in some whites. Greg had lots of different roles; sometimes he drove the tractor from the vineyard into the winery with loads of grapes, other times he helped operate the press. As his place is an Estate winery, everything is grown on site. With their small team, they often enlisted the help of picking gangs to come harvest the grapes on the days they were ready. Greg began doing more involved jobs, like loading the press, and continuing with that all important cleaning and sanitizing. He enjoyed harvesting the Chardonnay the most, but loved the taste of the Gewertztraminer grapes the best.

I got to experience my first harvest, and Greg’s second, when Greg and I helped our friends at Saorsa wines with their Viognier. I was so slow at first, but eventually got the hang of it!

As exciting as the whites were, I was thrilled when the reds began coming in. Merlot for Rose was the first red that came into our winery on the 24th of March, and the reds continued until the end of April.

Greg’s Winery brought in their first official red, Pinotage, on the 25th of March. He enjoyed harvesting the reds more than the whites, because although the reds require a lot more work in the winery over the next several months, the harvest day process is simpler. With the reds, Greg learned to do everything from pour overs, punch downs and rummages (to continually mix the juice and skins all together while they’re fermenting) to taking and recording data of temperature and Brix (sugar) levels in the active ferments every day.

His small team lead to some extra long days, as they had to finish processing the grapes that came in before they could go home. That same small team had some benefits for me though, as I was welcomed to come participate in some of the cellar work. I loved doing punch-downs, and helping with anything they’d set me up working on.

Couples who make wine together… 🍷

Meanwhile, at my own workplace, I was still taking every chance to be out in the winery. I witnessed a few dig outs (emptying skins from the tanks after fermentation is done) and got to try everything from taking the temperature of the cap of grape skins at the top of the tanks, to testing Brix (sugar) levels in wine, rummages (blowing compressed air into the tanks to mix up the skins through the juice and regulate the temperature of the ferment), and even running the hopper (with much needed and excessive supervision)!

Rummaging the Cuves
Testing the Brix
Taking the temperature of the cap of grape skins
Learning to run the hopper with a load of red grapes

Greg and I helped our friends at Element Wines harvest their Merlot, and got another little harvest under our belts.

Greg did his first dig out on his birthday!

A big highlight for me was when Alex of Saorsa allowed me to help him foot stomp his Syrah! This had been a dream of mine for years, and it was so amazing to actually get to do it.

Greg has also had the incredible and special opportunity to make his own wines. He’s got the mentorship of his Assistant Winemaker every step of the way, to help him create the style of wine he wants, and the benefit of the winery’s fruit and equipment. He is making a “field blend,” which is a mix of any and all grape types that come from the same block; his has 8 varietals in it, and will be a red wine. He’s also making a Chardonnay, and a Rose. He is learning to be a Winemaker on his own wines, which is an amazing way to learn. We’re so excited to try the finished products.

Greg’s Chardonnay
Greg tasting his field blend in the early stages
Greg’s field blend during the first week of fermenting

All of the grapes have been brought in now, but there is still much to do to tend to the wines, as they will be in the winery for months to years before they’re ready to be bottled. Greg continues to work on those tasks, and is doing some big jobs independently now. He continues to learn new things every day, and will soon be getting into pruning the vines with his Assistant Winemaker.

I’m spending more time back in the Cellar Door, and less in the winery now, but I’m reminded that it’s where I wanted to be, and still want to be – talking to people about wine, touring them around, and educating them about this passion of mine. There’s so much Greg and I have learned, and even more we want to learn. At the end of this first vintage we’ve gotten to be part of, the whole process of growing grapes and making wine is even more alive and exciting for us than ever before.

How We Planned to Move to Italy and Ended Up Choosing New Zealand; Our Story Part 3

The house wasn’t renting, so I had a summer of wrestling with God. We felt we had been hearing Him so clearly for two years, guiding us to this move, and now, this house was holding us back. How will we pay for everything without selling it? (I still don’t know the answer to this). Why didn’t we get renters sooner?

I was really struggling one week, and one morning I decided to go find some nature and have it out with God (cause you know, God is there apparently… I know He’s actually everywhere, but I seemed to think meeting Him in nature would give me answers). Greg happened to call me that same morning and said he had to go to the lake for a quick job that afternoon, and invited me along. Perfect. This was my chance!

As he worked, I found an old, wooden swing set and went for a long swing. I told God exactly how angry I was and laid all my confusion out there. I asked, “why haven’t we rented the house yet?” I noticed that as I was moving on the swing, the same view to the side looked different from the forward swing than it did from the back swing. I could look at the same swing post, and see that it looked entirely different depending on how I looked at it. I thought, “maybe we’re looking at this move all wrong. I heard, “you need a new perspective.” I had no idea what that meant. I went away mad that I hadn’t gotten what I wanted: my phone buzzing with dozens of potential tenants, but I kept the thought in the back of my mind.

I kept spending time every morning reading lots of devotionals about trust, and one day, one of them suggested a journaling practice of writing out my fears and facing them head on. I started praying and writing them out, and I remembered the “perspective” thought I’d been trying to figure out. I kept writing fears, and eventually I got to, “what if it’s not Rome?” I immediately felt a sense of peace when I let go of Rome.

I thought, if it’s not Rome, it’s Australia or New Zealand. We’d never been to either, but we had our eyes on them. We’d talked about traveling to visit them, maybe on the way to Italy since we’d have some time. We had even discussed living in one or both countries after a year in Italy. They were on our must-see travel destinations list, but we hadn’t been yet and I had been unwilling to choose a place to move to, that I hadn’t already been to. I’d seen people do that on House Hunters International and always thought they were absolutely nuts! “I would never move to a place I hadn’t been before,” I had said to Greg. Cue God’s laughter.

Australia and New Zealand looked and sounded wonderful, and my favourite wine is from Australia. New Zealand has great wine and weather too, and is part of the commonwealth. Australia wasn’t accepting people our age for working holiday visas (at that time), but New Zealand was! I met Greg at the gym before teaching my fitness class and quickly said to him, “I don’t think we’re supposed to move to Rome. I think we’re supposed to move to New Zealand. Don’t say anything yet, but think on it during my class.” It must have come as quite a surprise to him, but he just said, “hmm. Okay. I’m open to that!”

We discussed it in more detail that evening, and he was at peace about it too, fully on board, and excited about it. We could work in the wine industry there; I could have a break from teaching, and there would be more opportunity for us to both have jobs. More importantly, there would be the opportunity for my husband to have his dream job. We’d have to start at the bottom, of course, but we’d gain experience in the industry. It’s English speaking, and culturally less of a departure from what we’re used to for our first move ever. Visas are way simpler to get, our dollar goes further, and the climate is warmer. Also, guess what begins in New Zealand in November – the month we were supposed to be moving? Wine season.

We wanted to think on it, keep praying for wisdom, and try it on for size. I suggested that we actually start “trying it on” by speaking like we had picked New Zealand instead, and seeing how it felt. In our daily conversations, we changed out “when we live in Rome,” to “when we live in New Zealand.” We noticed it was easy to say, and exciting. I wasn’t terrified anymore, and Greg was no longer overwhelmed at the prospect of the do list that living in Italy presented us with. We noticed that we were excited again! We began dreaming again, and we felt renewed. We wanted to use our upcoming summer holiday to really invest time into the decision, so we decided to officially choose after the trip was done, and to keep it quiet for the time being. We still had to rent the house anyways, and sell the BMW.

We went on a trip to BC to do wine touring, and to visit some of our favourite cousins (the same ones who challenged my husband to find his passion). They inspire us and challenge us both so much. We explained how we weren’t sure where to move. They advised us not to worry about “the where,” so much as “the what.” What was it that we felt we were supposed to be doing? When we were asked to think of it in that frame of mind, we felt we knew already that we were to be in the wine industry.

Every industry needs Christians. We could be the Christians in the wine industry. I know that seems counterintuitive, or taboo to some people, and we know we don’t have everyone’s support. We know some people are probably praying for us, thinking our souls are lost because we want to work in this industry. That’s fine, and we’ll gladly take extra prayers, but we feel it is where we’re supposed to be, for this time in our lives. Italy couldn’t fulfill that “what,” so we needed a new “where” that could. We ended up deciding on either Australia or New Zealand by the end of our trip; Greg was really leaning towards New Zealand.

While in BC, we filled our cousins in on the house situation and the struggle with the move. We had been praying to find tenants through a mutual connection all summer. We didn’t want to post the house publicly and have someone in it that we didn’t know anything about, as it’s not just a rental property; it’s our home and we wanted to leave it furnished. Word of mouth and social media had not been working. I struggled with feeling like I would be giving up on God if I posted it publicly. Our cousins said that sometimes you just have to pick a date, make a decision, and move forward with it. We decided to try that strategy.

We prayed and chose September 15th. We told God we were trying to trust Him but felt we needed to take action of some kind, and that if we didn’t have tenants by the 15th, we’d post it.

On the 12th, we went to a Wine Locker Member invite only wine tasting, for Villa Maria wines, from New Zealand, with a Kiwi there to lead the tasting. We spoke to her after, and she is from the exact area in New Zealand that we want to live. She gave us her contact info, told us how to make our resumes (CV’s), told us where to buy a car, find a rental, and gave us so many helpful tips. She encouraged us and said we should be able to get jobs in the industry. I hope she’s right! Talking to her was so encouraging, and made us feel even better about our choice. We were pretty set on New Zealand after that night.

September 15th came, and we still had no tenants, so we posted the house. We had prayed that by my brother in law’s wedding on October 5th, we would be able to tell all our family and friends the date we were leaving, and where we were going. It was important for us to have closure and be able to use the wedding as a family reunion in a way, to say our goodbye’s in person, hug everyone and tell them we love them.

Within the first week of the house being posted, we had lots of interest. We set up several viewings, and our first one was three people who we have several mutual connections with, including some of my family members, and our property manager! They had seen the add publicly, and didn’t even realize it was us they had been speaking to! They informed us the next day that they wanted our house for October 1st. This was what we’d been praying for all along and I was beyond excited and grateful!

We moved in with Greg’s parents on my birthday, finalized our health insurance, and booked our flights a couple of days later. We applied for our New Zealand work visas, expecting them to take 3 weeks. I had to submit my driver’s license information on my visa application, but I had just gotten a new one, and it hadn’t come in the mail yet! I had to submit the date of issue and had no idea what it would be. I prayed, and guessed a date, entered it, and applied, praying more that it wouldn’t be a problem, and that I’d be able to change it when my license arrived. Our visas surprisingly came through within only 2 days, the day before the wedding!

We were able to tell everyone in person, and say our goodbyes, just as we’d hoped and prayed for. When my license arrived the following week, I ripped it open anxiously to see what the date of issue was going to be. To my surprise, it was the exact date I guessed when I filled in my visa application! I don’t even have to contact immigration and try and change it, or risk problems when we land. Amazing.

I love looking back and seeing all of the things that had to come to be in order for us to be where we are now.

If we hadn’t been set on Rome initially, I wouldn’t have even been open to moving abroad at all. It had to be somewhere warm, and in Europe for me in the beginning or I wouldn’t have even considered a move.

If we hadn’t been pulled towards Rome, where we thought we wanted to go, we wouldn’t have been planning ahead in order to save money and arrange finances and other details we still needed to get New Zealand visas.

Without the comfort of my English teaching course, we would have had no plausible job possibilities for either of us, and wouldn’t have even considered moving abroad.

If our friends hadn’t given Greg the brewing supplies, he never would have found his passion for the industry, and asked to take the WSET course for our anniversary.

If that watch I bought him hadn’t cancelled for no reason, I wouldn’t have had the money to pay for the WSET course, and we wouldn’t have done it.

If we hadn’t done that course, we wouldn’t have considered working in the wine industry.

If we’d never done the WSET course, we also wouldn’t have our wine locker, and wouldn’t have met the Italian winemaker who discouraged us to look for wine jobs in Italy, or the Kiwi wine rep who encouraged us about possibilities in New Zealand.

If we hadn’t had our 10th anniversary in 2018, we wouldn’t have done the Europe trip that essentially clarified that it was not where we were supposed to live.

Had I not gotten my extended contract at my school in 2017, and the timing of all the other things I mentioned that year hadn’t lined up, we would have tried to move a year sooner.

Had I not gotten laid off in 2018, I’m not sure what we would have decided about proceeding with the move, especially once September came and we didn’t have tenants.

If we had rented the house out even one month sooner, we would have bought plane tickets to Italy, not New Zealand.

God’s timing – it’s a thing!

We still have no idea where we will end up living, or working, and as anyone who’s moved before knows, we’ll be starting up a new life in so many ways. Nothing is certain. It’s exciting and terrifying, all at the same time. Even the things we think we’ve planned now, could still change. Maybe we won’t settle where we think, or end up working in the wine industry after all. Life is so uncertain that way. This is a risk, and it could be incredibly rewarding, or incredibly disappointing. I know it will be challenging, and I know we will learn.

We appreciate all of your thoughts and prayers as we take steps forward on this adventure, and we look forward to sharing the experience with you via my blog, and through the Instagram handle, “ourroadleadstoroam.”

Thanks for reading our story, and following along with us.

Aging Wine; The Need To Knows

“You get better with age like a fine wine…” ❤️

We’ve all heard sayings like this before that leave us to believe that all fine wine gets better with age.  This is partly true – many fine wines do get better with some age – but which wines are meant for aging and how long they should be aged, is actually quite a complex topic.  Then there are multiple factors that come into play regarding storage/cellar conditions that will either age wine well, or ruin it quickly.

A huge misconception I’ve come across in speaking with friends and family about wine is that it ALL gets better with age.  This is definitely not true!  There is a saying in the wine world that only 1% of wine is actually meant to be aged in the bottle, which means that 99% of the wine on the shelves right now is meant to be consumed within a few short years from now, or today!  More on specific aging times in a moment. I’ll tell you right now, that 1% more than likely didn’t cost less than $20 either, so if you’re hanging on to those $7.99 bottles, it’s time to grab some glasses, or possibly make dinner with some type of a wine sauce!

Wine needs to have certain qualities to give it the ability to age well.  Madeline Puckette, the creator of Wine Folly, gives 4 qualities that you can look for in a wine to determine if it is age worthy:  Acidity, Tannins, Alcohol Level, and Residual Sugar.  [1]

Acidity

The higher the acid in the wine, the better it will age.  When tasting wine, acidity is the factor that makes your mouth water.  It is often described as “crispness.”  Chablis, for example, has a high amount of acidity, and can age well, even though it’s made from white grapes. (Tip your chin down with the wine in your mouth and see how much spit forms. If there’s a lot, it’s higher in acid!)

Tannins

Lots of red grapes have high tannins and can be aged for several years.  Sometimes whites have tannins, but rarely.  Tannins are chemical compounds that come from the seeds, skins and stems of grapes.  When you taste them in wine, they’re not so much a flavour as a feeling.  (That dry feeling you get along your gums, like when you drink a way over-steeped tea, is the feeling of tannins!) In the process of making red wine, the grape juice sits with these parts of the grape, allowing the tannins to enter the wine.  Some can come from oak contact as well.  Certain grapes are more tannic than others, depending on their composition, and certain wines will be more tannic if they’re left to sit with the skins, etc. for longer periods of time.  These tannins can be bitter and harsh in young wines, but they help them age well because with time, the tannins “soften,” and become more “well-rounded.”  This basically means that instead of the wine tasting sharp and pungent in your mouth, it will taste more smooth and balanced; higher tannin wines need age to taste better.

Alcohol Level and Residual Sugar

Red wines with higher alcohol content, closer to the 14% mark, will typically age better than lower alcohol reds.  Whites have lower alcohol in them, but some grapes have particular compounds and sugar levels that will allow for a decent amount of residual, that is, left-over sugar, once the fermentation process is done.  These whites, like Rieslings, for example, have a balance of sugar and acid that enables them to age well.

So now that you’ve determined you’ve got a wine you’re going to hold on to, here are some things to think about before you put it away and forget about it.

Screwcap vs. Synthetic Cork vs. Real Cork  

The method of capping wines is still a largely debated topic in the wine industry.  Real cork, vs. synthetic cork, vs. screwcap – there are a lot of opinions out there on which is best and why.  For more information on this topic, check out my article Real Cork vs. Synthetic Cork and Screwcaps. For the purposes of this article, I’ll only comment related to wine’s age-ability and storage.

Australia and New Zealand initiated the use of screw caps, and still use them on many of their wines.  Other countries have started following suit.  A screw cap does not indicate poor quality wine, it’s simply a method that some producers believe is the best way to seal their wines.  Wines with screw caps don’t need to be laying down for storage, but they can be. Screw caps haven’t been tested for super long term aging, but some can last a decade or more.

Wine professionals have recommended to me, on more than one occasion, that synthetic cork should not be left in contact with the wine for long periods of time; they say it can leave a plastic type taste in the wine, and can also leave other synthesized compounds in the wine, that they don’t want to be consuming several years down the line.  Stand those synthetic cork wines up for any length of storage.  Fair enough. These are also only guaranteed for a few years at best.

Wine with a real cork must be stored lying down.  Cork is a natural compound, and it dries out over time.  By lying the wine on its side, the wine stays touching the bottom of the cork, and the moisture helps to keep the cork damp enough that it shouldn’t dry out.  This is important, because if the cork dries out, it shrivels up and shrinks, letting too much unwanted air into the bottle.  Over the years, the overdose of oxygen will ruin the wine, leaving it “oxidized” and undesirable. Natural cork has proven the test of time and has lasted sometimes for hundreds of years.

Cellar Conditions

Have you ever been to a winery, or seen photos of their cellars?  What do you notice about them?  They’re usually cool, dark, and damp, and the wine is off to the side and out of the way so it doesn’t have to be moved.

Cellar conditions for ideal wine storage should be between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius, and shouldn’t change much.  Light shining onto the bottles for some time can alter the wine inside, whether it’s natural or artificial light.  Humidity will help keep the corks damp, so they stay plump and tightly sealed to the inside of the bottle’s neck.  The more you can leave the wine alone, without bumping it and moving it, the better its chances are of aging well.

When wine is resting well, it’s aging well, similar to you!  Just think of how well you would rest if someone kept changing the temperature on you, shining light on you, and bumping you around – exactly.  This is why I can’t sleep on an airplane. If you want your wine to be pleasant, give it a good rest!

Did you know that storing wine in a kitchen is actually one of the worst places in a home environment to keep it?  The temperature fluctuates the most in kitchens/bathrooms out of any of the rooms in your home.

How Long is Too Long?

There is a window of time that most wine professionals believe wine is at its best.  The window will vary slightly for each wine, but at a certain point, it will hit its peak, and begin to decline in quality again.  There is no exact way to know when this is, so it can feel like a risk when you’ve been aging a wine for a while, and want to make sure it’s at its best before popping that old cork ever so gently!

So many great wines become collector’s items, and people spend so much money on them, that they never want to drink them.  I once heard someone on a wine documentary say something to the effect of how many of the world’s greatest wines have essentially gone to waste, sitting in someone’s cellar for way too long, because people don’t understand how wine ages.  There’s a time and place for cellaring wine, but in the end, wine is meant to be drunk.

Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine is one of my favourite wine books.  She says, “contrary to popular opinion, only a small subgroup of wines benefit from extended bottle aging.  The great bulk of wine sold today, red as well as white and pink, is designed to be drunk within a year, or at most two, of bottling.”[2]

In her expert opinion, she goes on to list specific numbers of years that several particular types of wine should be aged for, of which I’ve only included a few popular choices.  Almost all whites retailing under the $20 range should only be bottle aged to a maximum of 2 years.  Heavier whites, like Chardonnay can sometimes last up to 6 years.  More expensive whites can age longer, like Chablis (up to 15 years), or some Rieslings (up to 20).[3]  This has to do with the structure of the particular grapes, and how they’re produced.

Surprisingly, the number doesn’t differ much for reds.  If they’re around that same $20 mark or under, the longest Jancis recommends you keep them is 3 years.  You can hang onto higher priced French wines in your cellar from 15 to 25 years, Italian Chianti or Spanish Rioja can present nicely up to 10 and 20 respectively as well.  Above the $20 price point, most Cabernet Sauvignons can be bottle aged for 7 – 17 years, Pinot Noirs, 4 – 10, Shiraz, 4 – 12, and Grenache, 3 – 8. [4]  Jancis has not lead me astray yet, and I trust these numbers; keep in mind there are always exceptions, and your cellar conditions need to be appropriate, especially if you’re considering aging your own wines in the bottles.

*Note that keeping value wines up to that 2-3 year mark is NOT going to enhance their flavour; think of that time frame like a best before date.

To determine how long the wine has been in the bottle, you’re going to have to do some math!  The year on the label is the year the grapes were harvested, not the year it was bottled necessarily, so if the label explains that it was aged in the winery for a certain number of years, you can add that time to the year on the label to get the bottling year.

If you’re looking to age a wine, remember to look for wines that are balanced in acidity, alcohol, residual sugar, or have some tannin to them.  You’ll want to spend a bit more on these ones, and watch out for synthetic cork. If you’ve got a lot of $20 to $30 wines sitting in your house, it may be time to have a party!  Let’s not let that wine go to waste.  Happy aging of the appropriate ones, and cheers to all the rest of them!

[1] Puckette, Madeline.  (2017, Feb.)  “How to Tell If A Wine Is Age-Worthy.”  Retrieved from https://winefolly.com/tutorial/how-to-tell-if-a-wine-is-age-worthy/

[2] Robinson, Jancis.  The Oxford Companion to Wine.  2015.  Oxford, UK; Oxford University Press.

[3] Robinson, Jancis.  The Oxford Companion to Wine.  2015.  Oxford, UK; Oxford University Press.

[4] Robinson, Jancis.  The Oxford Companion to Wine.  2015.  Oxford, UK; Oxford University Press.