“Organic wine should be in the brain of everyone – to spray the grapes as little as possible is everything and if you go to organic or biodynamic practices, I think the grapes are more tasty.”

So says Ludwig Vanneron. He’s a French winemaker on a mission to one of Hawke’s Bay’s smallest wineries – Chateau Waimarama.

The winery exports about 99% of its wines to Japan. A smidgeon are sold in New Zealand, mostly at top end luxury lodges. The winery was founded by John Loughlin (owner of Askerne) and is now owned by a Japanese businessman who is based off shore, says general manager Chase Arquette, who wants to take Chateau Waimarama’s wines to the next level, hence the introduction of an international consultant with a broad international overview.

Enter Vanneron – a graduate of Bordeaux’s University’s Wine Faculty. His latest visit to New Zealand was in November 2016, when we met to look around the six hectare vineyard – which is planted with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Syrah.

The discussion focuses on the vineyard more than the winery because, as the old maxim goes (although he doesn’t say it), you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear or, to put it in wine terms, great grapes make great wines.

“By going to this idea of organic, to reduce the product you spray, you improve the acidity also in the wine and after two or three years you see the pH decreasing by 0.1 or 0.2. I have an example in St-Emilion.”

Just as it takes three years to become fully organic, it takes this time for changes to show through in the wine – to, for instance, raise the acidity and increase the aromas.

“In New Zealand we don’t have this problem – we have nice flavours in the wines because of the acidity but to improve the overall health and ripeness of the grapes, we want to eliminate all pyrazines (green flavours) from Cabernet and we want to do this with no compromise along the way,” says Vanneron, as he we walk around the vineyard.

It’s a small but extremely varied site where temperature differences vary by up to two degrees, due to east and north east aspects. The slope of the site also provides a slight altitudinal change and a low lying dip on one part can create a frost risk, if spring is cold.
The best way to achieve ripeness in these mid to late ripening grape varieties on this site is to prune judiciously at the most advantageous time of year. This is often earlier than traditionally thought prudent, says Vanneron.
“It is important to prune early for Cabernet Sauvignon in order to eliminate the pyrazine flavours that can come through in this variety,” he says, adding that green aromas in Cabernet are not only a potential problem in Hawke’s Bay but everywhere this grape is grown.
He is based in Bordeaux but with regular wine consultancies in New Zealand (at Waimarama) as well as in Italy (Tuscany), Turkey, Armenia and other countries, it can be difficult for Vanneron to see his French based family. His frequent travels provide him with an extensive international overview of the world’s wine industry today, however, and he works with a young French winemaker, 28 year old Julie Barthoux, who is also involved at Waimarama.

“When we make red wine, we need to think about the aging; it has to improve for five to 10 years. We really want to do the best with everything on this vineyard, not only with Cabernet but with Syrah as well because that is the flagship red of the Bay. In Japan you find wines from all over the world and the competition there is the same as if you go to New York or London so there is no compromise in terms of flavour. The wines need to stand up against the best from Bordeaux but in the end the wines are New Zealand wines and we want to enhance their best qualities as we focus on improving the overall flavours.”

Chateau Waimarama was one of the first to become a member of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, which was formed in 1995 and now has 98% of all New Zealand’s producing vineyard area as members.

In Vanneron’s words, the organic focus at Chateau Waimarama is to reduce sprays, retain grass between rows to keep microfloragrowing and to retain a balance in the whole vineyard environment – he suggests that the tradition of avoiding grass in between the rows of vineyards is not a good practice because it eliminates potential positives in the environment.
“A lot of people think a French person will come and tell them what to do but I am a part of the team and am not here to tell everyone how it will be because this is New Zealand. We are not Bordeaux, even though the grape varieties we have at Waimarama originate there,” says Vanneron, who believes strongly in regional and national identity rather than affixing French labels to wines made in other places.

Chateau Waimarama winery is one of the smallest in the Bay. It is a modest sized brick building on a six hectare vineyard at Tuki, two minutes drive from the Bay’s iconic Te Mata Estate, but significantly smaller.
“I am a big fan of the fresh taste of New Zealand wines, it’s one of the most appealing factors in all of the wines made in this country — reds and whites – and one that should be maximised.”

 

The wines from Chateau Waimarama

Significant change is afoot at Chateau Waimarama where the latest reds are softening in the barrel hall as they benefit from the slow but steady process of controlled oxidative aging in oak. The two wines below are currently in bottle, are sealed with cork and are available in extremely limited quantities. I was impressed by their rich fruit flavours, full body and dry style but even more so by the barrel samples I tasted at the winery. Unfinished wine can be difficult to evaluate but it can also be a transparent expression of what’s to come – in this case, I look forward to tasting the new wave from Chateau Waimarama.

Watch this space.

2011 Cagirina Merlot Malbec

2012 Minagiwa Reserve Selection