This story was first published in NZ Winegrower magazine, April/May 2017, by Joelle Thomson.
They say good things come in all shapes and sizes and for the New Zealand wine industry (heavily reliant on Sauvignon Blanc – 86% of the country’s exports and 74% of its white grapes), this is true because the vast majority of producers are relatively small… Meet Mike Old and Hazel Allan of Lauregan Wines…
They met on Wellington’s Lambton Quay, fell in love and moved to Rome where they fell in love again – with Italian wine. So, Italy’s well known Sangiovese grape was their first choice when the couple moved back to New Zealand and planted a small vineyard in Central Hawke’s Bay. But Mike Old and Hazel Allan learnt the hard way that this grape and that place are not a marriage made in vine heaven.
The couple own one of the smallest wineries in New Zealand, Lauregan Wines in Elsthorpe, in Central Hawke’s Bay.
The 1.4 hectare sloping vineyard experiences cooler nights and hotter days than many other areas that are closer to the coast in the Bay.
They lived in Italy for nearly a decade before returning to New Zealand in 1983 and planting their vineyard at Elsthorpe a decade later, in 1993. Since living in Italy, they had longed to replicate a little of the food and wine culture they had fallen deeply for on their travels.
Enter Sangiovese. They bought Sangiovese grapevines from Corban’s Viticulture and planted them, watching vigorous growth all through summer. The growth seemed to go well, until late in the season when rainfall can put paid to the ripening cycle of this late ripening grape, which is the key grape of Tuscany and also happens to be one of the most widely planted grapes throughout Italy. But the climate there is significantly different to Hawke’s Bay because it tends to be drier throughout summer and autumn. And, as they discovered, it is a rather different proposition in Hawke’s Bay when it comes to late ripening grapes, so they have now replaced their Sangiovese with the early ripening Pinot Noir, much to Olds’ chagrin.
“I would love to have another go at Sangiovese but it would have to be under very strict conditions and a small enough block to do a lot of handwork because, even in a very good vintage such as 2013, it struggles in this environment,” he says, adding that while Malbec also holds strong appeal for him and Allan, he would prefer to specialise in Pinot Noir – “and do a bloody good job of it.”
That job translates to a full bodied, deeply coloured Pinot Noir, which Old attributes to the hotter days and cooler nights in Central Hawke’s Bay.
Asked why he views this central area as different in climate to the rest of the Bay, he suggests a number of factors.
To begin with, the location is inland so the climate is cooler in winter and during the night, year round. Then there’s the altitude. Lauregan Vineyard is about 170 metres above sea level and surrounded by hills, such as the 520 metre high Mount Maraetotara and the 620 metre high Mount Kahuranaki. Both offer shelter from wind and protection from cooling coastal breezes so that many days reach 30 degrees Celcius in summer and have a more pronounced temperature difference between day and night.
“These extremes of morning and night mean it can be one degree or a frosty morning followed by a 30 degree day. This, in turn, can often be followed by very cool night time temperatures, which can drop down to four or five degrees. Even during a warm vintage, the nights are very cool,” says Olds.
The biggest pluses of living in Central Hawke’s Bay are the quietness, the beauty and the fact there’s no travel time to work. On the flip side, frosts are a constant worry and work is always in your face, says Old, who makes the Lauregan wine in a purpose built winery, which he describes, modestly, as a shed, on site.
Like the better known wine sub-regions of Hawke’s Bay, the Central Hawke’s Bay area has a wide range of different soil types, aspects, altitudes and weather patterns, including everything from limestone (at Lime Rock Wines) to 250 metres altitude at Tuakau, to name but a few examples.
“Valley climate conditions come into play where we are, which are exacerbated by changing altitudes, even in our small vineyard,” says Old.
“The valley combined with the altitude drives the day-night temperature variations, with the shelter of the valley leading to higher temperatures during the day and the collection of cold air at night leading to regular spring frosts and cool temperatures overnight.”
By planting on the hills, he has discovered it is possible to gain a more even distribution of sunshine on the vines and to gain absorption of heat into the soil.
“Although our average temperatures here are less than in the rest of Hawke’s Bay, our ripening isn’t as delayed as would be expected because of the hillside aspect,” Old says.
He and Allan do not participate in New Zealand Winegrowers’ sustainability programme but they are, he says, mindful of minimising inputs on the vineyard and aim to be as organic as possible on the relatively heavy clay soils they work with.
“Our clay soil means we generally have a slower start to the season while the ground heats up but we don’t have to irrigate because there is enough water in the soil to keep the plants happy.”
They planted their first grapes in 1995, putting Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese in the ground because they were inspired by Super Tuscans, which can be made with a range of traditional and non traditional Tuscan grapes, usually underpinned by Sangiovese in the blend.
“We were peasants in Italy and a special bottle of wine for us was a good Chianti Ruffina, so we thought it would be good to earn a little bit of money from the land we bought here,” says Old.
Little bit is the best description. The couple purchased just 1.4 hectares of land and it has now all been replaced in Pinot Noir, comprising a range of different clones, including the Abel clone along with 5, 114, 115, 667 and 777, all of which went into the ground in 2008. They planned to make their first vintage of Pinot Noir from the 2012 vintage, but Olds describes that year as “the worst summer of my life”.
The first vintage of Lauregan Pinot Noir was in 2013, a year he describes as sublime.
The Pinot Noir is full bodied, which Olds attributes to the cool climate’s high diurnal range and the low cropping levels rather than to oak maturation.
“Our philosophy is one bunch per shoot and that, plus the open canopy contributes to the ripe fruit character and solid structure of the wine. Hot days and cool nights must also contribute to this.”
The oak regime has been consistent for all four Pinot Noirs to date. It includes one third new oak, one third in one-year old barrels and on third in 2 year old barrels.
“It was like chalk and cheese experiencing the difference between the 2012 and the 2013 vintages. From here we need to keep getting better. The only way for us to make any money is to produce really good wine. We don’t want to be millionaires, we just want to make really good wine and have a little money in our retirement.”