Joel Watson is the winemaker at Luna Estate; the new incarnation of the amalgamated Alana Estate and Murdoch James wineries.
Joel spoke with me early this week after the 25th Toast Martinborough wine, food and music festival, which gave us a chance to talk about replacing Sauvignon Blanc with Pinot Noir, moving countries and rebranding wineries. He was hired in January 2015 as winemaker for Alana Estate and Murdoch James, which have now been combined into Luna Estate – which also happens to be the name of the daughter of the winery’s Wellington based owners, Charlie and Nancy Zheng, who are property developers with a passion for Pinot Noir.
Here’s a little snippet of our chat.
How long have you been drinking wine?
Joel Watson: I had my first glass of wine when I was 14. Tim Turvey from Clearview Estate in Hawke’s Bay gave it to me; he’s an old family friend. I was a little kid and helped him put nets on his vineyard. I remember that wine really well, it was a poignant moment for me. It was Chardonnay. He said ‘here, have a taste of this’ and I remember thinking it was really rich and round. I’ve been drinking wine ever since.
How has your wine drinking changed over the years?
Joel Watson: I drink less but better quality. I don’t try and taste now. I try and figure out how a wine feels in the mouth. I’ve got a thing called synaesthesia where one sense can cross over to another, so when I taste I see colours and shapes. I didn’t realise I was doing it until I seriously got into wine.
What’s your favourite colour or shape in a wine?
Joel Watson: I like it when I smell pink. When I taste that in a red wine, it reminds me of flowers.
When did you decide to dive in and work with wine?
Joel: When I was about 19 when I moved to Sydney and later to Melbourne where I worked in a big restaurant and this guy said ‘you’ll be perfect as a wine waiter’. I wanted an adventure, so I did it.
Do you miss hospitality?
Joel Watson: Sometimes. I must do because I opened up Little Square Pizza in Martinborough. It’s a massive change from serving wine to making it, but once you’ve done a few harvests, it’s amazing the cross over in skills that are needed in both.
What inspires your winemaking?
Joel Watson: Quality of fruit. We’ve got some amazing vineyards and it sounds cliché but wine does start in the vineyard. We have refocussed at Luna on Pinot Noir. We are spending more time and energy in the vineyards rather than in the winery.
What factors make wine so rewarding?
Joel Watson: Time and place. There are very few things that capture time and place as wine does, and there’s certainly no other agricultural product that inspires time and place in the way that wine does. Even when you’ve finished the bottle, there’s still a reminder of what you do. It’s a tactile reminder.
What trends do you see emerging with wine today?
Joel Watson: Low fi winemaking, which I support. I balk at the term ‘natural winemaking’ because there’s no such thing. Winemaking is a profoundly unnatural thing. But low-fi I like. So, I low-fi on most of the wines; particulary the single vineyard stuff. I add sulphur very late – I’ve got no problem using sulphur but it’s how you use it.
And young people who love wine as their alcohol of choice are an important trend. Wine is losing its air of exclusivity. It’s becoming more of an everyday thing. It’s about growing the culture of wine, for me. There seems to be more mindfulness now about wine and how it is enjoyed.
Three Luna Pinot Noirs
2016 Luna Pinot Noir $35, 12.5% ABV
This Pinot Noir will be made in significant volumes going forward and it’s an upfront fruity soft red with a medium body and fresh red cherry, plum and redcurrant flavours with a clean, dry finish. It drinks well now.
2016 Luna Eclipse Pinot Noir Martinborough $55, 13.5% ABV
Stony soils were home to the grapes that made their way into this bottle of Martinborough Pinot Noir, which puts its fruity foot forward in a very youthful, full bodied Pinot Noir, which is underpinned with savoury notes, in part due to being bottled unfined and unfiltered. It drinks well now but needs decanted two to three hours prior to drinking. It has potential for aging for four to five years, possibly beyond.
2016 Luna Blue Rock Pinot Noir $55, 13% ABV
Blue Rock Pinot Noir is my pick of the two top Pinot Noirs from Luna Estate in Martinborough, thanks to its juicy, succulent, earthy flavours and and its full bodied style. It’s made from grapes grown on an elevated hillside vineyard south of Martinborough, planted in the Abel clone of Pinot – the region’s most highly prized Pinot clone. Blue Rock Vineyard is a slightly warmer site than many in the region, says winemaker Joel Watson, and this translates to the wine’s full body and earthy taste. It was bottled unfined and unfiltered and drinks best when decanted two to three hours prior to drinking. It can age for four to five years, possibly beyond in good cellaring conditions.