Friday wine talk with Phil Handford… ruru, kayaking and plastics

Phil Handford loathes plastic, loves kayaking and most values empathy in his friends and family, who are the people he most enjoys sharing wine with, particularly his own. That wine is Grasshopper Rock Pinot Noir and Handford is one of the owners and founders of this small winery in Alexandra. This is the most eastern and usually the driest of Central Otago’s wine regions and this week’s wine talk delves into what made Phil believe in this chilly corner of majestically beautiful Pinot country.

  • The Friday wine interview is inspired by the Proust questionnaire, which originated in 1886. Find out more here.

Wine of the week

2018 Grasshopper Rock Earnscleugh Pinot Noir RRP $40

This is a powerfully different take on the Central Otago Pinot Noir theme with its red fruit flavours and firm acidity, which make for a refreshing, full bodied Pinot with smoky notes and layers of spicy complexity. It’s tasty now but history shows it becomes silky, complex and beautifully multi layered in flavour after six to seven years aging.

Grasshopper Rock’s Earnscleugh vineyard is one of the world’s southernmost vineyards and was established in 2003 with a 100% focus on a single grape variety, Pinot Noir. One site, one grape, one wine. The owners of Grasshopper Rock Vineyard did plant six different clonal variations of Pinot Noir, however, with clones 5, 777, 114, 115, Abel and 667. Fermentation is in stainless steel with wild yeasts and skin maceration was approximately three weeks followed by 11 months maturation in French oak, 29% new.

Friday wine talk with Phil Handford

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I think I am proudest of being able to help establish and run four new businesses, each creating new jobs and wages for people.

Among the many things I have been fortunate to achieve, Grasshopper Rock is the greatest. It was the culmination of many things in my early 40s and only happened because four other families had the courage to join me in 2001 to develop what I had researched and concluded was the “perfect” site to plant vines. It’s a dream that has exceeded expectations, not financially, but in the consistent quality world class single vineyard Pinot Noir the site produces.

What is your current state of mind?

We seem to reflect on life as it is now and life as it was pre-Covid. I feel very fortunate to have had my life and I remain an optimist about the future but a more cautious optimist than I once was. I am saddened to see the growing global underbelly of white supremacy sneaking into New Zealand but we can all push back against this rot. Covid has given a platform to divide people.

What is your favourite part of winemaking?

My favourite part of winemaking is the agricultural aspect. The sense of place, source of fruit, watching spring growth through to harvest and seeing the cycle start again the following spring. I love the way making wine connects people and places. I love the way that what you plant and where you plant it does matter. I love the way you can meet wine people from the other side of the world, and we are ultimately all trying to do the same thing. It is quite a unique industry.

Do you have a most treasured wine?

For historical reasons, our first two vintages, 2006 and 2007, from young vines. Two very different vintages, one hot and one very cold. Both wines are still a joy to drink 15 years later. It gives me great pleasure to see others enjoy them.

Where is your favourite wine region?

Two for different reasons.

Central Otago is blessed. Cool climate, very low rainfall, free draining soils, access to water and good frost protection systems. Really no pressure on harvesting, no heat waves, no tropical storms and surrounded by a temperature moderating Southern Ocean and mountains. It seems to sit in a sweet spot for perfectly ripening Pinot Noir. When we can produce 15 vintages in a row and all of them excellent, that says it all. When people eventually realise the beauty of aged Central Otago Pinot Noir, Central will lead the world in Pinot production. I firmly believe this.

My other favourite wine region is South Australia. I have visited many times and explored parts of Barossa, Clare, Eden Valley, Adelaide Hills and tasted extensively wines of McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek, Coonawarra and Riverland. Such diversity of well made wines, ancient vines, and history dating back to the 1800s. Some of the greatest aged reds you will ever find. And it is all on our back doorstep. Visiting Henschke’s Hill of Grace vineyard was an inspirational experience, almost spiritual to be amongst such old vines.

When and where are you at your happiest?

In the mountains and valleys tramping and in the earlier days, sea kayaking. These are my zen times.

What do you most dislike in wine?

Unbalanced wine and unbalanced people.

When I came into the wine industry 20 years ago from my previous career, I quickly recognized the industry was full of dreamers. It reminds me of gold miners and horse breeders/trainers I had worked with who were always going to be on to a winner with the next gold working or the next horse. Wine is a bit like that, the next wine produced is going to be  the greatest. That’s not a criticism, it is just reality. I’m a dreamer myself and the world needs dreamers.

On the other hand, it is hypocritical when wineries claim sustainability and organics on one hand and at the same time add to the carbon footprint by using heavy glass bottles when they can use light weight ones and when microplastics get into the soil because nylon vine ties are used instead of  biodegradable ties.

What is your greatest fear?

I feel our taxation system is failing our young people and the disadvantaged. Until this is fixed the world will become increasingly divided and polarized. Fortunately, in a democracy these things can be fixed so we must never let go of our democracy as seems to be happening in other parts of the world at present.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Buying good value age worthy wines and sometimes compulsively.

What is your greatest regret?

I wish we had been able kayak across Cook Strait. I know that seems a bit random, but my wife and I did many great sea kayaking trips around New Zealand and Alaska, and this is one we didn’t achieve before we had a family. Although we did kayak across Foveaux Strait which is probably more extreme. It’s not something I would do now.

What talent would you most like to have?

I have a friend who turned 85 recently and his enthusiasm for life, making wine and the industry is an inspiration. I want to have that at 85.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Losing friends or family. A friend took their life during lockdown. Any of us could be in this place or homeless simply due to a change in your circumstances caused by an accident. We need to be there for each other.

What is the trait that you most deplore in yourself?

This is the most difficult question. I accept who I am and try to give my best and that’s all we can expect from each other. Maybe my weakness is expecting others to live by my standards.

What do you most value in your friends?

Empathy. Being able and willing to walk in other’s moccasins. A sense of humour. I don’t like bigots and I don’t like people who think they are better than others.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

It’s only f…ing wine. I probably swear too much.

What is your favourite meal?

The very best cut of red meat cooked on the BBQ and fresh greens. Eaten with good wine and family or friends, outdoors in the evening.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing what do you think it would be?

I have been thinking about this for 50 years, off and on. It seemed to be a recurring discussion with our mother when we were kids, but it was always which animal we would come back as. I have always thought it would be a fur seal and probably living in Cook Strait. Probably because I did a little commercial paua diving there in my late teens. I have always admired what seems like a very chill life. Lie around in the sun, go for a swim and play, catch a feed, repeat. It seems very stress free, and I love those big dark eyes.

Whenever I see a butterfly, I think of my mother and whenever I hear ruru, I think of both my parents who were at home for tangihanga when the ruru called for them. It is very comforting.

Author: Joelle Thomson

I am a wine writer, author and educator... first bitten by a big buttery Chardonnay on a dark and stormy night in the 1980s and there was no turning back... Follow my tastings and join some too on this new site.

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