Joelle Thomson

Wine writer and award winning wine author

What I am drinking, reading and savouring each week


Trail blazer Dr Neil McCallum honoured this year

"I loved wine and, if I love something, I have to pursue it," says Dr Neil McCallum, founder of Dry River Wines in Martinborough.

This year, he was recognised at a dinner in Martinborough with fellow early Pinot Noir pioneers, Derek Milne (soil scientist and co-founder of Martinborough Vineyards) and winemakers Larry McKenna (Martinborough Vineyard and then The Escarpment Vineyard) and Clive and Phyll Paton (Ata Rangi). 

It was not a linear journey into wine for McCallum, but the first wine that wowed him heralded a turning point in his mind, even if it wasn't entirely clear at the time.

"I was served a glass of Hochheimer Riesling with trout at Oxford University in 1966. It blew my mind."

He was studying at Oxford at the time. When he returned to New Zealand to work as a scientist with the DSIR, funds for science were shrinking and his passion for wine was growing and was regularly fuelled at a tasting group held at a house rented by Danny Schuster in Lower Hutt. 

"The others in that group included soil scientist, Derek Milne, and Danny and a handful of others and quite a few of us changed our careers and went into wine," says McCallum.

“In those days, great wine was really quite cheap. We accessed first growths and the great wines of the world and discussed them as if we knew something about it all,” he says, with wry smile.  

They tasted these classics in a standing height, dug out cellar underneath the house that Schuster was renting and met regularly to the extent that McCallum says he and Milne began talking about different parts of New Zealand in which they could potentially plant a vineyard.

"I did toy with the idea of Marlborough but realised that I didn’t want to fly across the Cook Strait all the time when I could drive to Martinborough.” 

The rest is history. 

By his own admission, McCallum has always done things his way, blazing a trail for dry, fleshy aromatic wines modelled on the best German and Alsace whites, making uncompromisingly earthy Pinot Noirs and experimenting with reflective undervine mulch to aid ripening. He was also famed for Dry River Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and, later, Riesling. These aromatics all tended to follow the classic Alsace model of dry, fleshy and weighty styles. They also reflected warmer German region white wines, such as those from the Pfalz. They still do, albeit that they have been made by winemaker Wilco Lam and Sam Rouse until 2022 and, now, by Ben McNab.  

McCallum and his wife, Dawn, bought land in 1979, making their first wines in 1983 with about 400 kilograms of Sauvignon Blanc, which was just coming into its own in New Zealand. They also made a little Gewurztraminer. The first commercial vintage was 1984 with Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer. Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir followed later. Competitions have never been close to Neil’s mind or heart, but he did submit two wines into the International Wine & Spirit Competition in 1993. The wines were the 1991 Pinot Noir, which was awarded a gold medal and a Pinot Gris, which won silver.

In 2003, he sold Dry River Wines to Julian Robertson and Reg Oliver but remained on as chief winemaker, which included using his own maverick winemaking philosophy to create wines for a new Hawke's Bay brand called Kidnapper Cliffs. This was part of the Te Awa stable of wines, which Robertson and Oliver had also purchased. The 2009 Kidnapper Cliffs Cabernet Sauvignon was awarded a prestigious Double Gold and Red Wine of the Show Trophy at the Five Nations Challenge. This was one of McCallum's greatest achievements.

"The Kidnappers Cliffs wines were grown and made according to the Dry River methods and protocols. Very different from what is normally done in Hawke's Bay," says McCallum. 

His other greatest achievement was making it onto Jancis Robinson MW’s list of the 10 best emerging wineries in the world and being the only New Zealand wine producer to do so.

He later became a gemologist but McCallum retains a deep love of wine, which is especially clear when the word Riesling is mentioned. 

  • Dry River Wines is now owned by Charlie Zheng, who also owns Luna Estate in Martinborough.