Land is permanent, man disappears. – Māori proverb
I was fortunate enough to spend 14 days visiting 12 different wineries throughout New Zealand with my husband and 8 month old son, all thanks to the Family of Twelve. Though the wineries differed in many ways, from their geographical location (Auckland down to Central Otago), production size (6,000 to 1 million cases), and their grape varieties (Sauvignon Blanc all the way through to Malbec), there was one underlying theme: sustainability.
The thread that joined each of the twelve pearls in this beautiful necklace was the idea that each winemaker or viticulturalist is just a caretaker of the land during their time here. It was impressive to note that every staff member I met from Villa Maria, from Sir George Fistonich to the wonderful hospitality staff, were driven by sustainability. Not only is it engrained in the ethos of New Zealand’s largest family owned winery, but in that of all members of the Family of Twelve. Several different winemakers mentioned how it was their responsibility to leave the land in better shape than how they found it. Indeed, this was apparent not just in the wine industry, but as a part of Kiwi culture. One can understand why they feel so strongly about preserving the land as New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places on planet earth.
However, it is difficult to balance the idea of sustainable practices with a large monoculture, such as the vineyard. Each winery I visited rose to this challenge, showed how they were maintaining, or improving their local niche, in different ways. James and Annie Milton, for example, were pioneers in Biodynamics, not just in New Zealand, but the Southern Hemisphere. They now foster the practice of Biodynamics throughout country, and apart from that, they are probably the nicest people in all of Gisborne! Villa Maria only uses glass bottles made in New Zealand, to help reduce carbon emissions, and target 50% organic production by 2020. Palliser Estate, in Martinborough creates a tonic from seaweed deposited along the coast of the Cook Straight after storms which they spray on the vines to increase nutrient levels in the soil, avoiding the use of inorganic fertilizers. And many of the wineries use buckwheat, planted in between the vines, to help combat the leafroll caterpillar, rather than using chemical pesticides. All of these examples, and many more, show the commitment of each member of the Family of Twelve to protecting and improving the land.
Apart from sharing a philosophy of sustainability in the vineyard and throughout the production process, the Family of Twelve, as any good family would do, shares knowledge and advice based on their experiences. William Hoare of Fromm, explained that each year the viticulturalists and winemakers from each winery meet to exchange ideas about how to improve wine quality and sustainable practices.
At a number of wineries I saw this commitment to improvement manifested through the sharing of knowledge, and the willingness to experiment . Nautilus Estate created the Paper Nautilus (a favourite of mine!), which is a different take on the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Neudorf is experimenting with clonal selection for some of its Chardonnay vines that produce the best fruit on their Moutere sites, a similar practice to what has been done at Cheval Blanc, in Saint-Émilion.
Setting aside the themes of sustainability and commitment to improvement, it must be said that heart felt hospitality and kindness run as deep in New Zealand as the tectonic plate fault lines. Every place my family and I went we were welcomed with open arms, great food, and of course, wonderful wine. In fact, our lunch at Pegasus Bay winery with the Donaldson family was some of the finest food I’d ever eaten; the lemon soufflé was a dream, though it was helped by their Finale 2011 dessert wine! Listening to Christine and Ivan describe their amazing adventures, the world over, was also wonderful.
We were also welcomed into the abode of Judy and Tim Finn at Neudorf, and with the help of their daughter, Rosie, we felt at home, a difficult task when it was some 19,000 km away. Waking up amongst the vines in Martinborough whilst staying at Ata Rangi, and being welcomed warmly by Helen Masters was also a privilege. Experiencing the true night sky, with no light pollution, and easily finding the Southern Cross, whilst looking over the vines of Felton Road in Central Otago was also a memory I won’t soon forget.
Even small acts of kindness, such as helping us order food from the best Indian place in Bleinhem, thanks to Belinda at Lawson’s Dry Hills, having a family BBQ with the Brajkovich’s at Kumeu River, or Matt Stafford, from Craggy Range, pointing out the best place to get Manuka honey, made us feel like New Zealand was home. To be honest, staying in New Zealand forever seemed more enticing as each day passed, especially when weather reports between London and Auckland were compared; if we hadn’t had responsibilities to manage at home there would have been a real argument for not boarding our flight back to London.
As the adventure to the Shaky Isles (a reference to the seismic activity rather than the Kiwis’ prolific consumption of delicious, caffeinated beverages) came to a close, and I boarded the 17.5 hour flight to Dubai, I had time to reflect on what I had learned. It can be summed up in three statements:
1: Sustainability is not a tool that is used to differentiate the Family of Twelve, it is a value that is practiced every day, by everyone who is part of that family.
2: The wines from the Family of Twelve are as diverse as the flora and fauna of New Zealand.
I tasted amazing Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, and of course, Sauvignon Blanc, but there were other surprises; Verdelho and Arneis from Villa Maria, Fromm’s Malbec, Grüner Veltliner from Nautilus Estate, and Chenin Blanc from Millton Family Vineyards.
3: Quality is not a goal to be reached, but a moving target that should be pursued.
Each member of the Family of Twelve produces high quality wine, and is well known for it. However, not once could I find an example of people resting on their laurels. Each winery was striving to be better all the time, be in through viticultural or winemaking practices, or how they could be a better contributor to society overall.
Overall, I could not have had a better fortnight in New Zealand, expanding my educational horizons, eating wonderful food, sipping beautiful wines, meeting and learning from amazing people, and drinking some of the world’s best coffee. The only problem is that there is so much more to see and do that I didn’t have time for. I suppose that means I’ll just have to head back there, hopefully not long from now, to the beautiful country the Māori call Aotearoa – the land of the long white cloud.