David Harbourne travels to an unlikely destination for award-winning wines – the dry, frosty Waitaki Valley, near Kurow in North Otago.
The Pasquale Winery is just east of Kurow, a small town in the Waitaki valley. Vines have been planted on a bed of silt and shingle next to the river, each row supported by neat lines of taut wires. The Alps to Ocean cycle trail (A2O) takes a zigzag route through the vineyard from the road to the river, at one point running between two long rows of tall trees. The line of hills just across the river provides a perfect backdrop.
The wines of Central Otago are world famous. North Otago not so much. And the reason is simple; there weren’t any vineyards here until Antonio Pasquale and one or two other pioneers decided to give it a go.
I met Pasquale’s manager, Renzo Miño, in the tasting room.
“There can’t be many Renzos in Waitaki,” I said. “How did you find yourself here?”
He said, “I came as a backpacker and got a fruit-picking job. There used to be five or six orchards in Kurow – now there’s only one left, just across the road. Anyway, while I was here, the owner sold up to Antonio Pasquale. He asked me to stay and help establish a vineyard. In other words, I’ve been here from day one. I helped plant all the vines and build the winery, studied viticulture here in New Zealand, and worked my way up from there.”
“No previous experience?”
“Apart from drinking wine, no.”
By rights, the vineyard should have failed by now. The climate here isn’t kind to vines. The temperature drops to -10°C in winter, with a long spring slowly giving way to a hot, dry summer.
“When I started studying viticulture,” Renzo said, “the first lesson was about something called “growing degree days” – a measure of how many heat units you have in the growing season. The first page of the textbook said, if you have fewer than 1000 growing degree days in the growing season, don’t bother. We never come close! We’re lucky if we get 900 growing degree days here. As a result, yields are small.”
“We average around 3.5 tonnes of grapes per hectare. To put that into context, they get 20 tonnes per hectare in Marlborough.”
He continued, “Fruit here has a natural tendency to high acidity, which is good for preservation, but makes our red wines almost undrinkable in the early years. One of our Hakataramea wines disappointed Antonio so much that he told the winemaker to put it in plain bottles with a simple black cap and leave it. A few years later it started to win awards, including a gold medal and trophy in the Bragato awards in New Zealand – a pinot noir we thought undrinkable became outstanding. Now, we age reds in oak for up to 18 months, age again in the bottle for two or three years and – finally – the wine is ready to go…Eight of the top Auckland restaurants buy our wines, which proves they are good – but making them is hard work and expensive.”
Another reason production costs are high is that contractors don’t bother coming to the Waitaki valley. With so few vineyards in the area, it just isn’t worth their while. Whenever anything needs doing, whether it’s pruning or harvesting, Renzo has to employ local people to do it. Or do it himself.
As it happens, Renzo no longer does the pruning, and he misses it.
“I loved pruning. It’s cruel – it can be minus five in the morning – but I loved it for the silence, the blue skies, the chance to think … Now I am a manager, I still enjoy myself, and I am learning about wine making. But I miss the hands-on work in the vineyard.”
What about the future?
‘We’re trying to change the way we work here. I started to use sheep in the vineyard to keep the grass down. People said it wouldn’t work, that the sheep would eat the vines. But it does work, provided we don’t leave the sheep too long. We no longer add fertiliser. We’ve applied for organic certification. And when it comes to making wine, we are going for low intervention techniques – no sulphur, no filtering.”
Thus the life and work of a Uruguayan in the Waitaki valley. Renzo said, “We have a short lifespan – so what are you going to do? Work eight hours a day for your pay cheque, or do something you’re passionate about? I’m not doing a job – I’m doing something I love.”
From Penguins Under the Porch: a Yorkshireman’s ode to Oamaru by David Harbourne (Wily Publications, $34.99), available at Unity Books.