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Matua Murupaenga of Tawhiti Wines. (Image: Archi Banal)
Matua Murupaenga of Tawhiti Wines. (Image: Archi Banal)

KaiSeptember 10, 2023

Blending the wine world with te ao Māori

Matua Murupaenga of Tawhiti Wines. (Image: Archi Banal)
Matua Murupaenga of Tawhiti Wines. (Image: Archi Banal)

Charlotte Muru-Lanning chats with one half of the soon-to-be-launched wine label Tawhiti about what it means to make wine, Māori style.

This is an excerpt from our weekly food newsletter, The Boil Up.

Tāwhiti translates to being distant, far away, remote or widely separated in space or time.

It’s a term that’s been lingering on the mind of Matua Murupaenga (Ngāti Kuri, Ngāti Kahu) for a while now. Murupaenga is a chef, DJ, almost-nurse, sometimes-hot-dog-maker, and food-obsessed. In short, he’s a person of eclectic endeavours. More recently, he’s delved into another field: wine making. Alongside his partner Imogen Weir (Ngāi Tahu) he’s created Tawhiti, a Māori natural wine label. 

A week ago, we caught up at the recently-relocated restaurant Forest on Auckland’s Dominion Road – just a few blocks from Oofah, the pizza and natural wine restaurant he’s working at in the evenings and not far for him to cycle to his next appointment in town – helping to translate posters into te reo Māori for a local fashion brand.

They’re using certified organic grapes sourced from Te-Matau-a-Māui (Hawke’s Bay) and the focus, Murupaenga says, is on small batch (just 600 bottles), minimal intervention, experimental wines that showcase the region’s best vineyards and grape varieties. Their first wine, a chardonnay pét-nat, will be launched at the end of September. In October, they’ll press and bottle their second variety.

“Obviously it’s quite a trendy style of wine at the moment, but what I like about the pét-nat is that if you think about it, it’s kind of like the tūpuna method of sparkling wine making,” Murupaenga says. “I was always interested in going back and revisiting older styles in a contemporary way.” 

Murupaenga in Hawke’s Bay. (Images: Supplied)

While a chef at Pici (the central Auckland pasta restaurant he worked at until recently), Murupaenga first began to delve into the wine world – as part of the staff wine training run by “wine guy” James Pain. When the country went into lockdown in 2020, the in-person staff wine tastings transformed into Zoom sessions with winemakers – essentially putting faces to the wines they were used to pouring. Through those conversations, Murupaenga’s interest in all things wine was cemented. 

Early in 2022, an old friend who had been making wine in Austria for years, reached out and asked Murupaenga whether he’d be keen to join him for the year’s vintage in Central Otago. “I went down there for six weeks, and literally had two days off the whole time and then by the end of it I said ‘I think I’m gonna have to do this myself’,” remembers Murupaenga. 

It was through a chance meeting with Amy Hopkinson-Styles from wine label Halcyon Days that the idea of making his own wine shifted from something in the distance to something tangible and very much in the present. While the conversation began with the idea that Tāwhiti would become a sub-label of Halcyon Days, it’s since developed into its own separate identity, supported by the skills and knowledge offered by Hopkinson-Styles. 

More than just a personal interest in wine-making, Tawhiti is the product of a desire for change. “A lot of the reasoning behind doing this was because I was moaning about all these wines with Māori names on the labels where nothing else about it is Māori,” Murupaenga says. “You can only moan about something for so long and then you’ve got to do something about it.”

Right from Tawhiti’s beginning, they’ve worked to “incorporate as much Māoritanga as possible”, along with having Māori people in every aspect of the production. That extends beyond just the contents of the bottle to the bottle itself. Visual artist Raukura Turei (Ngāitai ki Tāmaki, Ngā Rauru Kītahi) has made paintings from blue clay, black sand and ochre brought back from the whenua during harvest in Hawke’s Bay which will envelop the two wine bottles. 

Grapes in Hawke’s Bay and Murupaenga in front of paintings by Raukura Turei. (Images: Supplied)

Because of the uneasy relationship between Māori and alcohol, and the limited number of tangata whenua winemakers in the industry, working through the knots that come with approaching wine in a Māori way has been a constant part of the process. “It’s something we’ve been super mindful of because obviously alcohol has been a big problem for our people and we don’t want to be contributing to the problem,” he says.

That contentiousness has given rise to philosophical discussions between the pair around tikanga and kawa. Along the way, they’ve asked questions like whether or not it would be OK to print whakatauki on the bottle, or to shoot images of their wine on the pā. What does it even mean to be a Māori wine label? As it’s largely uncharted territory, bringing together the two worlds highlights the way that these practices and traditions, rather than being immovable monoliths, are up for negotiation, debate and evolution. 

Looking into the distance again, Murupaenga has found himself nerding out about amphora: massive clay vessels used to ferment wine. The practice that originated in what is now Georgia around 6,000 years ago tends to be associated with ancient winemaking, but the technique has grown in popularity around the world over the past few years. “Some winemakers I’ve met in the Hawke’s Bay have imported amphoras from places that make them in France and I’ve been picking up the difference in the characteristics you get from a wine fermented in them, it’s pretty cool,” he says. As beautiful as they are, they also come with a huge price tag, not to mention the carbon footprint and tangle of logistics to get them to Aotearoa. “So it’s not really the one, to be honest,” he says. “We’ve got uku [traditional pottery] here anyway, so I’ve been talking to one of my mates who’s been doing uku work lately – amphoras, that’s what I want to do next year.”

As he’s forged more connections within the wine world, conversations have been sparked around how Māori ways of doing things can be better heeded within the industry. “It’s about how wine producers and vineyards are interacting with the taiao, the whenua, the rākau – everything has a level of mauri.”

For Murupaenga, these values are already at the core of Tawhiti wines. “One of the things I did at the start of harvest this year was figure out the local maramataka and use that, not to dictate what we were doing, but as an extra tool and way to incorporate more mauri into what we’re doing,” he says. “Basically, we’re gonna keep this Māori as.” 

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