Bannock Brae pinot beats world's best
Crawford Brown - once a master brewer with Lion Nathan - can now claim to be a master vintner.
Last month the Bannock Brae Barrel Selection Pinot Noir - the flagship wine for the vineyard founded by Brown and his wife, Catherine, 10 years ago - not only won champion pinot noir at the 2012 New Zealand International Wine Show, it was also crowned champion wine of show.
This wine show is the country's biggest. With Bannock Brae scooping 22 gold medals and 15 five-star awards in its time, the Browns are not unaccustomed to success, but being named best from a range of 2122 wines from 13 countries was something else.
"We were amazed and happy to be named top pinot, and sat back down to enjoy the rest of the evening," Crawford said.
"We knew the champion wine award was going to go to a chardonnay - it almost always does - and when they announced it was Bannock Brae pinot you could have knocked us over with a feather."
Crawford - whose day job had been to make Speight's - decided on a career change in the early 1990s. He loved brewing beer, but was being promoted to roles where he spent more time budgeting than brewing.
"Catherine and I are both Dunedin-born and bred. We love Central Otago and know it well and thought it would be nice to live there," he said.
"It was the next phase of our lives, what were we going to do? I was still fascinated with beverages, and it was increasingly obvious Central Otago had massive potential as a wine region."
The couple found a "rabbit paddock" near Cromwell, and bought the land that is now Bannock Brae. It was planted in 1998, and Bannock Brae's first commercial vintage came in 2001.
The Browns commuted from Dunedin to Cromwell to grow pinot noir, and for Crawford to experiment with his "play grapes" - two rows of riesling.
Pleasing results have seen Bannock Brae now release riesling on the market, as well as a rose and a gruner veltliner.
"We seem to be the only people in the southern hemisphere making riesling the way we do: we're trying to reproduce the old German style of two to three centuries ago," Crawford said.
"We're the only people in Central Otago selling gruner veltliner, although other people are growing it, the wine of Austria. But primarily, we make pinot noir."
While Crawford was a brewer by trade, in this venture he is the wine grower.
The Browns pay tribute to their winemaker Jane Parr, "a remarkable young woman" and, coincidentally, winner of best winemaker at the international wine show.
"You plant vines, they are going to grow grapes: they just want to grow," Crawford said.
"The question is whether you would want to drink the wine you might make from those grapes? You probably wouldn't. But when they're nurtured in the right direction you can get stunning flavours and stunning wine. That's what we seek to do."
The couple moved from Dunedin to the vineyard in 2006, and two years ago Catherine took charge of sales and marketing.
"Crawford looks after exports still. I have been travelling mainly around the South Island, but also up to Wellington, and we have an agent in Auckland," she said.
"There has been a lot of knocking on doors and of giving tastings and trying to persuade them to put us on their shelves or winelists. I enjoy it. It's a bonus knowing who our customers are, and I think they like knowing us as well, rather than getting our wines through a distributor."
A major selling point the Browns have is price.
Even the top of the Bannock Brae range is within the reach of most.
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