Ripping out 25,000 healthy vines a lesson for whole NZ economy: winemaker

Uprooted vines at Murdoch James Estate on Friday, where workers were halfway through ripping out 25,000 healthy vines to ...
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Uprooted vines at Murdoch James Estate on Friday, where workers were halfway through ripping out 25,000 healthy vines to make room for a more profitable variety.

A Wairarapa winemaker believes there's an example for the national economy in his risky decision to uproot 25,000 healthy vines and plant a variety that's less productive, but more profitable.

Martinborough's Murdoch James Estate is ripping out 10 hectares of sauvignon blanc, which represents half its annual production, and replacing them with the notoriously tricky, but much higher value pinot noir.

Adding to the risk of the $300,000 operation is that it could take five years for the new vines to return a full crop.

Murdoch James Estate vineyard founder Roger Fraser, left, with son Carl, who is the winemaker.
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Murdoch James Estate vineyard founder Roger Fraser, left, with son Carl, who is the winemaker.

But the estate's founder Roger Fraser said the decision to focus on adding value to get top dollar was an unavoidable gamble, not just for him but for the country: "There's no future in New Zealand wanting to compete on price and volume."

The decision to begin pulling out the sauvignon blanc vines a fortnight ago was purely economic, as the vines were completely free of damaging diseases or infestations such as phylloxera.

The calculated risk was driven by surging international demand for pinot noir, the fact consumers were willing to pay extra for it, and the difficulty of making money off comparatively low-value sauvignon blanc in competition with much larger, Marlborough-based and international producers.

Greg Stokes and workmates at Murdoch James Estate in Martinborough need one day to rip out  2100 vines. They were ...
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Greg Stokes and workmates at Murdoch James Estate in Martinborough need one day to rip out 2100 vines. They were halfway through the unusually large replanting job on Friday.

Also, from a tourism and marketing point of view it made sense to tap into Martinborough's strong identification with the variety. "This is pinot noir's [NZ] spiritual home... the real love affair of New Zealand with pinot noir started in this town."  

It would be a challenge - thin-skinned pinot noir grapes were unusually vulnerable to bad weather, grape diseases and careless winemaking - but he was confident his son and winemaker, Carl Fraser, was equal to it. 

The decision was about value over volume - something the wine industry could teach other sectors. "We shouldn't be price-takers, we have assets that allow us not to be. But I'm very mindful of the costs of a change to value-added, and the risks."

The uprooting is done in three steps. The bare vines or "canes" are chainsawed from their trunks, before workers strip the canes from their supporting wires and a mechanical digger tears out the stumps. It takes a day to remove 2100 vines

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Ripping out healthy vines was "emotional". "It's sad, it's heartbreaking because these are beautiful, well-established vines... but it's right for the future."

The vine removal began a fortnight ago and will continue for another two weeks, with the new vines going in from September.

Wine writer John Saker said the scale of Fraser's replanting was unusual and a risk, but probably a worthwhile one.

"It makes sense to me that a quality producer like Murdoch James would decide to specialise in pinot noir - it's quite a strong thing to do."

Pinot noir was a "fickle" grape, but worth the extra effort it demanded. "It's really about not trying to be all things to all people... it's going with your strength." 

 - Stuff

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