Wairarapa winery completes harvest with high hopes

Pinot noir grapes ripe for picking at Matahiwi vineyard in the Wairarapa.
GERARD HUTCHING/FAIRFAX NZ

Pinot noir grapes ripe for picking at Matahiwi vineyard in the Wairarapa.

The Matahiwi harvest in Wairarapa is coming to a close and the atmosphere is heavy with the scent of fermenting grapes.

At about 1200 tonnes, (including those contracted) this year's vintage is a big one, reinforcing what commentators have been forecasting nationwide.

But whether it will match the 2013 vintage for quality will not be known for some time.

Matahiwi winemaker Jane Cooper: "it takes a while to gain a reputation but it's happening".
GERARD HUTCHING/FAIRFAX NZ

Matahiwi winemaker Jane Cooper: "it takes a while to gain a reputation but it's happening".

Inside the winery, huge stainless steel tanks full of pinot noir give off overpowering carbon dioxide fumes. It's Hilton Delegat's task to push down the skins which have bubbled to the top into the foaming red ooze.

Winemaker Jane Cooper and her staff constantly test the stainless steel vats for brix or sugar content levels.

Matahiwi, just north-west of Masterton, is owned by local MP Alistair Scott who returned to the region in the late 90s after an overseas career in investment banking.

A harvester at work at Matahiwi. All but the reserve wines are machine picked.
GERARD HUTCHING/FAIRFAX NZ

A harvester at work at Matahiwi. All but the reserve wines are machine picked.

The first plantings were done in 1998, with the bulk carried out over three years. There has been some replanting since.

Spread over 75 hectares, Matahiwi has 45 ha of pinot noir, 20 ha of sauvignon blanc, five pinot gris and the remainder chardonnay. Like most Wairarapa land, it is free draining, stony silt loam.

The winery has a cooling capacity of 1600 tonnes, which allows it to carry out contract winemaking for vineyards such as Ohau in Horowhenua.

"We could take on more wine making - it spreads out the revenue. And it's good to see other types of wine," Cooper says.

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Compared to its better know neighbouring region Martinborough, Matahiwi has a little more rain (850 millimetres a year compared to 650mm) because it is closer to the ranges. It also has wind, but Cooper contends this works in pinot noir's favour by keeping crops low.

The  region is named for a raised ridge in the near distance, in historic times a strategic vantage point for local Maori.

"It takes a while to gain a reputation but it's happening. We are probably the biggest winery in the Wairarapa," she says.

Cooper has been winemaker since 2002, time enough to analyse the vineyard and understand its subtleties. It now employs 13 fulltime staff as well as contract workers to help with the harvest and pruning. 

The pinot noir are kept in vats inside, the sauvignon blanc in the lee of the main building on the south side where they keep cool.

Some of the sauvignon vats were filled only a few days ago and have not started to "work"; others,  more advanced, are constantly churning away as if there is a large agitator moving the liquid. But no, this is simply the fermentation process.

Their skins removed, the white wines are cooled slightly to hold back the fermentation.

Red wines demand higher investment costs than white. Whereas white wines are kept in large vats until they are bottled, and ready for sale towards the end of the year, pinot noir is double fermented, first in vats and then matured in oak barrels at a cost of $1500 each for 10 months.

Matahiwi uses 200 barrels for its pinot noir, with the life of a barrel 5-6 years.

Eighty per cent of the wines are exported, mainly to the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia and Asia.

Out among the vines, vineyard manager Karina Southey relaxes a little now that most of the harvest is in. The two most stressful periods in a vineyard manager's life are late spring when frosts threaten, and harvest time.

In order to ward off frosts, Matahiwi hires helicopters, which over a 10-year period work out less expensive than wind turbines.

As the grapes mature, water becomes a worry.  Cooper says this season has been a tough growing one, with just about every day recording a maximum 30 degrees.

Most years the vineyard uses water from a water race - for which it has a consent - but from February this was restricted and it had to apply for another consent.

Matahiwi follows Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ) criteria in its vineyard management, planting crops to attract natural predators and provide nitrogen.

Over the years the vineyard has been rewarded with accolades, especially the top of the range Holly series. In 2014 Matahiwi was a finalist in the Wellington Gold Awards, in recognition of its global success.

 - Stuff

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