Patience, passion reap rewards
Tony Southgate knew something was up when an organiser of the Royal Easter Show wine awards called him to check he was going to the trophy dinner and asked how his name was spelt.
Like the meticulous winemaker he is, he roughed out a speech just in case and didn't drink too much on the night.
But it still came as a shock when Brightwater Vineyards, the boutique winery he has worked for since 2004, walked away with a trifecta of trophies. Not only did it win the top chardonnay for its Lord Rutherford Barrique Chardonnay 2009, the wine was also judged the best in the show out of 1261 entries. And to cap off an evening to remember, Mr Southgate was named winemaker of the year.
"It was quite surreal," the 38-year-old said of making the trip up to the podium just minutes after Brightwater Vineyards' owners Valley and Gary Neale had accepted the first two trophies.
It was also hugely satisfying to beat some of the heavyweights of the industry with a variety that can be notoriously difficult to do really well.
For instance, Villa Maria – a regular award winner – had earlier won four gold medals for its chardonnays but the judges opted for Brightwater's sole entry, noting the resurgence of chardonnays, their finesse and restrained use of oak.
"Villa Maria wins champion chardonnay just about every year so it was good for sure to knock them off their pedestal," Mr Southgate said. As well as turning heads, it showed Nelson wines were coming along in "leaps and bounds".
While the trophy is the biggest award he has won in his 12 years as a winemaker, it hasn't come out of left field as Brightwater has been winning plaudits and medals, in particular for sauvignon blanc and riesling, for some years now.
Mr Southgate said what made the 2009 chardonnay special was capturing that "moreish" marriage of fruity acidity and concentrated flavours.
"It was a good season but not the best we've had, but the chardonnay just seemed to be in balance, and for me winemaking is all about balance.
"You have got to sell your wines so you can't sit on them for five years waiting for them to come into balance, so for me, wines must be drinkable within a year, two years maximum, but with the potential to age."
He said it took a lot of attention to detail, focus, patience and passion.
"We also use the best French oak [barrels] we can buy, that's key. You have got to use quality ingredients, and it's the same with your processing equipment. It's all state-of-the-art and it makes a difference."
As a small-premium producer with 15 hectares of mainly sauvignon blanc, riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir, extra care was taken to get the grapes into the right condition.
Along with vineyard manager Dale Springer, he keeps a close eye on what happens in their Hope vineyard. Much of the pruning, shoot thinning, leaf plucking and all the picking is done by hand by contract workers who have worked for Brightwater for years.
Nelson's slightly wetter climate often meant more work was required, he said.
"A lot of the time we have to adjust the crop and cut fruit off to get the concentration and ripeness levels we want."
Different varieties required different treatment. Unlike pinot noir, "you don't want to take too much leaf off sauvignon blanc and get it over ripe". He eschews shortcuts, such as using sheep as leaf pluckers, saying they take too much off and can lead to the sun cooking the flavours out of the fruit.
The grapes were gently pressed in whole bunch clusters, with the best juice reserved for the top Lord Rutherford range and the rest for the Brightwater label.
"We don't extract every last drop because the more you press, the more it brings your quality down."
The biggest buzz he gets is knowing he has made the right calls on a host of details that go into producing a top wine.
"When you get everything right and it starts to open up like our 2010 chardonnay and pinot noir have, it's very rewarding, as both varieties are difficult and take a lot of attention in the vineyard and work in the winery."
It makes up for the long hours over harvest and the unglamorous side of his sole charge role, such as keeping everything clean.
But it's a job he's wanted ever since he and wife Paula took a summer holiday around the South Island in 1998-99 which ended up as one big wine trail. "We were going around all the wineries and I really did get an epiphany that this is what I wanted to do, to make high-end wine."
After researching his options, he chucked in his well-paid job as a kitchen and cabinet-maker in Auckland and did some part-time work at several wineries before moving to Blenheim. There he squeezed in a Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology two-year diploma course in viticulture into one year.
"I didn't want to waste time. I did the diploma because it was in Marlborough which is at the heart of the industry and it was very practical."
He was fortunate to secure a vineyard job with Fromm Winery, which had a reputation for producing quality wines and be taught by their influential Swiss winemaker Hatsch Kalberer. There followed harvests in California and Australia and a job as a cellar-hand back at Cloudy Bay in Marlborough. Then he took up an invitation from Flowers, a boutique producer of chardonnay and pinot noir, to return to the United States for six months to work alongside their winemaker to blend wines he had worked on the previous year.
After cramming in a lot of learning over a short time, he returned home unemployed but quickly got the job at Brightwater, attracted by its focus on quality. Mr Neale said he remembered a young, long-haired "rock star" winemaker with a great palate and drive to succeed who took time to realise that at a small company, "everybody is required to do everything".
He had since matured into an excellent team player who had earned the respect of his peers.
Mr Southgate said he had learnt to be patient. "As a young winemaker you are very idealistic and want to make your mark, but in reality it's about working with the company on the styles of wines it wants and always aiming for better."
On his to-do list is making top pinot noir at Brightwater. "It's something I've always been very passionate about."
He's made a promising start with their 2010 vintage being awarded 4 1/2 stars by noted judge Sam Kim.
"The 2011 has just been bottled and that's a step up and the 2012 is even better. After being very white wine-focused, it's nice to be making some headway with pinot noir. It's not a variety that regularly does well in Nelson but I think we can do it."
Meanwhile, he is looking forward to a holiday with Paula and his two children after a harvest that turned out much better than expected because of excellent autumn weather.
Production would be down from 8500 cases to about 7000, but the grapes had come in clean and ripe.
"It was an ugly duckling of a season which ended up with a beautiful harvest of wonderful fruit so I think people will be surprised by the quality of the wine," Mr Southgate said.