Martinborough grower's high hopes for pinot venture
Don McConachy and the lead character in the movie Sideways are both in a search for the perfect pinot noir.
But while wine buff Miles just wants to drink the elusive flawless red, McConachy's dream is to create it.
Two years ago mechanical engineer McConachy returned from working overseas for 21 years on a variety of heavy engineering projects and bought 4 hectares of prime Martinborough viticulture land in order to fulfil his ambition.
The land is part of the fabled crescent-shaped Martinborough terrace, carved out thousands of years ago by the Ruamahanga River, which has since retreated, leaving behind stony soils regarded as producing the finest vines. Only 1 kilometre wide and 5 km long, the terrace shares the same attributes as Hawke's Bay's Gimblett Gravels.
Some of the land that McConachy bought was already in vines, having been planted by Dry River founder Neil McCallum 28 years ago. About 950 vines from this planting supply grapes for the reserve sold under the brand name Devotus.
With a sheep and cropping farming background, McConachy contemplated taking up a conventional farm when he and wife Valerie - a Londoner - came to New Zealand. Recent family additions are sons Mac, 3, and Zen, 2.
But during the time he was away, he had been bitten by the wine growing bug. On holiday breaks from ship building or drilling rig projects, he worked on vineyards in Bordeaux, France, in Italy and South Africa.
Although he never worked in the traditional pinot noir region of Burgundy, at one stage he rented a house there, walked through the vineyards and discussed wine growing with locals.
In Europe in particular he learned to appreciate the philosophy of "terroir", the concept that the wine grower lets the land, climate and soil come through into the finished product.
"What I realised is that the x-factor is in the vineyard. You shouldn't intervene too much and you have to have excellent fruit," McConachy says.
He is opposed to trying to correct for any faults in the winemaking process. In that regard, the Martinborough terrace soils are his biggest asset.
"These soils are special - they are naturally relatively infertile. It's what you want for an old vine, you want the vine to struggle when it gets into its mid-life. At the start you have to nurture it but once it gets going at 5 or 6 years you want it going down deep into these stony soils and extracting all the minerals," he says.
At present McConachy is preparing a 1 ha parcel for planting. Over winter he has been growing a crop of oats which are being ploughed under, and once the risk of frosts subsides in a few months he will plant new pinot noir vines.
The oats have been grown to provide nutrition for the new vines and are part of his strategy to create an organic vineyard. Just how long the certification process will take is uncertain because it depends on how long any chemical residues remain in the soil.
When ploughing, McConachy harks back to, and draws inspiration from, his grandfather, who preferred Clydesdale horses over tractors.
In a slight nod to modernity, he uses a vintage 1944 Farmall H tractor and a light Reid & Gray 2- furrow plough. An uncle restored the tractor and the plough dates back more than 100 years.
McConachy points out cultivation is used in only a minority of New Zealand's vineyards, although it has been used in the greatest vineyards in Europe for centuries.
By controlling weeds without chemicals, moisture and nutrients are directed towards the vine. Ploughing also rejuvenates and aerates compacted soils, stimulating useful bacteria, fungi, and worms.
His goal is to build up the organic matter within the soil, as this acts as a "reserve bank" for nutrients, that do not readily leach away like chemical fertilisers.
"Cultivation is only really possible to do properly in small vineyards, as it's very labour intensive, and working around the weather is a real challenge because if it's too wet heavy machinery can compact and damage the soil structure." McConachy says.
Irrigation will not be used, again because he wants the vines to struggle. They may not produce as much, but what they do yield will be a greater quality.
The biggest natural threat to the vines is a leaf roller virus transmitted by a mealy bug. There are "nasty sprays" that will keep the virus in check, but since he has ruled those out, the best control is preventing the mealy bug from entering the vineyard.
McConachy plans to produce two wines, one off the largest vineyard area with new vines, the other - the reserve - off the older vines.
Sales will initially be from the cellar door but he has his sights set on big spending consumers in London, New York and other big centres where money is no object to discerning enthusiasts.
"Although it's a lot of work we have the ability to market our own product and I think that's the attraction of wine because you have the ability to sell direct to consumers. It isn't a mass product but individual," he says.
He plans to sell the non-reserve wine at $38 until he builds the brand's reputation. The reserve - sealed with a cork from a Portuguese supplier - will go for more.
McConachy points to Dry River's prices, which top $100, as a guide to what can be achieved, although concedes they were arrived at after several decades.
Whether he can make a living off his small patch of land is uncertain. The fact the dollar has fallen recently is positive but talk of global recession haunts exporters of luxury goods like fine wine.
But he is sure that his do-it-yourself approach offers one of the best guarantees of success. People come into the wine business without practical skills and employ contractors. That way, he believes, spells disaster.
McConachy says he is blessed in being in Martinborough because there is a lot of sharing of information between growers, and it is no problem to "jump the fence and talk to a neighbour".
The aura surrounding pinot noir has attracted growers and winemakers like McConachy to Martinborough and central Otago to create a thriving industry.
But what exactly is the attraction? Perhaps the last word should be left to Miles Raymond from Sideways: "Pinot needs constant care and attention. And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavours, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ... ancient on the planet."