The World Upside Down: Contemporary Regenerative Practices in a 130-year-old New Zealand Cabernet Vineyard
This submission to the 2022 Jancis Robinson wine writing competition discusses regeneration at a vineyard in New Zealand.
There’s a series of tree photographs by Canadian artist Rodney Graham taken with the camera upside down. The branches and leaves of the tree in the inverted image reach downwards, like an entire root system made visible. A system for sequestration holding on to the edge of the planet. Every spore, nodule, and tendril is exposed. A usually-hidden, interconnected, underground kingdom captured in high definition.
There’s a print of this image in a cottage that sits low among Cabernet vines, at the foothills of Te Mata Peak on the East Coast of New Zealand. The Māori name for this region, about halfway up the North Island, is Te Matau-a-Māui – the hook of Māui – since the long north-to-south curving bay facing east towards the Pacific ends in a sharp upwards point. Just like the jawbone it was said Maui used to fish the North Island from the ocean’s depths.
Te Mata Peak itself is the eastern highpoint of a Triassic greywacke range, lifted from the prehistoric sea floor over millennia like a slowly rising wave. Its full name is Te Mata o Rongokako, and it resembles a giant lying flat on his back as if in funerary repose. The few hectares of Cabernet vineyards, in the north-facing foothills, are some of the first vines in the world to see the sun. When morning fog settles it’s said to be the white-feather cloak, signifying prestige, softly laid across the solemn figure of Rongokako, the sleeping giant.
It’s a quiet place. There’s a deep port nearby, taking fruit and produce overseas, but it’s a spot not typically visited by tourists travelling via New Zealand’s central motorways or city airports. In Autumn, the morning mists drift between vines and slowly disperse as the sun rises – retreating inch-by-inch across farms, rivers, and fields. Tiny ice crystals remain behind, settled precariously on the grass. Standing in these gently rolling vineyards, with Te Mata Peak behind you, on your left you’d see snow-capped mountains in the distance. Standing in the rain-shadow of that chain, you’d also see on your right a pale blue horizon where the sparkling Pacific reflects back up into the sky. Throughout the year cool breezes float in from the coast, rippling gently across the canopy.
The foothills are covered in loess, and fine deposits of silica, limestone and pumice from when the volcano of Lake Taupō violently erupted two thousand years ago. Cabernet vines were first planted here 130 years ago, on the advice of a French visitor. There’s free-draining sandy loam and clay loam towards the middle of the hillside, and an underlying silica pan below that. You can see clay at the back of the sites, where they cut into the rising banks of the peak.
Since my parents and brothers (and many others with them) have planted vines here, as a kid I was responsible for unclogging the drip irrigators for young vines. I’d ride a tiny red motorbike up and down rows following the warm dark water lines that snaked across the dry soil. Sometimes I had to suck the soil out of the stuck nozzles to get them going. If you lean too far forward the water doing this, the water comes out your nose.
Across the road are New Zealand’s oldest operating wine cellars, where reds have been made for over a century. The place is an odd, and early, exception to the New Zealand wine story. By 1909 it was the country’s biggest producer, making and exporting Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay from these hillside sites. The winery here has always teetered on the verge of something symbolic – the realisation perhaps of a romantic dream inside New Zealand’s pastoral heritage; an embodiment, or idealisation of it. The contemporary estate is a restoration of the original’s ambition – sharing with it the aim to create sophisticated claret in the Antipodes and have it celebrated in the Old World and beyond.
To be up there with the world’s best and yet be made in our own backyard, is a very Kiwi dream. The feeling is a bit like beating the English at cricket. Or rugby. Or sailing. Or anything really. The hope, that hovers over these Cabernet sites too, has always been to turn the world of wine on its head. To be the tail that wags the dog. Every step here the rejuvenation of estate is undertaken with that in mind.
New Zealand’s environmental image is a fractured one. Visually, it’s a breath-taking place, but the ‘clean and green’ rhetoric is belied somewhat by a history of aggressive agricultural traditions established under the economic pressures of becoming one of the world’s preeminent greengrocers.
It’s a peripheral place too, or at least that’s how it can feel to live there. Interstitial. Temporary. Full of arrivals and departures. Before the country was mapped it was surmised to be the great counter-continent, even promoted and sold as some kind of tabula rasa. Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel based on his time here is titled Erewhon – the word ‘nowhere’ read back to front. Philosopher Karl Popper, who lived in New Zealand in the 1940s, described it as “infinitely remote … the farthest place in the world”. As a locus consistently-reimagined, it seems oddly apt to often function now as a convenient film stand-in for whatever fictive location is required.
The early fine wine industry faced many challenges, from phylloxera to being almost entirely stamped out by The Temperance movement of the 1930s. Being a country that established itself in the age of industrialisation, practices of industrial-scale farming and Post-WWII heavy agriculture were put into effect with almost-complete automacy. Attempts in viticulture to reckon with powdery and downy mildew, as an example, led to a heavy chemistry and a distinct metallic soil imprint. Continuous farming in areas throughout the country left soils depleted in nitrogen and occasionally laden too with copper and sulphur, both highly toxic to microbial life.
On these Cabernet vineyards people are now at work with a new approach – a sensitive agriculture with high-levels of empiricism behind it. Enabling these sites to produce the best Cabernet Sauvignon expression possible has required overlapping phases of regenerative farming and precision agriculture practices.
As it was developed in Nebraska, regenerative agriculture wasn’t created for vineyards, but the methods for grabbing carbon from the atmosphere and holding onto it in the soil, can still be applied. The objective is the same, to make the soil into a carbon-sink and move away from heavy-tilling that burns off carbon dioxide. Around the world amounts of CO2 go up in spring, as bare earth is turned and soil matter is exposed to the air.
On these vineyards there are ten-hectare organic trial-plots, with multiple seasons of data. Certifications can be prescriptive so the viticultural and management team here cherry-pick systems and practices by testing them onsite. Minimal cultivation methods are used and rotating cover crops break up the vineyard’s mono-culture. On 33-year-old vines, a spray from cow manure (in pits with crushed egg shells and basalt dust) is put down in Autumn and Spring, inoculating soil with microbes from the cow’s gut. It’s already getting results.
The Eastern Institute of Technology that teaches winemaking and viticulture in Hawke’s Bay has a classroom trial on one site, experimenting with hyperaccumulators of copper and other residual metals. It’s early days but they’re planting basil and winter spinach, testing whether it can be effectively grown small-scale then later dispersed.
Since 2020 a new Cabernet Sauvignon Entav clone has been planted, the latest and most promising from Bordeaux and one the winery has exclusive rights to use. The young vines are mostly farmed for wood at this stage, collecting buds for more extensive plantings.
Initiatives like this attract young winemakers from all over the world. The cottage has cellar hands in it mostly and over the last few years they’ve come from the USA, France, Italy and Spain. Every cuisine has been attempted on the barbeque there. The merits of many bottles, vintages, and wine cultures have been robustly discussed.
Since the five rivers of Hawke’s Bay have maintained wandering paths through the region over thousands of years, and complex tectonic movement has repeatedly raised and lowered sites, the diversity of microclimates in the region is extensive. Patches of high vigour can be as common as low vigour ones. A short drive inland, two of the estate’s vineyards – with Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah vines dating back three decades – have parcels planted also with chicory and plantain to reduce their vigour.
Compost is used under vine and, in low vigour areas, there’s also mowing there to conserve moisture. As the organic matter is built into the soil it sequesters carbon from the air and adds biomass, a practice straight from the playbook of regenerative farming. One of the cereal crops being trialled is Triticale – a hybrid of wheat (Triticum) and rye (Secale) that grows up to two feet high. Crimson Clover, planted here too, will grow up to six inches and is used to fix nitrogen levels in the soil.
Both are sown in the Autumn and terminated in Spring, with a crimp roll before the first frost to get microbes in the soil started on eating the thatch. On the foothills of Te Mata Peak, Cabernet and Merlot blocks are planted with cover-crops of clovers, lentils, peas, broad beans, and blue lupins – grabbing up to 200 kg of nitrogen per hectare, per year. Planted every second row, these too are terminated in Spring to build carbon and organic matter back into the soil.
There’s hives nearby since part of the estate backs onto the pale yellow buildings of Arataki Honey. Buckwheat, Phacelia, and Alyssum, are planted every tenth row to bring in parasitic insects that kill mealybugs and prevent the spread of leafroller caterpillars. Lazy bees and tiny quick wasps seem particularly drawn to the bluest flowers in the vineyard. A favourite summer pastime with kids is waiting until the sun goes down, and the bees have wobbled home, then taking out a torch among the vines to spotlight the biggest wildflowers you can find.
Outside the cottage, with its picture of the upside down tree, are rows of Cabernet. The entire vineyard has been mapped with an Normalised Difference Vegetation Index camera, to see how green something is, and all vines tested with a Soil Moisture Reader. Heat maps have been made using this data, ground sensors, and satellite and drone imagery. Three rows just near the house were categorised as high vigour.
The desirable objective is to induce a balance of water stress in the vine after flowering. The right amount of water must be delivered, at the right time for the root system, to reduce the vines’ ability to create methoxypyrazines, while still enabling their ability to degrade them quickly. A balance to be achieved in consideration of crop size and a smaller leaf canopy.
The heat maps are also used to help create an application. For these three rows a devigorating cover-crop-mix containing chicory and plantain is put down every other row, then mown under vine to induce competition. The sowing of these seeds, precisely done down to a few inches, and the application of composts, is controlled automatically by live geo-location. More than just tractors with antennas, it’s precision agriculture in action. The dispersal controls, and rates, are set based on data collated about these soils and each vine’s individual ecosystem.
Only what is required is applied, and only where it is needed. As a result the site is more even overall to manage, with less waste, and has been consistently improving on its performance. Cabernet Sauvignon from here now contributes to the estate’s most sought-after red wine.
For a moment the estate had both the oldest and the newest cellars in the country. The winery has just completed the redevelopment of its fermentation rooms. Mirroring the vineyard developments a new and updated cuverie allows even more batch ferments. Separating these small vineyards into even smaller parcels. Garnering complexity rather than increasing volume.
Even though the recent run of vintages have been some of Hawke’s Bay’s best, global recognition for the region still hovers at a threshold point. The remoteness of the place, the tyranny of distance, means ageable examples are rare in the market, and our regional voice is a tiny one in the vast world of wine.
As farmers, and as a wine family, we take inspiration from the land and the need to preserve its character. The winery led the protection of the area from property development when it was classified in 1996 as a Special Character Zone. But, a reality too, is that our own interests have dovetailed with the long-term vitality of the place in which we live.
We have become our wines. Living on these remarkable pieces of land has changed who we are. Our estate has to be sustainable for there to be a viable legacy to continue for the many people involved. People, processes, and tools, working in harmony to sustain the entire ecosystem of our pocket-universe.
This year I attended my first Prowein conference. To look as professional as I thought I should, I bought a blue shirt, brown shoes, and sand-coloured pants. Stepping from the tram at the event centre I’m enveloped by a sea of folk dressed just like me. I immediately start pondering what confluence of cultural choices – mine and others – have brought me to this point. I wonder if I will speak in someone else’s voice or my own.
Did we all unblock irrigators the same way? There’s a chance but, honestly, I’m a bit nervous to ask. I keep checking there’s business cards in my pockets. New Zealand’s been closed for the last two years, as has much of the world, and the latest vintages are only just reaching the market. I’m encouraged by friends and customers to get over such doubts and just tell our wines’ story. The story of our place, our vineyards, and where we’re from. Maybe the mists may have parted for a minute. Maybe all the world will see. I hope so. This might be the only chance I get.