A former New Zealand Young Winemaker of the Year has won the title of NZ Winemaker of the Year.
Patrick Newton, from Mudbrick Wines on Waiheke, laughs when he talks about taking out the 2016 title, and admits his fellow winemakers are urging him to step back this year, just so they might have a chance.
The Winemaker of the Year is run in conjunction with the Canterbury A&P Show and the New Zealand Aromatic Competition. Winemakers have to provide the judges with three of their wines. In Newton’s case he entered a 2015 Reserve Chardonnay, a 2013 Reserve Syrah and a 2013 Velvet, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec.
He entered the same wines from different vintages in both of his previous wins, and is quick to admit, they are his favourites.
“The range of flavours is mind blowing,” he says. “You are using all these different varieties that have different characteristics, and when you blend them together you are making a much better wine. They tend to be very complex, with great length and power and they age so well.”
The 34-year-old spent his teenage years growing up in Hawke’s Bay, after his father who had been an officer in the Australian Army decided he wanted to try something different. The family were living in Palmerston North at the time, and just over the back fence was another man who was also looking at diversifying. His name was John Forrest. The two men got talking and before long had jointly purchased a block of land on Gimblett Road. This was 1988, well before Gimblett Gravels became a by-line for wines of quality.
“It was just a barren wasteland at the time. I remember going there as a child to look at it, and there were animal carcasses lying around, it was bone dry and there were no trees.”
The vineyard was planted in 1990 and the first Newton Forrest wines appeared on the market in 1995.
While Newton and his three brothers were all roped in to help on the vineyard, not one of them considered the wine industry as a career option.
“Absolutely not,” he says. “I had originally thought of going into the army and doing a degree through them, or going to Otago and doing law and commerce. But I guess at the end of the day, I didn’t want to sit behind a desk. I had worked in the vineyard for basically all my teenage years and started to think about going to Lincoln to study.”
Like so many before him, he began his degree with the certainty that he would follow just one path – in his case viticulture. Not just because that was what he knew from his youth – but for more practical reasons.
“My whole way of thinking was that you can have just one winemaker for 10 different vineyards. But every vineyard needs a viticulturist, so I thought I would have a better shot a creating a career that way.”
It was only after his degree and some time spent in a winery rather than in the vineyards, that he began to rethink his original decision.
“I wanted to travel and I realised that it was always going to be easier to travel working in the winery, so I started working in wineries and haven’t left.”
Even now he still sounds surprised that he is a winemaker rather than a viticulturist, although his love of vines plays a major role in his day to day life.
“I put a hell of a lot of importance on vineyards. I think to be a really good winemaker, you have to understand the growing of grapes. There are quite a few winemakers who wouldn’t set foot in a vineyard, but I am in the position of working in a small company and I can be out in the vineyard as much as I like.”
During his short career Newton has worked with some of the best both here in New Zealand and overseas. His first New Zealand job was at Esk Valley under Gordon Russell. He has undertaken vintages in Australia, California and Germany, coming back to New Zealand each year for a vintage in Hawke’s Bay. When a job at Vidals came up, working with Hugh Crichton, he took it and settled into the Bay for the next four years. When Mudbrick advertised for a winemaker, he didn’t take long to consider it.
“I had only ever wanted to work with Bordeaux style wines; Syrah, Chardonnay and Viognier. And there are only two places in New Zealand that can do those well; Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke. Plus Jess’s (his wife – also a winemaker) family had a bach on Waiheke so she was used to coming over here. So those all added to the thought that this could be a really good place. Plus Mudbrick were starting to make some really good wines at the time.”
In terms of Waiheke, he says the clay soils offer something special to the red wines, giving the fruit a roundness and “soft plush tannins”. In terms of Chardonnay, he says the maritime weather conditions are different to every other wine growing region in New Zealand.
“Even in what we call a bad season, it is generally not a cool one, so we are not battling to get the fruit ripe. If we have a bit of rain coming in, it might be cooler but it is never so cold that the vines are shutting down, they are continuing to ripen the grapes.”
The greatest challenges he faces as a winemaker he says, occur in the vineyard.
“It’s choosing when to pick. Anyone can leave Cabernet Sauvignon sitting on the vine until it is all shriveled up and very concentrated.
“The trick is to harvest it when it is physiologically ripe and you are getting the spectrum of fruit flavours, rather than the over ripe characters. Certainly for the other red varieties, they need to be in balance, so harvesting them when those flavours align is the most important challenge.”
He describes his actions in the winery as “simplistic”. Minimal additives, hand plunging and no difference in treatment of reds, regardless of variety.
“The winemaking is the easy part. The blending on the other hand, that is always interesting,” he says with a laugh.
Easy, challenging or interesting, Newton appears to have the nous to produce the almost perfect wine – certainly if his three titles as Winemaker of the Year are anything to go by.