The 2017/18 season is drawing to a close, with the final plots of grapes ripening up and ready to head…
For the past three years she has travelled and lived between Arrowtown (where she was born and bred), Martinborough (home to her partner, Larry McKenna), Marlborough (where she consulted to Giesen Wines in 2015).
The travel was wearing a little thin, so when a new winemaking job at Urlar Estate in the Wairarapa popped up, it was just the godsend she needed to put some roots down again. A permanent relocation north was serendipitous for Bunn too because her winemaking began in the Wairarapa.
While she was busy commuting around the country making wine during 2014 and 2015 (consulting in her own business, Wine Artisan), she also explored cooking – a strong and long lived passion of hers – but that’s another story.
The commuting highlighted the intense growth in the deep south, says Bunn, who has noticed profound changes in Central Otago.
“Arrowtown is almost like a little Auckland now. I love it as the place I grew up in, but it’s becoming a harder place to relax. Our family has a farm of a couple of hundred hectares and when the new cycleway was put through the farm, it caused a lot of pressure to the family because we were presented with no choice in the matter, and it has changed the face of things a lot for our family group. We all decided to work together closely with the Trails Trust and local council to get the cycle way trails where they needed to go on the farm.”
Now that is done and dusted, Bunn is happily ensconsed in her new winemaking role at Urlar Estate in the central Wairarapa.
Urlar Estate is 31 hectares, all of which are organically certified grapes, which are now being biodynamically managed.
The owner is Angus Thomson, an ex-pat Scottish farmer who relocated to New Zealand to make wine. A self described man of the land, Thomson says it was a natural extension of growing grapes to ensure they were grown in the most environmentally friendly manner possible. Of his 31 hectares, 14 are planted with Pinot Noir while the remainder is mainly comprised of Sauvignon Blanc with just under a hectare each of Pinot Gris and Riesling.
“Essentially, we process about 150 to 200 tonnes of grapes each year, depending on the size of the vintage, so it’s very hands on and it allows some interesting winemaking on a small batch scale,” says Bunn.Size was not the main attraction to Urlar, however.
There were three drawcards for her. Firstly, she liked the wines. Secondly, when the former winemaker (Guy McMasters) left, and Angus Thomson asked her to consider the role, she was able to move back to the region in which her own winemaking journey all began – and where Larry lives.
The third drawcard was the biodynamic focus, which is underpinned by the organic certification and Thomson’s dedication to both.
“This was exciting to me and a wonderful prospect to be fully involved in,” she says.
So, at the start of 2016, she (and her twin sister Susan) bought a house halfway between Gladstone and Martinborough and she is now enjoying being in the country, even if she spends most of her time enjoying the vibrant wine village scene of Martinborough.
Bunn began winemaking in Martinborough in 1995 at Dry River Wine with Neil McCallum, who has since sold the business and moved out of wine altogether. After her experience at Dry River, Bunn worked at Martinborough Vineyard and followed that up with a winemaking stint in Oregon, in the USA.
She has some firm aims in her new role at Urlar, which include making lower alcohol wines with softer tannins. She credits this focus to the opportunities that Marcel Giesen gave her when working on the Single Vineyard Clayvin and Ridge Block Pinot Noirs of Marlborough, which provided a great transition to the Wairarapa wines.
“I personally really liked the wines of Urlar and especially the whites, which really impressed me straight off because I think the whites from here can have that nice subtle element that you get in some Sancerre and Chablis.”
Where the reds are concerned, Bunn likes the wines but wants to build on their attractive fruit qualities by allowing the fruit flavours of the grapes to, in her words, speak a little more loudly than in the past.
“For me it’s about balance, poise, finesse and having all the elements to make a great Pinot Noir – if this is at a lower alcohol level, or what the year presents to us, as long as we have the flavour in the first place from the grapes, then they will guide the winemaking, which is the main reason why there are differences between the regions in New Zealand,” she says.
“Ever since I began as a winemaker I’ve been told that I took being a woman too seriously because my Pinot Noirs were too soft, feminine and pretty, and at one point I made bigger and bigger wines each year by leaving Pinot Noir grapes in contact with their skins for a long time to get bigger flavours, more tannins (from the skins) and an overall gutsier style, which won lots of awards and was a big, bold style of Pinot,” she says.
Her aim today is not to make feminine or masculine wines but rather to create wines of elegance, which hit the sweet spot in terms of flavour, style, tannins and fruit.
“Now I’m pulling back on that sort of big wine style. Here in the Wairarapa there are naturally lower cropping levels, due to the climate and weather patterns, which means you can achieve these nicely balanced wines with beautiful fruit without having big alcohol Wairarapa Pinot Noirs.”
Her plan is to pick some Pinot Noir grapes earlier than they were traditionally harvested to help not only to reduce alcohol levels (due to lower brix measurements), but also to modify the style of tannins.
The early results are proving promising. The first wine to benefit from this new philosophy is the 2016 Urlar Select Parcels Pinot Noir (the second select parcels red from this wine, and yet to be released). When tasted at Pinot Noir NZ 2017, this wine (a barrel sample) showed noticeably softer tannins and also at a significantly lower alcohol level of 12.9 % ABV.
Bunn also employed a more vigorous pruning regime to achieve this style of wine.
Ask Bunn to name her favourite style of wine and she sits on the fence between white and red; “I guess it’s still Pinot Noir because you’ve got to get it right in the vineyard and that’s a place I like being.
But both Angus and I would love to plant some Chardonnay to achieve some of those styles that people like Kumeu River are doing. I enjoy making the whites here – they are really interesting - and I like having a range.”