Wednesday, 17 April 2024 13:25

The Profile: Chris Scott

Written by  Sophie Preece
Chris Scott Chris Scott

Chris Scott was driven by boredom when he picked up his dad’s copy of the Cuisine New Zealand Wine Annual in the 1990s.

“I got the bug almost instantly,” says Church Road’s head winemaker 30 years later. “It seemed an awful lot more interesting than accounting.”

Growing up in Hamilton, Chris planned to be a farmer, far from the madding crowds, but ended up in a business management degree, “mostly due to a lack of any better ideas”. The Wine Annual offered a much better idea indeed, and he immersed himself in wine books and tastings, including an organised wine tour of Hawke’s Bay with Vince Picone, a wine tour legend who recently passed away.

Vince took him to Ngatarawa, where the group sat at a long table and tasted a tank fermented Sauvignon Blanc and Alwyn Chardonnay side by side. “They explained the different flavours that come from different grape varieties and the impact of winemaking techniques such as choice of fermentation vessel, lees aging and malolactic fermentation.” To see such contrasting styles side by side was a “revelation”, he says. “I was so excited that I could see such a clear distinction and I loved the Chardonnay - still the world’s greatest white grape variety in my opinion. I remember sitting there thinking ‘I want to learn how to make this’.” He went home with a case “which was a serious financial commitment on my meagre student income”.

Vince also took Chris to Church Road for a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the winery. “It was his infectious enthusiasm on that tour that ultimately led me to abandon business studies for wine science,” Chris says. “Some 30 years later he was still bringing guests to Church Road.”

Chris quit his degree and moved to Hawke’s Bay to study at Eastern Institute of Technology (EIT), picking up a casual summer job in Church Road’s vineyards in the summer of 1995. The first week of bud removal amid stinging nettle, in 32C heat, demolished any romantic ideas he’d nurtured about the industry. But he went on to work in the cellar door and, after a couple of years “hanging around”, was offered a cellar job for the 1998 vintage.

Apart from a two-year stint at Montana in Gisborne, he’s been there ever since, taking up the Church Road Assistant Winemaker job in 2002, then Head Winemaker in 2005. The past 25 years have given him a seasoned understanding of the company’s vineyards and harvest decisions, “and knowing where the little gems are within a block”, Chris says. “The knowledge that under certain seasonal conditions, at a certain ripeness level, you know what the personality of the wine will be.”

He’s seen plenty change since the days a “shotgun approach” was taken to plantings. These days subregional specialisation is key in Hawke’s Bay, with its myriad soil types and altitudes. Meanwhile, the changing climate requires a new view of what should be planted where. “We’re getting warmer and earlier and that is starting to be reflected in what grows well,” Chris says. “For example, making good, highly Cabernet dominant wines used to be about a once every three-year proposition. These days, we make great Cabernet in all but the very worst seasons.”

When it comes to subregional favourites, the Bridge Pa Triangle lives “unfairly” in the shadow of Gimblett Gravels, but is a district producing some “truly exceptional” red wines. “With a bit more topsoil it can be a little less forgiving in a wetter year, but in most seasons, it makes our top wines at least as often as the Gimblett Gravels blocks. The wines aren’t as strongly structured as the Gravels wines, but they’re incredibly aromatic and they have a plush, fleshy silkiness that makes them very easy to love.” That’s a great example of terroir, he adds. “Arguably the two best red wine districts in Hawke’s Bay, side by side. It’s a three-minute drive, yet the wines from each area have distinctively different personalities.”

In October, Church Road was shortlisted for Best Red Wine Producer at the IWSC awards for the second year running, which is a boon for the reputation of fuller bodied red styles from New Zealand, including Syrah and Cabernet Merlot, Chris says. Syrah makes up about 2% of Hawke’s Bay’s grape plantings but has achieved more international acclaim for the region than any other variety, he says. “Our 2020 Church Road 1 Single Vineyard Redstone Syrah was one of the Drink Business Masters series top 10 wines of 2022, selected across all varieties. The same wine was 97 points in Decanter.” That’s one example of a “string of incredible accolades” for producers across the region going back for many years, Chris says. “Time and time again these wines are excelling in international comparisons. The potential for the region is huge.”

People love Pinot Noir for its elegance and fragrance and its gentle tannin structure, Chris says. “They can be complex and interesting but they usually still have this beguiling approachability. A Cabernet blend by contrast can be much fuller bodied, but usually positively demands time in the cellar to tame those austere young tannins.”

Good cool climate Syrah has the best of both worlds, he adds. “Supple tannins and beautiful fragrance, but more flesh and density than Pinot Noir and a darker, more brooding intensity. With Syrah I often talk about walking the line. Harvest too late and you’ll get good weight and flesh and supple, ripe tannin, but you lose the floral and spice fragrance that’s such a hallmark of the Hawke’s Bay style. It becomes quite generic. Harvest too early and the wines are thin and mean with weedy leafy notes, which for me is the less attractive side of Syrah aromatics, though not everyone agrees.”

Chris mostly loves making Syrah because he loves drinking it, including the Church Road entry level Syrah, which is “deliciously approachable, elegant but not insubstantial, and still quite a complex and interesting”. At the other end of the scale, he makes the $220 Tom Syrah, which allows for more bespoke experimentation. “What we learn there certainly flows down to the commercial end and ultimately, as we’ve learnt more about Syrah, the entire range has benefited.” The wines higher in the range have more density and savoury complexity. “I think that’s one of the great things about good cool climate red in general, it can be dense and full but still incredibly complex, with savouriness both aromatically and texturally. Compared to so many warmer climate two-dimensional sweet fruit bombs, well, I know what I’d rather drink any day.”

Syrah is an important variety for the company, “though I hear mixed reports from others,” Chris says. “There’s probably a job to do in the market raising the profile of Syrah amongst consumers. I’m not sure people in New Zealand are aware of how phenomenally these wines have been reviewed and accoladed internationally. Everyone I know that makes it, loves making it and I think it’s a firm favourite amongst winemakers.”

Chris has won Winestate New Zealand Winemaker of the Year five times between 2013 and 2022, but says that while it’s often the winemaker who ends up in the limelight, it takes a bunch of “wonderfully talented people” to make these wines. “I’m very proud of what we have collectively achieved.”

Desert Island Wishlist

Wine: DRC - May be my only chance!

Meal: Duck confit or proper yakatori

Album: My wife's eclectic Spotify. She has very good taste

Book: The Bookseller at the End of the World, by Ruth Shaw

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