Tuesday, 18 April 2023 15:25

The Profile: Matt Connell

Written by  Sophie Preece
Matt Connell Matt Connell

Hearing Matt Connell discuss Central Otago's subregions reminds me of a parent describing their children - each of them unique, all of them beloved.

His role, he says, is to highlight their attributes and give each site a voice.

Gibbston is the eldest, while Alexandra, the up-and-coming go-getter, may have been overlooked in the past. Bendigo's unbendable structure is the perfect foil for Lowburn's more delicate charms, while Bannockburn has traditionall been the best known. Every subregion has a different story to tell, with those stories becoming more "pronounced and a lot more valid" as the vines age, Matt says.

His preferred metaphor is of the winemaker as an artist, portraying the nuances of subregion, season, site and soil, along with the influences of vine management and harvest dates. "It's definitely about getting as many colours on your palette as you can," he says from his Cromwell cellar door. "You do get differences naturally, and it's about trying to highlight that."

He does that with his own Matt Connell Wines, producing single vineyard subregional Pinot Noirs, as well as Rendition, a blend of Lowburn and Bendigo fruit, with its label designed by street artist 'Component', to reflect the landscapes and colours of the area. And it's the ethos that drives the winemaking for 11 other companies stretched across Central Otago and northeast, in the Waitaki Valley. For each one, in every season, he works to understand what his clients want for their wines, while "trying not to mess with the site too much". To extend the colours on his palette, he'll create several small ferments for each intake of fruit, including for his smallest clients, with some parcels inoculated ferments, other wild ferments, and using oak from different cooperages. "It's all about highlighting the best attributes of each part of the process, listening to the site and also our clients' needs."

It seems a far stretch from Matt’s initial degree in Parks and Recreation Management in his home city of Christchurch, or the year working on gigs in Asia for his father’s rock concert promotion company. But just like the concerts, and hospitality work that followed, winemaking is essentially about giving a lot of people a lot of enjoyment, Matt says, cherishing the times he strolls into the Bannockburn Hotel and finds someone drinking his wine.

He went on to do a Post Graduate Diploma in Viticulture and Oenology, before he and his American wife Beth moved to Oregon for four years, where he developed a passion for Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley, also working vintages back in New Zealand, including at the newly established Peregrine Estate in 2003. In 2005 he was offered the winemaker role at Olssen’s Vineyard and the couple moved to Central Otago with their first child Emma.

The contract winemaking at Olssen’s gave Matt understanding of the breadth of characteristics available across Central Otago, and the powerful distinction of each subregion. “Coming to a new region, it was a really good way to get an overview,” he says. From there he went to Akarua, as General Manager and Winemaker, staying from 2008 to 2015 and winning a trophy for Pinot Noir every single year. “The wines have been good to me along the way,” he says, with classic Central reserve.

It was a great run, but Matt had a hankering to get back to contract winemaking, which requires an empathy for clones, soils, sites and philosophies. He and Beth, an accountant with a postgraduate diploma in commerce, enjoy the chance to support people new to wine, who often grapple with vines, weather and mortgages. “I take that very seriously,” Matt says. “Many of them are relatively new to the industry and it’s great to be able to help them where we can.”

He chooses to work with clients he likes, including an Auckland-based professor of medicine, with less than 2 hectares of vines in Alexandra, planted in the 1980s. “They are trying to reinvigorate these old vines on massive trunks,” Matt says. “That interests me, and I want to see what they can do. It gives you a bit of crystal ball gazing for the future.

Meanwhile, the wines he makes for McArthur Ridge in Alexandra are now dripping with bling, including the McArthur Ridge Southern Tor Pinot Noir 2020, which won two trophies and a gold medal at the International Wine Challenge in London and Champion Pinot Noir at the 2021 New Zealand International Wine Show, where Matt was named Winemaker of the Show.

Alexandra’s fruit ripens later, so while frost can be a major challenge, the long hang time is proving a key to its success, Matt says. “When it comes to harvest, Chief Viticulturist Murray Petrie and I are out on the vineyard checking on the vines all the time, with the intention of leaving the fruit hanging as long as possible before hand-picking and pressing.” Growing grapes “right up to the edge” of what’s possible, balanced alongside the threat of frosts and weather events, keeps the work interesting. And working with vines nearly 20 years old, growing on “fairly new soil”, gives the wine a special clarity, he adds.

Subregional excitement is happening across New Zealand’s wine regions, but Central Otago is further ahead in that differentiation, thanks to a focus on premium Pinot Noir “from the get-go”, Matt says. “It always had that ethos of trying to delve into the nitty gritty and understand it.” And the community is supportive, always sharing information and seasonal experiences. “There’s been a real push to understand the land we are growing stuff on, but also to understand our winemaking,” Matt says. “It’s probably 20 or 30 years of people thinking about it in quite a detailed way and talking about it a lot with their peers.”

That’s meant a big shift since the early 2000s in terms of winemaking and viticulture, he adds. “We used to throw a lot of new oak at wines and beat them up quite a bit really. We’ve sort of gone the other way. We’re more hands off.” The winemakers from that time have aged with the vines, adds Matt, who was just 32 when he did his first vintage in Central 20 years ago. “The ‘Pinot pirates’ of the early days have sort of evolved a bit,” he says. “Evolved and became way more hands off, and happier to be that way; to let the vineyard tell its own story, to some degree, and highlight the best attributes of that in the wines.”

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