Monday, 16 October 2023 15:25

The Profile: Wilco Lam

Written by  Joelle Thomson
Wilco Lam Wilco Lam

Wilco Lam is sitting in the sun dappled courtyard at the Porters Pinot winery on the main road into Martinborough as we talk about his life in wine, travel, and walking, and how a connection between all three led him to New Zealand.

The evocative double storey red shed is now used to make On Giant's Shoulders, the wine brand that lured Wilco away from iconic Dry River Wines after 14 years, 10 of them at the helm. The departure heralds a liberating new lease of life, not only for Wilco but also for the two key team members who left Dry River at the same time as he did - winemaker Sam Rouse and general manager Sarah Bartlett. This cohesive team joined On Giant's Shoulders, which has new owners and a new name yet to be announced. The brand had no fixed abod, aside from the vineyard, so Porters Pinot winery is now home. "It's really refreshing here," Wilco says. "Sam and I totally love being able to make the best wine possible and to make it our wine by figuring out for ourselves what the different vineyards we are using can bring. I deliberately came to Martinborough to make Pinot Noir rather than make it in other regions. I believe in this region and the identity it gives to wine. We are not a major tourist hub for anything, especially if you compare us to Central Otago, and it sounds clichéd, but if we can't focus on competing on quanity of the tourism aspect, we have got to work hard on our wines and finding the inner beat of wine of this region."

That inner beat is the tannin, Wilco says. "Pinot Noirs from this region are characterised mostly by their tannin profile. I think the challenge of getting that out and expressing that without fear of it is where our greatness lies. I think some people fear tannin in Pinot Noir but it's something we can easily embrace and express every year, without worrying about what surrounds that tannin. Let's not focus on aromatics or fleshiness in Pinot Noirs from this region. For me, the focus is on the direction and shape of the tannins."

The fruit comes from a group of vineyard sites in Martinborough, including On Giant's Shoulders vineyard, originally known as Pahi, one of the first sites used by Martinborough Vineyards. When winemaker Larry McKenna left Martinborough Vineyards, he had a contract to purchase the fruit from On Giant's Shoulders for a single vineyard wine under The Escarpment brand. The vineyard was then purchased by Braden and Gabrielle Crosby, who sold it last year to a German family.

Now Wilco is supplementing production of the new brand with grapes from Porters Pinot vineyard site and another vineyard on New York Street. Production is 75% Pinot Noir with roughly equal amounts of Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, some of which has already been field grafted to Chardonnay. The plan is to retain some Pinot Gris, although it may not ultimately be destined for a varietal wine. "In my eyes, there is no better Pinot Gris than the vines at Dry River. I loved making the Dry River Pinot Gris. Cropping levels were mega low. It was amazing to be thinking about Pinot Gris, drinking amazing Alsace Pinot Gris and getting a perspective of what sugar was in wine. I think that was beautiful, thinking about being bold and not caring about what anyone would say. But we can't do that with these vines at On Giant's Shoulders, so we are not chasing it."

Instead he is chasing a regional expression in all of the wines they produce. "Climate change means we would like to explore other areas of Martinborough and the area. We have some thoughts about this but for now we focus on getting the best out of the fruit we have to use, while thinking about how to explore more in the wider region potentially in the future."

Wilco Lam and Sam Rouse FBTW

Wilco Lam and Sam Grouse

Wilco was born and bred in a small village on the east coast of Holland and attended the Amsterdam School for Hotel Management, where he was bitten by the wine bug as a student pouring wine at tastings. The pivotal moment was a masterclass that he attended of Vega Sicilia library wines and old Madeiras. "I can still remember what I liked about the Vega Sicilia was its rustic aromas and I knew there was no turning back."

So he finished his hotel studies, travelled, worked, and walked. The Inca Trail in South America led to a fortuitous meeting with a Chilean winemaker, who suggested Wilco go to Australia to study winemaking at Roseworthy. He didn't make it in, because he didn't have a scientific degree or come from a winemaking family, so instead, he headed to Melbourne University to study post graduate winemaking and viticulture at Lincoln University in 2003. Since then he has worked for Martinborough Vineyards, Alana Estate, and Bell Hill, and had a stint in Italy working outside Luca with a natural wine producer. "I learnt a lot there about organics and biodynamics and that helped to shape my thinking strongly. I also highly value the time at Bell Hill, which was one of the most interesting places I have worked, where attention to detail was an incredible learning journey."

Desert Island Wishlist

Wine: Weingut Keller Riesling (G-Max)

Meal: Burgers

Podcast: Ludovico Einaudi Live @ Albert Hall, I'll drink to that

Magazine: Noble Rot

Book: Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

(Since this is a desert island, I assume it is hot, humid and I am going solo...)

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