Vintage 2022 is underway as Nat Christensen calls from a warm and windy Marlborough in mid-March.
The farm specialised in fine wool and pure-bred cattle, and Claire credits her parents for her Kiwi ingenuity and ingrained sense of practicality.
Those enduring attributes - and an unwavering thirst for knowledge - guided Claire to boutique wine company Burn Cottage Vineyard, where she is General Manager and Winemaker. Eleven years into her role, Claire took a leap of faith when she departed the acclaimed Amisfield winery for a new kid on the block. “I loved that the Burn Cottage company was 100 percent committed to the area of winegrowing that I was most inspired by. And the opportunity to work alongside world class vigneron Ted Lemon was pretty special and too much to resist.”
In her teens, Claire planned study vet medicine, but her curiosity for the land won out and she graduated Otago University with a science degree that incorporated hydrology and meteorology, as well as a few soil and horticulture papers from Lincoln University. “I wish I could say there was that pivotal moment when I knew wine was my future, but it was a slower burn for me.” Claire was exposed to more and more New Zealand wine near the end of uni, and started to taste the opportunity for grape growing, especially in Central Otago. “It was being called a region on t he edge of what was possible, and I couldn’t help but get involved.”
Claire’s first foray into the wine industry was among the vines at Rippon Vineyard in Wanaka. That was followed by vineyard work with Chard Farm winery, and then up the road at Gibbston Valley wines. During this time, Claire decided to formalise her experience and completed a postgraduate diploma in viticulture and oenology. When she returned it was to the Gibbston Valley cellar where, under the tutelage of Winemaker Grant Taylor, she quickly worked her way up to Assistant Winemaker. “It was an exciting position and harvest was always fun,” says Claire. “Even if the temperatures were way below zero some nights emptying the press.”
It was an opportune time to be involved in the Central Otago wine industry. “I was inspired by many of the pioneers of our region: Rolfe and Lois Mills, Alan Brady, Grant Taylor, The Hay Brothers, Anne Pinckney and Mike Wolter to name a few,” says Claire. “The quality they were finding in Pinot Noir was exciting.” Claire’s interest in Pinot Noir only grew after working vintages in Europe and the United States. “Being exposed to more than one vintage a year certainly accelerates one’s learning,” Claire says. “And I got to work with some wonderful mentors abroad as well as in New Zealand.” She now welcomes family members and friends of those she and her colleagues have worked with overseas back here for vintage experience. “It really is about the people we meet along the way.”
In 2000, Claire ventured north to take up the role of Winemaker at Martinborough Vineyards. “The attraction for me was working in a slightly more established New Zealand Pinot Noir area. The older vines, different clonal materials and getting to know a new place and its people”. Claire’s own winemaking philosophies aligned with Martinborough Vineyard’s vision of making wines that showcased their place. “It was a bit daunting to take over from Larry McKenna,” says Claire. “I tried to be true to the style that had been developed, but more importantly, true to the vineyards. I always run trials to better understand the opportunities, but making wine isn’t about showcasing winemaker skills. It’s about the place.” Martinborough remains a favourite region for Claire, but seven years in she found herself returning home to Central.
Claire is a quietly confident and humble individual who has ensured her own success by looking ahead and “tying together education and experience” at every opportunity. In 2002, when Ted began developing the bare land of Burn Cottage vineyard and farm, Claire’s ears couldn’t help but perk up. From inception it was managed biodynamically, and this was a significant drawcard for Claire, who had begun looking into this practice several years prior. She admired the transparency and balance it provided. “Wine reflects site and you achieve greater clarity when farming organically. And biodynamics ties everything and everyone together in a significant and holistic way, enabling the whole system to work better.”
Today Burn Cottage’s vineyard sits alongside 20ha of farmland, including livestock, pasture, an olive grove, native plantings and more. “We are located in a dry region so we are to be mindful of conservative stocking - but our farm provides for our compost and preparation making requirements,” says Claire. “The tree and diverse plantings are significant and the whole farm has a great energy about it. It’s a terrific environment for everyone to work in.”
Burn Cottage grows just three grape varietals, and to Claire’s delight, Pinot Noir is their focus. They also craft a zesty Riesling and Grüner Veltliner blend that’s likely a one-of-a-kind in the southern hemisphere. “This year we utilised a sandstone jarre for the Grüner fermentation,” says Claire. She has enjoyed the freedom that producing a rare expression offers her and her winemaking team. Also unique to the New Zealand wine industry is Burn Cottage’s Pinot Noir collaboration with Valli Wines. Claire, Ted and Valli’s founder Grant Taylor often had robust conversations about their beloved region, and in the lead-up to the 2014 vintage came up with the idea of “The Great Grape Swap”. Seven years on and Claire is still as excited by the joint project as day one. “It’s fun learning about our site through other people’s eyes,” she says. “It’s also fun promoting the wines together.”
Claire speaks often about the importance of community. The community she works with, the community she’s grown with, and the community and family that supported her while she raised her son. She had her fair share of angst about the hours committed to harvest and vintage when Harry was young, but she laughed when he forgetfully suggested “yeah, but you never had to work big days or weekends during vintage.”
Claire’s friends would say that she flies under the radar, but her commitment to producing exceptional Pinot Noir has seen an enviable CV take shape. She continues to look ahead but her feet are firmly in the dirt at Burn Cottage Vineyard. “We are still on progression, learning about our site… There is always a lot going on at Burn Cottage and we enjoy looking at new opportunities both in the vineyard and winery.”