There have been a few changes in the normally very stable Nelson wine industry in recent months, most notably the sale of the beleaguered former Mahana winery and restaurant facility along with the sale of vineyard land.
Four years later I met with the people who showed me around the vineyard, but this time in offices that reflect the same sensitivity for their environment; beautifully designed rather than just another concrete slab in the middle of a city.
Architectural design may seem quite a jump from a vineyard but the desire to create something lasting for future generations is what makes the Aronui story special.
Aronui wines are created by the Maori-owned New Zealand wine company Kono Beverages, part of the Wakatu Incorporation, and the word Aronui derives from ancient Maori mythology and speaks of the pursuit of knowledge, including in the arts and working with the land in beneficial ways.
The name Whenua Matua means significant land—and significant it is. The vineyard is on tribal land in the Moutere Hills region and remains in the ownership of its traditional owners.
The Aronui story is pretty straightforward, own some land, plant some grapes, make some wine, sell it! However when I met with Whenua Matua viticulturist Jonny Hiscox and General Manager of Sales and Marketing for the Kono group Mike Brown we talked about such a wide range of things that add up to what makes Aronui special, it is hard to know where to start so let’s start at the beginning, the land.
The Whenua Matua vineyard land has special significance to Iwi in the region. Located in the Moutere Hills the land is part of Tenths Reserve lands, can never be sold and is part of the heart of Iwi in the top of the South Island. Wakatu Incorporation is, in essence, a commercial organisation that is tasked with managing the investment assets of descendants from four Iwi in the top of the South Island and Kono is the food and beverage business of Wakatu Incorporation. The three sectors of Beverages (wine), Horticulture (apples, pears, kiwifruit, hops) and Seafood (mussels, oysters, lobster) all have cultural importance as well as being business sectors.
Whanau are referred to as owners rather than shareholders as they are encouraged to take an active role in the management and governance of Wakatu Inc. Because of the nature of the ownership the owners take a conservative, long term view, a view that is about how they will treat the lands for future generations.
The businesses also invest heavily in their owners, they provide scholarships and employment opportunities as well as returning a dividend. At Whenua Matua, owners are encouraged to visit the land where, as well as growing superb grapes they have significant plantings of New Zealand native species.
With a multi-generational view it is important that at Whenua Matua they protect the existing ecosystems and enhance them for future generations. They are involved in annual plantings, nurturing as giving back to the land is paramount to their beliefs and culture.
Extensive native plantings provide materials for traditional Maori crafts, specific flaxes are planted for harvesting as weaving material and the small lake that is becoming an important part of the ecosystem on the land has been landscaped and provides a place where owners can access and enjoy the beauty.
When the vineyards were first developed Hiscox was employed as the viticulturist however he brings a lot more to the Aronui brand than just growing grapes. When he emigrated from the UK some 20 years ago he thought he should learn to speak Te Reo and now speaks it fluently.
His understanding of Maori culture and heritage has also been instrumental in developing a quality vineyard with sensitivity to the land as well as contributing to the Aronui brand.
Hiscox says; “One thing that helps with the quality production of different varieties is the nature of the vineyard. With a number of small blocks that are planted in different orientations each block has its own idiosyncrasies, then add to this various clones and root stocks and the result is winemakers having many choices when it comes to harvest. Each block delivers different attributes and different ripening times.” He says “each small block can be managed differently and while it is more intensive to manage, the micro-management of the canopy and crop thinning are easier to do on small blocks. We can do much more and the result is great quality fruit going to the winery.”
Brown says one of the things that sets Aronui apart in the marketplace is that they have a story to tell about their wines and this is an important marketing tool for the brand. He says Wakatu Inc. also provide a nurturing environment for its staff and Kono are encouraging Hiscox to take the next step in his career, to move beyond being just a viticulturist, “Kono are starting to hang the Aronui story around him. He can tell the story from the ownership of the land to the finished product because he was involved in developing the land, he planted and nurtured the vines, has a connection with the wine and land and he can sell the passion behind the wine, a significant advantage in the market place.”
Wakatu Inc. also encourage their staff to give back to the community and part of their job is to take part in industry organisations. Brown sits on the board of New Zealand Winegrowers while Hiscox is currently the chairman of Nelson Winegrowers.
Whenua Matua and Aronui wines are a source of mana for the Iwi owners and bring pride back to company and owners, the owners are proud to see the product on retail shelves and wine lists, Brown says “they become brand ambassadors.”