Monday, 29 June 2015 12:09

The new black estate

Written by 
Nicholas Brown and Pen Naish. Photo by: Daniel Honan from Wine Idealist. Nicholas Brown and Pen Naish. Photo by: Daniel Honan from Wine Idealist.

Waipara is one of New Zealand’s fastest growing wine regions – and Black Estate is at the forefront of that growth.

Owned since 2007 by Nicholas Brown and Pen Naish in partnership with Pen’s parents Rob and Stacey, Black Estate has been undergoing a transformation, in terms of varietals and vineyards.

Nicholas is well known in the region, having been winemaking alongside Danny Schuster since 2004. He and Pen along with Rod and Stacey purchased Black Estate from original owner Russell Black seven and a half years ago. While they have kept the Estate name, there have been a number of changes to the look of the vineyard and the wines being produced.

“This is a 16 hectare property, and eight of those were planted when we bought it,” Nicholas explains. “It had always been run conventionally, but we spent the first few years converting it to organic and biodynamic practices, so there was a lot of work taking place in the vineyard.”

The aim he says was to increase the health of the vineyard in an effort to gain more expression from the site. On top of that, the family began preparing nearly four more hectares ready for planting.

“We planted a hectare of Chardonnay with four different clones. Two hectares of Pinot Noir with six different clones. A third of a hectare of Cabernet Franc and half a hectare of Chenin Blanc.”

The new plantings were the mirror opposite of the original vineyard, which was planted conventionally.

“In the top block we have high density, so we get maximum expression from those grapes,” Nicholas says. “We get a low per plant yield, but a high vine per hectare, so we get a good tonnage.”

While Waipara is renowned for Riesling, Black Estate originally wasn’t producing that varietal. In 2008 the family began buying fruit from the Damsteep Vineyard, one of the few hillside sites growing this variety. The dense limestone derived clay provides something special to the fruit Nicholas says.

“We love that Riesling. There is a point of difference because it is a hill site vineyard with dense clay. It produces a very textural wine which is why we make it in a dry style to accentuate that texture.”

By 2008 Black Estate were purchasing all the Damsteep Riesling, by 2010 they began buying some of the Pinot Noir and by 2012 they took over the lease of the property and converted it to biodynamic. These days they own the vineyard.

They also bought the Netherwood Vineyard late last year after a three year lease. Planted in 1986 by Danny Schuster and Russell Black, the mudstone and sandstone soils provide a third element to the growing library of Black Estate Wines. Nicholas says the new owners had no concrete plans for the property, one of Waipara’s oldest hillside Pinot Noir blocks, so Black Estate took the opportunity to manage it, prior to buying outright. It is this particular vineyard that has also provided the impetus for one of New Zealand’s most original wines – a Chardonnay/Pinot Noir Rosé. Nicholas says there was point eight of a hectare of Chardonnay planted back in 1986, with the rest of the vineyard Pinot Noir. Ten years later Schuster decided to top graft the vines to Pinot.

“But because it was an un-irrigated vineyard, “Nicholas says, “it was very difficult to top graft successfully. Only about 50 percent of them took. So then they were left with one vine being Chardonnay and the next one being Pinot Noir. But this was always a bit of a nightmare at harvest with pickers having to separate the two varietals into different bins.

“From 2012 when we took over the lease, we told the pickers to just pick it all into the same bucket. We were quite interested in co-fermentation of different varieties and also carbonic maceration. We brought all the fruit into the winey and put it into the fermenter and did 100 percent whole cluster of Chardonnay and Pinot to make that wine.”

These days Black Estate is producing a wide range of single vineyard wines, mainly Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But with the new plantings of Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, the wine list is growing. It’s a far cry from when they first took over the Estate, just one year before the global financial crisis and New Zealand’s grape over supply. 

“It was a freaky year,” Pen admits. “We had the over supply and then the global economy crashed as well, it was like Ouch!

“I remember Dad and I saying to each other, ‘this could get interesting, but we decided that we just had to get on with it. And then the earthquake hit Christchurch.”

They weren’t alone in taking over a new venture during a crisis. Nicholas says since 2007 there have been a large number of younger people who have moved into the region. 

“Since then there has been a change of ownership with a lot of properties and new producers coming in that have a full wine focus. So there has been a big change in the winery makeup here.”

And despite the tough years preceding, Black Estate, like Waipara has continued to grow year on year. These days they have markets in Japan, Sweden and Australia and with the new plantings coming on stream they will be able to concentrate on expanding those markets while looking for new ones.

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