Making wine in New Zealand
By Tim White
Have you ever been to New Zealand? No? GO NOW, IT’S ONLY JUST OVER THERE AND SO FABULOUS!
I can’t say that any other way. I’ve just come back from my first trip to New Zealand. It’s so astounding to me now that I haven’t been before.
The country is beautiful, the people friendly and accommodating. The beer is great. There are baby seals swimming willy nilly in waterfalls and paua shells on the beach. Hills and mountains all around, many dusted with snow. Everywhere you look is stunning.
Recently I had the chance to travel to NZ to work in a winery in Marlborough. For those of you who don’t know, that means thousands upon thousands of tonnes of sauvignon blanc. The sauvalanche. Hundreds of us winery workers (cellarhands) travel across the globe from our home regions to work on the harvest in NZ. Many of the people in town spend the first week catching up with friends from previous vintages over drinks in town.
It’s a very different experience to working in wineries here in Australia. In NZ it seems to be the norm that there are more internationals than locals. At home I’ve only worked in small wineries where you work until the job is done. Here they take work just as seriously, but it feels like they take free time more seriously too. When your shift is over, you down tools and hand over to the next team.
A Greek friend I caught up with was surprised that her winery manager turned off her pump when the time was up. Having worked in Greece, France and now Australia she was amazed that people would care that much about her free time to push her out the door at the end of shift. It’s a good feeling.
The winery where I worked was a contract winemaking facility. We made wine for many different customers and that had it’s own complications. Marlborough is a relatively new wine growing region. Just about every grape grower used to farm something different. The family that owned the winery used to have apple and cherry orchards. There are still apple crates lying around, and some of the staff started there sorting apples 18 years ago. The family are low-key. It was almost a fortnight before I realised that the office lady was also a co-owner. This seems almost typical amongst other Marlborough wineries which adds to the friendly nature of working here.
After a week of preparation work in the winery, lots of boozing and a few sightseeing trips, the first trickles of fruit came into the winery. Procedures were tested and then after Easter, the flood gates opened and hundreds of tonnes of fruit poured in. Grapes here arrive in tip trucks. The trucks back up and tip the fruit into giant hoppers. Over and over again; it feels relentless. The press crew run frantically all shift moving hoses and trying to keep tanks from overflowing. The cellar crew is busy clarifying grape juice and starting ferments.
As happens every harvest, the weeks fly by and everyone forgets what day it is. Trips to the bar after work are fewer and much quieter as everyone tries to catch up on sleep. Friendships are forged in the cellar as we swap stories over smoko. My hands turn pink then purple then blackened by the pinot noir I plunged twice a day.
This goes on for around 6 weeks (that’s 6 weeks of 12 hour shifts, 7 days per week). All of a sudden there’s no more sauvignon blanc left and we have days off, things are quieter. Some of the crew leave to travel this beautiful country and it’s time for farewell parties.
Wineries will put on an ‘end of vintage’ party as a way of saying thank you to the crew. These are always fun events, often with some very fine wine and are a highlight of the vintage experience.
I made some wonderful friends and winery contacts from all over the world, gained more experience and learnt a few new tricks working in NZ. Most telling though is that it was quite hard to leave, and I’m looking forward to going back again for the next harvest. Next time I’m staying on for at least a month afterwards to travel this beautiful country.
In short if you have ever thought about visiting NZ, then stop what you are doing and BOOK IT NOW.
But even better, why not pack up your life here for a year and have a working holiday? See how our nearest neighbours live. I think you will love it.