Cellar Belly. Winery staff often succumb to this dreaded malady when they are overly familiar with their own wine to the exclusion of all others. For just over a year I’d been working at Black Estate in Waipara Valley when I realised I was afflicted. Luckily, there is a cure to this condition. Familiarise yourself with as much wine as you can, from as many different places. With this remedy in mind I headed to Waiheke, New Zealand’s island of wine.
My friend Cat is a vineyard hand at Italian owned Poderi Crisci, and since April is vintage I joined in to help pick the grapes. A day’s work is a fair trade for a day of eating and drinking at Poderi’s Italian style Sunday long lunch. Poderi is located on the island’s remote eastern side, and part of the fun is just getting there. Cat drove us along a dirt track that snakes its way through native bush and wetland marsh. Surrounded by cattails, fibrous flax, and feathery toi toi grasses, Cat says that the road was impassable after the recent cyclone. The restaurant and winery are situated just above the wetlands.
A day’s work is a fair trade for a day of eating and drinking at Poderi Crisci’s Italian style Sunday long lunch.
The manicured gardens surround a largely open-air restaurant and the vineyards blanket the slopes above. We walk underneath a row of archways adorned with grape vines, past the restaurant garden. “You just missed the beefsteak tomatoes, but we’ll get some pumpkins to take home.” One of the perks of Cat’s job is access to the veggies. Another perk is access to the wine.
Cat tells me about the winemaker, Herv – also the winemaker at Te Whau. “He’s Swiss German, loves French wines, and ended up making Italian wines at Poderi Crisci.”
“So he came all the way to New Zealand to make Italian wines?”
“He didn’t come to New Zealand, he came to Waiheke,” Cat says. “That’s different.”
[Poderi’s winemaker] didn’t come to New Zealand, he came to Waiheke. That’s different.
That seems to be an important distinction for those that call Waiheke home. Close enough in distance to see the mainland, but far enough away that it seems like a mirage. Waiheke is it’s own world.
I joined the pickers, clustered around big white buckets. A mixture of permanent vineyard staff, locals who freelance during harvest, backpackers looking for experience in the industry (or an excuse to stay on Waiheke longer), and wait staff helping out before the lunch service starts at the adjacent vineyard restaurant. Lazy bees, drunk on grape juice, float through the vines. Dogs belonging to the vineyard workers run through the grapevine rows. The restaurant manager keeps having to come round and tell us to keep them out of the restaurant. All of the work at the vineyard is done by hand, but at less than ten hectares, that’s manageable. Waiheke vineyards are quite small, mainly boutique producers whose focus is on agri-tourism rather than export.
“When you see the frescoes of ancient Romans holding up those big and beautiful bunches of grapes, that was Montepulciano,” says Cat as she shows me the rows that will be picked the following week. But today we’re picking the Merlot Riserva.
Herv tells us which bunches to pick and which to leave. “Watch out for these,” he holds up a plump bunch with the bottom grapes missing. “I caught some Pukeko in here last week.” The nets covering the grapes don’t always protect from New Zealand’s flightless birds. But in general, he is pleased with the crop.
North Island vineyards dream about the long hot days and cool nights in the south. Meanwhile, South Islanders are envious of the lack of frosts and droughts in the north. Wherever you are, if you’re working in a vineyard you’re talking about the weather.
“This picking is easy today and the fruit looks this good because someone has done their work before you,” an experienced freelancer tells me. Only the lower first set of bunches remains because the upper second set fruit has been removed. Throughout the spring and summer the upper tier of bunches are removed so that the vines direct nutrients to the primary set of grapes. This ensures that they ripen more fully. “In France we call it green harvest, here I think it’s just called fruit thinning,” Cat says. The freelancers remark that the Poderi Merlot is much sweeter and juicier than than the acidic fruits at some of the other vineyards. “This season’s been tough, it hasn’t cooled down at night and the air is just so humid that the grapes have soaked it all up.” The Waiheke vineyard staff dream about the long hot days and cool nights typical in South Island vineyards, no humidity to worry about. Meanwhile in the South Island they’re envious about the lack of frosts and droughts in the north. Wherever you are, if you’re working in a vineyard you’re talking about the weather.
I ask about the characteristics of the different varietals, but Cat tells me that it’s not a matter of the variety, it’s how the grapes have been cared for and when you pick. The same variety of grapes taste different at separate vineyard sites. She tells me about the Syrah that she recently picked for another label at two separate plots. “Same business, same variety. One had bigger grapes in better condition, but there was no taste. At the other vineyard, the grapes were in worse condition, but were more flavourful. There are so many different ways to treat the vines, and it all matters. The soil, the exposition, the slope, the pruning, which shoots you trim, which leaves you pick to control how much sunlight reaches the bunches – it all matters.”
At the end of the day Cat and I clean the grape bins while the winemakers crush the day’s harvest. We get as much water on ourselves as we do on the bins, but in Waiheke late autumn still feels like summer so we don’t mind. The assistant winemaker stands barefoot on a pile of grape stems while dumping the remaining grapes into the de-stemmer. Everyone is barefoot. The juice-filled bins are covered with bees. Every time we grab a bin from the pile we do a dance to free it from the swarm. Those that are caught by the hose are washed across the tarp and down the drain. Cat gets stung on her foot, washes the bee down the drain, and keeps going. It feels sort of primal to be part of harvest, covered in grape juice and dirt, taking part in a ritual that has remained largely unchanged for thousands of years.
It feels sort of primal to be part of harvest, covered in grape juice and dirt, taking part in a ritual that has remained largely unchanged for thousands of years.
We sit down for a drink when we’re finished. Cat says that she’s relieved to see the Merlot go, that it was a real pain to work with, that the Chardonnay was much easier.
“I thought that Chardonnay was more delicate? Doesn’t that mean it’s more work?”
She says that Chardonnay is more delicate, which makes it easier to trim. There’s less fruit. “But Merlot you are lost in a jungle. Merlot was like this,” she twists her arms into a pretzel. “Fruit everywhere, it just kept growing.” But with the Chardonnay she was just skipping through the vines, trimming here and there. She pauses, then smiles. “But Syrah, Syrah is my favourite of all.”
“Why?” I ask.
She laughs. “Because it’s the one I love to drink.”