I miss vineyards, wineries and getting my hands dirty. Ever since I returned to Hong Kong I have tried to do a vintage somewhere every year, but it’s not easy as harvests in either hemisphere are usually the busiest months in Hong Kong (mid February to early May, and early September to end of October). There are also legalities (work permits, insurance - especially in China wineries), and reservations from wineries (why should they take on a Hong Kong girl who may just want to be babysat and entertained).
Unison Vineyard, the smallest estate in Gimblett Gravels in New Zealand with only 6 ha of vines, agreed to take me, I jumped at the chance even though it meant I would be away for more than two weeks in between two of my major projects: Discover South African Wine and Riesling Weeks. It was tough as it was on average a 9-hour day with no day off at the winery and 6 hour working at night on the Hong Kong projects with a slow internet connection (hey, I was in a rural area). Still I loved every single moment of it. After all, Gimblett Gravels is one of my two favourite wine regions in New Zealand (the other is Martinborough).
I don’t like working in big wineries as it often means repetitive work on one aspect for the whole period. I used to work at a medium sized winery in Portugal and at one point I did only pumping-over for 5 consecutive days. Winery work is physically demanding and big wineries even more so—a pump can easily weighs more than me. In contrast, small wineries are all hands-on and you need to get involved with everything. Plus it gives the chance to talk to owners, family members, winemakers, cellar hands, vineyard workers and sometimes even customers. Not only do I improve my technical knowledge but I also get to understand the philosophy behind the labels better.
Unison’s team is small: only Philip the winemaker/owner, Phil the vineyard manager who also helps at the winery, and Jenny Dobson, the winemaker consultant. Everyone shares work—from picking, rehydrating yeast and punching down to bottling and cleaning (the most important task in every winery). Although not in the right order, because the Merlot had all been picked when I arrived while Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon were only picked a few days afterwards, I managed to work in nearly every task of a winery, from picking to bottling, except blending and putting wine into barrels. There were also a few things new to me: making rosé by the saignee method, machine harvesting, using an ancient basket press, and fermenting Italian grapes in New Zealand—Unison doesn’t grow white varieties but they help make the neighbour’s Fiano. My most favourite jobs were monitoring all the ferments every day (satisfying to see the progress), climbing to the top of the tanks to do pump over (the best view in any winery), tasting the ferments with Jenny every day (great learning opportunity), and clearing water using the floor squeegee (like medication).
The Gimblett Gravels region is small, only some 800 ha under vines compared to over 20,000 ha in Marlborough. It was created when the Ngaruroro River changed course in 1867, leaving greywacke—a mixture of stones, gravels and sand—behind. Because of its unique free draining gravelly soil, temperate climate and long growing season, the region can make elegant red wine with ripe fruits without heaviness. Great examples are the Merlot with vibrant red fruits instead of chocolate and distinctive white peppery Syrah. It is because of this that the wineries got together to found the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association in 2001 to differentiate themselves from the rest of the larger Hawkes Bay region. According to the Association it is probably the first viticultural appellation in the New World whose ultimate boundary is defined by a distinct soil type boundary: no compromises, no politics.
Wikipedia says there is only 38ha of Pinotage in New Zealand. It's something a bit special. Try one if you get the chance.
Working at Unison was a good experience. I wish everyone there all the best in the coming vintages. Thanks again Terry and Philip, the owners, who gave me the opportunity, Jenny and Charles who hosted me at their place, Phil who shared both the dirty work and the cleaning with me, Paul and Calsey from Unison’s Unwind Cafe who fed me and fixed my caffeine craving, and Nick from Mills Reef who made the initial connection.
Unison Wine is not available in Hong Kong yet but is available in Shanghai from Vino Maestro.