River, Martinborough, New Zealand
Jamie Goode visits one of New Zealand's most exciting producers -
interviews Neil McCallum and his talented team, and tastes some
Established by Neil McCallum in 1979, Dry
River was one of the pioneering wineries in the Martinborough region
of New Zealand’s North Island. The original vineyard was planted
on the Martinborough Terrace, on free-draining alluvial soils.
Further vineyard blocks, also on the terrace were later added:
Craighall (of which part was purchased by the winery in 1997) and
Arapoff (which was then purchased in 2002 and renamed ‘Lovat’),
taking the total area under vine to around 30 acres.
In 2003, Neil sold the winery to a
seriously wealthy Wall Street financier, Julian Robertson (according
to Neil, ‘the guy who invented the hedge fund’ and one of the
world’s super-rich), but Neil retains the hot seat, with the extra
money providing the opportunity for Dry River to grow and to
continue to be committed to quality without compromise.
Poppy Hammond, winemaker
I met with Neil, winemaker Poppy Hammond
(who also goes by the name of Katy), and viticulturalist Shayne
Hammond (spouse of Poppy). Together, as a team, they are producing
perhaps New Zealand’s most exciting range of wines. Neil is a very
interesting guy to talk with, and so I’ve reproduced my interview
with him and Poppy below. I’ve also added a video of Poppy and
Shane showing me the remarkable vineyards, along with notes on a
number of Dry River wines. This is really one of those wineries
where you just buy as many bottles as they’ll let you have.
Shayne Hammond in the vineyard
Jamie Goode (JG): So how do you break
Neil McCallum (NMC): I sit up here, and
we cooperate in terms of planning the vintage, the research, and
doing the tastings. But Poppy does the actual work during vintage.
Poppy Hammond (PH): I’ve done ten
vintages now. We’re a good team.
NMC: That’s really what Dry River is
about: a team which can bring in the talents from different
directions. We don’t have tastings with fewer than three people.
People don’t have the same palates, and if you have three people
you’ll get different looks at the same issue. This is really
important: no one person has all the answers: I don’t care who
they think they are and how big their magic wand is. It also
requires really good relationships. Too often in tastings, you see
clashes of egos. We don’t have that; we have learned that we are
all here with the same views, and differences are just a reflection
of different perspectives, not right or wrong.
JG: The way I see it, in winegrowing,
there are two elements. One is skill in being able to get to a
particular destination. The other one, perhaps more importantly (and
where the wine world has gone askew, of late), is knowing what that
destination is in a first place, and having a clear idea of this. Do
you share a philosophy?
NMC: We have a complete philosophy. That
is, the best expression of what we can do in the vineyard. As we go
through the winemaking process, the decisions are not in terms of
creating a particular style. They are what is best for the fruit,
and what is best to preserve the characters that have been
harvested. This is the beginning and the end of what we do.
Poppy and Shayne
JG: In that sense, then you think the
vineyard speaks to you of the style of wine you should be making. Do
you think the vineyard has a style that naturally it expresses
through the varieties you plant, and then you can either ease into
that expression of the vineyard, or struggle to manipulate it away
in another direction?
NMC: We ease into where the vineyard
wants to go, but you still need a philosophical understanding of the
wine. One of the key things we look at is the phenolic management of
a wine. Essentially, beyond their ability to preserve and provide
structure, phenols don’t have a lot of use. The most important
thing is the flavour. When it ever reaches a point that the
phenolics obscure the flavours, or distort what is happening, we
feel that this is a management problem. Beyond that, it is about the
flavours in the vineyard, with crucial decisions about what flavour
point you choose to pick at.
PH: Constantly achieving balance is the
biggest thing in the vineyard. You have your parameters—your
targets and goals—right from the start.
JG: How many vintages have you done now,
Neil? When did you start?
NMC: Since 1983, when we did a reasonable
amount, although 1984 was the first commercial vintage. We were
technically the first in Martinborough, but only by about 100 vines!
We came here and started, and others joined in within six months.
Technically speaking there were four pioneers on the ground for
quite some time, until 1986, and then we were joined by another one
or two. Then slowly the place took off.
PH: And they all came from diverse
NMC: We were driven by passion rather
than sense. We were all passionate about wine, and anyone at the
time could have told you this was stupid—you are going nowhere.
JG:Why was that?
NMC: Apart from about one or two lauded
wines, there was no such thing as a fine wine industry in New
JG:It is amazing how quickly it has changed.
NMC: The story is as much about good luck
as anything. It is good luck in cultural shifts and affluence (in
terms of wine drinkers), which came gradually over the next 20
JG: I suppose consumers are an important
part of this.
are crucial. Up till 15 years ago I would lie in bed thinking ‘why
am I in this? I could walk out and all I have is the value of the
land.’ But that changed. It is just good luck.
JG: How did you find the transition to
becoming a wine grower?
NMC: Pretty good. I was previously a
research chemist. I just went into the library and read all the
English language research that had ever been published on wine. This
was very much starting from first principles. This was quite a good
thing. We were isolated, so we weren’t really contaminated by the
ideas of the time. When they saw what we were trying to do, a lot of
people went out of their way to explain that we were really crazy.
Even really fine viticulturalists. I remember, there was a
viticultural symposium here in 1987 and Professor Olmo and a few
others came round. He walked our vineyards, looked at me and looked
at the other viticulturalists, and sais, ‘These vines cannot ripen
those grapes.’ He was referring to the fact that we did this
complete leaf plucking. Essentially he was saying the same thing as
everyone else: that we are idiots.
JG: I saw the split canopy you use with
white sheets under the row. Presumably the white sheets reflect back
NMC: We farm for light not heat. Light is
critical. In terms of what you want to be happening with phenolics,
the reactions are essentially free radical reactions. They become
easier with heat or light. If you are in a cool climate you are in a
good position because light will potentiate the free radical
polymerizations, but light doesn’t affect the flavours, caused by
chemicals such as terpenes. You are getting the best of both worlds.
If you are in a warmer climate you can still get the changes to the
phenolics, but you tend to get your flavours changed and baked off.
This is the difference in a cool climate. So we have ended up with
wines like Syrah and Viognier, which technically should not be grown
here: it is too cold.
JG: What do you think about biodynamics?
As a scientist I am very interested in this. I have visited quite a
few biodynamic vineyards and they are usually making fantastic wines
from them. I am trying to work out which viticultural tools they are
using that may be having some sort of effect.
have exactly the same mindset as us. We have always been as
sustainable as possible. Essentially, we are exploring the
biodynamic situation but we would never label ourselves and confine
ourselves within a discipline. There are many practices we take on
board, such as the focus on soil health. I still have to wonder
about things like cow horns. On the other hand, I am ready to accept
many of the positions about the phases of the moon, which concur
with my own observations. You can see the moon has an influence. We
will continue to go down the track of biodynamics with the overall
aim of minimizing any intrusion into the natural processes of how
vines grow. This intrusion doesn’t include things like canopy
manipulation. General vine and soil health is terribly important,
and there has to be a feedback with what you get off the vine, too.
JG: It is interesting watching it all
unfold. As a scientist, I feel that often what is being criticized
by some of the biodynamic guys is an old-fashioned, inadequate
understanding of conventional agriculture. Now, even mainstream
agriculture is moving more towards seeing a vineyard as a complete
agroecosystem, with many interactions among the different organisms.
NMC: We have to accept too that we will
not understand all the relationships. But there is an empirical
approach that should be centred on that central philosophy of what
we can do to minimize the intrusions, and maximize the overall
health of the full situation. It is very interesting. This is a 30
year project, not a three year project. Even now, we use very few
sprays. In vintage 2009, someone was saying how they had this level
of rot in their Pinot Noir. Shayne said, ‘we don’t have any,’
and he was accused of lying. This is all about management. We don’t
have problems with botrytis. For us, this is a considerable success
story. We spend a huge amount on manual management of the vineyard,
but we would argue that we are paid back in spades by the health of
the grapes and the fact that we simply don’t lose crop.
JG: Are you a bit of a pariah in New
Zealand for using natural cork?
NMC: Everyone likes to hear the debate,
but I’d suggest that the closure is a winemaking choice. Our corks
are brilliant. This is the other winemaking choice: we simply screen
the corks. We say, give us a random sample and we will tell you
whether we will take that batch. The permeable screwcaps look to be
a possible compromise, but the problem is that Saran is an endocrine
disruptor. At the end of the day, these people shouldn’t be saying
to me you should be using screwcap or not; they should be saying I’m
interested in what the final wine is. It is all about this wine in
this glass. Then if they want to know how I got there, the closure
is on the same level as the barrel and everything else. There’s
another factor, which is that a redox cycle seems to be set up. Your
wine goes reductive for the first couple of years and reaches the
most reductive situation. But because the chemical reactions are so
slow it takes a while to get to an equilibrium. This equilibrium
takes place in terms of an oscillation between oxidation and
reduction. So around about four or five years, a wine can look quite
oxidative, and then they go back to a reduced situation again. About
three years ago our 1997 wines looked like they were dying and
needed drinking up, but we tried them recently and they were great.
PH: It’s quite frustrating, but it is
part of the pleasure of wine. We actually don’t know them at all!
are just interested observers.
JG: With regard to your Pinot Noir, how
do you make a wine that is so linear, and that will age so well?
NMC: A lot of it is in the vineyard.
There are still decisions from the winemakers point of view. They
are simpler: it is really just a question of pre or post-maceration,
and how long. The other thing is that our winemaking is completely
anaerobic. We believe in preserving the phenolics, not messing them
up. At the end of the day there will always be some sort of light
fining just to tune the phenolics. The concept of oxidative
winemaking can be necessary, depending on the path you choose. If
you haven’t got your phenolics right in the vineyard, then
oxidative winemaking becomes necessary to tame the characters that
you end up with.
PH: That’s why we place so much
emphasis on the vineyard, because we need to get everything at the
NMC: Every vineyard flaw will be seen in
the winery because of the way we make it.
PH:We make small amounts so there is no room for error.
JG:I really like your Syrah. I love cool climate Syrah.
is cold-climate Syrah!
JG: I think Pinot Noir and Syrah have an affinity when Syrah is
NMC: Yes, and I can excuse people for
confusing them when they don’t know what they are.
PH:The Syrah gets about 50% more attention than any other
variety. It as big bunches, big leaves and a big personality. We
just have to make sure it doesn’t get too big.
JG:More generally, how do you see this region developing? Has it
developed in the right sort of ways? What are the challenges and
what are the opportunities?
are two parts to Martinborough. One is the Martinborough terrace,
which is completely planted up. Then there is Te Muna, which is the
same geological formation, but has a different climate: it is about
two weeks later. They are clearly brothers and sisters. Our main
problem is probably the overproduction that is happening in New
Zealand at the moment. The New Zealand brand is at risk.
Martinborough can only exist in the boutique, high quality, high
price area. It is the only way we can do it. It naturally crops low.
It can never be economic to do supermarket wines here.
PH:There is no room for expansion on the Martinborough terrace,
so it is contained as a boutique area.
Muna gives about 50% more again, but they are essentially confined
by the same issues. We just have to make the best wines we can and
make a distinct statement: to not be seen just as more New Zealand
wine. It is getting the brand Martinborough out there and selling on
that. We are probably 1% of the national production. But
Martinborough figures quite highly in comparison to its production
state. We will always be underfunded because no one makes money
here: the promotion will not happen out of Martinborough. It is a
great place for people who love wine rather than love getting rich!
PH:And we have the capital city an hour away that has adopted us
as their own region, which is great.
Dry River Riesling Craighall 2009
Martinborough This is cropped at 2 tons/acre, but the vineyard could easily do
4 tons/acre. Very fresh, minerally and precise with lovely taut
acidity. There’s lovely focus on the nose. Very crisp and dry but
not austere, with nice complexity. 92/100
Dry River Pinot Gris 2008
Martinborough Mineral and taut but with lovely rich, grapey texture. Very
smooth and textured with some complexity. Nice, spicy finish. Real
interest here. Deliciously ripe with good complexity. 92/100
Dry River Gewürztraminer 2008
Martinborough From two blocks, with vines as old as 30 years. Beautifully
intense but balanced nose with subtle grape, lychee and melon notes.
The palate is broad and intense with some sweetness and a broad
texture. Fresh with a subtly spicy finish: a really interesting wine
with real character. 94/100
River Pinot Noir 2001 Martinborough Superbly elegant, yet still quite rich with lovely bright focused fruit
and nice purity. Still very pure and linear with lovely focus.
River Pinot Noir 2004 Martinborough Sweet
and rich on the nose with a liqueur-like edge to the fruit, showing
bold cherry and berry fruit with a hint of iodine. Nice acidity.
Good purity with spicy, mineral and earth notes. A big fruity wine,
but elegant with it. 94/100
River Pinot Noir 2005 Martinborough Sweet,
intense, pure, focused, structured and spicy with lovely impact of
sweet raspberry and cherry fruit. Very structured and bold, but
beautifully balanced with lovely freshness. Hard to spit. 96/100
Dry River Pinot Noir 2008
Martinborough 12.5% alcohol. Beautifully focused nose is very fine and
expressive showing dark fruits, spicy and minerals. The palate is
super-elegant with lovely dark, pure cherry fruit, some spice and a
hint of meatiness. Very expressive with good acidity and freshness.
Dry River Syrah Arapoff 2001
Martinborough 12% alcohol. Real precision and focus with pure, smooth bright
fruit. Ageing beautifully in a linear way with subtle pepper notes,
good acidity and a bit of meatiness. Very precise and linear. Still
Dry River Syrah Lovat 2005
Martinborough Very smooth, peppery and bright. Focused and intense, but
beginning to settle down with real elegance and a bit of peppery
edginess. Spice, cherry and raspberry notes. Lovely stuff. 94/100
Dry River Syrah Lovat 2007
Martinborough 12.5% alcohol. Thrilling aromatic nose of meat, spice, blood,
raspberries and pepper. Fresh with a wonderful savouriness. The
palate is fresh with amazing, expressive, spicy pepper characters
and generous texture. Lovely stuff with a few rough edges perhaps
(at present), but the potential to develop really nicely. Beautiful