Michelle Richardson
An interview and tasting with one of New Zealand's leading winemakers

Website: www.richardsonwines.co.nz


Meeting winemakers is one of the fun bits of my job. They're quite a diverse bunch, ranging from the shy and retiring, to the opinionated and forthright. Celebrated kiwi winemaker Michelle Richardson, who I met over dinner at The Providores, falls firmly into the latter camp. She was there to showcase two of the projects she is involved with: Richardson wines, and also a new venture called Waitaki Braids.

Michelle's wine career started at age 25 with a year's postgrduate course in enology at Roseworthy in Australia. She'd previously spent three years backpacking, after completing a degree in microbiology (1985). 'Yeasts got me into wine,' she says. But Gawler, the nearest town to Roseworthy, wasn't exactly her favourite place. 'Thank god it was just a year,' she says, noting that Gawler is largely populated by ZZ Top fans and topless barmaids. And Roseworthy didn’t teach her the important stuff: 'I still didn't know how to make wine,' she says.

So it was off to find a proper job. 'My Holden HQ couldn't make it to Perth, but it got me to Port Macquarie,' she says, referring to her first winemaking gig at the Cassegrain winery on the coast between Sydney and Brisbane. 'I spent two years there and learned all the practical bits about winemaking.'

This was followed by a spell as a 'flying winemaker', working for Hugh Ryman in Europe where her brief was to rock up at large wineries and help them make consistent, clean, fruity wines for UK supermarkets. But it was the next step that was to prove pivotal in her development as a winemaker: in 1992 she did vintage at Villa Maria's winery in Auckland. She was later hired by Villa’s owner, George Fistonich, on a full time basis, and became chief winemaker here, picking up a slew of awards for her wines.   

'George Fistonich gave me the ability to make wines how I wanted,’ says Michelle. ‘He micromanages, but once he trusted me he let me do what I wanted to. It was like a father-daughter relationship. I was there 10 years and it was hard to leave, but I needed a challenge.' So a few years back she left to start her own venture: Michelle Richardson Wines. The relationship with George has been maintained, and now she makes all her wines in the Villa Maria Auckland winery. All the fruit is sent up to Auckland for processing.

Michelle draws on Marlborough and Central Otago for her grapes. Unsurprisingly, her Sauvignon Blanc is sourced from Marlborough. But it's not designed to be a typical Marlborough Savvie. 'I wanted to make a Sauvignon Blanc that I could finish the glass and have another one.'

‘I didn't want high alcohol. Lots of New Zealand aromatics are starting to creep up in alcohol. I have decided that 13/13.5% is too high: I want it at 12.5%. So I picked at 3 am at the Brix level that I wanted. Consequently I was able to ferment to dryness. My secret is that I keep a small portion back for natural ferment.’

Richardson is adamant that 'wild ferments' aren't carried out by the yeasts occurring in the vineyard. It is not vineyard yeast; it is winery yeast,' she says. 'I know that for a fact.' She thinks that 20% natural ferment is enough for Sauvignon, and that any more robs the aroma. It takes away the Sauvignon Blanc aroma.

Chardonnay is important to her. Initially she sourced it from Marlborough, but now it comes from Central Otago. ‘My winemaking has changed since I started out at Villa Maria,’ she reveals. ‘I thought when I left that I'd keep making wines the same way, but when I had to buy my own barrels, I changed my mind. They cost $1500. I only got one new barrel, and I got it for free from a cooperage who thought I still had influence.’

So she used older barrels, and had what she described as a eureka moment. ‘I wasn't a real fan of the Chardonnays I made before with 40% new oak. For me, I need something lighter. 5-10% new oak makes the Chardonnay sing.’

‘Overoaked Chardonnay has been why the ABC [anything but Chardonnay] movement has arisen. I never lost the love for Chardonnay, but people were just putting more oak into it. At Villa Maria I never had the confidence to use less oak, but finances forced me to and I've never looked back.’

For Chardonnay she takes the wild ferment route. ‘I believe that Chardonnay should be 100% wild ferment. I don't want peaches or nectarines in my Chardonnay: it's not an aromatic!’

And Michelle now believes that Central is the place to make Chardonnay; after all, it does well with Pinot Noir, and the two tend to go together. But Chardonnay from here hasn't been recognized as serious. Michelle reckons that part of the problem is that clone 6 has been used as a workhorse; she uses Mendoza clone 15. She also ferments warmer – cold ferments with commercial yeasts preserve the tropical fruit notes, which she doesn't want.

‘Paramount to me is the feel of the wine,’ says Michelle. ‘I am not disregarding the nose – it is the introduction to the wine – but how it rests in the mouth is really important. I would rob the wine of a percentage of the aromatics for how it feels in the mouth.’

Now she’s established as a well known winemaker, Michelle has opted out of entering her wines into shows. ‘I got my winemaking reputation through wine shows, but I wouldn't put my wines into wine shows now. There are too many wines, and wines change so much when you start to eat, especially Pinot Noir.’

She adds that, ‘Some wines get left behind because they are subtle, and they need food to show their best.’

Pinot Noir is an important focus for her, and, again, wild ferments are an important part of her approach. Her Pinot is sourced from Central Otago, although she’s not a fan of all Central Pinots. ‘The thing I didn't like about many Central Otago Pinot Noirs was that the fruit tended to be jammy,’ she states. ‘What gave the jammy character was the quick, efficient fermentation by cultured yeast. The wine is made in a 5 day window: not the way it should happen with Pinot Noir. It produces a lovely seductive sweet wine, which seduces people, but I struggled with these big jammy wines. If you use natural yeasts, it makes for a much more complex, interesting wine.’


Michelle Richardson Sauvignon Blanc 2009 Marlborough, New Zealand
Quite dense and grassy with nice rounded fruit. A fresh wine with nice presence and acidity. 88/100

Michelle Richardson Chardonnay 2005 Marlborough
These days Michelle sources her Chardonnay from Central Otago, but this older example is from Marlborough. Nutty, brioche nose is aromatic and toasty, with nice citrus freshness. The palate is fresh and spicy with some presence and good complexity. Just 8% new oak, but it tastes like more. 92/100

Michelle Richardson Chardonnay 2008 Central Otago
13.5% alcohol. Natural ferments, older oak. Very fine, complex, refined Chardonnay. Subtle, integrated, gently nutty nose with fine citrus, pear and white peach fruit. The palate is super-elegant and fine with subtle mealiness and expressive fruit. No harshness here. Lovely purity. Not overly concentrated but scores highly for finesse. 94/100

Richardson Pinot Noir 2006 Central Otago
Bright, fresh red cherry and red berry fruit nose. The palate is fresh with rich cherry and berry fruit. Spicy and dense, but also very fresh and youthful. Some grippy tannins on the finish, with a bit of sweetness to the fruit. 92/100

See also:

Waitaki Braids: new wines from a new region in New Zealand's north Otago

Wines tasted 09/10  
Find these wines with

Back to top