In a privileged site in the Lowburn subdistrict of Central Otago, Domaine Rewa – a small biodynamic vineyard – is turning out some very smart wines. And there’s a great story behind it, too.
Back in 2010, Philippa Shepherd (now Fourbet, but we’ll get to that later) was working for Deutsche Bank in London. The job was pretty high-powered (she was at Director level), but she hadn’t left her roots behind her. She was born and raised on a farm in Waitahuna in Otago, about 2 hours from Rewa. ‘I always wanted to have a business,’ she says, ‘and I wanted it to be land based, because I always knew I wanted to be an old lady in New Zealand.’
As a child she visited the area, but it was very different then. ‘This was all just rabbit-infested, desolate land, before the dam came in.’ Now it’s very different, and the Cromwell Basin is home to some of New Zealand’s top vineyards.
Here’s a film where I interview Philippa and Yannick – we discuss pots and biodynamics, among other things, including Yannick’s plans to make amphorae for wine.
After Philippa decided she wanted to buy something, she looked around for quite a while. She even thought about buying an apple orchard. But in 2009 her parents found this vineyard, which had been planted by the Lawrence family who now run Aurum wines. The next day, Philippa put an offer in from London, having only seen the property in photographs. ‘In 2009, no vineyard had changed hands in Central Otago for two years,’ she says. ‘There were 800 vineyards in New Zealand, and 500 of them were for sale.’
She says she got it for the price of a house in Auckland. It was planted in 1999, and has 2.5 hectares of Pinot Noir, and a hectare each of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling. Initially, as an absentee owner, she hired Grant Rolston of Vine Wise to manage the vineyard (he’s still involved now), and he spoke to Pete Bartle who ended up making the wines (he still does, at VinPro). They took over the property just after the 2010 vintage, and made the first wines in 2011. The initial Domaine Rewa production was just 3000 bottles, and now they are making 15 000.
In 2011 they started farming organically, and then started implementing biodynamics in 2012. If they’d carried on with certification, they would be certified in 2014, but they decided to stick with just organic certification, even though they still practice biodynamics. ‘They are quite painful here,’ says Philippa, referring to the biodynamic certifying bodies. ‘We had problems planting herbs in the garden and we couldn’t buy a lemon tree.’
The only viticultural problems have been with powdery mildew, which takes a lot of effort to control, and with the tannins in Pinot Noir. In some vintages the site is capable of making quite tannic Pinots, and they don’t think it’s an issue with not enough irrigation.
But the other half of the story is the French Potter, Yannick Fourbet, who is now Philippa’s husband, and who has transplanted his business from the south of France to Central Otago. Yannick was born and raised in Cameroon, and then moved to France to finish off his eductation. After a short spell as a marine biologist, he studied for an MBA in marketing, and then started dealing in antiques. He then fell in love with Anduze pots, and bought shares in a pottery called La Chêne Vert, where he learned how to make them. ‘Somehow, along the way, a Kiwi girl walked into my workshop.’ It was 2012, and Philippa was looking for pots for her vineyard in New Zealand. She was asking lots of questions and the sales person didn’t have much English. They came to find Yannick: ‘Yannick, Yannick, you speak English, there is someone here.’
‘I come out with my big apron and clay in my hair. Hello, can I help you? She fell in love with the pots before the potter, which is fine by me,’ he recalls. In 2013 he was exhibiting at the Chelsea Flower Show.
‘We had been corresponding for a year, sporadically,’ Yannick says. “I was done with setting up the stand and I gave her a call and said would you like to have a drink? She was really busy at the time: she was going right and left in Europe for Deutsche Bank, and her parents were visiting as well. So we had this drink and so much fun that the next day we reiterated the operation. We had dinner and, then, you know, it was very nice.’
At this point, Yannick was working in France running his workshop, and Philippa was still tied up in Deutsche Bank, working long hours and travelling a lot. But they began their relationship. ‘The next thing you now we decided to get married,’ says Yannick.
‘We got engaged in 2014 and got married in 2015,’ says Philippa. ‘I was pregnant with twins, but I stayed in London until the end of 2015, and then we lived in France for 2016/17 in the Cevennes, and then we moved here.’ They arrived in January 2018, and now Domaine Rewa is their home. They weren’t initially going to make the move so fast, but Yannick is 53, Philippa is 42, and with two young boys, it seemed the best time.
‘If you are going to run a vineyard from the other side of the world, unless you have so much money, you are really capped on where you can go,’ says Philippa. ‘There is no way we could have continued.’
So now they are in situ, and looking to grow production (they are still selling some grapes), and build Domaine Rewa. But there’s another side to the business: pots.
‘After we met, I have always told Philippa that pots will sell wine, and wine will sell pots,’ says Yannick. ‘Where it ticks the box is that people from the wine industry have heard about us coming back here, me being a potter, and the idea of building a workshop to make horticultural pots like I have always done, except I plan to have collection that will be typically Kiwi, from Central Otago.’ The pot side of things has interested winemakers, and Pete Bartle, Alan Brady and Rudi Bauer have all asked Yannick whether he can make amphorae for wine. The workshop is now under construction. It will be interesting to try the first Central Otago wines fermented and aged in clay from the region.
The couple have a tremendous energy to them. Philippa, especially: she is still working in banking as a director for NZ Bank, and commutes once a week to Wellington where she works for a day, stays overnight, and then heads back to Domaine Rewa. Now they are living in the vineyard, this should be a winery to watch.
Domaine Rewa Riesling 2015 Central Otago, New Zealand
This wine has lovely texture with a citrus core and some subtle melon and honey notes. Dry with some sweet fruit and nice intensity. A stylish wine with some residual sugar countered by nice acidity. 92/100
Domaine Rewa Riesling 2016 Central Otago, New Zealand
There’s brightness and freshness here. Taut with attractive lemony fruit and a bit of pithiness, as well as really good acidity. Linear and bright with lovely purity and precision. Youthful. 92/100
Domaine Rewa Chardonnay 2016 Central Otago, New Zealand
An intriguing wine with a creamy, bready edge to the linear pear and apple fruit. There’s a nice pithy edge here with lovely stony notes. Such precision to this wine, which shows a great linear drive and a sense of delicacy. 93/100
Domaine Rewa Chardonnay 2017 Central Otago, New Zealand
Fresh and vivid with lovely juicy citrus and pear fruit. Has freshness and a direct, linear drive. Stony and bright with good balance and poise. 93/100
Domaine Rewa Pinot Noir 2012 Central Otago, New Zealand
This is drinking well, but it still has quite firm tannins. Juicy and fine with red cherries, some spices, some earthy notes and a fine-grained structure. Developing in a nice direction with good finesse. 93/100
Domaine Rewa Pinot Noir 2014 Central Otago, New Zealand
Lovely black cherry and blackberry fruit. Quite dark and intense but also showing some elegance. Really precise style with silkiness and purity, as well as some generosity. 94/100
Domaine Rewa Pinot Noir 2015 Central Otago, New Zealand
Delicate nose with some fine herbal notes as well as focused red fruits. Supple, juicy palate with redcurrant and red cherry fruit. There are also some hints of seaweed and decayed leaves. Sweetly fruited and expressive in a lighter style. This is an outlier. 91/100
Domaine Rewa Pinot Noir 2016 Central Otago, New Zealand
This shows pure, vivid red cherry and berry fruit. Finesse and elegance are the hallmarks, with purity, a lightness of body and a spine of grippy tannins. Lovely elegant style. 94/100
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Great write-up Jamie. Amazing how people from so many walks of life end up in the wine industry.