My favourite time of the year is late autumn,” Tamra Kelly-Washington, the chief winemaker at Yealands in Marlborough, says.
“The last of the fruit is in the winery and the leaves on the vines are awash with red, yellow and orange. It’s stunning.
“It’s also the best feeling to hear rain on the roof at this time, knowing all your fruit is in and tucked away nicely in the winery bubbling away.”
The seasons play a crucial role at Yealands, with the weather, as well as the craft and skill of the winemaker, deciding the flavour profile of each vintage. Kelly-Washington has seen the seasons come and go for eight years at Yealands, having been with the winery since its infancy in 2007 and overseeing its first vintage in 2008.
Having been brought up in Marlborough during the region’s viticulture explosion, her interest in wine was piqued early. She completed a degree in Viticulture (the study of grapes in the vineyard) and Oenology (the study of making wine) at Lincoln University before returning home to Marlborough to take up her first job.
It was not long before she was lured by opportunities abroad and headed to California’s Napa Valley, followed by stints in Australia’s Hunter Valley and Margaret River regions, and then a role in Sicily, Italy, as head winemaker for a group overseeing wineries in Sicily, Puglia and Tunisia.
After a period as a flying winemaker, overseeing production from Italy’s northern Veneto region, Kelly-Washington was lured home by Yealands founder, Peter Yealands. She started with Yealands in October 2007.
“I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to be involved right from scratch, it’s not very often this happens for a winemaker,” Kelly-Washington says.
“The business has gone from not having a single customer to exporting around the world to more than 80 countries in a short space of time.”
The success, though, can in a large part be contributed to Kelly-Washington’s drive. She says no day is the same on the vineyard. In summer and autumn the grapes are ripening on the vines. “A lot of my time will be spent monitoring the progress of fruit in our vineyards, driving all over Marlborough and assessing when the best time to pick the fruit is.”
During this time she will also be making preparations in the winery for harvest.
“Harvest hits around March and runs through until May. This is the most intense and crazy, yet most fun time of the year.
“The winery is full of eager budding young winemakers from all over the world, who bring a real buzz to the place. The winery will run 24 hours a day, seven days a week so it is a lot of hard work but very rewarding.”
As winemaker, Kelly-Washington has a chance to influence how the wines will turn out for the particular year.e“Many days are spent coordinating and overseeing the whole process – from when the grapes are picked to how they are processed into wine.”
Once harvest is finished the fine-tuning begins and months of blending starts. White wines are blended from May to July and reds in October and November. “Blending is just as important as the harvest period and it is when a winemaker’s creative juices will be flowing. It’s a time of reflection and concentration. Your palate must be very sharp. It involves a huge amount of tasting, trialling and juggling volumes.”
The process is of course different for red and white wines. With white varieties the grapes are picked, turned into clear juice immediately and cool-fermented to trap the pure fruit flavours that are naturally present in the grapes.
During the fermentation process all the sugar present in the grapes is turned into alcohol. Once the fermentation is complete the wine is blended (if necessary), stabilised and filtered, prior to bottling. This process can be as short as two months for a varietal such as sauvignon blanc but longer for those that need to mature such as chardonnay.
For red wine the main difference is the grapes are fermented in their skins and can remain like this for up to a month, maybe even more, depending on the winemaker’s style.
“This is what will help give the red wines their colour, body and tannin structure which is so different to a white wine.”
Reds will then be separated from their skins and usually aged in oak barrels for some time, where they undergo a secondary fermentation which will convert tart-tasting malic acid to softer-tasting lactic acid.
The process is typically much longer than that of a white wine. It is a process that Kelly-Washington drives and which has seen Yealands thrive.
“The business has continued to grow steadily over the past seven years; however it has maintained the unique culture and Peter Yealands’ leadership, which has been a big part of our success.” She has enjoyed “growing a young, fun team and working with one of the most unique vineyards in New Zealand – the Seaview vineyard”.
Yealands’ home in the Awatere Valley was, for a long time, regarded as unsuitable for grape growing.
Peter Yealands thought differently. He filled ravines, smoothed gullies, terraced hills and planted a diverse range of grapes using GPS alignment, transforming rugged pastoral land into a sustainable vineyard area.
The result is a vineyard in some of Marlborough’s harshest conditions with low yielding vines, which produce small berries with thick skins and an intense varietal character.
“Seeing this vineyard establish itself, and also the wines mature and develop positively since inception has also been very rewarding,” Kelly-Washington says.
“It is beyond inspiring, incredibly challenging but rewarding at the same time”.