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Meet the guardians of the grapes at this award-winning Central Otago winery

Meet the guardians of the grapes at this award-winning Central Otago winery

Amisfield is deeply dedicated to honouring the history of the land, acting as protectors of the grapes as they move from vine to bottle to become wines of great taste and character. This year every single grape picked at the estate was completely organic, marking a major milestone in their award-winning story.

Meet the guardians of the grapes at this award-winning Central Otago winery

The vintage of 2021 will go down in the books as a particularly special harvest for the team at Amisfield. On top of having an exceptional period of sunny days that made for a great harvest, it was the first year that every single grape picked on the estate was certified as organic. It’s something to celebrate for the award-winning Central Otago winery, which started converting its 92-hectare vineyard to organic viticulture five years ago.

Becoming a BioGro-certified organic winery meant shifting from being chemically dependent to a more hands-on and attentive approach, Vineyard Manager André Lategan tells me. “It meant drawing on experiences and moving away from the ease of being able to buy off the shelf and instead, use equipment and technique to husband the soil.” Lategan has now spent almost two decades at Amisfield, honing his experience in viticulture and gaining a deeper understanding of the soil, climate and landscape; skills that have proved vital in this organic journey.

Under organic management, synthetic fertilisers aren’t used, so to help ensure the vines get the right nutrients, clover legume crops have been planted in the middle of the row to fix nitrogen biologically from the air to feed the soil and vines. “It’s utilising these age-old principles and is a wonderful, natural way of capturing nitrogen which is more difficult to obtain organically,” says Lategan.

Harnessing the power of this symbiotic relationship has resulted in a number of environmental benefits that are not only good for the vines, but for the planet. “With all this clover growth … we are capturing carbon and returning it to the soil for sequestration,” says Lategan.

Another pillar of their sustainability project is their wastewater recycling system. No waste water from the winery leaves the property. All of the waste liquids are captured and routed through a series of ponds with aquatic plants that purify and filter out toxins from the wastewater so it can be used to irrigate the wind- breaking trees above the winery.

While the team has been challenged to work harder, so have the vines themselves. Lategan has pioneered a new technique whereby the vines are watered from the middle of the row instead of directly under the trellis. This mid-row irrigation trains the roots to grow deeper and spread out, strengthening the vines and results in more variety and complexity in the fruit.

 

“We’ve taken immense pride in the work we’ve done to get to this point.” SAM DAVIES

With no synthetic pesticides used onsite, up in the canopy, the vineyard team work meticulously to manipulate the vines to open up the canopy to reduce the risk of disease. “We go in and thin and space the shoots. All to keep as much sunlight and airflow through the canopy as possible because shading and a thick canopy provides an environment for fungal diseases,” says Lategan. “The more we open the canopy up and keep airflow, we have far better control over disease.”

All of this care and diligence is crucial when working with the Central Otago soil. Lategan is a strong believer in using a minimal-till approach so as not to disturb the precious soil. “Central Otago soils are almost desert-like. They are very delicate and are far easier to damage than in other parts of the country. If you disturb them with a plough, you can do irreversible damage to soils that have taken tens of thousands of years to be what they are,” he says. “So we’ve got to manage them appropriately. It all comes back to this system. If you can irrigate them gently, you can create an environment where soil life can thrive.”

The history and story of the land shines through in the wines, an ethos that was a driving force behind this organic conversion. Simply put, it’s about capturing the sense of place in a bottle. “At Amisfield, we’ve always been about showcasing what we are as a single vineyard estate and acting as guardians for the wines as they move throughout their life and into the bottle. It’s a philosophy we’ve maintained the whole way through our winemaking process, letting the fruit shine through,” says winemaker Sam Davies.

With organics, it means the winemakers are working even closer with the viticulturalists and the vines and understanding what’s unique about each block within the estate. And rather than growing homogenised grapes which can happen when you’re reliant on chemical fertilisers, growing in an organic way where the vines’ roots are deeper and the soil has a natural richness means new levels of character and variety become apparent. “If you look at our pinot noir, the Pisa region where we are is characterised by a lovely plushness and silky tannins with red fruits. We’re seeing that continue but also evolve into more savoury wines with greater complexity,” says Davies. “It’s a broader flavour spectrum and with all these different blocks starting to show their own personality, it allows us to form a sort of mosaic of wine. Rather than a singular style, we’re able to draw on lots of different pieces to make wines of great character.”

Amisfield is already seeing the results, having been named 2020 Organic Winery of the Year and winning Champion organic Pinot Noir and Riesling, as well as Champion organic Sauvignon Blanc in 2021. They’re not only pioneering cutting-edge techniques that nourish the soil, minimise environmental impact and strengthen the vines, but proving that it can be done at scale. At 92 hectares, Amisfield is one of the largest organic wineries in Central Otago. “Because we have 92 hectares under vine with nuances in soil type and elevation in the form of terraces plus the clonal variability in our varietal mix, we have the ability to see a broad range of growing conditions and flavour development within a single vineyard. That’s really beneficial to making wine,” says Davies.

What Amisfield has achieved in the past five years demonstrates not only a deep love for the land and passion for creating exceptional wine, but a commitment to longevity. “The key thing in the pursuit of growing good grapes and making good wine is to have an open mind and keep pushing the boundaries,” says Davies. “We’ve taken immense pride in the work we’ve done to get to this point. But it’s a journey. Just because we’ve achieved organic certification now doesn’t mean the journey stops. This is something we’re investing in long-term as custodians of the land.”

To learn more about Amsifield, vist amisfield.co.nz

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