‘Wild, pure and honest’: How Huntress is building connection between fine wine and the land

By Kathryn Chung

‘Wild, pure and honest’: How Huntress is building connection between fine wine and the land
Jannine Rickards brings a deep appreciation of nature to her wine label Huntress, producing drops that bring together lovers of fine wine and food and striving to preserve a sensory connection between the land and the palate.

For winemaker and hunter Jannine Rickards, the best thing about hunting in the wild is not the flurry of the chase, but the moments of stillness in between; the flutter of kererū flapping their wings overhead, the echo of the morepork call heard in the deep of the night.

“It’s satisfying to turn your phone off and just go bush. You’re really connecting with your environment. We often do a specific loop, so every time we go out there it’s different and we get to see the seasonal changes It was while working at Ata Rangi vineyard and winery where the Wairarapa-based winemaker first developed her passion for hunting, one day asking the owner if the local hunter would take her out.

“That’s how I met my partner, Mick Hickling,” she says, describing that first outing as an exciting and nerve-wracking experience. “I also realised how unfit I was,” she laughs.

Being out in the wild wasn’t entirely unfamiliar for Rickards, who grew up on her family’s sheep and beef farm in the Coromandel. She recalls fondly her childhood on the rolling hills, helping her mum make food for the shearers, and camping in a paddock at the back of the property during summer holidays. “Our adventures would be in a massive bush next to a little valley near our house, with big Kauri trees that’d take two of us to stretch our arms around.”

Together, Rickards and Hickling hunt and butcher their own meat, targeting species that have been introduced to the wild and damage the native environments. “Hunting is a way to gather food, a way to connect with nature and slow down, rest, and restore … and a way to contribute to maintaining harmony and balance to the native bush by keeping introduced populations in check so that flora and fauna have time to regenerate.”

Rickards has spent harvests in the Burgundy region of France, California and Oregon in the US, and South Africa. In 2017, she joined the team at Wairarapa organic vineyard, Urlar, where she now works as a winemaker.

Taking the plunge

In 2018, Rickards launched her own small wine label, Huntress, after friends from the Martinborough vineyard, On Giants’ Shoulders, asked if she wanted some of their excess grapes. “It was the kind of offer you couldn’t turn down as a winemaker.”

From there, Huntress was born, now producing wines that are “wild, pure and honest” expressions of the Wairarapa. That wild spirit and deep appreciation of the land is evident in Rickards’ winemaking process, fermenting with wild yeasts in old French oak barriques, with a minimal handling approach.

Central to Huntress wines is the connection to the land and food. “To me, wine is a living product. I like to see it as part of an experience. Food is really important to me and when I’ve been training my palate and winemaking, I’m always looking at it from the sensory experience, the textures and flavours.” With that, comes a connection to the people who grow, hunt and produce the food.

When Rickards describes the wines, she does it with a thoughtful consideration of how they will be enjoyed alongside food. The Waikoa white, for example, pairs beautifully with creamed pāua sourced from Wairarapa sustainable fishing business, Tora Collective; the free- spirited Waikura rosé, a perfect to local supplier A Lady Butcher’s charcuterie selection.

“I don’t think people have a huge understanding of how a product gets to the plate or glass,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to come at the wine industry from that perspective and get people to support small and local.”

Connecting with heritage

Recently, she’s developed a keen interest in foraging, an experience that has helped her connect to her Māori roots – her whakapapa draws back to Ngāpuhi on her mother’s side and Ngāi Te Rangi on her father’s.

“I like to use kawakawa or tea. I’m curious and want to keep learning, because I think that health and wellbeing can all be connected back to that. I’m really interested in rongoā, traditional Māori healing. If we just stop and think, we’ve actually got our medicine boxes all around us.”

At Urlar, she’s developed a strong knowledge of roganic farming and its benefits. “To me, it just makes sense to be farming organically. Once you understand how food is grown and you realise that soil is so important to our wellbeing and this planet, you need to think about all the elements of what you consume. It’s about thinking about what you put into your body and how you want ot live your life, respecting the land we’re on because we want to leave it in a better way.

“When I worked in France, they had organic and biodynamic vineyards next to others, and you can see the difference in the vine health in terms of the luminosity of the grape leaf. There’s a lightness and energt to the growth on the vine.”

With a major winery expansion underway at Urlar, Rickards is happy to keep Huntress evolving organically, continuing to foster deeper connections with her customers. “I love the joy when you see someone have a wine they really like. It sets a spark in them, you can see their eyes light up – it’s wonderful.”

Photography: Claire Edwards, Adrian Vercoe for Capital magazine, New Zealand Winegrowers, Lucy Mutch Food Photography

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