Finding the sweet spot

By Joelle Thomson

Viticulturist Martin Tillard is on the hunt for the perfect spot to grow New Zealand pinot noir and riesling grapes, measuring soil densities, structures and the climate, writes MiNDFOOD wine editor Joelle Thomson.

It’s a chilly day in North Canterbury, the sun is shyly peaking through a dark sky of low grey cloud and Martin Tillard is pushing all his weight into crushing a bucket of freshly picked pinot noir grapes.

The results are delicious, but we are not tasting wine.

We are tasting sweet, cloudy, greenish coloured grape juice. Following usual wine tasting protocol, a group of wine waiters, restaurateurs and I spend the next 10 minutes swirling, sniffing and sipping the unfermented grape juice.

This is not an exercise in healthy drinking. We are on the verge of vintage 2008 in North Canterbury, and Tillard wants to show us flavour variation between grapes grown in different parts of the same vineyard, prior to them being turned into wine.

Naturally enough, tasting grape juice is not the same as tasting or drinking wine. Nowhere near as pleasurable, for a start.

Surprisingly, however, it still proves that there is a vast difference between the flavour of grapes grown on gravel soils and those grown on clay soils here at North Canterbury’s Camshorn Vineyard.

And the exercise might end right there, were it not for Tillard’s passion for growing grapes – or ‘gardening’, as he puts it.

A qualified viticulturist, Tillard has divided this vast 160 hectare vineyard, owned by Pernod Ricard, into its different soil types in an ongoing bid to pinpoint the best flavours.

Like most New Zealand vineyards, this one is a mere toddler in terms of vine age. The first vines were planted here in 2002, so it is still early days.

In the quest for knowledge, Tillard has isolated four different soil types, planted three different grapes and lost count of the number of different rootstocks on which the grapes here are planted.

Between the Salix clays, Dommett clays, Glasvenin gravels and Glenmark gravels, there are massive changes not only in soil appearance but also in the taste of the grapes grown on them.

The clays give more structured, austere tasting riesling grapes. The clays yield more intense, fruity riesling grapes, which make the Camshorn Classic Riesling; a wine for hedonists if ever there was.

Similar differences show up in the pinot noir grapes grown at Camshorn, but there is only one Camshorn Pinot Noir made, to date.

Lesser quality grapes find their way into lower priced, more ‘everyday’ pinot noirs in the large Pernod Ricard stable. Finding flavour differences in the relatively inexpressive pinot gris grapes is a more elusive exercise, but pinot gris is soaked up like a sponge by a thirsty market looking for easy drinking white wines.

Camshorn Vineyard takes its name from the farm here prior to the land being converted into a vineyard.

It was, briefly, the largest vineyard in Waipara, North Canterbury, but it has now been overtaken by an even bigger one directly across the road, owned by another winery. And that’s another story.

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