Winemaking has travelled far from the belief that stomping on the grapes with smelly feet adds a certain inimitable flavour to the finished result. These days, the latest thinking involves the utmost gentle handling of the fruit, allowing gravity to do most of the work.
At The Batch, Waiheke Island's newest winery, gleaming stainless-steel Charmat tanks look like something you'd find in a spaceship. Winemaker Daniel Struckman is the Captain of this Enterprise. He was instrumental in the layout of the winery, which tucks into its lofty hillside. The gravity-fed process with custom-designed tipping tanks means the fruit is never pumped from one stage to the next. The result is a taste that is clean and true to the grape, rather than overly manipulated.
With the help of Mother Nature and some state-of-the-art technology, Struckman is producing and bottling syrah, cabernet sauvignon, pinot gris, chardonnay and flora right here on site. In addition, the first examples of sparkling blanc de blancs came off the hand-fed production line just in time for the recent Sculpture on the Gulf event.
Although the bubbles made a timely entrance to the scene, it has been four years in the making; four years since the Thomas family from Canada first saw this location. It was the highest vineyard on the island and, with its north-facing slopes and breath-taking views, they considered it a world-beater. After planting a hobby vineyard at their cottage in Lake Superior, where temperatures can reach minus 40C in winter, this was Nirvana discovered.
"We had travelled Europe, North America and South America for several years looking for the perfect site for a vineyard and our family," says owner Craig Thomas. Luckily, they then ventured further afield.
The Thomases hired international designer David Scott, an occasional resident of the island, to craft them a building in the New Zealand vernacular that would reflect their love of wine. Scott devised a structure that is shed-like with a monopitch roof. It has a strong industrial palette of concrete floors, bach-like black weatherboard and a Corten steel entrance, fitting for its utilitarian nature.
However, there is art, too, in the tending and pressing of grapes. So the heart of the winery features semi-translucent micro-cell panels in tones of ruby red and straw-yellow, inspired by the colours of wine. They serve an important design purpose in that, though they bring a distinctive personality to the building, they also allow UV-filtered natural light on to the production-room floor.
These same colours feature on Batch Winery labels, along with a file number that references the year of the vintage and the style of wine. Premium wines, marketed under the Thomas & Sons brand, also sport this rainbow barcode.
The Thomas' viticulturist, Ivan Alesich, is a passionate man. His family history is steeped in wine and, although he came to the practice of viticulture later in life, he is making up for lost time enthusiastically. Alesich had worked with the Brakjovich family in Henderson before taking up his current role: "I hope that we are bringing the joy we find in making the wine into the glass".
Although he admits that he still "looks like a Westie", tending the three hectares of vineyard has allowed the clay soils of Waiheke to get under his skin. "To me, vines are like women. They're beautiful, they bear fruit and you should keep telling them how wonderful they are."
Alesich has an almost spiritual relationship with the land and follows the company philosophy of using natural, environmentally sustainable methods. The Batch is in its third year of converting from conventional grape growing to organics and so choosing varieties that flourish in this particular environment is essential. "The vines tell me what they need," he says. "We try to use the elements in our favour.
We don't have the same heat concentration as vineyards planted at lower altitudes but the cooler nights give really good phenolics and flavour."
He keeps an open canopy on the neat rows of vines because there's plenty of wind up here on the ridge. This dries out the canopy and thus the vines suffer less disease.
One of Alesich's favourite grapes is flora and The Batch is one of only three vineyards in New Zealand that still grows the variety. For a long time, it was thought to be a form of pinot gris until a visiting French winemaker spotted the difference in the 1990s. "It's a cross between gewurztraminer and semillon and has wonderful floral characters. It's the type of wine you can enjoy right to the end of the bottle," he says.
Visitors to the cellar door can make acquaintance with flora as they drink in a vista that stretches the full circle of possibility. The Thomas' now see this as their new home, a place of gathering and making family memories. Platter food featuring local olive oil and breads from the new Italian baker on the island is planned for the future. Other ideas that make full use of this spectacular spot are also bubbling away. Says Craig Thomas: "Like a bach, we are ever evolving".
• The cellar door is currently open for summer hours. Tasting and tours are available for groups on request. See batchwinery.com for details.