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Region’s top wineries right up with the best

Ethan Pittard, left, Sarah Bartlett, James Pittard, Michelle Mills, Sam Rouse, and winemaker Wilco Lam – the small team at Dry River Wines, ranked the sixth best winery in New Zealand. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

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Internationally-acclaimed wine guide The Real Review has named New Zealand’s 200 best wineries, and it won’t come as much surprise that several from Wairarapa were included, with three making the top 20.

Dry River Wines was ranked sixth, Kusuda Wines was ranked eighth, and Ata Rangi was ranked 15th – all three are based in Martinborough, with 20 Wairarapa wineries making the top 200.

Wairarapa’s best-placed offering, Dry River Wines, was established in 1979 by Neil and Dawn McCallum.

The McCallums were instrumental in establishing the fledgling Martinborough wine region; in 2003 they sold to American hedge fund manager Julian Robertson.

Placed 12th in 2018, and seventh in 2019, the winery had been climbing the rankings, selected by wine expert Bob Campbell, New Zealand’s premier critic and one of only about 300 people in the world with a Master of Wine certification.

Sarah Bartlett, business manager at Dry River, traced some gradual refinements that had led to their growing esteem.

“We’ve had more of a focus over the last two years in organics,” Bartlett said.

“We became certified organic in 2019, and we’ve done that for quality reasons: we believe that it really does produce better wines.

“We’ve got 11.5ha here, which is even quite small for Martinborough standards.

“This means we can take a much more hands-on approach: we can make multiple passes throughout the vineyard through the harvesting period, but also just be very considered in our approach at all stages of the winegrowing process.”

Dry River has been helmed by chief winemaker Wilco Lam since 2013.

Ranked eighth was one of Wairarapa’s smaller, more elusive wineries, Kusuda Wines, the brainchild of Hiroyuki Kusuda, who shifted his energy into winemaking in about 1996, after several years spent working for Fujitsu in Tokyo, and then for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sydney.

He would later study oenology [the science of wine] in Germany in his early 30s and then move to Martinborough.

With just 2.8ha of vines, very little media presence, the majority of vintages sold overseas, and a Japanese picking crew, composed of eager wine students who fly out to Martinborough yearly to harvest the grapes by hand [meticulously picking out individual bad grapes], Kusuda occupies the role of a reclusive master in Wairarapa wine, and produces some of the best pinot noir in the world from his tiny acreage.

This year, due to covid-19, he had to decline his international picking crew and source it entirely from contacts around New Zealand.

“I needed the team, especially for pinot noir, and I finished the pinot before lockdown. I still had friends in Palmerston North, Wellington, Auckland, but it was much smaller this year: a small team and lots of work.

“At the end of February, a lot before lockdown, I declined 35 people that had been confirmed, it was too risky.”

Kusuda, now in his mid-50s, still does the majority of the winegrowing work on his own, and said he was limited only by his physical ability.

“I’m making muscle movements as little as possible. Ten years ago: no problem. Even using [electric pruners], you can still imagine at the end of the day, doing this movement maybe 10,000 times a day – at night you feel some pain. I’ll hopefully continue for 10 years.”

Kusuda Wines has never been open for tastings and only sells in Wairarapa through Martinborough Wine Merchants.

Helen Masters, winemaker at Ata Rangi.

Ata Rangi founder Clive Paton sold his dairy cows and bought 5ha of barren sheep paddock at the edge of Martinborough in the early 1980s.

A 1979 scientific soil and climate report on Martinborough grape-growing had likened the sunny region, located in the Tararua rain shadow, closely to Burgundy in France.

Off the back of this ground-breaking report, Paton would go on to establish Ata Rangi and become a world-class vigneron in the process.

Ata Rangi managed to jump the ranks from 53rd last year, to 15th this year. Helen Masters, Ata Rangi’s renowned winemaker, put this down to several things, chiefly “passion”.

“The fact that we love the land and respect it for the livelihood it provides. We’re an organic certified operation and always looking for the best health in our vines and soils, which of course reflects in the wine.”

Masters said the year thus far had been both “exciting and challenging”.

“The wines in barrel from 2020 are already showing great perfume and gorgeous concentration.

“Covid-19 certainly presented its challenges, but we had a great crew finishing the harvest and working in the winery, so we were able to work together to complete the harvest in difficult circumstances.”

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