By Bridget Rutherford, Christchurch Star - July 30, 2017
Whistling Buoy’s 2015 pinot noir was named champion wine at the Wines of Canterbury awards. Were you expecting it?
Of course (laughs). I’m very pleasantly surprised, we knew it was a good wine. I was absolutely thrilled we got a gold medal, then actually won best match with game so, to me, that was reward enough. But to actually then be named champion wine of the competition at the very end, that’s just the icing on the cake.
What do you think made this wine so good?
I think it’s a vintage, so it was a really good year and the disease pressure was relatively low. It was also warm so it had all the right elements. Obviously, you’ve still got to put in a lot of viticulture to manage the site. You’ve got to get good air flow and good light penetration. So I think it was good vineyard management, it was a good vintage, and then taking really good fruit and turning it into really exquisite pinot noir. It’s all the elements that make a really good wine. Our winemaking is done up at Greystone in Waipara, so we don’t do it on site. So at harvest point, it’s shipped up to Greystone. But we do have lots of input on the style we want and the amount of oak and oak exposure and that comes to the sorting of the fruit and the whole process. It’s not hands-off. This particular wine has had 10 months on oak and there’s new oak in that not just old oak.
It’s the second year a wine from Banks Peninsula has taken out the award, isn’t it?
We got second last year. Meniscus Wines in Akaroa were the top pinot noir. The three top pinot noirs got the top three in that category – there was Meniscus, Tussock Hill and ourselves. Ours was the top chardonnay last year. I think that’s the thing about the peninsula, because it’s on clay-based soil and pinot noir does particularly well and chardonnay grape does as well. If you’re going to pick wine varieties Banks Peninsula exemplifies, it would be pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay.
And being so close to the water in Lyttelton Harbour, do you still get any frosts?
We do right in the middle of winter, but not during the important growing season or the early start to the year. In places like Waipara and central plains, you’ve got to have frost protection and we don’t have to bother with that. We have planted in that French-style, the spaces between vines and rows are quite small. So it does mean it’s very hard to mechanise and also we’re on sloping sites, everything’s done by hand. So part of that is you’re in the vineyard all the time, you’re constantly monitoring, you’re constantly tuning, so it’s a bit labour intensive, but it means that labour of love transforms into really good quality fruit.
What were you doing before you decided to put grapes in?
I’m a clinical biochemist by training, so I worked at the hospital for about 14 years. Ivan Donaldson was starting up Pegasus Bay at the time, I also worked with a gastroenterologist – Bruce Chapman – and they own Terrace Edge; they put in some olives and grapes later on. So every medical conference you go to – a lot are overseas in beautiful places like France, Switzerland and Germany – then obviously part in parcel with that are the evening dinners and concerts and, of course, they’re all served with beautiful wine. You couldn’t not have an interest in wine.
When did you decide to put in grapes?
We had about 2ha of land at Charteris Bay and we had sheep. We’d gone through the typical lifestyle block, so we started with sheep, then we had a goat, and our daughter had a pony. Then I thought, why not put vines in?
Did you ever think you would get to this point where you have award-winning wines?
Yes and no. The initial reality was just: Can we grow some good grapes and produce good wine, mainly for our own consumption and friends and family? But certainly, when you produce wine you want it to be really good, you don’t want people thinking, oh, Neil’s bringing out his home brew again. I didn’t want to make rubbish wine, we did at that time contract a really good winemaker – Grant Whelan from Kaituna Valley. So basically, it was good grapes and a really good winemaker and the rest is history.
What do your kids do?
Tony is in Coolangatta (Gold Coast). He’s just set up a pizzeria. He’s been over there for six or seven years. He started off in Tasmania with a restaurant called Restaurant Red, then he came to Brisbane and met his partner and now they’re in Coolangatta. They are going to have our wine at the restaurant. Our daughter Kate is trained as a teacher, and she’s working at Manuwera Institute of Technology as a departmental manager. And our other son Chris is a winemaker. He’s now working for Sherwood Estate in Waipara, I’m wanting him to take charge of the half acre.
So before you turned your focus to Whistling Buoy, where else had you been working?
After the hospital, I joined a biotechnology company called Life Technologies, then I became chief executive of Canterbury Scientific. I resigned from that a year ago to focus on building the brand and establishing a sales network for Whistling Buoy. But I chair the board of a start up biotech company called AuramerBio out of Victoria University. And I’ve been doing some consulting work at Canterbury University for the Canterbury Development Corp. I’m just about to start a job at ChristchurchNZ as its senior advisor of innovation and commercialisation.
You mentioned everything is done by hand. Do you have a bit of help to pick the grapes?
It’s a social occasion. Here at Kokolo, the picking, it’s three consecutive days. We have about 25 people and we fill about 10 big 400kg bins. We have a truck that comes out and they get taken out that night. After we sit outside, talk, eat and drink – it’s a lot of fun.
I hear your wife Jill does a lot of maintenance around here?
She has her own mower, which she loves to sit upon, she gets upset if I jump on the mower from time to time. But we do use sheep up on the vineyard, I do use the mulching mower, but we have sheep as well. David Carter, our next-door neighbour, brings his sheep in.
Do the sheep damage the vines at all?
You’ve got to be careful. There’s nothing on the vines at the moment so they’ll just chew up the grass. But during the season, you don’t want them on bud set, the only time you really bring them in is when you want to leaf pluck so when you’ve got fruit set, but the berries are really hard and green. The leaves are green they will probably have a crack at one or two bunches but they’ll think that’s rubbish.
Do you hope to expand Whistling Buoy?
If we can successfully establish the brand and get a really good route to market then, yes, it would certainly be quite nice to build it. But there’s a balance there, too, you don’t want to be so large you lose your focus. Being boutique is good.