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Winemakers step gently with Otago vintage

Over 20,000km from her home in France, winemaker Lucie Lawrence and her Kiwi husband Brook have made Central Otago their home for the pursuit of their shared passion – crafting quality, natural wines while stepping lightly upon the environment they depend upon to do so.

Based at Lowburn on the banks of Lake Dunstan, the Lawrence’s have been part of the district’s winemaking community for over 20 years. They joined Brook’s parents Joan and Tony who had established Aurum Wines back in 1997, only 6km from Cromwell. 

The talent pool for the family venture grew immeasurably when Brook returned from an overseas wine making stint with Lucie in 2004, having met her while training at a winery in Burgundy.

Lucie came to a family enterprise that already closely followed her own beliefs. That was wine should be made naturally using naturally occurring yeasts, with minimal impact upon the environment.  It was something Joan and Tony had pursued since the beginnings of Aurum in 1997.

“I always felt we have an obligation, a requirement, to look after the land and the soil we rely so much upon. I think it is a belief that is now gaining a lot more traction, coming after such a long period when the approach to wine, and often to food production in general has been quite industrialised,” says Lucie.

Therefore, it was a natural step for the family to gain BioGro certification to become fully organic 12 years ago. But rather than viewing the BioGro organic status as an end result, Lucie sees it more as a beginning, the first of many steps in a progressive journey to make the business even more in tune with the environment.

Taking a natural approach to winemaking, employing only the yeasts occurring naturally on the grapes rather than introducing them, makes it even more vital to tread carefully in the fragile dry Central Otago environment.

“Every vineyard has its own profile of naturally occurring yeasts circulating. It is heavily influenced by the trees, the surrounding vegetation that harbour those yeasts. Ultimately every vintage of naturally fermented wine will have its own unique character due to that.”

She says when one describes a wine’s terroir, or the characteristics of the environment it comes from, the presence of the yeasts is simply another layer of terroir natural winemakers can claim.

“It can be a bit of a cliché, but it is true, that the hard work making wine is done in the vineyard – the grapes come in clean and balanced with their acidity coming in the right places. If you are not looking after the vineyard, particularly the soils, then it is hard to correct problems once those grapes are harvested.”

To help maintain the soils they compost all vineyard waste, with the valuable mulch helping preserve moisture over summer in a region that is one of the lowest rainfall areas in the country, receiving only 400mm a year. Additional compost includes fertiliser from an organic dairy farm in Southland and organic straw to boost soil organic matter.

Being organic and not relying upon synthetic sprays and treatments to protect the vines is made somewhat easier by Central’s dry climate where lower humidity helping keep fungal blights at bay compared to further north.

 But the prolonged dry spells can be stressful on the vines, and Lucie and Brook focus hard on ensuring they have the best soil environment possible.

“It’s really similar to how you would treat a person – you want them to be well fed, stress free and healthy, and if so, they are more resilient and able to deal with those tougher periods that they may face.”

The couple ensure there is a good level of biodiversity around the vineyard, with a good mix of various plants and shrubs to support a diverse insect ecosystem.

In most respects they are practicing regenerative cropping, no different to what more pastoral farmers are starting to come around to, recognising that modern mono-cultural production platforms have meant more reliance upon synthetic sprays and fertilisers to maintain production levels.

“And for us being certified organic was really just the beginning, you are always looking for ways to improve from there, it’s the start of the journey being certified, not the end.”

The natural wine movement is one that has been around for a couple of decades, but one Lucie sees as having improved significantly in terms of quality in recent years.

“In the beginning it was a bit of a fashion driven movement, and some of the quality was a bit questionable. It is a technique that demands a lot of attention and skill to do well, and the level of talent achieving that has improved over the years. It is after all how wine used to be made.”

For Lucie texture is a big part of a wine’s appeal, and a focus for her as she fine tunes each vintage.

“It is really about the feeling the wine gives, how it is expressed in your mouth, and it comes from the wine’s acidity and the phenolics off the skin, how that acidity feels on your tongue and gums. That in turn can determine what sort of food you match that wine with to balance it out, for example one with a higher acidity will sit well with creamier food, cutting through the fat.”

One of the strengths of growing grapes in Central Otago is the flexibility the long, typically dry autumns give her when determining when to pick the grapes.

“If anything, it is about restraint, holding back and picking at the right time to get that balance – it is easy to leave them too long, pushing the sugars up and the acidity comes down.”
She appreciates the similarities her adopted home district shares with her original home in Burgundy.

Sitting at 45deg south compared to Burgundy’s 47deg north latitude, the slight difference in Lowburn is a comfortable adjustment northward to reflect the far greater maritime nature of New Zealand’s climate, compared to France’s continental influence.

“And here, growing pinot noir, we are right on the edge, pushing it but that is a good thing, you always get a better wine when it is not quite as easy to grow.”

Here in New Zealand, she appreciates the “can do” pioneering approach that Kiwi New World winemakers bring to their passion, in a region that was largely dominated by Merino sheep only 30 years ago.

“This is not an easy place to grow grapes, a dry climate is great for lower disease, but the challenges are there through summer, vines still need moisture, and we can get late frosts right up to early December.”

But she appreciates the freer approach to both growing grapes and wine making, compared to the protocol and standards often required back in her home country to guide such a massive industry there.

“We have rules, but they tend to be our rules, and ultimately we simply aim to make the best wine we can.”

For Lucie and Brook, the ultimate expression of setting their own rules and their own style has come to pass in the past year as they have stepped away from Aurum wines to start their own vineyard and wine label – O’Naturel.

Only in their second vintage, the label has the couple stamping their own distinct style upon their wines, in terms of the type and the scale of their production.

“We have stepped back from the size we had at Aurum, with just a 1.3-hectare area spread between pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling plantings.”

“With the smaller vineyard, we are looking forward to having the time to set our own pace for the entire process.”

Without cellar door sales and the attendant demands of customer service, Lucie can see herself engaged as much in the vines as with the winemaking, enjoying hosting the occasional private visit to the vineyard, and overseeing the rental of their cosy cottages to visitors.

Their inaugural vintage of pinot noir has been sold through the Sherwood restaurant in Queenstown by the keg. Lucie appreciates the restaurant’s philosophy of sourcing as many local ingredients as possible, with Executive Chef Chris Scott committed to a menu that reflects the region’s shorter growing season and wide variety of locally grown produce.

This year’s vintage from O’Naturel will include a riesling, and chardonnay.

More keg sales are one area Lucie hopes to explore further under the O’Naturel label, and she is also looking forward to spending some time experimenting with some different wine types.

This includes an oxidative chardonnay, where controlling the exposure to oxygen during the winemaking process can impart special characters to the wine that the usual avoidance of oxygen exposure cannot.

The process is sometimes compared to the process of dry aging meats, where a portion of the original product is sacrificed to yield and more complex final product.

Very much a family affair, the couple’s two teenage daughters Mathilde and Madeleine are still to decide if they would make the fourth generation of winemakers in Lucie’s family.

“They are very much aware of the hard work involved, having been part of it from a very young age. Meantime, they do have wines named after them!”

While Lucie’s focus has been largely on winemaking, the couple have always shared a close understanding and communication around anything they embark on in the winery, and Lucie appreciates the importance as winemaker of not becoming too divorced from what Brook is doing with the vines.

“I am particularly looking forward now we have a smaller vineyard to being able to spend more time with him around the vines.”

Brook’s close management of the vines is even more critical for a natural winemaker, and his work includes shoot thinning, bunch thinning and ultimately harvesting the grapes by hand.

The couple’s venture is very much at the smaller end of the wine industry scale, where large corporates increasingly dominate volume sales. But after the past two years of turmoil that has made many aspects of the time sensitive winemaking process fraught, Lucie and Brook welcome the small scale.

“We were able to harvest over lockdown thanks to the help of family and friends, and the area is small, so it makes it less onerous, it is all over fairly quickly, and its far more fun,” says Lucie.

Meantime she is encouraged by the growth in consumers who are prepared to vote with their wallets when it comes to seeking out environmentally conscious winemakers.

“They can see that what we are doing does make a difference, and those wineries that are making those steps, they are the ones that will succeed in years to come.”

Otago – pinot central

Central Otago’s wine reputation has been founded upon the difficult to grow, but enticing pinot noir variety, one that Lucie says is pushed right to the edge in the Otago landscape.

The region is a miniscule portion of the country’s total wine growing area but compresses four distinct districts into its compact footprint.

The couple’s vineyard located at Lowburn benefits from its proximity to Lake Dunstan, which helps moderate the sharp Otago extremes.

Compared to well-known Gibbston Valley back towards Queenstown, Lowburn’s lower elevation and more open landscape means extreme frost events are rarer around the Cromwell basin, and it enjoys a less compressed season.

The Lowburn area has also developed a tight community of wineries, including Burnt Cottage Vineyard and Lowburn Ferry Winery.

As a proportion of total 1950ha in grapes, pinot noir dominates, accounting for 80% of Central’s wine variety, followed by pinot gris at 9%, with the cool climate conditions making it an ideal location for creating rieslings and chardonnays quite distinct from traditional region’s equivalent.

The region was first tagged as being highly suitable for winemaking as long ago as 1895, but it was not until the 1970s early pioneers including Chard Farm, Rippon and Gibbston Valley started to change the landscape from one of dusty Merino grazing to tenacious, productive grape vines.

“It can be a challenging place to grow grapes, but then again, if it was too easy, the wines would not be as good,” says Lucie.



Words by Richard Rennie, images by Tim Hawkins.

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