Welcome to another in the series of winemaker interviews.
Stonyridge is one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed red wine producers, located on the beautiful island of Waiheke, near Auckland city. Founded by Stephen White in 1982, when he returned to New Zealand after competing in the Whitbread Round the World yacht race to embark upon another great challenge of establishing a vineyard. The first vintage was in 1985 - then 2 years later he produced the great 1987 Larose Bordeaux blend that rocketed Stonyridge to international recognition and was claimed as the greatest red wine yet made in New Zealand.
This unique vineyard is six hectares planted north-facing under the Stonyridge ridge line (hence the name) on poor, low-fertility Waitemata clay. This special microclimate is farmed organically and for nearly 30 years Steve has been listening to his land and this, combined with his meticulous hands-on approach, ensures that the vineyards’ personality shines in these unique terroir wines.
Stonyridge crafts a range of outstanding wines: the flagship wine being the Larose Bordeaux blend, Luna Negra Malbec, the Pilgrim GSM and the little brother of Larose, being the Airfield. These are world class wines of substance, depth and longevity which are available in limited quantities for select international wine markets. Stonyridge Larose is regarded as New Zealand's best red wine. It has beaten top Bordeaux wines in international tastings and only a select few New Zealand red wines can compete in good years, but struggle to equal it for vintage-to-vintage quality. I have had the pleasure of enjoying Stonyridge 'Larose' for over 20 years, plus knowing Steve for many years now and being involved with setting up and running the infamous vertical tasting of 18 vintages of his ‘Larose’ in February 2011.
What first attracted you to the wine industry and as a winemaker?
I studied horticulture at Lincoln College, University of Canterbury and we had a botany lecturer called Dr David Jackson. His contagious personal passion was viticulture and winemaking which rubbed off on me. I spent my vacations working with David in the University Vineyard. It was an exciting time, Marlborough was being planted, and Otago had been discovered. David taught us that the search was on for other areas too; and that great wines were made in the vineyard.
Where and when did you study winemaking?
I completed my two year diploma in Horticulture at Lincoln and did part of National Diploma in Horticulture so I am really trained as a viticulturist. My winemaking learning took place in the small family wineries of coastal Tuscany, the wineries of Santa Ynez Valley in California and at Chateau d’Angludet and Prieure Lichine in Cantenac-Margaux in Bordeaux.
What is your favourite grape variety(s) to work with and why?
The Bordeaux red varieties... they work so well together... Cabernet Sauvignon the king... racy berry characters, big tannic back bone and can be magic with age but they are all great, and just like a team, when one is weak the others are strong. The Bordeaux blend is phenomenal here at Stonyridge.
The Rhone blend varieties, particularly Syrah and Mourvèdre.... lots of fun to work with here on Waiheke Island and completely different to deal with in the vineyard and winery… another wonderful opportunity to blend and create 1+1 equals 3.
Which grape variety would you most like to work with in the future and why?
Sauvignon Blanc... nah just joking.
With each new vintage what do you most look forward to?
A vintage is both a creative time and also like a military operation. You have to have good generals, well maintained equipment, a well trained army, a great vineyard and great tactics. Many winemakers get exhausted, panic and make mistakes in difficult vintages.
To date what has been you most interesting/challenging vintage and why?
2012....amazing! It started out as the wettest summer we have ever had and we developed all sorts of physiological and disease pressure in the vineyard. But we kept calm, kept maintaining a tight viticultural program and tightened our management program. Then at Easter the weather cleared we had a host of sunny days over 30 degrees. We have now picked 90% of the crop at some of the highest Brix ever and outstanding flavours!
Which person has influenced you the most as a winemaker and why?
Peter Sichel of Chateau Palmer and d’Angludet, Prof Emile Peynaud, Dr Richard Smart and my old buddy Hatsch Kalberer of Fromm.
Which person ‘current’ or ‘past’ would you most like to have met or meet and why?
Mahatma Gandhi, Krishnamacharya and the Dalai Lama together.... to talk about karma and dharma.
If you were stranded on a desert island and you could take one bottle of wine with you – what would it be and why?
Chateau Cos d’Estournel 2005 and Scarlett Johansson... because it’s her favourite wine.
If you could make wine anywhere else in the world - where would it be and why?
Somewhere near Nice in the South of France… I’ve got some great friends there and I love sailing in the Mediterranean.
What advice would you give a young person starting out as a winemaker?
Travel and work, travel and work, travel and work, learn language, cooking recipes and study regional winegrowing techniques.
If you weren’t a winemaker - what would you like to be and why?
A Yoga instructor on super yachts... I do this anyway but great wines, yoga and sailing are my great loves.
In the future, what exciting changes can you see, or would like to see for your wines, wine styles, vineyard or winery?
Cabernet blends are back! After a global move to Merlot (damaged by the movies Sideways), then Pinot, then Syrah wine lovers are coming back to the Bordeaux blend! Chardonnay is also coming back fast.
As for Stonyridge we are always adjusting and changing the blend to improve Larose. We are delighted that our top three wines Larose Cabernet blend; Pilgrim Rhone blend and Luna Hillside Malbec are regarded as some of the finest in their categories. The Larose recently came first equal in a huge 387 wine Cabernet tasting in Australia’s Winestate magazine......ahead of Chateau Latour, Ch. Mouton & Ch. Lafite.
Stonyridge wines are available in New Zealand and around the world from quality wine retailers and restaurants. Or visit their website: Stonyridge Vineyard