We caught up with Greystone Winemaker Dom Maxwell to discuss what it was like having the best job in the world, what it was like being Gourmet Traveller’s 2018 Winemaker of the Year and what is vineyard fermentation..?
It’s the second week of the school holidays and Dom Maxwell is looking forward to spending more time with his two daughters, although he adds, he had the last week off with them too.
I ask him what it is like working at Greystone and if during a day on the land his mind ever wanders. He falters at first and then makes it simple for me:
“I’m on a winery set into the hillside. The building has one section which is two storied. The view out my window is straight out to the Southern Alps, another overlooks our vines and another one of our neighbouring farms. It is amazing…. I think it is important to drift off – into the hills. It excites you to get out there, take the family…”
I glance out my window to see the Ramada Hotel in Federal Street, Auckland, all boarded up complete with security guard in a face mask dutifully watching over arrivals and departures in the name of Covid-19 Quarantine and I think I get it. “You couldn’t send me a photo could you?” He does.
Time for Dom to do the talking. This will be his 15th vintage at Greystone. “Are you happy with where you are at?”
“Yes. We’re moving into the next stage, where the vines are coming into a new level of maturity with more interesting complexity. Vine age can be the difference between good wine and great wine. At the same time we are evolving how we treat the vines and the fruit. On a vineyard you are always rolling onto a new season and vintage and there is always an evolution and change. And it’s great to do this with a bunch of like-minded people.” Dom is referring to his Assistant Winemaker, and General Manager Nick Gill who have been there from the start in 2004, Viticulturalist Mike Saunders and Nik Mavromatis the Sales & Marketing Manager who has been with Greystone for 7 years.
“I hear that Waipara and North Canterbury are a pretty cool community?”
“Yeah, we are pretty tight knit. You drive into the place and it doesn’t feel like it is dominated by one industry or another. It’s a fair mix. There’s a small and boutique feel to the valley.”
I knew Dom was happy in Waipara, I’m beginning to think it might go beyond that now. Time to dive a bit deeper. “Greystone and Muddy Waters are 100% Organic – is this important to you? Have you always been into Organics?”
“We started converting the Greystone vineyard in 2014 and achieved certification in 2017 (started in 2014). Muddy Water has been Organic since 2011. But philosophically we were there already. It is how we choose to live our lives, choosing organic products. It didn’t feel like a daunting process. We didn’t do it for the label, I think we can make a more interesting wine this way. The wines have a genuine earthiness and complexity to them and we’re putting less into the land and with your own workers out there it just feels like right the thing to do.”
“So, ‘Vineyard Fermentation’ – what is this?”
“We’ve been working with wild yeast since we started making Pinot. Yeast has a massive part to play in a wines character. Within a winery it can be influenced a lot, so we thought if we fermented it where it grew we would get the best expression of this place. We are now seven vintages on. We see quite a marked difference due to the weather and haven’t had any major issues. We have no tools a our disposal to intervene to warm it up or cool it down…It is in a tank on a hillside - this is minimal intervention! In the first year we didn’t know how it would go but it fermented through and made a lovely wine. It’s a lovely wine to drink. In this day and age there is a fair bit of pressure to create something similar year after year and commercial pressure to win awards, but with this we see a larger swing and different attributes in the wine from year to year. It is the ultimate expression of the season.”
“What would you do without those limestone hills Greystone is famous for?”
“Move somewhere that had them! We have around 2/3 of our vines on the hillside and 1/3 on flat terrace with more clay which works well for our Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc Barrel Ferment. The ultimate reason for the vineyard being built here was because of the limestone hills for the Pinot Noir.”
“Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year 2018 – how good does it feel to get that sort of recognition?”
“That’s a hard question to answer! It was… awesome. Human nature is to go ‘What about this person, or this person?’ But what it ultimately means is that the path you are taking is recognised as worth taking. We all want to forge our own path. We shouldn’t have to question the one we are taking all the time.”
“What is the most out there thing you’ve done as a winemaker? Any mad science?”
“We try a lot of stuff here. We’ve played around with barrels underwater – to see what the pressure would do to our rosē. It was a noticeable wine in the line-up! It had people at both ends of the spectrum – those who loved it and others who felt it wasn’t quite suited. We had barrels exploding under water and it’s not something we do these days... It was a good thing to do – wine has been around a long time and so much has been done with it, but there are still ways you can push the boat out without being gimmicky - that’s one of our examples.
“Pet Nat – passion project or way of the future?”
“Here to stay for sure. Sparkling wine can be delicious and lots of people love it but it costs a lot of money to make sparkling wine. Making it this way makes good sparkling wine more accessible. Because it is really hands-on you are probably only going to have smaller producers having a crack at it. It’s definitely a disruptive wine! We’ll be bottling 2020 wine shortly.
“In many ways Greystone was a Pioneer and also seems to represent a different way of life for many people. What are the lessons you think we all collectively need to learn?”
“Sometimes you struggle with ideas – how to raise your kids or whatever, but then you hit upon something that really resonates with you and feels right. To be in that state some other things need to be in balance. We just have to be open to feeling as though things are right for us. We have to follow things that just feel right. I think everyone can understand that to a degree. Spend a bomb on shopping… Or go for a good hill walk - and you’ll feel an energy that just feels right. I think we’ve all seen another way of life to what we were doing pre-Covid. Hopefully we all take some of that forward with us.”