Authentic Roots

Knowing about your roots is something of a hot topic these days. The young are generally disinterested but as people age they often to want to know about their origins. This is curious, as it seems the converse of what you would expect. No doubt youth envisage life stretching onwards into eternity, while the mature see eternity hurtling towards them and realise that all too soon they could become somebody else’s roots. If they are unconnected to their true roots then all memory of their existence will probably disappear. Being part of a well-defined structure gives a sense of authenticity and place.

Roots are crucial for plants as well as family trees and in no case is this more important than that of the humble winemaking vine, which can trace its lineage back thousands of years. Vitis vinifera, aka the classical European winemaking grapevine, has been cohabiting with mankind for 5 – 10,000 years and probably provided our ancestors with delightful libations for an even longer period. It had plenty of time to adapt itself to its environment and could tolerate all of its natural enemies. Then, 150 years ago, phylloxera, a microscopic insect, was accidentally introduced into Europe from the Americas and within a few years the old world had the mother of all bio-security and economic disasters on its hands. Native American grapevines, which are only capable of producing mediocre wine , are tolerant to this mite that feeds on their roots but phylloxera kills vitis vinifera and the pest cannot be eradicated or treated. This little louse destroyed virtually all French vineyards and proceeded to do the same in many other countries. There seemed little doubt that Europe’s fine wines were following the dodo and the spectre of financial ruin hovered over the countryside. Then a solution was discovered. A cutting from a vitis vinifera (the scion) could be grafted on the top of another from a native American grapevine (the rootstock). The American vine thus grew the roots of the new plant, making it immune to the ravages of phylloxera, while the scion formed the part of the vine above and gave the fruit. The place of the join or graft was usually about 5 –10 cm above the soil. Thus started the laborious and economically painful task of replacing Europe’s vineyards; the world’s first industrial scale application of grafting.

There are now hardly any vineyards in Europe that have non-grafted vines and this also applies to most other viticultural regions. This has posed a question, which to this day remains largely unanswered; what did Europe’s pre-phylloxera wines taste like? Are wines made from vines with their authentic root systems any different from those from grafted plants? This is particularly relevant given the wide variety of American root stocks that have been tailored to suit specific terroirs, such as soils containing different amounts of calcium, iron, salt or the like. Do they produce the same quality of wine as that made from genetically identical vitis vinifera vines growing on their own roots? This conundrum especially bothered those vignerons who had just replanted their vineyards with grafted vines in the latter half of the 1800s. Would red burgundy still have the authentic taste of pinot noir or would its flavours be contaminated by those of the American rootstock? There were smiles all around and nods approval when the first of these new wines were sampled. Grafted vines produce the same wines as those on their own roots; but do they really?

We hear a lot about authentic wines these days but no one seems to be quite certain what these are as there is no accepted definition. Their proponents promote them as wines that have had minimal winemaking input so that nothing has been done that was not strictly necessary. What is minimal and strictly necessary depends on one’s opinion. Such wines frequently have features that many would regard as faults, such as cloudiness, gross sediment, bitterness and evidence of oxidation but these are shrugged off as being part of the experience of authentic or natural wine. These wines are said to express the terroir and to be a genuine expression of the site. Nobody spares a thought for the authenticity of the vines; do they have their authentic roots?

The evenly formed trunk of an authentic pinot noir vine on its own roots

Compared with the bloated trunk of a grafted pinot noir

At Pegasus Bay we have vines that have been busy establishing their authentic roots over the last 30 years or so and we believe that the wine that they produce is quite distinctive. They have a certain, je ne sais quoi, perhaps attitude and distinction. Sure, the pinot noir smells and tastes like pinot noir from a grafted vine, just as the other varieties smell and taste as they should but wines from our vines on their own roots have more aroma, flavour, concentration, richness, texture and minerality than those from grafted vines growing in exactly the same terroir. Why should this be?

Perhaps the best place to look for the answer is the vine’s trunk, at the site of the graft itself. While a vine on its authentic roots has a trunk like that of an athlete, well proportioned and straight, that of a grafted vine resembles an obese lay-about with a potbelly overhanging its belt. A graft is never as perfect as Mother Nature’s original design. Although the xylem and phloem tubes, which carry sap between the roots of the rootstock and leaves of the scion, have fused, their union is never perfect. Their shared graft acts as a hindrance to the free sharing of their vital assets. Theirs is a functional marriage and not one that was made in heaven. The roots supply the upper part of a vine with its water, nutrients and minerals while the leaves give the lower part its energy. In a grafted vine the scion acts as a couch potato and greedily keeps for itself an excess of the sugar that is produced in the leaves . It becomes “bloated and fat” while the graft is forced to go on a diet. And where is the fruit of the vine? On the scion of course, so that the berries on a grafted vine tend to become plumper and bigger than those of their non-grafted neighbours. In addition, authentic plants do not waste their energy by growing fruit without seeds; after all, the purpose of fruit is to spread seeds far and wide . If the weather during flowering is indifferent then there are frequently many berries without seeds and these normally fall off at an early-stage of development. If this happens it results in a “poor set” with a low level of crop. When, however, there is energy to burn the vine can afford to nurture these infertile berries and so they are also fattened up and retained. Thus, left to their own devices grafted vines produce bigger crops because they have more berries and larger grapes than those with authentic roots. As virtually the grape’s entire aroma, flavour and colour lie in the skin and the berry pulp is largely a sugary solution, winemakers prefer smaller berries that have a larger skin to pulp ratio. Such fruit from modestly cropped vines produce distinctive wines whereas those from bloated and over cropped grapes tend to make wishy-washy ones.

Our old non-grafted vines are a valuable resource and they regularly produce our best wines. We feel that they are the truest and most genuine expression of our terroir, bar none. Next time that anybody tries to talk to you about natural or authentic wines just ask them if they are made from natural or authentic vines!

Vintage Vagaries?

A subject that is on everybody’s lips these days is greenhouse gas and its effect on climate. Initially it was prophesied that we would all experience hotter climates and the timeframe for serious global warming was calculated in centuries. Recent severe climatic events, including storms, floods and blizzards, are now being attributed to the same phenomenon, although they often cause the mercury to tumble instead of soar. The flying horse does not wish to wade into the debate as to the cause of these current extremes as there are others better qualified to do this. At Pegasus Bay, however, we have experienced three successive growing seasons that have been climatically unusual. They are described below in “Recent Seasons”. What effects did they have on our vines and wines?

None of us has a good appreciation or memory for comfortable ambient temperatures, although we do recall the extremes. What does it matter if the temperature on a particular day is 25°C instead of 26°C? We would probably be unable to tell the difference and we would just think that it was a pleasantly warm afternoon. By contrast, those brainless life forms called plants have an excellent “memory” or record of such temperature differences because they directly affect their growth and development. Scientists can tell the climate of bygone years by studying growth rings in the trunks of trees. Vines effectively add up each day’s dose of sunlight and ripen their fruit earlier or later in the growing season, depending on their arithmetic. As we have a quarter of a century’s records of the dates and rates of ripening of our grapes it is easy for us to compare any season with another. In 2010 ripening was extremely slow and the only vintage that had been so delayed was 1993, when the atmosphere in the southern hemisphere was full of dust from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. By contrast, the ripening in 2011 was the most advanced that we have ever seen. The following season, however, it was again retarded and on a par with 2010. Fortunately, in these two cooler years long lingering autumns allowed us to delay harvesting so that we were able to achieve good levels of ripeness. In 2011 we reached those levels sooner and we harvested earlier than normal. We had the luxury, however, of being able to harvest some fruit earlier to give us freshness and some later to supply richness.

So what about the wines? Do they reflect these very different seasons? The answer is yes and no. In the cooler years, the longer time that the grapes were on the vines has tended to emphasise bright fruit flavours while the mild weather has retained zesty natural acidity. The 2011 wines sport very ripe tannins that promote texture and mouth feel. This vintage was particularly good for the traditional Bordeaux blends of merlot/ cabernet and sauvignon/semillon but it is difficult to generalise as there are plenty of surprises. This is why you need to explore these very contrasting and distinctive vintages for yourself. They provide a chance to directly compare the effects of extremely different seasonal conditions and, judging from our experience, such an opportunity may not arise for another 20 years. Were these seasons influenced by climate change or were they just random vintage vagaries? We do not know but the rate of ripening in 2013 was absolutely average and smack bang in the middle of these extremes. Keep watching this space!

Pegasus Bay - 2013 Winery of the Year

We were surprised and overjoyed when the respected wine critic Raymond Chan announced that Pegasus Bay was his 2013 Winery of the Year. He said that our wines “have a house style of richness and approachability that enables immediate drinkability, yet they invariably have the ability to keep well and develop greater levels and layers of complexity with bottle age.” He added that, “Pegasus Bay wines also faithfully represent the terroir and regionality of the Waipara Valley and are bench marks for the district.” They are “at the forefront of taking New Zealand wine beyond fruit expression by exploring style variation, often taking inspiration from the greatest wines of Europe and the rest of the world.”

Raymond’s expertise extends well beyond just writing about wines and for many years he has been a senior judge in wine competitions and a wine consultant and retailer in Wellington. He rated 8 Pegasus Bay wines as being five-star during 2013, “This is a stunning selection of great wine.” It was especially pleasing to us that these covered all of the varieties that we have in our vineyard, (riesling, sauvignon blanc/semillon, chardonnay, pinot noir and merlot-based reds), showing that the old nag is not just a one trick pony.

For this outstanding accolade we have to thank all of our hard-working vineyard and winery staff. Low crop levels, emphasis on manual work and meticulous attention to detail in the vineyard gave the winery the best quality fruit to work with. The winemakers, for their part, used minimal intervention and made the wine as naturally as possible to respect the individuality and integrity of the fruit.

Replenishing the Restaurant

Kitchen and front of house - Terese explains the creation of a dish to Zach.

At Pegasus Bay we are very fussy about replenishing our restaurant because we want to give you the best dining experience that we can. We seek out the freshest and tastiest seasonal produce, sourcing it locally, whenever possible. Frequently this comes from our own garden or orchard so that it has to travel no more than metres. Many of our home-grown fruits and vegetables are unusual these days, such as gooseberries, currants, quinces, loquats, mulberries, flatos, rhubarb, artichoke, horseradish and about a dozen varieties of figs, to mention just a few.

We have just replenished our restaurant in another way and we have been equally fussy. Family circumstances necessitated that our head chef and his partner, Pegasus Bay’s maitre d’, move to Australia so that we have had to refill their positions. We felt that you, our faithful customers, deserved something special; people that would be in tune with our philosophy. We advertised and put out feelers throughout the country, deciding that we were prepared to wait until the right people for the jobs came along. We are pleased to tell you that these positions have now been filled.

Teresa Pert trained as a chef in New Zealand but then gained international experience in UK and European restaurants before returning to Wellington. There, she worked in the Matterhorn with Nick Huffman and Sean Marshall. When the latter moved to Auckland to open Everybody’s and Roxy and the Laneway at the Imperial, Teresa became his head chef, managing both kitchens. She comes to us with a wealth of experience and a fresh vision on fine food that she is enthusiastically sharing with our other chefs.

The kitchen and front of house have to work as a highly integrated team in any good restaurant because food is only part of a meal and service is vital to make your experience memorable. We have been very fortunate to obtain the services of Zach McMillan as our new maitre d’. He is a true professional in the hospitality business and was previously maitre d’ at the Pescator Restaurant at Christchurch’s George Hotel. Please come and see us because our replenished team would love to have the pleasure of replenishing you.

We are open for lunch seven days a week apart from Good Friday 18 April and for 1 month during July - August when the staff will be taking a well earned rest. Over the latter period, however, the tasting room will be open daily between 10am and 5pm. It is best to telephone 03 314 6869 extension 1 to make a restaurant reservation but feel free to pop and taste a range of wines at any time.

Doing the Tornado Twist

Our picturesque local village of Amberley does not often make the news but it was in the headlines on 24 February. The previous evening a ferocious tornado created havoc in the town, felling trees, ripping off roofs and sending residents scurrying for shelter. It then proceeded to do the twist through the local vineyards, shredding leaves, ripping off nets and generally creating havoc. It was preceded by the ghastly roar of an approaching kamikaze jumbo. As if that was not bad enough it had a sting in its tail. The sky erupted in the pyrotechnics of a continuous electrical storm while marbles and golf balls of ice rained down. Fortunately, Pegasus Bay was largely spared, although some of our nets went walkabout and needed to be replaced. But our fans can relax as the full potential of the 2014 vintage remained virginally intact on the vines!

The tornado doing the twist - photograph courtesy of Leesa Parker.

From the Prescription Pad

BUGS! The name is virtually synonymous with annoyance. We use the word for pathetically dumb insects that frappe against our lighted windows at night and for others that sting or bite us. It is also the moniker for problems with our computers and other electronic gear. At medical school we used the term synonymously with microbiology, the study of single cell life forms. We learned that you cannot avoid them or escape them. They are all over us and within us. They swarm over our skin and within our gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. We need to live with them as we do not have another option. If we were to be brought up in a completely sterile environment we would never develop any natural resistance. Then even normally friendly bugs could become germs and overwhelm us. But microorganisms are also helpful and many are vital for life, especially as we know it. Could we really call it living if we were unable to enjoy a glass of good wine? Bugs are vital for all winemaking. To make wine, the sugar in the juice has to undergo primary fermentation and this converts the grape’s sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide, the latter forming bubbles and escaping into the atmosphere. The bugs that do this are yeasts, which are single cell organisms that are somewhat akin to plants. Hence, one of my microbiology lecturers used to claim that he was a keen gardener, whereas in reality he only made home brew! But plants are not like dumb bugs, they are smart, and they know that they have to spread their seeds far and wide in order to stay in business. Grapes do this by making themselves attractive for birds, animals and ourselves to eat. When ripe they have just a perfect balance of sugar and acid so that we feast and still come back for more. If they were just sugary they would soon taste cloying and we would rapidly tire of them.

But what happens to nature’s perfectly balanced drink when the yeast has used up all the sugar? It may now be unbalanced and taste too dry and acid. This is where secondary or malolactic fermentation can be helpful. The main acid in grapes is tartaric acid but malic acid is also important and this can be fermented by bacteria. When this occurs they convert malic to lactic acid, which is only half as strong in its acidity. This fermentation also releases carbon dioxide, although not nearly as much as during the primary fermentation. A wine that is too acid can thus be balanced by either leaving it with a little of the grape’s residual sugar or by allowing it to go through malolactic fermentation. The latter is used with all dry red and many dry white wines, such as chardonnay. White grapes that are grown in a hot climate are usually deficient in acid but have more phenolics; natural chemicals that give a bitter or astringent taste. Phenolics are found in greater quantities in red wines. Hot climate white wines would be worsened by malolactic fermentation and, in fact, they largely depend on phenolics to provide balance. Without their bitterness/astringency they would taste flabby and flat, although with it they have an underlying coarseness. This is why, generally speaking, hot climate dry whites are not really successful.

But malolactic fermentation does not just reduce acidity; it changes a wine’s flavours. Malic acid has a taste rather like a fresh apple whereas lactic acid is what is found in sour milk. It does not sound very attractive, does it? But the bacteria responsible for malolactic fermentation can also produce yoghurt. The effect of malolactic fermentation depends on the strain of bacteria, the amount of lactic acid produced and how long it is left to marry into the wine before it graces your lips. White wine that has been through malolactic fermentation can also have the attractive smell of melted butter due to a natural compound that they both share.

Clever little bugs they may be, but yeasts and bacteria are not purists. Neither can carry out pure fermentation and they both leave their tell-tale footprints all over the wine. They make a considerable variety of other substances that impart their own aromas and flavours. Matt Goddard, from the University of Auckland, has recently shown that wild yeasts make a variety of natural chemicals that contribute to a wine’s aroma and flavour and that these can differ from one region to another and possibly from vineyard to vineyard. In other words, naturally occurring microorganisms might contribute to the individuality or “terroir footprint” of a particular region’s or vineyard’s wine.

Europe in general and France in particular have fostered the notion of individual terroir, even giving it prominence over grape variety. Thus, although white burgundy is made out of chardonnay and red burgundy out of pinot noir, burgundian labels state where the grapes are grown and no mention is made of these varieties on the bottle. This causes enormous confusion to those unfamiliar with the region and its producers. The soil, the lie of the land, the climate and many other indefinable particulars are said to be responsible for an individual piece of dirt’s characteristics. It now seems that the humble local bugs are also important in determining terroir.

It is common to add either commercial strains of yeast or malolactic bacteria or both to grapes or grape juice during winemaking because it is easy and produces a very reliable result. Relying on natural or wild yeasts is more time-consuming and risky. Adding mass produced yeast from a packet helps produce an acceptable international style of wine but it runs the risk of the product losing its own identity. Ever wondered why there is so much drinkable but easily forgettable wine out there in the marketplace?

As a medic, I have always been fussy about bugs and I am sure that my family consider I border on the obsessional. I know that we all have to have them and, while I appreciate that it is kind of other folks to offer me theirs, I prefer to stick to my own tried and true. It is not that I feel that mine are necessarily any better or superior to anyone else’s but they have become so all embracing that I now regard them as part of me. At Pegasus Bay we also feel the same way about our own grubby little bugs and that is why we made certain that they were part of our wines from day one. I wish you and your own personal little fauna and flora all the best for a long and happy cohabitation.

Recent Seasons

The weather of the 2006 vintage was very even throughout the growing season, resulting in balanced wines from good, but not excessive, crops. Drought conditions were staved off by a mid-summer downpour in 2008, but beautiful weather followed. Late autumn rain produced noble botrytis in late harvest fruit. The growing conditions of the 2009 vintage were amongst our best and we were delighted with both the reds and whites.

The 2010 season was marked by a cloudy and indifferent late spring and early summer. In February, however, the sun began to shine and we had 3 months of perfect, warm, dry weather, allowing us to achieve excellent ripeness and levels of natural acidity. The 2011 vintage followed a very warm season and was one of the earliest we have experienced, producing beautiful physiological ripeness. It was a complete contrast to the following season and 2012 was one of the slowest ripening vintages that we have experienced. Dry weather in late autumn allowed a prolonged hang time, which has produced a splendid spectrum of flavours.

Filed in: 2014

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Off Licence.
Licence Holder:Dr I Donaldson T/A:Pegasus Bay Winery.
Licence no:057/OFF/001/2015 Exp:22/12/2017