Coopers Creek’s Simon Nunns: scampering about on the varietal fringes

There’s somewhere in the vicinity of 5000-to-10,000 varieties of vine in the world, depending on who you talk to.  The definitive guide lists 1,368 of them.

There’s somewhere in the vicinity of 5000-to-10,000 varieties of vine in the world, depending on who you talk to. The definitive guide lists 1,368 of them.

There’s somewhere in the vicinity of 5000-to-10,000 varieties of vine in the world, depending on who you talk to.  The definitive guide lists 1,368 of them.

In New Zealand, winemakers have 55 varietals to choose from. And at Coopers Creek Vineyard in the heart of old Auckland winemaking country, there’s one vintner who leaps from his bed every day, excited at the prospect of exploring the varietal fringes. Food Technology’s publisher Greg Robertson chats with Coopers Creek’s winemaker, Simon Nunns.

Simon Nunns has had some big shoes to fill. There are not too many winemakers in the country who can say they were charged with the task of taking over the vines from such a well-known vintner as Kim Crawford.

But that’s exactly what he did and his passion has not stemmed in 18 years with the company, in fact it’s fortified; the varietal fruits of his labour hanging plump from the Huapai slopes of the Coopers Creek Vineyard.

Growing vines and making wine is a passion not found in his blood. But the former Palmerston North Massey University beer-swiller got a taste, and it was a calling he could not ignore.

“I had somewhat of an epiphany,” Simon tells Food Technology. “I found something that fascinated me and I wanted to learn more. I came from a beer-swilling background and I had no interest in wine but a trip to Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne turned that right round. I found a product that had ethanol in it which was exciting for an ex-uni student, it had history, it had variation, it had links to mythology, architecture and so much more and I became fascinated very quickly so in 1987 I decided I wanted to be a wine maker without actually knowing what a winemaker did. It took some years before I could do anything about it.”

Out went the computer operator job with Data Bank Systems in the early 1990s, and in came a job in a wine shop in the United Kingdom while on his OE.

“It was very fortuitous. I learnt a lot about the wines of Europe so my thirst for knowledge was fed.

Returning to New Zealand he had no money, job or commitments, so he went door-knocking in an industry he felt he was destined to be part of.

“Kim gave me a two week job here at the end of 1992, tucking and plucking in the vineyard, and that turned into a summer harvest job so I got a vintage experience. Then, in June 1993, I became a cellar hand at Villa Maria for a while and in 1995 went to Lincoln to study,” he says.

Back to Villa Maria as assistant winemaker in 1996 before Simon returned to the foundation roots at Coopers Creek as assistant winemaker in 1997 and took over from Kim a year later.

“So I took over as winemaker. There was an awful lot of luck involved. I wanted to be a winemaker but I also was in the right place at the right time so my progression through the system was relatively quick. Today, it’s a lot harder to move through the industry.”

The winery component of the business has 11 staff, with two assistant winemakers (overseeing cellar activity, record keeping, sustainable wine growing, OSH, wine standards management, bottling, dry goods management and export orders), a lab technician, bottling staff of five, a cellar hand (normally two) and viticulturist.

“We are firmly medium sized. We make the wines the consumer wants on a daily basis. Of course, like everyone else, a large component is Sauvignon Blanc but the thing that sets us apart is that we have been gleefully scampering around on the fringes with varietals that other people that are not willing to.

“For me that makes my life more exciting than making a ‘bazillion’ litres of Sav. I’m dealing with 15-16 different grape varieties and that in itself is exciting because I have to continually learn,” says Simon.

Varietals: an evolving ethos

From the company founding in 1980 by Andrew Hendry, Coopers Creek has been about leading rather than following and because of that, eyes scoured far beyond the Bombay Hills from the very start.

“At the outset they were intending to get fruit for Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, and later Marlborough came on the horizon,” explains Simon.

“The company was never designed to be super large. Our biggest harvest was in 2008 which was a large harvest for everyone - 2000 tonnes. A comfortable size for us is about 1000 tonnes.”

The company ethos of sourcing hasn’t really changed and Simon today still looks outside the immediate environments for fruit.

“We have Pinot Gris from here, Merlot and Malbec which we make into a Rosé and we have some Montepulciano, so we do still make wines from locally sourced fruit. But we also have some contract growers in Gisborne, and that’s where we get both usual and unusual fruit from. So, we get Chardonnay, Malbec, Viognier, Albarino, Arneis and Marsanne, and we also get a little bit of Fiano, Vermentino and Lagrein – some of those are quite unusual grape varieties that a lot of people would not have heard of before,” Simon says.

They are unusual because they are quite new to New Zealand, he adds. NZ biosecurity laws, quite rightly, are very strict meaning bringing new varietals into the country is not only a lengthy process but also expensive.

“There are a lot of pathogens that we just don’t want, as well as insects, in our growing system. As it stands there are only about 55 grape varieties that we can make wine from in New Zealand,” he says.

He says there is more to life than Sav.

“The question is ‘what does the future hold for New Zealand’? We do very well in Sauvignon Blanc and there’s nothing to indicate that we are going to stop doing very well because it works so well in Marlborough, but the world is enormous beyond Sav and the last thing you want to do is park yourself in a corner and say that’s all you’re going to do.

“We have a great climate here so there’s opportunity to tap into other cultivars. We are a cool climate growing area so there are some varieties that simply won’t work well here but we can look at parts of a world that have a similar climate and see what they have been successful with.”

Word on the street, he says with another jump in excitement, is that soon there may be more varietals available here but if that occurs, there are some limitations and one boils down to the pronunciation.

“We have made our name in the last decade with dealing with new varieties but just because you can make it and make it well it doesn’t mean you are going to sell it. We are, by in large, a monolinguistic, isolated nation. We speak New Zealand English and grape cultivars in general have European names. Some of them are completely unsayable to Kiwis. Wine is all about feeling good, it’s about enjoying life, enjoying wine with friends, having it with a lovely meal– it’s not about looking stupid by not being able to pronounce it when the waiter comes,” he laughs.

The classic is Gewürztraminer, he says, which has been in New Zealand for decades but despite being good the market is tiny. “The reason is that the market just can’t say it. It’s not about being intimidated, wine is about being relaxed.”

In a more recent sense another variety that grows well in New Zealand is Viognier. It’s “sayable”, with a little tuition.

“The grape variety that we have good success with of late is Albariño (or alvarinho) because it makes well and is relatively easy to say.”

The biggest shifts in the last two decades

Simon explains that the two biggest things to impact the wine industry in New Zealand in the last 20 years has been moving from cork-closed to a screwcap and dissolved oxygen management.

“It was quite a change in mentality as wine had been corked-closed for centuries. The cork production process has a lot of places it can be corked up,” he laughs.

“A certain amount of corks are going to be faulty. So we were in a situation, like many others, where we had somewhere near a five percent cork taint. As a result, people started thinking about alternative closures.”

The obvious option was screwcaps as it had been around for a while and there was plenty of technology behind it.

“The good thing about New Zealand winemaking is it’s quite small and it’s also quite progressive – people aren’t stuck in tradition like they often are in older world markets so we were able to manage that transition far quicker than places like France, Italy and Spain.

“We were 100% cork for a long time and now we are 100% screwcap. We don’t even know how to use the corker anymore,” he says.

The other big change surrounds dissolved oxygen management in wine. In the past, everyone knew that oxygen was soluble and ended up in wine but “we didn’t have the ability to measure it so we didn’t really worry about it.”

Over the years it has become easier to measure dissolved oxygen levels in wine.

“Oxygen is obviously your enemy in certain parts of the production process. Not in all parts, as there are parts of the wine making process where it is your friend, but in terms of the finished product it’s by in large a bad thing.”

Oxygen oxidises, and if you oxidise wine it turns brown and eventually turns to something undrinkable and that, extrapolated, sees wine turn to vinegar.

“Being able to measure and manage dissolved oxygen in wine is something that has become more and more important in the last 10 years. The importance of it will not stop growing. There are better and better ways coming out to measure it and to manage it. Of course, the downside to any technology is that it costs quite a lot of money. And in a medium sized business, such as ours, we do what we can but if we could we would spend more on machinery.”

Simon says there has been a real change in how wines are treated and handled in order to have oxygen levels as low as possible prior to bottling and then how they are managed on the bottling line to make sure that the pick-up of oxygen – which is hard to avoid – is kept to a minimum.

“In essence, wine is first simply sitting in a tank. That wine has a dissolved oxygen level which is very close to zero. As soon as you open a lid oxygen is going to be drawn in as the level drops. We minimise this by blanketing – we tend to use Carbon Dioxide (dry ice) because it’s quite cheap compared to what is probably the best, Argon,” he says.

The other way of minimizing oxygen pick-up is when the wine actually goes into the bottle. A bottle is full of air. Put wine in it and a certain amount of the oxygen is going to dissolve into the wine.

“So, we fill our bottles with dry ice… which doesn’t get rid of all of it but it gets rid of a big chunk. Then we fill into a CO2-laden atmosphere to minimise our pick-up and that CO2 is vented into the top of the filler. The wine in the filler bowl is blanked by CO2 and then when we cap our wines we run CO2 into the caps.”

Method through the machinery

Winemaking starts with the receiving of fruit. Once you have fruit, you have to get it into a state where you can make wine out of it.

“We have a hopper to receive the fruit, a destemmer and a crusher to take non-grape matter away and to crush the grapes. Crushed grapes when juiced together are called ‘must’, so that must is shifted with a must pump – an open-throat mono pump – moved in a four-inch line into the press.

You don’t have to do it that way, he adds.

“Our best Chardonnays or best whites, in general, are hand-picked and whole bunch pressed so we hand harvest the grapes into bins and tip the bins into our gravity-fed press (a side-mounted membrane).

“We use a pneumatic press which lies on its side and that cylinder is divided in two with a plastic bag. We have the ability to push air behind that plastic bag which has the ability to push fruit across the plastic bag and up against juice channels.”

That juice – once separated from skins – goes straight to barrel or tank for a dirty ferment (no solids removed). Turning the cooling on lets the solids settle to the bottom and then the racking process starts (removing the clarified liquid).

Those solids can then be filtered through a high pressure plate and frame lees filter.

“You introduce lees with a filtration media. We use expanded perlite which works as a filtration matrix. The perlite backs up on the canvasses and creates a navigable pass, so solid material gets hooked up on the matrix and liquid makes its way through and is directed out of the filter.

“Then you have clean juice which is fermentable. You can ferment using commercial yeast or just leave it alone, and we do a bit of both. Most of our wines are fermented using yeast, usually Saccharomyces cerevisiae.”

Every winery has a yeast population he says and the population will evolve over time, but by in large is Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

“One of the joys of winemaking is that you can listen to advice from people who know better than you, then bring in your own past experiences, but essentially you get one crack at it a year.

Getting down to earth

Soil, says Simon, is hugely important.

“You always hear people say that wine is made in the vineyard. It’s true. It’s not just the soil but how that soil is worked, what cultivar you have planted, how you manage that, what level of knowledge in terms of your inputs, where the vineyard is located (high or low) and so much more but the soil is utterly critical in terms of the outcome.”

At Coopers Creek Vineyard, they have top soil over clay so it’s a “vigorous soil”.

“Grape varieties want to grow… but there’s no sense saying I want to use the Bordeaux model and grow 10,000 vines per hectare (very dense, one metre by one metre row and plant spacing) out there. It just wouldn’t work. It would be Triffid central. So you have to understand what you have got and make sure you manage things the right way,” says Simon.

“We use three metre row and 1.5 metre plant spacing. The best fruit is going to come from vines that are in balance. In our environment we want wider row lengths and gaps between vines so we are managing vine vigour.”

Simon explains that the understanding of carbohydrate partitioning in the grape vine is critical to a winemaker.

“Essentially it’s about getting the balance right so they are in a fruitful phases - not a vegetation phase (leaf and cane) – while they are growing.”