As a winemaking gun for hire, Dean Shaw makes wine for 11 labels, but he doesn’t put his ‘stamp’ on them, preferring to utilise minimal intervention techniques to let the vineyard shine.
Dean Shaw’s approach as a winemaker is a natural one. He prefers to intervene with the wine as little as possible, using wild yeasts and serenading the wine with a stereo system of which most nightclubs would be envious. This approach enables the wine to reflect the character of the vineyard it comes from as faithfully as possible, and ensures individuality and excellence.
Central Otago Wine Company (COWCO) is a contract facility owned by four partners including Shaw, who is also in charge of winemaking. Shaw makes wine for 11 clients with vineyards primarily in Gibbston Valley, Cromwell basin and Alexandra, plus the odd dabble of white wine from the Waitaki Valley and a small vineyard in Timaru.
COWCO is a unique business that has evolved out of necessity, saving small producers from the expense and trouble of building and running their own winemaking facility. Shaw sometimes gets involved in decision-making at vineyard level, although his real responsibility starts with choice of picking date and continues until the wine is bottled.
Shaw has been making wine with grapes from more than a dozen different vineyards for 18 years, which probably makes him one of the most experienced winemakers in the region. “A success in one vineyard often results in a new technique being trialled in others, which speeds up the trial and error process,” he explains. “We try not to be too prescriptive – we don’t want people recognising a ‘COWCO style’ so I try not to put my own stamp on the wine too much. I tend to make the picking and pressing decisions, but temper these to suit each different site and vine clone. The choice of oak and degree of whole bunches in the ferment are variables that the vineyard owner can exert more control over.”
Throughout Shaw’s winemaking career he has been fortunate to work with some “fantastically gifted winemakers”, including Clothilde Chauvet at Rippon Vineyards in 1993, and then Rudi Bauer and the Giesen Brothers in 1996. He also worked with Chauvet in Champagne, Pascal Marchand in Burgundy and Johannes Hirsch in Austria.
Like most young winemakers, Shaw travelled overseas during NZ winters to make wine in Champagne, Burgundy, Austria, and South Africa. The common theme in these working holidays was pinot noir, plus a nod in the direction of riesling and grüner veltliner.
“Like most pinot noir winemakers in the New World I gain a lot of inspiration from Burgundy,” Shaw says.” I love the concept of land-based wine and believe that it takes at least 10 years before wine starts to really express a strong sense of place. I suppose that a winemaker’s age also makes a contribution – it takes experience to be able to judge when to irrigate and when to harvest.”