Our first New Zealand Winemaker of the Year Dom Maxwell credits the viticulturist, vineyard and season for his success, but there is no disputing his talent, drive and hard work.
Dom Maxwell believes he has the perfect job, the perfect family and lives in the perfect place. “I love going to work,” he explains. “I get up, jump into my shorts and drive for 10 minutes to the vineyard. I like the outdoors, the exercise and the very cerebral nature of winemaking. I find the logistical challenge of trying to make the most we can out of every season very stimulating. It also helps that I work with a great team.”
Maxwell worked at a market garden while studying for a commerce degree at Lincoln University. “The market garden included a few acres of grape vines,” he says. “The owners had quite a romantic view of wine, which inspired me at the time.”
After graduating, Maxwell travelled with his wife, Nadia, to London. “We loved travelling to Europe and visiting vineyards,” he says. “London was also a great place to learn about wine. On Saturday mornings I’d often spend an hour or more at my local wine shop soaking up as much information as I could from the owner.”
Returning to New Zealand, Maxwell went back to Lincoln University and gained a post graduate degree in viticulture and oenology. He joined Greystone for its first vintage in 2006 and has worked overseas at Chehalem in Oregon, Weingut Leitz in the Rheinagu and at Domaine d’Eugénie in Vosne-Romanée, Burgundy.
Greystone owns 120 hectares of land on Waipara’s rolling Omihi Hills although only 40 hectares comprising carefully chosen sites have been planted with vines. They have deliberately diversified the estate by planting olive trees as well as thousands of native trees.
The panel selected Maxwell as the first New Zealand Winemaker of the Year for his contribution to the rapid success of Greystone and its sister company, Muddy Water Wines. The award also acknowledges Maxwell’s thoughtful and often innovative winemaking practices and his contribution to the wider wine industry both directly and by example.
Maxwell’s winemaking philosophy has changed during his 11 vintages at Greystone. “I started with the romantic belief that the perfect wine existed and it was my job to find the formula for producing it,” he explains. “I guess most new winemakers think like that. At Greystone I have an exceptional vineyard site, which allows our vitulturist, Nick Gill, and me to style what the season gives us. It might be different if I was working with a lesser site, but I’ve shifted the focus from trying to make the perfect wine to trying to best express site and season.”
Working a season in Burgundy had a significant influence on his approach to winemaking. “2010 was a tricky vintage,which taught me the importance of fruit selection and gentle handling,” he says. “Despite the season’s challenges we made some beautiful wines. Since then we now always sort our fruit, do less plunging during fermentation, routinely use whole clusters in the fermentation, apply a much lighter press on white wines, use minimal fining and filtration and have changed our barrel maturation regime to put less emphasis on toasty oak and more on fruit flavour. I learned not to make things too complicated, to be in tune with the vineyard and to be patient.”
Here’s what NZ Winemaker of the Year panellist, Raymond Chan, had to say about Maxwell’s wines: “I think the wines he makes are absolutely spot-on in style and balance. He handles all of his varieties really beautifully and sensitively, allowing the fruit to speak first, then secondly a ‘sense of place’ as is trending now, and then his signature. I think this is the correct priority and ordering of what wines should show – at least in the New World.
“The white wines are absolutely precise, the oak-fermented wines are impeccably balanced and the pinot noirs to me really do show place, and subtle complexities.
“Interesting and against the grain, he believes in lower whole bunch in ripe years, as the fruit will already be complex. He uses higher whole bunch in cooler years. And his pioneering work with natural ferments in the vineyard (rather than the winery) is fascinating.
“I love the top Erin’s Reserve Chardonnay and Thomas Brothers' Pinot Noir. They are over the top in some ways, but are simply delicious and satisfying. Maxwell’s winemaking is sympathetic to many factors, his own inputs subtle to allow the natural aspects to shine.”
The winery and vineyards of Greystone and Muddy Water are certified organic. “When we bought Muddy Water it had just converted to organic viticulture,” he explains. “I thought its wines were earthier and more interesting under organics. A major motivation has been our desire to keep the land healthy – to increase its health. Organic viticulture and winemaking just seems right.”
Maxwell has made two orange wines which have no sulphur additions. “I guess winemakers like to trial things and push the boundaries a little,” he says. “It can breathe life into both winemaking and marketing. We will continue to make orange wines on a limited basis as well as pursue other projects that help us think outside the square.”
As Chan commented, “Maxwell credits the vineyard, the season, and viticulturist Nick Gill for much of the style and quality of the wine. He doesn’t appear to have an inflated ego, which could be expected for what he has achieved already. Maxwell is a genuinely nice man.”
Photography Courtesy of greystone