Happy to toil away in the background of his Waipara winery, there's no doubt Nicholas Brown is a man with a well thought out plan for the future and a worthy winner of our top prize.
The 2022 NZ Winemaker of the Year finalists are six of the very best, which made it so challenging to single one person out to win. However after much discussion, we have chosen Nicholas Brown of Waipara’s Black Estate.
In 2019 I arrived at Christchurch Airport and was met by Brown who cheerfully announced “the car’s air conditioning doesn’t work” as we sped up the motorway en route to Waipara. Unfortunately it was one of those characteristic Canterbury days, with not a cloud in the sky and temperatures forecast to hit the low 30s. But in true Brown style, he wasn’t fazed and spent the journey chatting about the upcoming vintage while periodically winding down the windows so we could stick our heads out to cool down before winding them back up and continuing to talk.
That trip was for me to participate in an event for visiting sommeliers, media and trade to immerse ourselves in the wines of North Canterbury. Ahead of my visit, I received an email from Brown letting me know he was sending “a little background reading on the region”. When I opened the attachment, I found a report titled ‘Geology, Landforms and Soils of the Waipara and Waikari Regions of North Canterbury with an Emphasis on Lands used for Viticulture’. Running to some 220 pages (20,873 words, but who’s counting) it was a brilliant paper, but, if I am honest, a little heavy going at times.
Stand in any of the property's three vineyards and you are aware the land is positively teaming with life.
Although Black Estate was the host winery, Brown was at great pains to make sure I had knowledge of the entire region and that no winery was left out. We didn’t have time to visit each one in person but spent the day criss-crossing North Canterbury – out to Waikari, up to Omihi, down the Glasnevin Gravels – so that I could get a sense of the region, the soil types and the landscape. Brown was the consummate host, ensuring that everyone was included.
This is a good reflection of Brown. He is someone who cares intensely about his work, striving to make the very best wines he can, concerned not only with his own wines, but also with the local winemaking community as a whole. And he’s not the kind of person to be worried by minor inconveniences.
Time spent with Brown is to realise he is obsessed with creating wines that are a true reflection of place. Since taking ownership of the estate in 2007, he has converted all the vineyards first to organics and now to biodynamics.
Stand in any of the property’s three vineyards – Netherwood, Home and Damsteep – and you are aware the land is positively teaming with life. Cover crops, insects and wild flowers create a magical setting in which the vines thrive. Pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay have been joined by cabernet franc and chenin blanc, two varieties Brown thinks have huge potential.
The Black Estate team work meticulously in the vineyard to make sure the soil and vines are in the best possible condition so that the fruit they harvest needs little intervention in the winery.
I was amazed to learn one of Brown’s overseas vintages was at Napa’s Opus One, the collaboration between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild. It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast in winemaking styles, the ultra-polished cabernet-dominant blend that luxuriates in new French oak alongside the cerebral, energetic, thoughtful local pinot noirs and chardonnays.
Brown continues to evolve the style of his wines: vineyard specific yeasts, seasoned or neutral oak, no fining or filtering and usually no sulphur additions either. This results in wines of transparency and grace, true reflections of site and season.
While our award shines the spotlight on winemakers, spend any time at Black Estate and you soon realise a collaborative approach is deeply ingrained in its philosophy. Brown is a reserved person, comfortable to toil in the background and focus on his work in the vineyards and cellar. His wife Pen is his perfect partner. Under her stewardship many of the small things receive exactly the same attention to detail; the award-winning winery restaurant gives recognition to many of its suppliers on the website, underscoring importance of using local and ethically sourced ingredients. Instagram posts feature not only Black Estate vineyards and wines, but also Santi and the restaurant team, Will and Liv in the vineyards, Olly the chef and, of course, Steve the dog.
Black Estate is a producer of wines that are a perfect reflection of place. In a relatively short time, Brown has further influenced this style with his ‘less is more’ philosophy: less intervention, less oak, less alcohol while delivering more precision and more personality. I certainly don’t expect Nicholas Brown to stand still so it will be fascinating to watch him continue this journey.
Text by Jane Skilton MW
Photography Courtesy of Black Estate.