Grasshopper Rock - new wine on the block

May 2008
This is the story of the process of setting up a new vineyard and taking the risky plunge into boutique wine production. It is the story of how a relative newcomer in Grasshopper Rock has achieved success early.

In addition, having seen the process of preparing rootstock at Corbans Viticulture in series 3, we look at how some of those vine roots have fared now theyre in the ground and producing fruit.

The vineyard was purchased in 2002. It is 13 hectares in total area, with 38,000 vines planted on 8 hectares in 2003. At 45 degrees 15 south, it is in the southern-most latitude of winegrowing areas in Central Otago.

The first vintage was harvested in April 2006.

First vintage awards for the 2006 pinot noir:

Silver medal, 2007 NZ International Wine Show

Bronze medal, 2007 Bragato Awards

Bronze medal, 2007 Air NZ Wine Awards

The five shareholding families of Grasshopper Rock live throughout the country, from Hamilton to Invercargill. They originally met through a common interest in agriculture, with four members involved in rural banking. Today their interests have diversified into banking and finance, dairy farming, sheep and beef farming, pharmacy, fine arts and whitebaiting.

Phil Handford is the managing director and the most involved of the shareholders. He took on the role of sales and marketing when the first vintage was released.

In 2001 Carol Bunn was appointed winemaker at Akarua Winery in Central Otago. Over four vintages she consistently produced award-winning wines. In 2004 she joined Vinpro to lead their new winery division. Carol is quoted as saying her aim is to work closely with her clients, and their unique terroir, to produce for each the best wine we can in the year were given. She works with Mike and Steve Moffitt to achieve the character and flavours unique to Grasshopper Rock.

Vineyard manager Mike Moffitt originally trained in Parks and Recreation at Lincoln University. He has been in charge of the vineyard since 2002, overseeing the development of the vineyard from a bare deer paddock, to what it is today.

Mikes brother Steve is a viticulturist. He has been consulting for Grasshopper Rock since its establishment. Mike and Steve established another pinot noir producing vineyard (Dry Gully) on family land in 1991.

There are three distinct areas of the vineyard, with two blocks planted in each area:

On hill soils on scatted schist, with schist outcrops;

at the foot of the hill, on loamy sand over schist gravel;

and on shallow loamy sand and stony sands on greywacke and schist gravel.

The blocks are planted out with a variety of pinot noir clones which, when combined, help produce the complex wine that the company is aiming for.

Each block has been planted in one of the latest burgundy clones at a density of approximately 4,700 vines/hectare. Each clone was grafted onto a specific rootstock to match a particular blocks characteristics, including soil type and aspect. Vines were sourced from Corbans Viticulture.

For the first two years after planting, the fruit was pruned immediately after flowering to allow good root and leaf development. Close planting reduces vine vigour and slows growth, which means lighter cropping levels of higher quality and more intensely flavoured fruit. It also means vines reach full production faster. The 2006 vintage produced 950 cases, while the 2007 vintage has produced 1200 cases.

The 2007 vintage will be bottled in March, and released in 2009. Phil Handford estimates this years (2008) crop will be around 60 tonnes, producing over 3000 cases. Full production is estimated to be 50 tonnes, producing 3000 cases of pinot noir.

At the time of writing, the vineyard is currently close to harvest, with brix levels at 23.5 in the week commencing March 31. Mike Moffitt is aiming for 24.5 at harvest and is expecting to pick fruit in mid-April.

Vineyard samples are taken to decide if the fruit is ready to be picked. They are analysed at the vineyard and again at the winery in Cromwell by Carol Bunn. Digital readings of brix (sugar levels) and pH (acidity) are taken.

Staffing of the vineyard has played a big part of the early success of the wine. Staff is a mixture of experienced local and international vineyard workers. Mike believes although hand tending is labour intensive, it is the only way forward for pinot noir.

Each clone cycles at different times. The mix of clonal varieties ensures a tight harvest timeframe. The cones are: Abel, 5, 777, 667, 115 and 114. Bud burst generally begins in mid-October with flowering in November. Mike pays particular attention to the vineyard at flowering time, as its a critical time, affecting the output and quality of any years vintage.

The developmental time frame means plants are vulnerable to late spring frosts and Phil has invested in a frost fighting sprinkler system, linked to the under-vine irrigation system in the vineyard. It has paid off this year when some vineyards in the region have lost between 5 and 20% of their crop to late frosts.

Each block is hand harvested and fermented on a clonal basis. Following harvest, grapes are put in a chiller for a few days. This slows oxidization of the juice.

The juice is trucked into Cromwell, coming under the ministrations of Carol Bunn.

The 2006 pinot noir was fermented in small open top fermentation vats, then put into French oak barrels, undergoing malolactic fermentation and aging for 10 months. Phils marketing focus is solely on sales within New Zealand.