Nick Mills at Rippon on the shores of Lake Wanaka
On the shores of Lake Wanaka in Central Otago stands Rippon. While the property hosts what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful (and most photographed) vineyard sites in the world, Rippon itself is importantly not just a vineyard. The site is owned and operated by the Mills family, with today the fifth generation beginning its stewardship of the land under the philosophy of the place as a complete farm.
It was Rolfe and Lois Mills who originally established vineyards at Rippon becoming, alongside Ann Pinckney and Alan Brady, the first to both plant vines and successfully release commercial wines from the region. Together Rolfe, Ann, and Alan worked to solve the viticultural challenges of a genuinely cold climate at a time when not only had no one grown modern vines there (and the world thought it impossible) but also none of the supplies typically associated with vineyard life were readily available. Once the vines were established, the three of them also set about solving the logistics of how to make wine. As a result, Rolfe and Alan were the first to make Pinot Noir commercially from Central Otago while at the same time Ann focused her efforts on Gewurztraminer.
Today, Lois Mills continues to work with Rolfe’s and her children to steward Rippon. Her grandchildren, while still young, are being raised into the farming life as well. The original vines established at Rippon in the early 1980s continue today – seen in the photo above near the lake – and go into both the original vine single vineyard bottling, Tinker’s Field, as well as serve as a portion of the Rippon Old Vines Pinot Noir.
Nick Mills serves as lead winemaker for the estate and helps to guide the overarching business as well. As he explains, the idea of a complete farm is one of the core guiding principles for Rippon but it also reaches back in inspiration to historical necessity.
It was Nick’s grandfather, Percy Sargood who originally purchased Wanaka Station in 1912, naming it for his grandmother Emma Rippon. The remoteness of the site meant supplies that would otherwise ease the farming were not readily available and work had to be done not with machines as much as horses and hand. But employing animals and your fellow man to help with farm work also meant farming the food to feed them, and build the facilities to house them too. Wanaka Station, then, operated as not only its own farm but in a sense a complete village growing and producing all the aspects needed for life in a remote region. In the midst of it all was the community hall where everyone of Rippon would eat together.
While transportation and technology have lessened the apparent remoteness of Wanaka, the vision of a complete farm has persisted at Rippon. Nick describes ideas of biodynamics as further inspiration for how they interpret this vision of farming today but the sense of community and camaraderie implicit in his description also proves consistent with stories in the region about his father Rolfe. For those that knew and worked with him, Rolfe is often described as a thoughtful man, and even a kind of spiritual figure, not in the religious sense but instead in his care for encouraging people to work together. The collaborative efforts of the region’s founders are one such example.
As Nick describes, Rippon is not merely the vineyard but a place with its own personality or identity, as well as its own voice. The influence of the surrounding geography, the soil architecture, the overall climate, the people that steward the land, the flora and fauna already growing there all operate as part of that unique place. By seeing the property in this way from the start the place must be respected as a sort of individual with its own needs, health, character, and forms of expression. Such an idea can also be seen today more broadly percolating through New Zealand culture. The country recently granted one of its major rivers the same legal rights as a human being.
In practical terms, such an approach means not just a shift in perspective – the place or the river are not just for any person’s selfish use but instead is something one has a relationship with that must be cared for – but also turning ones farming choices into parts of a bigger picture with a longer term goal of sustainability. At Rippon, farming is thought of in terms of a complete annual cycle.
Farming vines to produce wine, for example, is asking of the plants a type of production that would not occur otherwise in nature, but even so is also part of sustaining the overall farm. The vineyard, then, is a form of compromise or reconciliation between the needs of the vine and the needs of the farm. In asking the vines to produce grapes for wine they must also be provided with the nutrients, care and support they need to not only grow fruit but also begin the next growing cycle with the same health, nutrients and energy with which they started the previous. Farming, then, turns from a form of depleting the plant until it cannot give any more, as is seen in much commercial agriculture, to an investment in the long term health of the vine. Such health is sustained, for example, through annual practices such as compost, homeopathic teas for the vineyard, and cover crops.
As Nick explains, Rippon was started with a love for the land first. As a farm it had to be asked again and again what the best use of the land was for the place. The ongoing love for the land inspires that process of continuing to reconcile asking something of the land with returning to it what it needs.
Walking Tinker’s Field, the section planted by the Mills in the early 1980s, and tasting fruit a few weeks ago, the Pinot Noir was not yet ready for harvest. It would be another two weeks before they would pick. But even so there was something wonderfully satisfying in biting into the seeds of the grapes. They were toasted and woodsy, earthy and flavorful without being aggressively astringent. It’s a description rarely appropriate to the seeds of not-quite-ready fruit on the vine. Later, in tasting last year’s vintage from tank of the same block, and then later a few vintages of Tinker’s Field I suddenly recognized that same flavor and feel layered into the wine. It’s what Nick would call the voice of Rippon echoing there from vineyard to wine, the seeds one unique expression of the place of the farm.
Rippon “Rippon: Mature Vine” Pinot Noir 2013 Central Otago 13%
Savory and earthy aromatics with impressive complexity and depth – hints of crushed, dry cocoa, a mix of forest and bramble notes, mixed fresh berries, earth – are followed on the palate by firm, chalky tannin that gain suppleness and pleasure with air, mouthwatering palate stimulation and nice length. With air, that chalky tannin marries to the fresh, high tone acidity of the region for a long, pure finish. There are flavors of cocoa, gunmetal and a mix of dark fruits – black plum skin, fresh black currant, and a squeeze of fresh blackberry – but the wine is more about earthy, woodsy (as in forest and dried grasses) notes than fruit. There is pleasing depth and natural concentration here coupled with a fresh, purity and energy that feels distinctive and expressive of Rippon. This is still a profoundly young, while also complex and beautiful wine. It will no doubt age and develop nicely with time in bottle. If opening now allow it plenty of air, and time in decanter – would be best enjoyed slowly over the course of the evening or meal as there is plenty to compel you as the wine continues to evolve, and that palate stimulation will do well with food.
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