I have been living in New Zealand for nearly a couple of years now and have had the great pleasure of residing just outside an historic village called Upper Moutere. Home to pioneering German and English families, the village and surrounding valleys have become synonymous with redoubt, dry humoured folk; and over the last few decades, artisanal producers of the highest quality foods, drink, arts and crafts.
It is wish no small degree of sadness that I will be departing this wonderful place for good in little over a week, heading for pastures new in Wellington. To ease the pain of this transition I will be squeezing in a few weeks travelling in South America before heading back to the UK for a cider top up in July.
The following article delves a little deeper in the the world of The Moutere, exploring why it should be that some of NZ’s finest drinks producers live within the same area.
Upper Moutere X Factor
New Zealand has many regions synonymous with a particular style of drink; think Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir from Central Otago or craft beer in Wellington. But there’s one small village just outside Nelson which is home to a triumvirate of leading drinks producers including New Zealand’s champion brewer, the producer of arguably the country’s finest Chardonnay, and the pioneering makers of true, classic, heritage cider. Quite an achievement for a village with a population of just a couple of hundred people.
The village in question is Upper Moutere, some 20 kilometres west as the crow flies from Nelson. Situated 8 kilometres inland from the sea, it is at the head of a valley that provides a slower paced alternative to the Coastal Highway. An early pioneer settlement, with a quaint Lutheran Church and a pub purported to be New Zealand’s oldest, Upper Moutere exudes heritage charm and a positive sense of being in touch with its forebears. It is home to many artists and artisans, creating the finest hand crafted products, from olives to pottery and from mushrooms to knives.
This creativity is also accompanied by a stellar climate for growing, with over 2300 hours of sunshine per annum, making it one of the sunniest regions in New Zealand. Allied with this sunshine is the renown of the soil. The Moutere clay gravels, well structured and free draining, provide a perfect substrate for promoting healthy and prodigious growth. Initially planted with kiwifruit and tobacco, the land is now awash with apples, pears, hops, blackcurrants, boysenberries and vines.
Even with such favourable terroir, however, it is still quite remarkable that the creators of some of New Zealand’s most celebrated drinks, across three entirely different categories, should be located so closely together in this innocuous corner of the South Island. Is it just pure coincidence or does Upper Moutere have a secret X factor? I went to visit these three producers in a bid to solve the riddle.
Martin Townshend’s victory at the Brewer’s Guild of New Zealand Awards last year, when he was crowned Champion Brewer, has capped an astoundingly quick rise up the ranks of New Zealand craft breweries. To be bestowed this title is an incredible achievement for the Upper Moutere based one man band operation. A couple of kilometres away from Townshend’s Rosedale Road brewery is Neudorf Road, home to the eponymous artisan winery which has garnered so much acclaim for its wines over the years. Across the road from Neudorf is Peckham’s Cider, who are gaining a reputation for producing complex and classy ciders from apples which have been historically grown specifically for making cider.
Nestled amongst gentle, undulated hills, there’s no denying Upper Moutere’s reputation as a prime location for growing fruit. “Upper Moutere has a gentle climate,” explains Judy Finn, co-founder and owner of Neudorf Vineyards, “it never gets too hot here, and the summer seems to have a long tail, providing perfect ripeness. This, along with the cool nights as we head towards vintage, ensures the delicate flavours do not get driven off.”
Judy, and husband Tim, moved to Upper Moutere in 1978 at the pioneering forefront of the Nelson wine scene. Armed with Tim’s Masters in Animal Behaviour and Judy’s background in journalism, they took the brave step to plant vines in this fertile valley. But they have been richly rewarded for their endeavour and passion for quality, and bear the mantle of being one of New Zealand’s most respected producers. Renowned Master of Wine, Bob Campbell, sums up just how good Neudorf is:
‘I cannot think of another NZ wine producer that have been making top wines across their entire range as consistently as Neudorf have over three decades. Chardonnay is the star, with Pinot Noir, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc very close behind.’
The location of the winery was specifically chosen to establish vineyards owing, not only to it’s favourable climate, but also the high quality of the soil underfoot. ‘We were attracted by the Moutere clay gravels which give the wines minerality, structure and complexity ’ Judy elaborates. When asked if she thought the quality of Neudorf’s wines could be upheld if they were made in another location, the response is quite immediate: “No, I don’t think so; definitely not for the Chardonnay. The terroir here is amazing. If this piece of land were in France it would be treated as something very special indeed.”
Caroline Peckham, co-founder and owner of Peckham’s cider, and situated literally over the road from Neudorf, agrees with Judy: “We’ve had old folk visit us who used to pick apples on our property when they were kids, and they said that this patch of land has always produced the best apples.” Caroline, and her husband Alex, have run their own businesses for over 20 years. Originally from England, they moved out to New Zealand a decade ago. After living in Christchurch for a while, there was no better location to move to than Upper Moutere when they decided to make the transition from office to land.
Looking out across acres of orchards, Caroline explains, “Although we didn’t choose this site with the specific intention of making traditional cider, the block had a proven track record of growing quality fruit and showed real potential for development and somewhere to establish a business.” It was a love of English style cider, and the foresight to see a niche within New Zealand for this style of drink, that led them to establishing the country’s largest cider apple orchard, right on Neudorf Road.
Cider is undergoing a remarkable renaissance and is one of the fastest growing global drinks categories. In NZ, growth is primarily driven by the big brewers offering fruit ciders aimed at the 18-24 demographic. The Peckhams are on a quest to make cider in the traditional English way: a dryish, rich, complex drink with powerful mouthfeel and structure. To do this, they need old fashioned cider apple varieties, high in tannin, and grown solely for the purpose of making the alcoholic drink. Generally smaller, and certainly more bitter, than your average Pink Lady or Jazz, they have a wonderful array of names such as Knotted Kernel, Tremlett’s Bitter and Chisel Jersey.
After spending months, indeed years, scouring the country in search of these unassuming varieties located in small blocks and hobby orchards, they now have amassed some 20 different cider apple varieties, which they have grafted onto rootstock and begun to produce delicious cider. But all of the hard work was worth it. “We’re firm believers that only the best raw materials can give the best product.” And having regularly featured in the NZ media as one of the country’s finest producers and staunch advocates of the craft cider movement, it would appear that this dedicated approach is justified.
The Nelson region is also famous as the centre of New Zealand’s hop production. Just a handful of years ago the indigenous hop industry was in poor shape with the recession hitting hard. However, a new wave of craft brewers from the USA, Europe and Australasia are producing beers that require pungent, bitter hops. NZ varieties, such as Nelson Sauvin, Motueka and Pacific Jade, as a result of this resurgence have suddenly become hot property on the global market.
Upper Moutere is home to a number of hop farms, and the old saying goes that ‘where you get good hops you get good beer’. So does Martin Townshend, NZ Champion Brewer 2014, and fellow Upper Moutere resident agree with Judy and Caroline that they are perfectly located to create their quality product? “No, I’m not controlled by terroir. In fact it’s a ridiculous place to have a brewery. It’s just luck and coincidence that has led me to brew here.”
Having had a stint running the local takeaway and briefly having a hand in the village pub, Martin first put in a small brewery at his Rosedale Road property in 2004 with beer out in the market in 2005. What started as a way to generate a bit of extra income whilst waiting for his cider apple trees to mature, has turned into a full time business, culminating in his stunning success at the 2014 Brewer’s Guild of New Zealand Awards.
Cross-legged, sat atop a stack of Canterbury grain sacks in the brewhouse, Martin explains how he, as a brewer, differs from winemakers and cidermakers because he is not in direct control of the creation of his raw materials. “I get my water for the beer tanked in from the Motueka aquifer; and I buy my hops through the national grower-owned cooperative, New Zealand Hops, just like any other brewer could around the globe. It really is just a coincidence that I’m situated here, just down the road from Neudorf and Peckham’s.”
On the surface, it appears that Martin’s words have scuppered the notion that a geographical anomaly exists in Upper Moutere which provides the perfect conditions for quality drinks production of all kinds. However, by digging a little deeper, it is apparent that these three drinks pioneers are linked in ways other than merely sharing the same soil and climate.
They all exude an admirable non-corporate attitude towards their business and lifestyle, which is a hallmark of the Moutere as a region. “If we had planned to make the most amount of money we could out of this business, we would have bought land on the plains rather than in the hills,” admits Caroline Peckham. Judy Finn echoes the sentiment: ’Neudorf has never been about chasing the dollar. We could have made more money in other ways, but we’re happy with our scale and what we’ve achieved.”
This intentional decision to be located in Upper Moutere as a lifestyle choice, rather than merely a business decision, is shared by Martin Townshend. “Upper Moutere is just an awesome place to be. I always wanted to do something for myself. Here I can be left to my own devices and go about making the best product I can.”
Neudorf, Peckham’s and Townshend’s are all relatively small drops in their respective oceans. They have never had the intention of being the biggest, but all harbour the desire to be the best they can be. Upper Moutere provides a perfect location to establish a boutique drinks business thanks to its early history. The Europeans, predominantly Germans, who were settled in this region by the New Zealand Corporation from the 1840s, divided the land around the village into small blocks to be shared amongst the new community. These small blocks still define Upper Moutere’s landscape and act as an in situ restriction on how big an enterprise can be in this area.
It makes sense then, that only artisanal producers, with a quest for quality, have the ability to maintain long term, sustainable businesses here. Peckham’s, Neudorf and Townshend’s are all perfectly suited to this scale of operation and find themselves capitalising on the creative and geographical bounty that the village provides.
There is a final factor, however, that binds these three businesses even closer. All have been founded, and are run, by hardworking, entrepreneurial people with a penchant for pushing the boundaries. “Anyone can write a book,” Judy comments,” but it’s much harder to write a good book. We just try to do the very best we can and not bugger it up!”
It’s this constant demand for improvement, attention to detail and singe-mindedness that has enabled these producers to stand out amongst their peers. Martin confesses he can become a ‘little obsessed’ when it comes to producing his beers. “Stylistically, I want to be as accurate as possible, but also want to add my own interpretation.” Reassuringly, Martin is not assuaged by other’s opinions which enables him keep focus on what he does best: making great beers in his own inimitable fashion. “Running a business like this always has an element of risk,” Caroline asserts. But being the individualistic entrepreneurs that Caroline and Alex are, risk is all part of the package, and the Peckham’s are now reaping the success from all their investment and dedication.
There’s no denying that the Upper Moutere terroir is world class. I believe, however, it is the people we have to thank for creating these wonderful beers, wines and ciders. For different reasons and at different times, they have all been lured to Upper Moutere by the promise of a better way of life and the opportunity to create something truly magical. These are people who had a new idea and a vision, but also had the gumption to turn the vision into reality. It is through sheer bloody hard work and tenacity that they have achieved their goals to be at the top of their respective trades. In the end, whether it’s the land, an entrepreneurial spirit or just serendipity that ultimately links this triumvirate of extraordinary drinks producers together, one thing is certain: Upper Moutere has an X factor that makes it stand out from the crowd.