Hotel Magazine spoke with Blackenbrook Vineyard, nestled into the hillside in Nelson, to discover the secret behind producing pure and elegant wines while reducing carbon footprint.
Based in Tasman, halfway between Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park, husband and wife team Ursula and Daniel Schwarzenbach are the faces behind family vineyard Blackenbrook.
The Schwarzenbach’s started planting their vineyard in 2001 and built the gravity-fed winery in 2006. Daniel is the vineyard manager and winemaker, Ursula takes responsibility for marketing and sales and they have two permanent employees in the vineyard. Over harvest, the team would increase to up to 30 people because all the grapes are handpicked.
Blackenbrook Vineyard has eight hectares under vines, focusing on producing high quality aromatic wines, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
“Our wines are pure and elegant,” Ursula said.
With careful vineyard work, most of it by hand, Daniel and his vineyard team ensure the vines are happy and healthy.
“Because we only use minimal mechanical handling, our wines don’t pick up bitterness and we don’t have to fine them with milk, egg or fish. Our white and rose wines are therefore certified vegan.”
Blackenbrook’s main target market is on premise; fine dining restaurants, hotels, and wine and brew bars.
The best part of the job is working with nature in one of the most stunning parts of New Zealand, and being self-employed on their own vineyard while working their own little slice of paradise, Ursula said.
Every step in the vineyard influences the outcome in the winery.
“I love this close relationship and work hard on getting our vines into a state of balance to give our wines an extra dimension.”
The Schwarzenbach’s biggest focus is Sustainable Vineyard management and treading lightly on Mother Nature.
“Both our vineyard and winery are 100 percent sustainable and certified by Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand. I work with organic fertilisers to introduce trace elements and improve soil health. We have also replaced all weed-spraying by under-vine mowing, meaning the previously barren and exposed soil under the rows is now home to countless plants and insects, again improving soil health and balance in our vines.”
Nestled into the hillside in the middle of the vineyard, the winery is a direct reflection of everything Blackenbrook stands for; minimal interference with natural processes resulting in pure and genuine wines. Gentle processes were the guiding force when Daniel designed his gravity-fed winery.
“It’s been about breaking down the process into components and choosing only the components that make sense and eliminating what’s unnecessary. Because all our fruit is hand-picked and hand-selected we can miss out two steps – de-stemming and pumping the must. That means we minimise oxidation and can cut out one sulphur-addition.
“I also wanted the winery to be easy to work in with ample light, excellent water pressure, over-specked power supply and a compact layout simplifying processes – a winery designed by a working winemaker.”
The construction process was overseen by Daniel. He knew what he wanted right down to the positions of every tap and socket. Environmental aspects and resource conservation were important which is why Blackenbrook uses gravity rather than pumps for wine-transfers, excellent insulation was installed to save on heating and cooling and treated roof water used for all cleaning.
Many parts of the winery are unique Daniel designs and have been custom-built. They include special tanks on rollers for chilling red grape juice and skins pre-fermentation, the easy-to-use barrel-topping system based on gravity, the innovative filtering method as well as drainage and settling systems that allow waste water to be taken to paddocks for irrigation.
Since the first vintage from the winery in 2006, the design and focus has all been about improving quality by another percent or two. The gentleness Daniel strives for comes from the minimal use of mechanical transfers. Whenever possible gravity is employed; the grapes are lifted up to the press by a forklift with rotating head rather than by an orga, the juice naturally drains from the press to the settling tanks and is moved only once more until the pre-bottling stage at the end of June.
Blackenbrook’s variable capacity tanks with air-tight lids together with the stringent quality control at picking mean Daniel is able to keep the young wines on gross lees for an extended time without risking reductive flavours.
“The winemakers I talk to, they’re shocked by how long I leave them without sulphur addition. But the natural CO2 from the fermentation protects the wine and the extended lees contact adds flavour and creaminess.”
The Schwarzenbach’s said 2014 was a brilliant year for Blackenbrook.
“The weather throughout the growing season and during harvest was ideal, the vineyard very balanced and healthy. Each day we’d head out with a small team of about 16 people and harvest amazing fruit, being blown away by the exciting flavours and beautiful ripeness. We knew right then that these grapes would turn into stunning wines – and they did. All varieties of the 2014 vintage tasted excellent, bringing home two trophies and three gold medals.”
Outside of wine, The Schwarzenbach’s are big fans of the great outdoors.
“We love mountain-biking, running, tramping, hunting and jumping into pristine rivers with our two children. We are very lucky to have an amazing nature’s playground at our doorstep here in Nelson.”
Winemaking might not bring the lifestyle many associate the profession with, Ursula said.
“More likely it means long hours, hard physical work and moderate pay-packages.”
The couple said it is important when starting out to not grow too fast, to establish your market before going into the next growth phase, and to keep focused on what you want to achieve.
“A good education and several years working in European wineries are essential. There are many ways of making wine and overseas experience will certainly broaden the horizon and prepare for the challenges ahead,” Daniel said.
“A winemaker has to be in tune with his particular site and find the best way of managing it, drawing from his experience. This is an ongoing challenge with weather patterns, vine age and disease pressure constantly changing – this is what makes our profession so exciting.”
Blackenbrook is not seeking new markets, as most of the stock is allocated, but the couple said they want to work closely with existing customers and support them in their marketing wherever possible.
Looking ahead, Ursula and Daniel hope to strengthen Blackenbrook’s reputation and look after loyal customers.
“Improve balance in the vineyard, reduce our carbon footprint and keep producing outstanding wines reflecting our soil and personality,” Daniel said.