Creating an award winning product that goes out to the world is hard enough when you can control all of the elements, but winemaking is a world full of variables. Waitiri Creek Winemaker, Pip Battley has built a career crafting these uncertainties into critically-recognised successes. Pip’s work has taken her from Martinborough and Central Otago to Oregon, Burgundy and Chablis, Nelson and South Australia. Now she works to harness the unique location of Central Otago to produce some of the world’s finest Pinot Noirs. Pip shares the passion, the work and the challenges that goes into her craft.
Can you talk to us about your background and how you ended up where you are? Have you had different experiences with wine in different locations around the world?
I have done harvests in New Zealand and overseas, which is a great way to travel and legitimately learn about making wine. Straight out of university, I did my first harvest in Martinborough and through that, I met people that recommended a winery in Oregon. I went there and worked for a tiny winery, then back to New Zealand and back to Oregon again. From there, I went backwards and forwards quite a lot, as well as going to France, which was great. I have been there three times, but just for harvest.
There was a brief period of time when I almost ended up working full time in the US, but I ended up going to my brother’s wedding in Ireland and got stuck there. The US wouldn’t let me back in, so that put a quick stop to that.
You grew up on a farm. Do you think that was part of the catalyst for you wanting to get into the industry, or was there a moment when you knew that you wanted to pursue a career in the world of wine?
Honestly, it was a fluke and just a bit of a whim. A teacher of mine suggested it and I just thought, why not? I really liked doing biology, horticulture and science so it sounded like a bit of all of that. I had no idea about anything that went on in the wine industry.
My parents didn’t want me to do it as they thought me doing a BSci would be more sensible, but I am quite stubborn so I did it anyway and never looked back. After your first harvest, you have either fallen in love with it or you haven’t.
The wine industry is steeped with tradition and heritage, have you noticed things are changing? Do you think there is a balance between time honored processes and some new science and development?
Absolutely. There has always been a cross between the two, not just one or the other. It’s a mix between science, tradition and art – you get a feeling for what needs to happen. There’s so much innovation with science in the industry as we go along, but often the tradition and feeling of what should happen wins over science.
Interesting you mention the art side of things, so much of it seems out of your hands. Can you describe the different variables?
If you’ve got fruit that you don’t know much about and you have to decide what to do with it, you look at the numbers and figure out what you think it could work well with. Mostly it’s just flavour and you take a chance on what wine you think it would work well in. If you’re lucky, you can keep experimenting with the same fruit and get it. Eventually, you know you’ve got it right. But for the first time, it’s a bit of a gamble.
Are there any early indicators that it is going to be a great vintage?
Once you’ve made the decision, it’s always the right decision. No one will even know otherwise, it’s made into that wine now. You absolutely do get a feeling, but I don’t know if you will ever really know. You just have to be confident and if you think it’s right, it probably is.
Are you looking for any particular feedback that will influence you for future vintages?
Feedback is always good, you always want to know what people think. How I normally get it is through wine writers, wine shows or other reports back and to be honest, I have only ever heard of favourable reviews of Waitiri Creek wines. People don’t tend to publish bad ones, so hopefully there’s none of them!
Can you talk about your experience working in different places across the world, the similarities or differences? What is the thread that holds everything together? What have you learnt along the way with your exposure to different places?
The way I have been doing it is mostly sticking with Pinot Noir and the places that make Pinot Noir really well; that is Oregon and Burgundy. With Pinot Noir, it’s basically made very similarly everywhere, although there are slight variations along the way. It just shows the region and where it comes from.
Can you describe a little bit about being able to capture a region? If we talk about Central Otago for example, what is it that really shines through in the wine?
Gibbston is where Waitiri Creek is and I have been trying to describe the flavour you get from there, but still haven’t nailed it down. It’s sort of like blueberry spice that comes through all of the wines from Gibbston in varying degrees. You smell a Pinot Noir wine from Gibbston and you know that it’s from Gibbston.
To be able to make that come out in the wine means you want to let the fruit express itself and not be too heavy handed in your winemaking to let it come out.
What do you think the factors are that create a great profile?
The soil, the climate, the vineyard aspect. It must be because that’s where it’s all coming from. You can’t create flavour in the winery, you can only enhance it or hide it.
When you did your first vintage for Waitiri Creek in 2019, what were you expecting? What was the process, what do you think you achieved and what surprised you along the way?
We came close to harvest, so I felt a bit as though I was thrown in the deep end, especially as I didn’t know a lot about that particular vineyard. That was quite good though, there were no preconceived notions and we got to taste through the vines, taste what I thought would go well where and go for it.
We were making a Rosé and Pinot so making that decision before you know the vines is always a little bit, not risky, but you’re either going to make a really good Rosé, or possibly use some of the best fruit in your Rosé.
The year after that, we didn’t make Rosé and just made everything into a Pinot. If you’re making the whole vineyard into one thing, you can really see how it all develops, now we have a bit of a better idea about what performs where and what to do with it all.
Can you talk a little bit about some of the decision making in terms of where you put the grapes?
It’s a bit about the numbers. Acids, sugars and flavours; it’s a lot about the flavour. And then you also look at the grape. For Rosé, generally you want those bigger flusher berries and then for Pinot, go for the smaller berries with more skin contact ratio so you know it’s going to be more concentrated.
And then just flavours; you taste them all then see what you think. There’s acid development as well; you need to pick Rosés earlier so you get slightly higher acid with the sugar, but not too high. In Gibbston, it has a tendency to start off with the acids really high and then drop once you get it into the tank. You need to pick it with enough acid to keep that nice, fresh balance.
In each vintage, are there little things that you pick up and keep developing?
Yes, every year is different. A picking decision is quite important and every year is different, meaning the balance is also different every year.
What is an average day for you as a senior winemaker?
That’s the good thing about the wine industry, there are no average days. You get to do something different all of the time. For harvests, it involves usually coming in and tasting through all the whites and reds to make sure the ferments are all happy. If the ferments are happy and clean, you don’t have to do much later. You want to make sure the ferments are developing well while they are young.
Going out to vineyards and tasting fruit, it takes up a lot of time in vintage. And then it’s a lot of logistics; moving wine around so that you can fit it all into the winery, scheduling fruit so that it doesn’t come in all at once, but hopefully everyone gets to pick the fruit when they want to pick the fruit. I don’t get to do very many dig outs anymore, which is my favourite thing!
What’s a dig out?
With Pinot, you stem it, whole bunch it or open ferment it. It ferments and sits there for a while, then you press off the skins when you are ready. Once it’s fermented, and sits there nice and warm, then you drain the wine. After that, you are left with skins and a bit of wine leftover, so you have to get those skins into the press to press off the rest of it. You actually have to physically get in and shovel it out. And it smells good, it’s warm, and a little bit of exercise too.
Have you noticed any challenges with supply chain issues and being able to freight? How do you think that might have an impact on the export market?
I can talk about that from getting dry goods and what I need to make wine. I am assuming it’s similar to sending it out once it’s made, but the biggest thing has been barrels with supply chain issues. We used to order our barrels for Pinot in October or November, so we taste all the new barrels and have plenty of time to decide what we liked prior to ordering them in November, so they would get here just in time for the new vintage.
Now, with COVID and all the container ships, there’s no guarantee that they will get through. We had to order them in September, which is too soon to be tasting through all the barrels because they’re still going through their secondary fermentation. It’s too hard to tell.
We had to wing it a little bit and go off what we liked last year. Then, we ordered them really early. Some have come in on time and there’s some that won’t be here until mid harvest. It’s so unreliable at the moment.
Does that mean you can only produce a certain amount? What happens in that scenario?
It’s for the Chardonnays that are picked earlier, so we won’t be able to ferment them in the barrels. We want to, but we’ll just have to adapt and use the barrels that we’ve got and use the ones that are coming for something else. There’s always something you can do to change things. Quite often when these things happen, you find a new barrel that you think will work really well with Chardonnay.
Speaking of that as well, there’s some really cool New Zealand companies that are doing micro-oxygenation. Do you think that will ever replace the whole barrel process?
I don’t think it’ll replace it, but it’s definitely a great tool. It works really well, but it doesn’t replace the barrel. It makes the young ones a lot more approachable and you can make a great Pinot that way, that’s ready to drink earlier and really nice.
Quite often with wines that we make that way, when you first taste them post-harvest, they are the ones that look really good because they are closer to being ready to drink. With the barrels, the wines take longer so are tighter and not showing as well. But once you make the wine, blend it and put it in a bottle, the wines from the barrel are always going to be better.
Say I really wanted to impress at a dinner party, is there a particular Waitiri Creek vintage that I should rock out with?
They are all good! I’ve only made two and we haven’t decided this year yet what’s going into the bins for the 2021 Pinot. But, for 2019 and 2020, which is all I can really talk about, they’re quite different years, but they both came through in the end.
In 2019, there was snow in November, which caused a few problems such as the loss of shoots. We were worried that things wouldn’t ripen, but they did. It came through in the end, you just have to be patient, but being patient in Gibbston is very hard because it gets closer and closer. You’re already in autumn and it’s getting closer and closer to winter and you’re just hoping things will ripen in time and they did.
You talk about that Gibbston Valley flavour. If I had the 2019 and 2020 by my side, what differences would I notice? And based on the very different years you are talking about, would there be other things that start coming through?
The main difference for 2020 was also the biggest challenge – the acid profiles were really high. It is a bit too soon to tell because they are both super young wines at the moment, but they are both showing quite Gibbston-y characters. They are both looking quite pretty and elegant at the moment. It just remains to be seen how they age.
I do fantasise about having a wine cellar one day and being able to go down and admire it. Is there a particular length of time that I should keep the 2019 and 2020 for?
How long is a piece of string? I think a good rule for Central Otago in general, which other people might not agree with, is around five to ten years. Central Otago is so expressive with fruit that you don’t want to wait too long before all of that’s gone. But up to ten years, they still look really young and delicious. You can keep a couple of bottles longer and see what happens. If you’re lucky enough to have a case, start in year five and have one each year, then you can see how it develops.
If we are looking at the global market, in your experience, how do you think the New Zealand industry is going globally and where do you think we are in terms of potential?
We have plenty to be going on with. Wherever I have travelled and been in the market overseas, it’s always as a New Zealand winemaker. I have also always been around people who are very knowledgeable in the industry, however I think the average consumer overseas probably still has a lot to learn about New Zealand wine. There’s definitely plenty of reputation to be built on.
When you see someone enjoying wine that you’ve made with this combination of art and science, how does that make you feel? Is that what drives you?
I don’t know if it’s what drives me, but it’s lovely. It makes me feel quite humbled because it is really nice. Mostly it’s friends and family that are doing it, but it’s really nice to have people enjoying the wine that you made and you can say, I created that.
It is, a magical thing. You’ve got this essence of a location and all of the art and time that’s gone into it and people that are often enjoying it with friends and family to celebrate something.
From your perspective, is there anything else that you think is important to share from Waitiri Creek?
Something else that really matters in winemaking is the people that are involved, and the karma is important. You can’t make good wine with bad people. I definitely think there is good karma with Waitiri Creek and they are going to keep doing really well.
Can you elaborate on that karma a little bit?
The people who are involved care about the wine, but they are also nice people as well. They are passionate about it. They might not necessarily know all the answers, but they want to do the best for the wine and the vineyard. They are also pretty cruisy as well, which helps. You don’t want to be too stressed out about winemaking.
As a senior winemaker, do you have to make hard calls sometimes?
Most people that I’ve worked with in the wine industry all have the common goal of wanting to make great wine. We all have very similar interests, like caring about the environment, caring about good food and wine.
Everyone has common interests and goals, it’s not just a job. You are making something together. So generally, no, you don’t have to be too harsh.
Do you think that the karma and energy shows through in the final product?
Absolutely. I think it shows through a wine that has passion and is cared for, rather than something that’s just made for a market or as a product. There’s a big difference for wine that people care about when they’re making it.
To find out more about Waitiri Creek and to purchase a case of their wine, visit their website.