A Q&A with chief winemaker
Wilco Lam of Dry River
Dry River is known for being the pioneering winery of Martinborough and New Zealand as a whole. Being a boutique, low-crop winery, not everyone has the opportunity to taste or own your wines… What sets Dry River apart from other wines produced in New Zealand?
Fundamentally I believe there are two ways that sets Dry River apart:
Market: From establishment, Neil, our founder and previous owner, had a very clear objective of producing a certain style of wine that would not cater to regular commercial industry channels. To be honest, in the early 80’s these had not yet been properly established in New Zealand, so perhaps a bit of foresight from Neil. However, his model was always to grow a specific/unique style of wine, which would suit only a select segment of the market: private clients, fine wine retail and on-premise. Initially with only a few producers in the market, this was not very difficult to achieve. With more producers entering, the pressure to do so grew. Others saw these opportunities for growth, but for Neil this would mean relinquishing a certain control and diluting his objective, and wine style. He was very focussed on producing wines suitable for cellaring, and by achieving this his way. We therefore have always had, and maintain, a very large following through private clients and relative low amounts of domestic distribution and export.
Wine Growing: In the vineyard this meant a very specific rootstock and clonal material were chosen. Since we are avid believers in dry farming, we require a vigorous and drought tolerant rootstock. These were only sparingly available, which automatically resulted in small amounts of plantings that could be established. All other rootstocks in NZ, and still to this day, are non-vigorous, drought intolerant rootstocks which require irrigation. We believe this negatively impacts wine typicity and expression of terroir. The clonal and rootstock material we use, still to this day since we mass select from our own vineyard for any replanting, are now not widely used anymore. The industry has opted for more familiar and widely used clonal and rootstock material. Another vineyard technique we use is utilising the high UV-B radiation in NZ to ripen our wine. We expose our fruit from a very early stage (at fruit set) to direct sunlight through leaf removal. This helps to thicken the skins and increase phenolic compounds. This inherently also has an impact on fruit aromatic composition. In short, we farm for a high “bank account” of skin phenolics, which are helpful to protect the wine against oxidative effects.
What is the main ethos of Dry River and how has it develop over the years?
Attention to detail and no compromise. Dry River produces approximately 2500
cases annually, of which Pinot Noir is the most important with 900 cases. This is a small production of 11,5 ha of vineyards. In order to produce consistently every year at a certain level, and to remain economically viable, a second tier label is not an option. Hence we have meticulous vineyard management, with highly trained and skilled staff, who are involved in every process of the wine production here. This makes them complicit in the quality control and will therefore take responsibility for this too. I would like to believe that the company working ethos has grown into “making the extra step”.
There are many references from Dr Neil McCallum calling Dry River ‘cold’ rather than ‘cool’ climate wines. Can you elaborate, as ‘cold’ could be perceived as detrimental?
Haha, yes, Neil was always keen to make a point. Personally I would agree with you on the ‘cool’ climate we grow wine in. However, for Neil, extremes are possibilities to set oneself apart. This can then be utilised to quantify certain techniques, like the high fruit exposure, utilising UV-B light to ripen wine, etc. “Cold” could further exemplify the challenge wine producers overcome in order to produce their wines. Sorry, I hope I don’t make it sound too negative. I think now that NZ is slowly becoming an established wine producing country with a heightened profile and challenging wines, we can safely refer to cool climate. Even that these days can be disputed.
Your wines are famous for their ability to age. We hold Dry River Syrah and Pinot Noir dating back to the 2005 vintage and Riesling dating back to 2009. In your view, how are they developing and what is your view on them reaching their drinking apogee?
I think the biggest challenge when producing wines with cellaring potential is obviously that all components require to be present proportionally. For us this means fruit, tannins/phenolics and acidity. Alcohol and sugar are certainly not to be ignored, but less fundamental. We also believe that fruit tannins should be transparent, like a see-through mirror, but that a degree of embellishment via either oak or whole bunch component are beneficial for certain wines. I think that over time Dry River is refining and evolving this viewpoint, since we now start to see the effect of vintage variation on cellared wines. This mostly is impacted by timing of picking and extraction levels in the winery, which we now adjust accordingly. We still like to believe that drinkability of our wines is achieved after five to seven years, sometimes longer, and that peak pleasure is achieved after 10-15 years. Time will tell if our evolution can fulfil this desire.
The elephant in the room that without a doubt impacts this will be discussed next.
Are you considered an outcast in New Zealand for using natural cork? Why is this your preference over screw cap?
We are an outcast in NZ with natural cork. We think this is a beautiful closure. Riddled with tradition it deserves a lot of respect. A stelvin closure can neither provide this romance nor compete with the low carbon footprint. I consider Dry River a conservative producer, we don’t follow trends easily, and therefore we will not easily change over to a different closure. However, natural cork has its fallacies, I am very aware of that. Especially in NZ, where traditionally quality cork supply is poor. The industry has itself to blame for that, they wanted to have a cheap closure, and not many were diligent on the quality of the product. However, even with strict quality control procedures and higher end corks, we have experienced bad closures. Given all this, I am from a different generation, and would be very open to use Stelvin closures. I would feel a lot better about our wines knowing the wine has a very low chance of failure. However, the evolution of the wine is a different game… too easy with a perfect seal. And most of all, I would have to change the shape of the bottle. In the end, it’s all about the looks!
You are neighbours with our exclusivity, Devotus Wines. Tell us about your relationship with Don & Valerie? We also understand that Dry River assisted Devotus with their 2017 vintage? What do you aim to add to the mix?
When Don and Valerie came back to NZ to move into their vineyard next door, a new approach to vineyard management came with them: farming. For long, including myself, viticulture as just that: growing grapes. However, besides engineering, Don has an extensive farming background through his family. They are very proud farmers, and appreciate working the soil very traditionally and judiciously. I thought this was so beautiful. Don’s passion for farming, farming wine, invigorated us to make the hard needed changes in our management.
For long it was my ambition to produce organically/biodynamically, and Don gave very clear insights how to achieve this by farming. Other than that, we both have young families, both two boys, and share many other similar interests. My role is little, I walk the vineyard with Don and provide my viewpoint and sometimes some guidance. By the time the wine hits the winery, the most important work is done. I think Don is happy for us to shepherd his wine in a safe and well cared for environment where he is welcome to be part of it and learn. We have been more involved since the 2017-18 growing season, and will have their wine in our winery for the first time. Don is in the far stages of completing his own winery. I understand it is his long term vision to have control over the maturation stage too, but that he feels uncomfortable with it at this stage. Hence our involvement at the moment.
How do you see New Zealand and Martinborough specifically developing over the coming years? Are they heading in the right direction?
I hope so, the mentality is there, as long as large (corporate) investment will not swallow up the industry. I have concerns about the industry turning Pinot Noir into the next commodity wine after Sauvignon Blanc. Obviously SB has been a high impact wine, which is recognisable and affordable. This is not quite the case with Pinot Noir however, it cannot be in regards to price point. I think NZ needs to be very careful about managing their image; clean and green. The sustainability programme is very important, and will need to be elaborated on. It is still a long way off reaching maturity of the market, but if enough producers stick to their guns, then yes, we’ll get there.
If we gave you $100 (New Zealand dollars) to spend – Would you opt for a Pinot Noir from Burgundy or from New Zealand?
Since I am in NZ and have a high exposure to NZ Pinot Noir, I opt for Burgundy. If I was somewhere else with higher accessibility to Burgundy Pinot Noir, I would opt for NZ Pinot Noir.
Dry River Pinot Noir
2007, 2010, 2011, 2012 & 2013
Dry River Lovat Syrah
2005, 2008, 2009 & 2011
Dry River Chardonnay
Dry River Craighall Riesling
2009, 2010 & 2011
View all of our Dry River Wines