Tony Southgate – Nelson Mail 24.08.16

Last week I introduced you to Jonny Hiscox, the guy who grows the grapes for Aronui wines, this week I want you to meet an award winning winemaker, Tony Southgate from Brightwater Vineyards.

After Dale Springer, the viticulturist at Brightwater Vineyards, delivers the grapes to the winery Southgate takes over, weaving his magic to turn the freshly harvested grapes into great wines for you and me to enjoy.

Some wines go through a pretty simple process; wines like sauvignon blanc are generally fermented in stainless steel tanks and then bottled, all the winemaker has to do is manage the ferment to make sure the wine is nice and clean without any winemaking faults.

It is with wines like Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that the winemaker gets to really have some input into the flavours of the finished product, balancing things like residual sugar, acidity, the amount of time the wine is aged in oak barrels, are those barrels new or old, does the wine need to go through a second malolactic fermentation, all with the aim of producing an outstanding wine.

When Southgate started at Brightwater Vineyards in 2004 it was a baptism of fire, 2004 was a very wet, very difficult vintage to manage in the vineyard so the fruit delivered to winemakers across the region in 2004 was less than perfect.

It may have been a tough start but it was also an opportunity for Southgate to learn “you can’t be too proud to get on the phone and ask for help when you are learning, I called plenty of people I know, and they were more than happy to help.

“I learned new techniques to be able to deal with a difficult vintage.”

Southgate came to winemaking after working as a butcher for several years before spending time as a cabinet maker for more than three years, both occupations he enjoyed but didn’t get a real sense of satisfaction from.

He and his partner Paula (now his wife) stuck the surfboard on the roof of the car and went on a wine road trip around the South Island for a month, “she was my introduction into wine, she loved wine trailing around Hawke’s Bay and other areas when I met her and I found it was something I loved too, that road trip helped me decide I wanted a career in the wine industry rather than just jobs that really weren’t satisfying for me.”

So in 1999 he started by pruning vines at Babich Wines in Auckland but when that finished eight weeks later he ended up at Coopers Creek working as a cellar hand, “I had no knowledge about making wine, was very green but you just throw yourself in the deep end and soak up as much knowledge as you can.”

Southgate decided if he was going to have a future in the industry he would need to study so in 2001 joined the viticulture and winemaking course at NMIT’s campus in Marlborough and while there secured a job at Fromm Wines working in the vineyard.

After that it was off to Australia for a vintage then back to Fromm to work a vintage in the winery before moving on to a job at Cloudy Bay as a cellar hand for a year.

While at Cloudy Bay he went to California for a vintage where he worked at Flowers Vineyard and Winery making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, then, as young winemakers do, he left Cloudy Bay and went back to Flowers for another six months.

Southgate says moving around wineries working vintages in different parts of the world is part of finding your niche within the industry otherwise you will end up not being happy, it is also a great way to learn from different people and helps define who you are as a winemaker.”

Southgate credits Hatch Kalberer, winemaker at Fromm Winery, as one of his key mentors “his gentle approach to wine making, love of his craft and real attention to detail were important things he passed on to me and I have always held those philosophies very dear, they do make a big difference to the wines we make.”

Working at Cloudy Bay with James Healy was another key period in his learning cycle, he says Healy was incredibly generous with his time and happy to pass on his immense knowledge, Southgate says Healy and Kalberer are two of best figures in the industry and are people he still turns to for advice when he needs it.

During his winery road tour he had visited Brightwater Vineyards but they didn’t have a winery at that stage so didn’t get to taste their wines at the time however living in Marlborough Southgate and his wife knew they wanted to live in the top of the South Island.

When a winemaker’s job came up at Brightwater he applied, got the job and joined them just before what was to be one of the toughest vintages the region has seen.

I asked Southgate what he does as a winemaker and it may surprise you that it is much more than working in a winery, he needs to learn exactly what he is dealing with, “learning about the dirt, the vines, learning about the characters you get from the land, learning the micro-climate we are growing grapes in and learning about how that influences the characters in the fruit so we can make the best wines we can.

“Knowing your market is also incredibly important as it is the people I’m making the wine for, not other winemakers, and it is very satisfying making a great wine for everyday wine drinkers to enjoy.”

Southgate gets out in the vineyard too, particularly in the reserve label Lord Rutherford blocks where fruit is purpose grown for a premium wine, vineyard management is much more intensive, all hand-managed and low cropped.

The 2016 vintage was another challenging one in this region, a lot of rain over the latter half of summer and very high humidity made for a very busy and compacted vintage.

“But that is winemaking” says Southgate “all the winemakers help one another with advice, lending equipment and supplies to get through a tough season, we are all friends and share a beer at the end of the day.

“We did a huge amount of hand picking this year and are pretty pleased with the wines we have ended up with from such a challenging year.

“If you think you know it all, you have blown it, you are constantly learning and at Brightwater we have a great team of people, owners Gary and Valley Neale and Dale Springer in the vineyard, we have our roles but we work as a team and there is plenty of joint decision making.”

There have been some outstanding results for Brightwater Vineyards over the years including gold medals and trophies for Riesling in multiple years, gold medals for Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and then the Chardonnay trophy and Best in Show trophy for the 2009 Brightwater Vineyards Lord Rutherford Chardonnay at the Royal Easter Wine Show where Southgate was also named Winemaker of the Year.

The latest high achievement was winning the Pinot Noir trophy for the Brightwater Vineyards 2014 Pinot Noir at Air New Zealand Wine Awards last year.

And his biggest achievement? “I am very proud that the business is successful, there are a lot of wineries in New Zealand that don’t actually make money so I am proud to be part of a great business that does make some money and isn’t backed by big overseas investors.”

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