Dry River, Martinborough, New Zealand   
Jamie Goode visits one of New Zealand's most exciting producers - interviews Neil McCallum and his talented team, and tastes some stunning wines

Neil McCallum

Established by Neil McCallum in 1979, Dry River was one of the pioneering wineries in the Martinborough region of New Zealand’s North Island. The original vineyard was planted on the Martinborough Terrace, on free-draining alluvial soils. Further vineyard blocks, also on the terrace were later added: Craighall (of which part was purchased by the winery in 1997) and Arapoff (which was then purchased in 2002 and renamed ‘Lovat’), taking the total area under vine to around 30 acres.

In 2003, Neil sold the winery to a seriously wealthy Wall Street financier, Julian Robertson (according to Neil, ‘the guy who invented the hedge fund’ and one of the world’s super-rich), but Neil retains the hot seat, with the extra money providing the opportunity for Dry River to grow and to continue to be committed to quality without compromise.

Poppy Hammond, winemaker

I met with Neil, winemaker Poppy Hammond (who also goes by the name of Katy), and viticulturalist Shayne Hammond (spouse of Poppy). Together, as a team, they are producing perhaps New Zealand’s most exciting range of wines. Neil is a very interesting guy to talk with, and so I’ve reproduced my interview with him and Poppy below. I’ve also added a video of Poppy and Shane showing me the remarkable vineyards, along with notes on a number of Dry River wines. This is really one of those wineries where you just buy as many bottles as they’ll let you have.

Shayne Hammond in the vineyard


Jamie Goode (JG): So how do you break down responsibilities?

Neil McCallum (NMC): I sit up here, and we cooperate in terms of planning the vintage, the research, and doing the tastings. But Poppy does the actual work during vintage.

Poppy Hammond (PH): I’ve done ten vintages now. We’re a good team.

NMC: That’s really what Dry River is about: a team which can bring in the talents from different directions. We don’t have tastings with fewer than three people. People don’t have the same palates, and if you have three people you’ll get different looks at the same issue. This is really important: no one person has all the answers: I don’t care who they think they are and how big their magic wand is. It also requires really good relationships. Too often in tastings, you see clashes of egos. We don’t have that; we have learned that we are all here with the same views, and differences are just a reflection of different perspectives, not right or wrong.

JG: The way I see it, in winegrowing, there are two elements. One is skill in being able to get to a particular destination. The other one, perhaps more importantly (and where the wine world has gone askew, of late), is knowing what that destination is in a first place, and having a clear idea of this. Do you share a philosophy?

NMC: We have a complete philosophy. That is, the best expression of what we can do in the vineyard. As we go through the winemaking process, the decisions are not in terms of creating a particular style. They are what is best for the fruit, and what is best to preserve the characters that have been harvested. This is the beginning and the end of what we do.

Poppy and Shayne

JG: In that sense, then you think the vineyard speaks to you of the style of wine you should be making. Do you think the vineyard has a style that naturally it expresses through the varieties you plant, and then you can either ease into that expression of the vineyard, or struggle to manipulate it away in another direction?

NMC: We ease into where the vineyard wants to go, but you still need a philosophical understanding of the wine. One of the key things we look at is the phenolic management of a wine. Essentially, beyond their ability to preserve and provide structure, phenols don’t have a lot of use. The most important thing is the flavour. When it ever reaches a point that the phenolics obscure the flavours, or distort what is happening, we feel that this is a management problem. Beyond that, it is about the flavours in the vineyard, with crucial decisions about what flavour point you choose to pick at.   

PH: Constantly achieving balance is the biggest thing in the vineyard. You have your parameters—your targets and goals—right from the start.

JG: How many vintages have you done now, Neil? When did you start?

NMC: Since 1983, when we did a reasonable amount, although 1984 was the first commercial vintage. We were technically the first in Martinborough, but only by about 100 vines! We came here and started, and others joined in within six months. Technically speaking there were four pioneers on the ground for quite some time, until 1986, and then we were joined by another one or two. Then slowly the place took off.

PH: And they all came from diverse backgrounds.

NMC: We were driven by passion rather than sense. We were all passionate about wine, and anyone at the time could have told you this was stupid—you are going nowhere.

JG:      Why was that?

NMC: Apart from about one or two lauded wines, there was no such thing as a fine wine industry in New Zealand then.

JG:      It is amazing how quickly it has changed.

NMC: The story is as much about good luck as anything. It is good luck in cultural shifts and affluence (in terms of wine drinkers), which came gradually over the next 20 years.

JG: I suppose consumers are an important part of this.

NMC:  They are crucial. Up till 15 years ago I would lie in bed thinking ‘why am I in this? I could walk out and all I have is the value of the land.’ But that changed. It is just good luck.

JG: How did you find the transition to becoming a wine grower?

NMC: Pretty good. I was previously a research chemist. I just went into the library and read all the English language research that had ever been published on wine. This was very much starting from first principles. This was quite a good thing. We were isolated, so we weren’t really contaminated by the ideas of the time. When they saw what we were trying to do, a lot of people went out of their way to explain that we were really crazy. Even really fine viticulturalists. I remember, there was a viticultural symposium here in 1987 and Professor Olmo and a few others came round. He walked our vineyards, looked at me and looked at the other viticulturalists, and sais, ‘These vines cannot ripen those grapes.’ He was referring to the fact that we did this complete leaf plucking. Essentially he was saying the same thing as everyone else: that we are idiots.

JG: I saw the split canopy you use with white sheets under the row. Presumably the white sheets reflect back light.

NMC: We farm for light not heat. Light is critical. In terms of what you want to be happening with phenolics, the reactions are essentially free radical reactions. They become easier with heat or light. If you are in a cool climate you are in a good position because light will potentiate the free radical polymerizations, but light doesn’t affect the flavours, caused by chemicals such as terpenes. You are getting the best of both worlds. If you are in a warmer climate you can still get the changes to the phenolics, but you tend to get your flavours changed and baked off. This is the difference in a cool climate. So we have ended up with wines like Syrah and Viognier, which technically should not be grown here: it is too cold.

JG: What do you think about biodynamics? As a scientist I am very interested in this. I have visited quite a few biodynamic vineyards and they are usually making fantastic wines from them. I am trying to work out which viticultural tools they are using that may be having some sort of effect.

NMC:  You have exactly the same mindset as us. We have always been as sustainable as possible. Essentially, we are exploring the biodynamic situation but we would never label ourselves and confine ourselves within a discipline. There are many practices we take on board, such as the focus on soil health. I still have to wonder about things like cow horns. On the other hand, I am ready to accept many of the positions about the phases of the moon, which concur with my own observations. You can see the moon has an influence. We will continue to go down the track of biodynamics with the overall aim of minimizing any intrusion into the natural processes of how vines grow. This intrusion doesn’t include things like canopy manipulation. General vine and soil health is terribly important, and there has to be a feedback with what you get off the vine, too.

JG: It is interesting watching it all unfold. As a scientist, I feel that often what is being criticized by some of the biodynamic guys is an old-fashioned, inadequate understanding of conventional agriculture. Now, even mainstream agriculture is moving more towards seeing a vineyard as a complete agroecosystem, with many interactions among the different organisms.

NMC: We have to accept too that we will not understand all the relationships. But there is an empirical approach that should be centred on that central philosophy of what we can do to minimize the intrusions, and maximize the overall health of the full situation. It is very interesting. This is a 30 year project, not a three year project. Even now, we use very few sprays. In vintage 2009, someone was saying how they had this level of rot in their Pinot Noir. Shayne said, ‘we don’t have any,’ and he was accused of lying. This is all about management. We don’t have problems with botrytis. For us, this is a considerable success story. We spend a huge amount on manual management of the vineyard, but we would argue that we are paid back in spades by the health of the grapes and the fact that we simply don’t lose crop.

JG: Are you a bit of a pariah in New Zealand for using natural cork?

NMC: Everyone likes to hear the debate, but I’d suggest that the closure is a winemaking choice. Our corks are brilliant. This is the other winemaking choice: we simply screen the corks. We say, give us a random sample and we will tell you whether we will take that batch. The permeable screwcaps look to be a possible compromise, but the problem is that Saran is an endocrine disruptor. At the end of the day, these people shouldn’t be saying to me you should be using screwcap or not; they should be saying I’m interested in what the final wine is. It is all about this wine in this glass. Then if they want to know how I got there, the closure is on the same level as the barrel and everything else. There’s another factor, which is that a redox cycle seems to be set up. Your wine goes reductive for the first couple of years and reaches the most reductive situation. But because the chemical reactions are so slow it takes a while to get to an equilibrium. This equilibrium takes place in terms of an oscillation between oxidation and reduction. So around about four or five years, a wine can look quite oxidative, and then they go back to a reduced situation again. About three years ago our 1997 wines looked like they were dying and needed drinking up, but we tried them recently and they were great.

PH: It’s quite frustrating, but it is part of the pleasure of wine. We actually don’t know them at all!

NMC:  We are just interested observers.

JG: With regard to your Pinot Noir, how do you make a wine that is so linear, and that will age so well?

NMC: A lot of it is in the vineyard. There are still decisions from the winemakers point of view. They are simpler: it is really just a question of pre or post-maceration, and how long. The other thing is that our winemaking is completely anaerobic. We believe in preserving the phenolics, not messing them up. At the end of the day there will always be some sort of light fining just to tune the phenolics. The concept of oxidative winemaking can be necessary, depending on the path you choose. If you haven’t got your phenolics right in the vineyard, then oxidative winemaking becomes necessary to tame the characters that you end up with.

PH: That’s why we place so much emphasis on the vineyard, because we need to get everything at the right level.

NMC: Every vineyard flaw will be seen in the winery because of the way we make it.

PH:     We make small amounts so there is no room for error.

JG:      I really like your Syrah. I love cool climate Syrah.

NMC:  This is cold-climate Syrah!

JG:      I think Pinot Noir and Syrah have an affinity when Syrah is cool climate.

NMC: Yes, and I can excuse people for confusing them when they don’t know what they are.

PH:     The Syrah gets about 50% more attention than any other variety. It as big bunches, big leaves and a big personality. We just have to make sure it doesn’t get too big.

JG:      More generally, how do you see this region developing? Has it developed in the right sort of ways? What are the challenges and what are the opportunities?

NMC:  There are two parts to Martinborough. One is the Martinborough terrace, which is completely planted up. Then there is Te Muna, which is the same geological formation, but has a different climate: it is about two weeks later. They are clearly brothers and sisters. Our main problem is probably the overproduction that is happening in New Zealand at the moment. The New Zealand brand is at risk. Martinborough can only exist in the boutique, high quality, high price area. It is the only way we can do it. It naturally crops low. It can never be economic to do supermarket wines here.

PH:     There is no room for expansion on the Martinborough terrace, so it is contained as a boutique area.

NMC:  Te Muna gives about 50% more again, but they are essentially confined by the same issues. We just have to make the best wines we can and make a distinct statement: to not be seen just as more New Zealand wine. It is getting the brand Martinborough out there and selling on that. We are probably 1% of the national production. But Martinborough figures quite highly in comparison to its production state. We will always be underfunded because no one makes money here: the promotion will not happen out of Martinborough. It is a great place for people who love wine rather than love getting rich!

PH:     And we have the capital city an hour away that has adopted us as their own region, which is great.


Dry River Riesling Craighall 2009 Martinborough
This is cropped at 2 tons/acre, but the vineyard could easily do 4 tons/acre. Very fresh, minerally and precise with lovely taut acidity. There’s lovely focus on the nose. Very crisp and dry but not austere, with nice complexity. 92/100

Dry River Pinot Gris 2008 Martinborough
Mineral and taut but with lovely rich, grapey texture. Very smooth and textured with some complexity. Nice, spicy finish. Real interest here. Deliciously ripe with good complexity. 92/100

Dry River Gewürztraminer 2008 Martinborough
From two blocks, with vines as old as 30 years. Beautifully intense but balanced nose with subtle grape, lychee and melon notes. The palate is broad and intense with some sweetness and a broad texture. Fresh with a subtly spicy finish: a really interesting wine with real character. 94/100

Dry River Pinot Noir 2001 Martinborough
Superbly elegant, yet still quite rich with lovely bright focused fruit and nice purity. Still very pure and linear with lovely focus. 94/100

Dry River Pinot Noir 2004 Martinborough
Sweet and rich on the nose with a liqueur-like edge to the fruit, showing bold cherry and berry fruit with a hint of iodine. Nice acidity. Good purity with spicy, mineral and earth notes. A big fruity wine, but elegant with it. 94/100

Dry River Pinot Noir 2005 Martinborough
Sweet, intense, pure, focused, structured and spicy with lovely impact of sweet raspberry and cherry fruit. Very structured and bold, but beautifully balanced with lovely freshness. Hard to spit. 96/100

Dry River Pinot Noir 2008 Martinborough
12.5% alcohol. Beautifully focused nose is very fine and expressive showing dark fruits, spicy and minerals. The palate is super-elegant with lovely dark, pure cherry fruit, some spice and a hint of meatiness. Very expressive with good acidity and freshness. 95/100

Dry River Syrah Arapoff 2001 Martinborough
12% alcohol. Real precision and focus with pure, smooth bright fruit. Ageing beautifully in a linear way with subtle pepper notes, good acidity and a bit of meatiness. Very precise and linear. Still youthful. 95/100

Dry River Syrah Lovat 2005 Martinborough
Very smooth, peppery and bright. Focused and intense, but beginning to settle down with real elegance and a bit of peppery edginess. Spice, cherry and raspberry notes. Lovely stuff. 94/100

Dry River Syrah Lovat 2007 Martinborough
12.5% alcohol. Thrilling aromatic nose of meat, spice, blood, raspberries and pepper. Fresh with a wonderful savouriness. The palate is fresh with amazing, expressive, spicy pepper characters and generous texture. Lovely stuff with a few rough edges perhaps (at present), but the potential to develop really nicely. Beautiful balance. 96/100

See also:


Part 1,Martinborough Pinot Noir: a remarkable vertical tasting
Part 2, Dry River
Part 3, Ata Rangi
Part 4, Gladstone Vineyard
Part 5, Martinborough Vineyard
Part 6, Cambridge Road
Part 7, Escarpment
Part 8, Palliser Estate

Wines tasted 02/10  
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