Our viticulturist Richcard Flatman takes over as Chair of Nelson Wineart – we reckon he’ll do a grand job.
In a recent piece in the Nelson Mail Richard was described as a “pretty passionate, outspoken bloke who loves Nelson” and good wine.
They are qualities that will come in handy in his new role as chairman of the Nelson Winegrowers Association.
The 41-year-old viticulturist at Neudorf Vineyards takes over from Mike Brown, who stepped down last month after six impressive years as industry spokesman.
Mr Flatman says Mr Brown has done a “great job” and will be a hard act to follow, and he is keen to continue his work to highlight Nelson as a wine region in its own right.
“There is a lot of New Zealand Winegrowers literature that calls us the sister of Marlborough. For me, that’s the first thing that needs to stop.
“I’m a big advocate of Nelson being its own region. We are not like anyone else.
“We’re not Marlborough sauvignon blanc, and don’t want to be. I’m not slagging off Marlborough, because they do fantastically, but a lot of serious wines come from Nelson.”
They include some of the best chardonnays in the country, and top pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs, he says. Then there is Nelson’s deserved reputation as the centre for aromatics such as riesling, pinot gris and gewurztraminer.
There is no other region that does such a good job with such a wide range of varieties, and on a per capita basis Nelson wineries “punch way above their weight” when it comes to winning medals and trophies, Mr Flatman says.
So why isn’t Nelson better known ?
Our relatively small tonnages and budgets have something to do with it, but the industry and individual wineries could do more to shout about their successes, he says.
“We need to sing our praises – for example, Brightwater Vineyards did bloody well winning chardonnay and winemaker of the year.”
He staunchly defends the campaign to sell Nelson as the home of aromatics, saying it is something wineries here excel at, and every region needs a marketing focus.
“We are never going to take the pinot noir mantle off Central Otago or the sauvignon blanc tag off Marlborough. It brings people in – then they are going to try our chardonnays and pinots.”
It is this enthusiasm for Nelson winemakers and wines, together with happy memories of holidaying here at a child, that brought Mr Flatman and his young family to Neudorf three years ago and ultimately led to him being groomed – he describes it as “pushed” – to take over from Mr Brown.
“It was a great experience, and he’s a bloody good guy, very easygoing, loves wine and loved my family, which was a big thing for me.”
A desire to refocus on just wine saw him jump at the chance to work at Neudorf for Tim and Judy Finn, whom he had long admired.
Growing grapes wasn’t his first career choice, however. A trained mechanic, Mr Flatman was in a well-paying job in the finance sector when he realised he didn’t want to wear a tie for the rest of his life and would rather own the wine shop around the corner.
“A mate of mine said, ‘The only thing you know about wine was drinking it’.”
So he took off to Australia to get some experience, working for Banrock Station and then as a “cellar rat” for Berri Estates, which at that time was producing substantially more grapes than all of New Zealand.
This was followed by a stint in Canberra, where wine giant BRL Hardy was establishing a 80-hectare vineyard, before the promise of a higher salary drew him to Delegat’s in Hawke’s Bay to help it develop its huge 280ha Crownthorpe vineyard.
With his wife Sherree pregnant with their first child, and worried about the use of chemicals, they moved to Central Otago in 2003, where he managed a 15ha organic vineyard until getting a call “out of the blue” from Neill.
While he was down south, Mr Flatman became an advocate of organics after watching his neighbours lose most of their frost-affected crops to botrytis, despite heavy use of conventional sprays. By contrast, he was able to harvest almost all his fruit through better canopy management and the judicious use of softer sulphur sprays.
As a member of Organic Winegrowers NZ, it’s a lesson he hasn’t forgotten, although he says it shouldn’t get in the way of producing the best grapes.
At Neudorf, he follows organic principles, using compost teas to feed the soil and sheep to keep the grass down, but the winery is not certified, as it still uses herbicide around young vines to give them a good start.
The key to being green, he says, is adopting a hands-on approach.
For instance, Neudorf spent $15,000 on leaf plucking vines in December as Nelson suffered a pre-Christmas deluge which threatened to ruin the crop.
“A lot of companies probably couldn’t do that, but luckily Tim and Judy have a lot of faith in what we do and know the importance of doing that, and we didn’t have any botrytis.”
As its viticulturist, he oversees Neudorf’s more than 30ha of owned and leased vineyards scattered over the Moutere and Brightwater and a handful of growers, which sees the winery normally produce about 220 tonnes of grapes a year.
“During the busy period I might have 35 to 40 staff on three different vineyards doing three different tasks, but we have a great team here, many of whom have been here a long time.”
This made it easier to take on the association chairman’s job. He’s still settling in, but is keen to explore setting up an annual exchange with aromatic wine producers in Alsace in France or Austria, where young winemakers or viticulturists from each region visit and spend time learning from each other. He also wants to hold more field days, following on from one he ran last year on soil management.
Mr Flatman is adamant that the industry is on the upswing after battling economic recession and a crippling grape surplus over the past few years, which saw profits plunge and debt levels soar.
Contract growers are making money again after grape prices rose this year from a low $900 to around $1300 a tonne, with big companies like Villa Maria and Warburn actively chasing fruit, he says. Some wineries, including Neudorf, have resumed modest replanting programmes.
“I don’t think it will be the end of mortgagee sales in Marlborough, but there is definitely an upward trend. It won’t return to its heyday, but the bad times are in the rear-vision mirror.”
– © Fairfax NZ News