One thing I love about the wine industry is anyone can be part of it, it doesn’t matter how big or small you want your vineyard and wine production to be, there is a place for you.
I recently discovered a tiny vineyard in Old Coach Road, just off the main highway to Motueka, Mahana Hills Vineyard and the wines they produce under their Five Rows label.
Not to be confused with Mahana Wines, Mahana Hills existed before Woollaston Estates rebranded as Mahana – confused yet?
There is no need to be, Mahana Hills are a tiny producer and make wines from varieties not usually produced in this region, so with varieties like Gamay Noir, Semillon, Tempranillo and Lagrein there is no confusing the two producers.
Mahana Hills Vineyard was started by Colin Fisher, a former Royal Navy Helicopter pilot, pub and restaurant owner and hospitality advisor in the UK.
When Colin retired and moved to Nelson where his son Nick is a doctor he was looking for something to do, “Nick asked me what I wanted to do and I told him I wouldn’t mind growing a few grapes and said ‘well I’ve got some land beside the house so go for it’.
“I decided to do something different, so planted five rows of Tempranillo in 2007, hence the Five Rows name.
“That’s all we were going to plant, but after a while decided plant a few more vines, sticking with the philosophy of being a bit different, we planted some Gamay Noir, then Semillon, and then four years ago Lagrein, a red wine grape often used to make rose in Italy.”
I asked Colin where this hankering to make wine came from, “when I left the navy we bought a pub just outside Salisbury, that was in the days when food was just starting in pubs, our pub was the Royal Oak in Wishford, a tiny village, and when we started selling restaurant style food we lost some of our locals because they thought a pub shouldn’t have food – a pub is a pub that sells beer, old attitudes die hard.
“We owned it for 22 years and proved them wrong, by the time we sold it we were selling more food than beer and of course wine sales grew with food sales so we developed quite an affinity with it.”
Their accountants for many years were Moore Stephens and when they set up a specialist licensed trade section because Colin and his wife Kate had been in the trade so long, and had been quite successful, they asked Colin if he would consult with them and help other liquor businesses.
“I ended up working with Moore Stephens in their specialist division with a focus on helping pubs and restaurants while we ran our own business, but after four years we sold the pub and helped Moore Stephens build the business up to the point where we took over the business in its own right. “I was in the right place at the right time and bought a share in the new venture and we built that to a decent sized specialist accounting business.
“When we sold the business we moved to North Wales for a few years and during that time Kate went to the university of North Wales and obtained a double honours degree in English and History. Then we decided to move out of the UK.
“New Zealand was only one of the options we considered, as we have a daughter who lives in Oregon and Nick here in Nelson but at the end of the day we chose Nelson.”
When they arrived here Colin wanted something to do and that is when Nick and his wife Tammy offered him the land to grow a few grapes on.
I was curious about the varieties they chose because even though Nelson has a very temperate climate we don’t have enough hot days to develop rich, ripe flavours in some of the chosen varieties, Tempranillo and Gamay Noir for example.
Tempranillo is traditionally grown in countries like Spain, Italy, Chile and Argentina while Semillon loves the warm climate in Australia.
“I guess because we were only going to have a few vines we wanted to try something different, making wine the old fashioned way with a basket press and with no filtering or fining.”
Nick says “We were very green, we had no idea about making wine but dad was keen to try in a small way so we talked to a few people, got some advice and just did what we thought was right.
“We learned a lot in the first vintage and have made a big effort to learn more about the technical side of winemaking, but we are always going to be making very small quantities.
“The thing we like about it as doctors is that it involves the whole family and gets us outside, for us it is away from the stresses of our professions and for the kids it is great to be outside and involved, they have a focus in the vineyard.
“In many ways it has brought the family together, we have a conveyor belt of children as our bottling line.”
Colin told me that when they decided to plant a few more vines and chose Gamay Noir, traditionally used to make Beaujolais, “we bought 600 gamy vines and during the first vintage from them I noticed there was something different about some of the vines, I phoned our supplier and said some of our Gamy grapes aren’t turning red, it turned out they had sent us 25 Sauvignon Blanc grapes with the order so they gave us another 50 Gamay Noir vines as an apology and that meant we had to plant another row.”
Legrein is an interesting grape according to Colin, “it is a red variety and we weren’t sure what wine we would end up with so did some research and discovered it is used for Rose wine, so we made it as a rose for our first harvest this year.”
This little vineyard and winery operation in Old Coach Road is a true artisan operation, as well as having the whole family involved in the business Nick says half of hospital team he works with come out and help harvest the grapes, “they are part of the team and seem to like drinking the end product too.”
Most of the Five Rows wine produced by the Fisher family is sold in the local community and through their wine club but if you would like to try them just phone before you go out, “I am usually floating around somewhere” says Colin or check their website www.mahanahills.co.nz