For most people the direction we take in life is influenced by a small number of people; our parents, a teacher, a partner or someone who opens your eyes to the uniqueness of something we may have had a passing interest in.
For me one of those people was Tim Finn from Neudorf Vineyards; in the very early 1980’s I was starting to appreciate wine as more than just another beverage to party with and this coincided with a few brave entrepreneurs following their passions and establishing vineyards in Nelson.
Following Nelson’s three-winery wine trail took all afternoon and much of that afternoon was spent at Neudorf Vineyards where Finn and wife Judy were also learning about wine, but in their case making it. Finn’s passion for wine and his enthusiasm for talking about it was infectious and I was soon seduced by the nectar of the vine.
Over the years we have developed a friendship with the Finns and were delighted to be able to join them and friends from around New Zealand recently to celebrate a significant birthday for Tim.
Hearing stories from his university days and from his colleagues in the wine industry just reinforced to me what a generous and gentle man Finn is while also being focussed on achieving excellence in everything he does, especially in making wine.
His winemaking journey began in the early 1970’s when he was studying for a masters degree in animal behavioural science while working for the Ministry of Agriculture at their Ruakura research centre, a new generation of producers were appearing on the New Zealand winemaking landscape and Ruakura’s sister organisation at Te Kawhata was involved in wine research. “A little cross-fertilisation took place” says Finn.
Research science was something that Finn did not see a long term future in for himself but fortunately for us he could see a future in wine production. After looking at most of New Zealand’s established wine producing regions the couple found a piece of land in Nelson that Finn says “looked quite interesting”. They purchased the land and he worked with people he knew at the Te Kawhata research centre to learn as much as possible about growing grapes and making wine.
Lincoln University was also carrying out significant research into grape wine production and was a fantastic resource for new entrants to the industry.
Many established producers of the time did not see much value in research but as a scientist and novice winemaker Finn was like a sponge, soaking up as much information as he could and sharing the things he was learning in the vineyard with researchers.
As a very small industry there was lots of interaction and information sharing among the few winemakers in Nelson and the pioneers of the Marlborough industry.
This sharing of knowledge has been important to Finn and the phenomenal success of Neudorf Vineyards, he believes that the industry is in the strong position it is because winemakers and viticulturists around the country have been prepared to talk openly about things that work and things that could be done better.
Having planted their first vines in 1978 with lots of passion and access to little knowledge by today’s standards, much of the vineyard was set up on a try-it-and-see basis.
There wasn’t much information available on regional terrior and the suitability of different grape varieties so planting a multitude of likely varieties to see which ones delivered the best wine from their vineyards was the obvious way to learn. Some of those early plantings at Neudorf Vineyards included Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon and Gamay Beaujolais.
The low cropping and difficult to manage Gewürztraminer was one of the first varieties to face the chainsaw followed not long after by Semillon. The Cabernet Sauvignon lasted a little longer but Nelson’s cool climate eventually lead to the demise of this variety as well – it simply didn’t develop the full, ripe fruit flavours the market was looking for.
In the late 1980s someone reviewed Neudorf Vineyards as being best known for their delightful, easy drinking Young Nick’s Red. Not wanting to be known for making easy drinking light reds Finn did some research, based on viticulture specialist Dr Richard Smart’s vine identification programme, into his Gamay Beaujolais grapes from which Young Nick’s Red was made.
He discovered they were actually pinot noir vines; they had been misnamed at Davis University in California before being imported to NZ so by halving the crop, paying more attention to vineyard management and winemaking Finn started to produce some of the country’s finest Pinot Noir.
1992 was a key turning point in the success of Neudorf Vineyards, the 1991 Neudorf Moutere Chardonnay won the Chardonnay Trophy at the London International Wine Show, labelling it as the world’s best chardonnay that year and they have been recognised as one of the world’s top chardonnay producers since then.
Of course Judy Finn and a great team managing the viticulture, winemaking, cellar door and office have played a huge part in the success of Neudorf Vineyards but in his typical self-effacing way Finn makes the success of Neudorf Vineyards sound like it has been driven by the generosity of others, he also quickly brushes over the influence he has had on the phenomenal improvement in the quality of New Zealand wine in the last three decades, particularly at the premium quality, boutique producer level.
When he was made a Fellow of the New Zealand Wine Institute in 2008 part of the citation read “Tim is widely respected in the industry for the superb quality of Neudorf wines and the contribution he has made both regionally and nationally to the betterment of the industry.”
Much of Finn’s contribution came from the experimentation that took place at Neudorf Vineyards with different varieties, clones and winemaking techniques.
He was and still is adamant that winemakers and viticulturists meeting regularly, tasting each others wines and talking about the things that went in to making the wine is the best way for the industry, as a whole, in New Zealand to improve quality and maintain a sound price point in the international marketplace.
Finn says “this pooled knowledge has improved the quality of Pinot Noir in New Zealand far more quickly than it would have otherwise.
“Pooling of knowledge happens more naturally in small wineries where people are eager to hear what others have to say because they all want to learn and there is little competitiveness to hold it back, something that is not as obvious in the big companies who tend to rely primarily on their own research capabilities.”
Finn says that while the “big businesses are vital to the New Zealand wine industry the sparkle of the industry is supported by smaller, high quality wineries and that the industry should not underestimate the importance of the cooperative nature of this sector.”
Where to from here for Tim and Judy Finn and Neudorf Vineyards; quite frankly more of the same. They are very happy being a small winery at the top end of the quality spectrum and are delighted daughter Rosie has joined the family business having had her love of wine ignited by working in the London wine scene for a couple of years.