Interview with Clive Paton: Ata Rangi’s Iconic Founder
Clive Paton left his farm in the Wairarapa (the geographical region containing Martinborough) and founded what has become one of the most iconic New Zealand winery: Ata Rangi. He planted the first vines on the estate in 1980.
But Clive is not only a farmer reconverted into a winemaker. He is also a respected conservationist, working at protecting and restoring New Zealand native Flora. He was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2012 Queen’s Birthday Honours for “Contribution to Conservation and Viticulture”. With a respectful environmental approach to managing Ata Rangi estate, he also won several environmental awards: the Supreme Award at the Ballance Farm Environment Awards in 2006, a Wellington Region Conservation Award in 2007, and Farm Forester of the Year in 2010.
In 2014, the last -so far- but not least recognition of Clive’s effort was The Loder Cup (pictured below), one of New Zealand’s oldest and most prestigious conservation awards. The Wellington Conservation Board had nominated him for the award highlighting his “outstanding achievements as a motivator, protector, promoter and propagator of our New Zealand flora.”
To learn more about Clive’s approach to viticulture and winemaking, and how it translates into his wine, I have asked him to tell us more about his unique and pioneering experience in one of New Zealand’s top wine producing regions:
Q: You are a pioneer of wine growing in the Martinborough region. What brought you to the Wairarapa in particular, and what brought you to invest a big part of your life into wine?
I was farming here in the Wairarapa already, so knew the climate well, and Martinborough particularly well. I was fortunate enough to read a viticultural report in 1978 by Derek Milne, which identified the climatic conditions as similar to that of Burgundy, and the free-draining aspect of the gravel terraces of the region seemed to suit successful viticulture. On the strength of that, I knew I’d give up farming and do something different on the land for the rest of my life. I bought a paddock, and went from there.
Q: What were the most challenging aspects of establishing vineyards in Martinborough in the 1980s?
Initially, it was the sheer lack of water and shelter. In those days, you had a clear view from anywhere right across to the town – Martinborough was essentially just a series of paddocks. The dry, windy conditions were punishing.
Shelter belts took time to establish. Of course, so did the vines. That early period of 4-5 years without any income, yet needing the money to buy vines, prepare the land, plant and tend were a significant challenge.
Getting a skill base together and having viticultural knowledge was also a classic pioneering challenge. This was helped though by that fact that there were four of us starting out doing the same thing at the same time. And, rather than be secretive and competitive, we collaborated closely, shared information on both on viticulture and winemaking sides, and learning together.
Q: When did you plant the various grape varieties you are growing today, and what led you to choosing those?
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were earmarked in Derek’s report, based on the strength of success and history in Burgundy. Fingers-crossed, I planted Pinot Noir in 1980 with the hope it would work well. However, I planted other varieties around the same time because I had a real interest in reds, and I wanted to see what else would work and wouldn’t. One has become an Ata Rangi hallmark in Célèbre, a Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon blend, which in cooler years we elect not to make should the fruit not ripen to an exemplary standard.
Q: You are a very active and respected conservationist of the native New Zealand forest. Does this influence your choices in the vineyard or the winery?
I think my environmental focus influences everything I do, in business pursuits and conservation efforts. In the vineyards and winery, it’s about organic practices, which we’re now fully certified for. That’s as simple as our shelter belts being planted with natives that once covered the land here, and at the complex, long-term end, it’s examples like growing our own ground-durable posts for sustainability.
Overall, my philosophy is one of respect of the land and its generous provision of a livelihood, something to be responsibly managed for our own generation and many more to come.
Q: When people will taste your wines, which main characteristics do you think are the markers of the choices you make in the vineyard, and more widely of your winegrowing style?
It’s a common comment that winemaking starts in the vineyard. Quality is our persistent drive, so we make tough calls in any season – whether or how much fruit to drop, which parcels to reject at harvest. Equally, in the winery, we’re open to the nuances of season and time, adapting our approach for which parcels or clones are showing best in any year and aim to reflect the best of the season.
Particularly with Pinot, we’re looking for that Ata Rangi and Martinborough characteristic balance of elegance and power. Thankfully, that’s easier these days with vine age, and tongue-in-cheek, winemaker age.
Q: In the wines of the world, where do you find most inspiration from to put into your wines?
It’s many sources, but it comes back to wines that strike the balance I mention above. It’s those wines that make me sit up, give me a shiver up my spine. This could be Burgundy, Rioja, Barolo – but ultimately it’s about the wines and not the region. I keep getting inspired because I keep exploring.
Q: For the wine drinkers that have never tried any of your wines, is there a particular wine and perhaps vintage you would recommend more than others in order to approach the essence of Ata Rangi?
It’s too hard to pick one – each year is slightly different, but always indelibly Ata Rangi. Dense, vibrant palate; svelte with a long, compelling finish. A power and elegance I think is uniquely us, uniquely Martinborough. Time in bottle adds much to it, and personally I rarely touch an Ata Rangi for five years. That said, our 2013 Pinot, which we’ll release in the next few months, is one of the best we’ve ever made, from a season some describe at the best in 30 years.
Learn more about Ata Rangi estate and winery, and access my wine reviews from Ata Rangi’s profile page.
Information about their wines, vineyards and their team is best found at atarangi.co.nz.