Chris Scott is now one of the most established figures of winemaking in the Hawke’s Bay area of New Zealand’s North Island.
Scott came through the ranks of Church Road from vineyard worker and cellar hand in the late 1990s to become the senior winemaker overseeing the winery’s entire range.
In 2013 he was named New Zealand Winemaker of the Year by Winestate Magazine acknowledging his successes in producing quality wines in the Hawkes Bay.
Four years later, Chris repeated the story becoming again in 2016 NZ winemaker of the year, a story we covered here.
At Social Vignerons, we love learning about wines from the men responsible for making and refining them day in, day out.
Over a lunch and plenty of wine tastings at Church Road’s cellar door, I have caught up with Winemaker Chris Scott to hear more about him, his wines, and his region.
Find out more about the winery and our tasting notes with out Church Road Winery producer profile.
Where are you from originally and what brought you to become a winemaker?
I am originally from somewhere extremely exotic: Hamilton, New Zealand. [laughing] I was born and raised there.
After school, I took a year off and then started a Business Management degree at Waikato University. I did about 2 years there, and in the meantime I had been trying a little bit of wine with my parents, nothing fancy but enough to become familiar with the flavour sipping out of mum and dad’s wine.
At a time where not many New Zealand guys drank wine, it came a bit more naturally to me than others. At 18, I did an organised wine tour of Hawke’s Bay and at one of the first places we stopped, I tried the Ngatarawa Alwyn Chardonnay. It was revelation that wine was not only about ‘white and red’. They were talking about oak and I could taste oak, and they were talking about fruit flavors and I could taste them, so it peacked my interest.
From there, I decided to complete a wine science degree.
I originally started here in the summer of 1995 working part-time in vineyards and continued working part-time between vineyard and cellar door for two years while I was studying. By year two in the vineyard they promoted me to tractor driver [laughing]
By 1998, they asked me if I wanted to do a vintage in the winery which I accepted. After the vintage, I was asked to stay so I switched from part-time study to correspondence study to be able to stay working full-time at the winery. I then made my way up to become senior winemaker.
Which wine regions have you been to and which ones do you look at most, both personally and as a winemaker?
In terms of where I’ve physically been, I’ve been to Rioja, Australia, and all over New Zealand, so I am not that widely travelled.
From a professional point of view, because of the wine styles we mostly make here at Church Road: Syrah, Bordeaux blend, and Chardonnay, I look at the Rhone, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and places in the New World that are doing exciting things with those varieties.
It’s always interesting to look at how those grape varieties are made in different areas.
Even though they are challenged now, the classical regions in Europe used to set the benchmark for an ultimate balance of power and elegance. What I like about the top wines from those regions is that they are a demonstration that a wine doesn’t have to be light or lack in substance to be elegant. It’s about structure and balance. Elegance can still be present with an underlying power and richness.
It’s a bit of a bugbear of mine as I see too many examples of wines that are being put in front of me, and people excuse greenness and lack of concentration as being ‘elegance’ [laughing].
Then personally, I look further afield. My wife and I are always looking to snap up something fine outside of New Zealand. We have recently been looking at Southern Italy and introduced to grape varieties like Nero d’Avola or Primitivo. I quite like some of the less classical regions that often offer a lot of character for not a lot of money which is great on a winemaker salary [laughing]
Let’s get back to New Zealand and Church Road. It’s quite common In New Zealand to ship fruit from one region to another. Does Church Road get grapes from any other area in the country?
No we don’t. For a little while we were making a Pinot Noir from Central Otago.
Years ago, our Sauvignon Blanc was made with fruit from Marlborough but now the whole range is 100% Hawke’s Bay.
At a personal level, which New Zealand regions do you find particularly interesting?
One region that interests me is the Greater Auckland area, even though one could think it would be the worst place in the world to grow grapes. You get constantly surprised by some beautiful wines produced out of there.
Some of the guys on Waiheke Island are making some stunning Syrah wines.
And Kumeu River has to be making one of the best Chardonnays in the New World.
I also really like some of the new generation’s Sauvignon Blanc coming out of Marlborough. They’re complex wines, with real depth. The best of them demonstrate some real longevity as well. I’ve tried for example the 2010 Brancott Estate Chosen Rows and it’s fresh as a daisy, long and complex. Dog Point Vineyard Section 94 also demonstrates there is more to Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand than the strictly commercial style.
Most regions in New Zealand produce Chardonnay wine. How is Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay different from what’s produced elsewhere around the country?
I always see Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay a little bit more Montrachet-like than cooler climates of the South Island which is great because it’s what I like.
We tried a Premier Cru Montrachet at a winemaking workshop the other day. It was almost like an old-fashioned Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay but that was made quite clean, with quite prominent oak. Not the best Montrachet I’ve had but it was just interesting to see that this sort of wine is so easy to make in here in Hawke’s Bay. You could let the wine make itself here if we wanted to produce wine in that style, and that is what it would taste like.
Here Chardonnay is a variety that is quite easy to make. We pick it, press it, straight to barrel, wild ferment, 100% malolactic fermentation, and you get a wine that doesn’t need any further intervention. It’s literally grape juice that’s been left in a barrel. That’s how good Chardonnay fruit comes out here.
Very much so, it’s our largest selling wine style by some margin, and growing rapidly.
More generally, what’s your general winemaking philosophy?
We have a historic connection with Domaine Cordier of Bordeaux, for making red wine in particular.
When they came here around 1995, the New World was very much focused on retaining varietal aromas. What the Bordelais brought was the desire to produce wine with harmonious mouthfeel and palate structure, more than preserving varietal character which often downplays complexity and quality of texture.
What we kept from that era is that we want to produce wines that, above all else, have drinkability.
The mouthfeel of our wines is so important to us that everything we do in the vineyard and the winery is to enhance the texture and structure. A lot of what we do for that also means that we end up with wines that are more complex, aromatically more multi-dimensional and that’s great so we produce wines that are more characterful as well.
This is quite simple really, but that is our philosophy. We are not hell bent on producing single terroir wines. If the wine tastes better by blending two vineyards, then we’ll blend.
In addition, we try and do things as naturally as possible. We’re not heavy on additions or corrections in the winery. The acid balance for example is almost always natural. We don’t use enzymes and we use very low or no palate fining and no filtration on any of the reds.
Talking about reds now, Bordeaux grape varieties are very important to Church Road. How well suited to Hawke’s Bay are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot?
To me, there’s two main areas that consistently produce great Bordeaux varietals in Hawkes Bay: one is the Gimblett Gravels, and the other, as the vines get older, is the Bridge Pa triangle.
Both are very stony soil types, low altitude, and far enough inland to be away from the ocean’s temperature-moderating breezes. So it’s warm.
Merlot is very easy to ripen. It’s quite easy to over-ripen in many places. But Hawke’s Bay is in a sweet spot climatically, so if Merlot is treated with respect, at low cropping levels it makes wine with lovely depth and generosity, still retaining elegance.
Cabernet Sauvignon is more of a struggle, it doesn’t get ripe here every vintage. But when it does get ripe, it’s a very beautiful expression of Cabernet: powerful, elegant, and very aromatic. It still retains the very fragrant aromatics like cedar and sandal wood, cassis, or dried lavender. But maturity here gets it passed the green capsicum flavors.
On its own Cabernet Sauv can be a bit bony, but Merlot fleshes up the mid-palate and gives Cabernet volume. The two together work extremely well in Hawke’s Bay.
You recently won 2 important Trophys with your Syrah wine:
- Best New World Red Wine at the Japan Wine Challenge 2015 with your 2013 Church Road Grand Reserve Syrah
- Champion Wine of Show Trophy and Champion Syrah Trophy with the 2013 McDonald Series Syrah at Air New Zealand Awards.
How important is Syrah for Church Road and do you see this grape bringing future successes to New Zealand wines, as many commentators like Rebecca Gibb are suggesting?
Syrah in Hawke’s Bay, as well as in other regions of New Zealand is exciting.
For Hawke’s Bay, it’s becoming a standard-bearer along with Chardonnay and Bordeaux blend.
What excites me about Hawke’s Bay Syrah is that if you take the bests Hawke’s Bay Syrah wines and put them in an international lineup, they don’t just compare well from a quality perspective, but they also taste distinctively different with a high degree of floral lift.
That very overt black pepper characters we were getting out of the younger vines is toned down to a level where it still there and brings complexity but the aromatics are now more than just the pepper.
In addition, I think Syrah expresses terroir more than some other grape varieties so there is great potential to make more than just an international style in Hawke’s Bay.
Have you ever thought of blending Syrah with Cabernet and Merlot as it’s often done around the New World?
Most people are aware that in New Zealand we have the 85% rule, so we have occasionally added a bit of Syrah to our Bordeaux blend when it’s made the wine taste better.
Plus I think that as time goes on, it’s a natural evolution for a wine region to develop its own style. So I think rather than having a Bordeaux blend, we will have a Hawke’s Bay blend with the varieties that work best for us in Hawke’s Bay and that will include Syrah.
You’ve also experimented with ‘alternative’ grape varieties like Tempranillo and Marzemino. What was it about?
I think you’ve just have to keep exploring because you never know when you’re going to stumble across the next Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc [Laughing].
We’re such a young winemaking nation and there’s such a multitude of grape varieties. At Church Road, we planted 15 different grape varieties in 1995, and of those two worked really really well even from a relatively poor vineyard. Both came from the Trentino-Alto-Adige area of Italy. Marzemino we’ve persisted with. Teroldego vines unfortunately were so infected with viruses that we had to pull them out.
Tempranillo came about because it’s an early ripening grape variety that we thought could be interesting to play with. We’ve been very happy with the result.
In addition, for a brand like ours that is widely available around the country, it’s good for cellar door visitors to try to buy a bottle of a wine they haven’t seen on the shop shelves. It makes the trip a little bit more unique.
To learn more about Church Road Winery, visit our producer profile by clicking on the image below:
Or visit their website at ChurchRoad.co.nz