eRobert Parker, November 2009

Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW reports

Misha’s Vineyard
In my last article I wrote about how the proximity of New Zealand to Asia (not to mention similar time zones) can have a positive impact not just on tourism but on wine sales. Certainly New Zealand wineries are amongst those most frequented by Asian tourists. Such is the allure of the-land-of-the-long-white-cloud’s bucolic call that – extreme case scenario – a few Asia based residents are inclined to put their money where their palate is and buy a vineyard. That’s exactly what Singapore residents Misha and Andy Wilkinson have recently done.

“I have always loved wine – my Mum would ensure I always tasted the wines opened at home,” Aussie born and bred Misha Wilkinson explained. “But growing up in Australia, I didn’t get to try too many Pinots – Shiraz was the thing!” Misha’s mother was an opera singer in Australia and Misha spent a lot of time as a child behind the scenes of her mother’s performances. This opera life would later become the inspiration behind the labels and names of Misha’s wines.

Misha has since spent 16 years living and working in Asia, but it was a brief 18 month stint residing in New Zealand in 2000 and 2001 that would change her life, inspiring her choice of vineyard site. “When Andy and I lived in Auckland, our closest friends were Jeff and Virginia Poole, who own the Fine Wine Delivery Company. We went to at least two tastings a week. I’d say we tried most of New Zealand’s Pinot Noirs in those 18 months – and we were hooked.”

They were so hooked that after Misha and Andy returned to Singapore at the end of 2001 they were determined to put a Pinot “vineyard project” into place. At that time Misha was still working in IT heading up Asia Pacific marketing teams for Intel and Dell. “From the beginning of 2002 I started with the business plan for the vineyard – at that very early stage we set the company mantra as ‘No Compromises’.”

The next two years involved numerous trips to New Zealand from Singapore. “We primarily looked at two regions, Marlborough and Central Otago, but soon decided Central Otago was the best option for a number of reasons: the pioneering spirit and passion of the locals, the attention on the world stage of the region, family connections (Andy has family living there) and it’s spectacularly perfect with snow capped mountains, lakes with glass reflections and perfect land for Pinot!”

But they realised that frost was a major problem in Central Otago and many of the vineyard locations were prone to considerable damage on a regular basis. They had nearly settled upon a site and were ready to sign a deal when a devastating frost hit the region in November 2003, wiping out half of their intended vineyard and rendering this site out of the question. No compromises. “Feeling frustrated and wondering if we’d ever find the perfect piece of land we met John Perriam, owner of Bendigo Station – a 30,000 acre sheep farm producing New Zealand’s finest Merino wool.” After touring many areas of Bendigo they found a “spectacular” plot of virgin land along the shores of Lake Dunstan on a slope with enough air movement to ensure that frost would not be a problem. Taking some very encouraging advice from Dr Richard Smart and local viticulturalist Robin Dicey they bought as much of this land as they could in early 2004.

Misha quit her IT marketing job in February 2004 to become a full time wine producer. “My first task was to try and get water to the land ahead of the planned November ’04 planting. We had placed our order for 25,000 Pinot Noir vines for the first 25 acres we planned to plant.” After months of backbreaking labour and substantial investment with a good measure of ingenuity, the initial Misha’s Vineyard plantings were in the ground right on schedule.

In August 2009 I joined Misha in Central Otago for a tour of her vineyard. The first thing that hits you as you traverse Bendigo along the mountain’s lakeside slope towards the vineyard is that startlingly beautiful view. Misha stopped at a gorge leading down to Lake Dunstan and marking the border of her land, telling me that this image was what made her fall in love with this site. Soil analysis and topography studies aside – that view is indeed a compelling persuader! Yet as we approached the vast stretch of vineyard which has been planted to vine since 2004, the risk involved with the scale of this investment made my jaw drop.

The total lakeside stretch of Misha’s Vineyard is an impressive 57 hectares, rising from 210 to 350 meters above sea level over the lake. After much meticulous analysis, the vast expanse was divided into 14 different blocks to be planted according to varietal / clone suitability. Not one to do things by halves, Misha has to date committed to vine approximately 26 hectares or ¾ of the area to be devoted to vines. (There are future plans for a winery and house.) Around 65-70% of this vineyard area is Pinot Noir while the remaining proportion is mainly Riesling with a little Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc (a varietal you don’t see too much in Central Otago).

The risk of going full throttle with planting virgin land is that even by employing the most learned viticultural experts and latest state-of-the-art testing, you still don’t know exactly what you’re going to get until, excuse the opera pun, the fat lady sings. One of the largely unpredictable issues with Misha’s Vineyard was the influence of the icy wind that sweeps across the slope. This wind puts the fledgling vines in particular at a great disadvantage as they struggled to develop. A wind break was the obvious solution. “Dr. Smart knew we had to find a way to mitigate the wind issues but his suggestion of wind breaks wasn’t possible as our land is designated “outstanding landscape” and we weren’t able to use a shelter belt of trees – we had to find another way!” The solution was the installation of wind-cloths, essentially vast rows of wind breaking curtains that blend-in with the landscape – it’s expensive but effective.

In July 2009 I attended a preview tasting of the first releases of Misha’s Vineyard and was able to chat with her winemaker Olly Masters, formerly of Ata Rangi and currently a consultant at Seresin Estate in Marlborough, about the approach he’s taken with these emerging wines. “With the Pinots I’m looking for the bright red fruit and something more acid driven. Purity. But there’s so much fruit in Central Otago Pinots that you can go too far. Another problem is that the fruit set is better in Central Otago than in other parts of New Zealand, so there is a potential for high yields. Fruit exposure and dropping fruit at veraison are important.” Purity of fruit is certainly apparent on the wines that I tasted. I also noted Olly’s attention for texture, which for me is a real quality marker and something that he is able to manifest with real skill in both the whites and the reds.

From site selection through viticulture and winemaking, Misha has refused to cut any corners with her project and has stayed true to their “no compromises” philosophy. The first fruits of her labour are indeed impressive. But the next crucial stage will be actually selling the stuff. Apart from the domestic market and Australia, Misha intends to focus on selling her wines mainly in Asia. I asked her if she felt her wines had a particular affinity with Asian palates. “Absolutely! Living in Asia for 16 years and spending a good deal of that time travelling around Asia has enabled me to try most of the flavours that this region offers. And being a wine drinker, I’m always interested to know how to combine wine with my favourite Asian food. If you ask me what my favourite foods are, you’ll find my answers nearly all Asian! However one can’t escape their roots, so there’s always some excitement about lamb chops on the BBQ with a good Pinot Noir!”

Misha has already nominated three distributors in Asia:

Hong Kong: Jebsen Fine Wines
Japan: Apurevu Trading
Singapore: Rubicon Reserve Wines

Tasting Notes
Limelight Riesling 2008 87 points
Delicate nose of lime leaf and grapefruit. Notable sweetness (29 g/l residual sugar) with a light to medium body, crisp acidity and a nice silky viscosity. Long finish. 11.4% alcohol. Tasted July 2009.

Dress Circle Pinot Gris 2008 87 points
Aromas of poached pears, golden delicious apples and ripe peaches. Medium+ body with medium to high acidity and a pleasantly oily texture. This is a well balanced, off-dry style (12 g/l residual sugar). Long finish. Tasted July 2009.

The Gallery Gewurztraminer 2008 87 points
Intensely fruity nose with notes of pure lychee, passion fruit and a waft of spiciness. Rich, fat and oily on the palate with medium acid to provide some lift. Full body, 14.4% alcohol. Long finish with lingering notes of pear drops. Tasted July 2009.

The Audition Pinot Noir 2007 88 points
A trial run label – not commercially available.
Medium to deep garnet colour. Aromas of black cherries, warm cranberries and dried herbs. The palate has a decent concentration of pure red berry fruit supported by high acidity and soft, fine tannins. Medium to full body. Long finish. Tasted July 2009.

The High Note Pinot Noir 2008 89 points
This is the flagship wine to account for the bulk of Misha’s Pinot Noir production.
Medium to deep ruby-purple colour. The nose is slightly mute with notes of loam, white pepper and a touch of cedar with some dark cherry and crushed raspberry aromas emerging upon coaxing. The palate is nicely structured with crisp acidity and a low to medium level of fine tannins. Long finish of dark chocolate covered cherries. Tasted July 2009.

Verismo Pinot Noir 2008 91 points
This is a barrel selection reserve label. Only 66 cases produced in 2008. To be released in May 2010.
Deep ruby-purple colour. A bit of cedar and cinnamon to big followed by moderately intense aromas of blackberry and blueberry fruit with some milk chocolate / mocha. Medium to full bodied with a medium level of laudably textured fine-grained tannins. Medium to high acidity and a long finish. Tasted July 2009.

(Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW eRobertParker, November 2009)