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Featured Personality
September 3rd 2000

Dr Neil McCallum - Dry River Vineyard

Dr Neil McCallum We all dream of what we would like to do with our lives. Dr Neil McCallum is no exception. His dream was to make fine wine. No, not just fine wine. He wanted to make great wine. And the ideal vineyard location was on the banks of Lake Taupo, so he could fish for trout in his spare time.

Part of the dream has come true. Dr Neil McCallum is making very fine wine, wine which some critics say is some of New Zealand's best. And he does get to go fishing every so often. But there is no wharf at the bottom of the vineyard. For Martinborough, much further south, is the place where the vines are growing.

McCallum says he owes a lot to his adviser and friend, Derek Milne, who told him that Marlborough and Martinborough were the best prospects for planting a vineyard for quality grapes.

Martinborough was chosen for its proximity to Wellington, an hours drive away and McCallum's Dry River Vineyard was planted in 1979. It was the first vineyard in the Martinborough region, on what is now the famed Martinborough Terrace.

The 22 acre block was planted with gewurztraminer, sauvignon blanc and pinot gris.

"What made you go with these grapes", I asked.

"I saw the need for a more neutral wine", replied McCallum. He said he was worried about which clone of chardonnay would produce the best to produce good wine.

Pinot Gris had potential. He had been introduced to this delights of this grape while whilst undertaking a post doctorate in Nottingham. The grape had heritage. It had been imported into New Zealand by the missionaries in the 1800's and had produced gold medal wines in the late 1970's.

As for gewurztraminer, Dennis Irwin was doing pretty well. He had won gold medals and his early wines were very good.

"When did you plant Pinot Noir and the other varieties?" I asked.

"We planted the rootstock and watched how the others fared", he said. "Then when Larry McKenna (Martinborough Vineyards) started winning gold medals, we field grafted the vines".

"What got you interested in wine in the first place", I asked.

"Good question", said the man who admitted he didn't drink at all during his student days at the University of Auckland where he gained a BSc and MSc in Chemistry. Attending Oxford for his PhD studies changed that. "They had one of the best chefs and they would cook amazing dinners and bring out fabulous wines from the cellar".

"One particular dinner I remember we had trout and a German Hock Riesling (Hochheimer) - probably a 1959 which was a very fine vintage. I will always remember this".

Returning to New Zealand as Dr McCallum, he joined a tasting group based in Lower Hutt. And some of the tasters are now well known to the New Zealand wine industry with the likes of Danny Schuster, John Comerford, Derek Milne and Geoff Kelly in the group. "These were the days where you could drink first growths and not worry about the cost. First growths were only double the price of an ordinary wine, which was not much at all.".

The idea of becoming a winemaker was hatched in 1976. It was a during a Post Doctoral Fellowship in Nottingham. "I did some useful drinking up there", he said. "The future in science was not looking rosy".

After the vineyard was planted he worked at the D.S.I.R. in Wellington as a 'second job' until 1988. But this man of perfection only wanted to make wine that was the best quality. "It was a choice between retiring and losing my health as it is a tough job running a vineyard and winery and working too. In fact it is crazy", he said. "But it is important to do all the vineyard work yourself first and understand it. It is critical that the winemaker has intelligent control of the vineyard". So the day job had to go.

"How do you feel about the 'classic' wine status that commentators such as Bob Campbell MW and Michael Cooper laud upon your wines".

"I'm just doing what I enjoy doing. It is nice receiving recognition for the things that you want to do. Some of the recognition is that we have been here a long time for it is a pretty good industry out there."

"You have to work hard at getting consistency", he continues. "The public may be a bit disappointed from year to year. You have to pursue quality - be passionate about quality rather than income."

The proof of the quality is apparent when tasting the wines.

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