When city life became too much for Andrew Donaldson, he decided it was time to return to his Central Otago roots. Winemaking was calling, and he answered.
“Pinot noir was always my favourite wine and the prospect of working with nature in my favourite place on earth appeared to me to be one of those Celestine moments,” he told Restaurant and Cafe. “I just had to do it.”
Donaldson bought the land off a farmer in 2000 and planned and planted for three years. The vines are grown on a north-facing 12ha. section on a bed of 250 million-year-old fractured schist – exclusively Pinot Noir in six clones. It wasn’t until 2012 that Donaldson was satisfied with the state of the wine and launched Akitu.
Still new on the block, Donaldson has been overwhelmed by the support of other people in the industry. “There are so many extraordinary people in this industry and almost all of them genuinely supportive and willing you to succeed. It’s not like any other industry I’ve worked in and we would be nowhere without their talents and encouragement.”
The approach at Akitu has always been pragmatic. “Our objective is to grow the best fruit we can from each season’s weather package,” said Donaldson, although with a vineyard right up against the Southern Alps near Wanaka, this isn’t always the easiest of tasks. “I’ve always loved that line ‘the best pinot is made in the vineyard’ – wherever possible nature decides and it’s best to go along with her plan.”
As a trained mechanical engineer and a self-described former “finance guy” by profession, Donaldson can be painfully analytical and pretty risk averse – according to his partner, at least. “I don’t think that hurts,” Donaldson joked, “although some evenings in the vineyard when the heat of the day has passed, the breeze falls and the vines relax it’s easy to forget calculations.” While he finds joy in unexpected praise from people he respects, Donaldson claims that just hanging on is sometimes good enough. “In truth,” he said, “survival is a much-underrated achievement.”
The interdependency of viticulture and winemaking appeals to Donaldson, and his favourite part of the job is the two days of the year where they blend their wines. “Everyone is together, all focused, all with a view, the results of the prior year’s season on the bench in front of us.”
So what does he like in a wine? “I do think that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but there is prequalification,” he explained. “The $12 bottle of rose I had on the beach with the girl with the auburn hair probably wasn’t great, but the bottle of Rousseau’s 2002 Clos de Beze – sprung on me over a bowl of pasta by a most generous friend – was unquestionably magical.” For Donaldson, a great wine “implies a sublime and harmonious balance, leaving an indelible memory.”
As with a lot of Central Otago wines, the clean dark fruit is always present, but Akitu is focused on vibrancy and tension in their wines. “Our ability to show grown up silky fine tannins early certainly helps stylistically but it is the acid structure that really carries all,” said Donaldson. “We want our wine to sparkle in the glass exuding a pure expression of alpine air and bright sunshine.”
Being a boutique producer, Donaldson is aware that Akitu wines will never compete on price. Fortunately for him, “pinotphiles” (his word) are a curious breed, willing to pay for the experience. “They love nothing more than to try new wines,” he said. The UK market is important to Akitu, having purchased a significant portion of their first vintage, but Australia, Northern Europe and the west coast of the United States are all important growing markets.
Outside of wines, his hobbies include fly-fishing – “the more exotic the better.” However, for now, he is fully committed to Akitu. “In this game, success is not an end point,” he said. “It is a journey.”