Despite never thinking he would end up in the wine industry, Phil Hanford established Grasshopper Rock Winery 20 years ago.
“I never had any interest in wine for the first 40 years of my life,” admitted Hanford. “But now we own a pinot noir vineyard and make a significant contribution to the fabric of Central Otago Pinot Noir.”
Initially, Hanford studied agriculture.
“I have always had a fascination with agriculture and the connection between land and production. The wine industry is very much an agriculture-based industry,” he said.
With a career in The Rural Bank, Hanford noticed that the most successful farming operations were so because of their choice in the best farming systems and practices.
“Growing grapes is the same,” Hanford continued.
“We chose to grow pinot noir grapes to produce the very best wine and that meant finding the land and site best suited to this and applying the best management practices. It seems simple but selecting the right site for a finicky grape variety like pinot noir is the key to consistently producing premium pinot noir grapes. If you produce premium grapes, you can produce premium pinot noir and we were up for the challenge.”
Grasshopper Rock is the single largest pinot noir producer at 45.25 degrees south. This means the vineyard has slower ripening due to cooler nights and is drier and less windy than other parts of Central Otago. As any wine enthusiast will know, wine is 100 percent influenced by the site of the vineyard. Due to Grasshopper’s site, its pinot noirs tend to show finer tannins and silkier texture, with high perfume and savoury, earthy tones. The cool nights and late harvest give structure which means the wine evolves exceptionally well over many years in the bottle.
The vineyard site dates back to the 1870s when the first vines were planted. Whilst the vineyard has grown, the original buildings remain.
“It was the history as a horticultural property, the ideal soils, the aspect, water rights and climate data which attracted us to the property for pinot noir,” said Hanford.
Hanford’s philosophy towards winemaking had a large impact on the process of choosing the right site.
“Our philosophy with our vineyard and winemaking is simply to produce the best single-vineyard wine we can. It means doing a good job in the vineyard, producing excellent quality grapes, and not overworking the grapes in the winery.”
“It sounds simple,” Hanford said, “which it is, but it is not easy.”
Grasshopper Rock is also sustainably focused. “Everything we do in the vineyard must pass our sustainability test.”
Microplastic pollution is a concern in the wine industry and Grasshopper Rock is committed to using biodegradable products and avoiding using any unnecessary plastic products. To do so, it has started importing biodegradable products from France to supply other vineyards. Glass bottles have the single biggest carbon footprint within the wine industry.
“High-quality wine does not have to be in heavy bottles, and we have always committed to lightweight bottles,” Hanford stated. He believes customers should change their buying behaviour and force wineries to change.
“I think the industry needs to take sustainability more seriously and justify its unnecessary use of some packaging and plastics,” reiterated Hanford.
Over 20 years, Hanford’s winery has grown and achieved a lot, but he still has one goal in mind.
“Our goal is to see Grasshopper Rock as a sustainable pinot noir vineyard worthy of Grand Cru status evolve over time.”
For new viticulturists, Hanford offered some advice.
“Have courage and a clear vision of what you want to achieve. It is not for the faint-hearted, but don’t let that put you off. For great things to happen requires courage.
“A great wine is a memorable one. It may be memorable because it contributed to the memory of the occasion, it may be memorable because of its place in history or age or it may be a wine of outstanding quality.”