If Louis Vavasour could do a bottle swap with any wine or winery in the world, it would be with one of the most expensive bottles ever, an 1869 Château Lafite-Rothschild. As a winemaker, he is curious to taste the flavours of a bottle that is so old when rumour has it; it is still drinking well.
Vavasour was born and bred in the Awatere Valley of Marlborough, where his family has worked the land for generations. His parents planted their first vines in the 1980s and taught him the ropes of the industry before becoming a flying maker. He worked with vintages from France, Australia and the USA, then eventually took his passion to University in South Australia.
In 2007, Vavasour founded the Awatere River brand at his home in the valley, which he has successfully run for many years. In 2017, the winemaker bought in some minor shareholders to support growth plans, and their motivation led to the purchase of Waimea Estantes, Bannock Brae and Sileni Estates. Almost four years ago, he oversaw the merger of these businesses into the Booster Wine Group.
“When I was 20, I had hit a bit of a low point and had to do some honest reflecting and ask myself, what is my purpose? My purpose was clear from that point on. I am a passionate people person, and I like creating things, so I wanted to create something that others could enjoy. Wine fitted, so here I am.”
Sileni Estate Wines are particularly interesting, as the label recently underwent a brand refresh. The winery was established in 1998 in the Bridge Pa Triangle of Hawkes Bay, an area that enjoys warm, dry temperatures and a varied viticultural climate. The hotter plains at sea level suit the Merlot, Rhone style Syrah and Semillon. In the cooler, higher altitude foothills, Burgundian varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris are grown, while the Sauvignon Blanc is grown in Marlborough.
Over the years, Sileni has grown to a multi-award-winning winery, exporting to 44 countries. Its winemaking philosophy is one of minimal intervention that allows the fruit flavour profiles to express where they are grown and provide a true sense of place. Vavasour said that the label is focused on developing a sustainability strategy that is better for the land, and the new branding reflects this.
“Our new Sileni tells the story through our icon, the inverted triangle within the circle, representing the earth, sun, and water. These elements are what make our wines and give them their character, it's all about working with the land and the environment to showcase what our land can create, and the new branding tries to reflect this philosophy.”
Across all of Vavasour’s wines, the minimal interventional approach is taken as it allows vineyards to express their natural individuality. For example, the Gravity Winery in Upper Moutere does not use any pumps as it utilises the four levels it was built upon. At the Hawkes Bay Sileni winery, extensive native plantings encourage biodiversity and increase carbon sequestration.
Like many other industries, winemaking has faced headwinds. 2017 saw the most challenging harvest from a quality perspective; with flooding from two cyclones, the wine was picked below optimal ripeness. The 2020 vintage was also tough, as it was spent waiting for the government to confirm if businesses could operate. Vavasour wasn’t sure if they would even harvest at one stage. He said that these days they are constantly faced with a dilemma, whether it's the weather, Covid, inflation or the Government.
“There have been so many pressures to navigate, and I still don’t know how we got through it, but we did, and I am thankful I have such a good team of people to work with.”
Despite the challenges, Vavasour hopes to continue to push boundaries and try new things. Getting the wine business to be fully carbon neutral and to continue developing genuine sustainability strategies, from planting natives to green energy and reducing footprints. He also noted that there might be some reduced demand with inflation and rising living costs in the future, but life will go on.