Head winemaker at McArthur Ridge, Matt Connell, began his journey in the wine industry while buying wine for the Waiheke Island Resort. Here, Connell met David Evans from Passage Rock Wines, who suggested he work with him to grow his understanding of the industry.
Connell owns a winery named after himself, where he crafts wines for 11 clients, including pinot noir, pinot gris, chardonnay, rose, muscat, riesling, and late harvest resiling. Connell described his wines as fruit-forward, with a range of richer reds styled in the way of which he is fond.
“Coming from a hospitality background, I listen to my customers and try hard to match what I do with what they like to buy or styles that sell well. It's essential as a winemaker not to make wine in a bubble and remember you are making wine for others' enjoyment,” shared Connell.
When approaching the winemaking process, Connell balances his 20 years of experience by allowing grapes and the seasonal essence to guide his decision-making. The winemaker embraces technological advancement, stating that he is always looking for ways to improve his processes, whether through traditional or innovative winemaking methods.
Connell explained that winemaking was about seasonality. Decisions around bottling, for example, are made around what he observes of the blends over time. Secondly, by what is typical for the variety.
“Whites tend to be bottled in September or October, with pinot bottled in early March. The biggest challenges we face are being ruthless and culling barrels out that may not enhance a given blend.”
The most significant innovations for the industry have been developed in labs. The main one Connell has noticed is improvement in technology readings on components within the wine, such as sugar or acid. These readings have previously been performed commercially, which caused a delay of days before winemakers received results, which they can now get within minutes.
Connell revealed that the most critical factor in the winemaking process is when the fruit is picked, ensuring the fruit is of optimum condition, ripeness, and balance. Following this, Connell said that blending the right components and carefully caring for the wine ensures that it maintains its quality in the bottle.
The winemaker predicted that the industry's future would face challenges due to climate change, with the number of varieties changing and increased usage of technology in vineyards to support automation processes currently impacted by labour shortages.
For aspiring winemakers, Connell emphasised the importance of gaining industry experience, asking questions, working vintages with good people, and focusing on and aligning their skills with the styles and varieties they enjoy.
“Work as hard as possible as the industry is very connected, and if you do a solid job, you tend to get bigger opportunities next time. For those looking to learn more about the world of wine, visit your local wine region and explore and support the wines.”
Connell concluded by revealing that wine is about discovery and forming personal opinions unfettered by what is the best according to one region’s producer, as further investigation is more important.