Ata Mara EstateHistory, land & style

Anna Caidan meets up with Janiene Bayliss joint proprietor at Ata Mara
Wine Story

What can you tell me about the history of ATA Mara?

‘ATA Mara was established nearly eighteen years ago, when we bought the land. We bought a sheep farm in the Pisa Valley and we converted it into a vineyard. At that point there were not that many vineyards, but we did some really good soil testing. The climate was right, and we knew it was a good location. So, we were one of the first up there, and we still have the same viticulturist that we had when we began. His father actually did the layout, he was the consultant for us, and he has been with us ever since. Our first vintage was 2007, and we nearly didn’t make wine at all but our viticulturist said to us “you have to! These grapes are just perfect! And if you don’t, then give them to me and I will”. So we did! and our first wines were Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, and our first vintage of Pinot Noir got a Decanter silver medal. So we thought “oh right! That means we should be able to get a gold!”. Our Pinot Gris was absolutely stunning! That was the biggest surprise, not Pinot Noir, we knew throughout the region what Pinot Noirs were like, but not many had grown Pinot Gris, and it was just beautiful! Very Alsace style, lush, and just a beautiful, beautiful wine on the palate. We were in London, and our first distributor was Justerini & Brooks, and it was the Pinot Gris that everyone took note of, they kind of went “Wow! So that’s a bit of the history, we planted about 70% Pinot Noir, but we’ve now got alongside the Pinot Gris; Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, and we have Chardonnay. The Chardonnay is the most recent planting, in a spare piece of land that we had. We will have a very small personalised vintage from 2018 for ourselves, which our winemaker took off, and it has all been hand pressed, so that we could see what our particular clone was going to produce, so we’ll be looking forward to sampling that when we go back!’

What is your favourite step in the winemaking process?

‘The process for me begins at budburst, and what sort of season its going to be. Probably Veraison, because you actually see the transformation of the grapes going to ripening, and you see and understand the size of your crop and the quality of it. It’s a sort of a timing moment. From then on, you’re looking at ripeness and sugar rising and that side of it. The technical and the science side, while interesting, probably still the most interesting is taking a barrel sample out and tasting, because ultimately, you’re always interested in what you’ve got, what has that season produced.’

What is the secret to making ATA Mara wines?

‘As little intervention as possible. We really are letting the land, and the seasons speak for themselves. When you’re growing grapes and making wine that far on the limits, you’re on the edge the whole time. Whether its storms or frosts. At the moment (October) they’ve got a dump of snow, or incredible heat. In this past season we were up to 42 degrees a day all through January. It was unrelenting, and we were quite worried for what February was going to be like, because February is our hottest month. Fortunately, there was a lovely dump of snow across the Alps, and it cooled it down very nicely. The wine is an expression of the extremes of its region, so you always get something interesting, and those seasons vary greatly from one to the next, and that’s probably what makes the whole being in that area unique, you just never know what you’re going to be dealing with. We went away for a weekend, came back on the Monday, and my husband went and did a check of the vineyards, he was actually getting mushrooms, it was the first of the dew. He went up some of the rows to get beautiful mushrooms and noticed that there was something really weird in one of the rows. We had seven rows that had been flattened by a twister, it had come through on the Sunday night and it had severed off 130 posts, I mean huge, huge posts, just taken off at ground level. It was carrying a full harvest, and our viticulturist didn’t believe it, he thought we were exaggerating. He brought his crew up in the morning, and they had to pull them back up with cranes. We were the only ones hit, it just came off the mountains, struck off into the vineyard and blew itself out. So you never know what is going to strike, its unpredictable, never boring and can be very dramatic!’

What is your best memory since working at ATA Mara?

‘Well it’s all hard work and more to come! Because this year we’ll start to think about putting a tasting room in, and we’ll have a little more interaction with the public, and I think that will change the dynamic quite a lot. We will be nearly twenty years old, working quietly away in isolation. Twenty years is almost an overnight success in the wine industry, so we will be about ready to open a little tasting room and interact with the public, I think that’ll be really interesting.’

...and your most challenging?

‘Probably top grafting the Riesling, which was an experiment we did a couple of years ago, and we top grafted it with Chardonnay. It took beautifully, we couldn’t believe how successful it was, around 90%, but then most of that got wiped out in a frost. We do have frost protection, but we couldn’t run it because we were about to harvest, and we couldn’t harvest with wet grapes. So that one night we didn’t run the frost protection and we nearly lost most of that top grafted Chardonnay. We did let it grow back to Riesling, and we’re going to top graft it again this year, and its quite interesting because we did two plots; one was top grafted, and one was brand new vines, and it may be that the brand-new vines will actually be producing before the top grafted vines.’

What is the story behind the labels?

‘The label was designed by a friend actually, here in London, who is South African. The motif down the side of the label is actually a New Zealand native tree called Kaka beak. It’s very delicate, and we’ve just stylised it on the bottle because down in Central Otago, there are very few Māori names, and it is an area where the South Island Māori were quite prevalent. They used to go Moa hunting down there! Being of the land, we like the idea of returning the vines back to being near an . Wtribe Ngāi Tahu, to actually source an approved name. It’s appropriate because the vineyard faces east-west, so the rising sun in the morning is very beautiful. Māori’s in that region have a really interesting relationship with light. The light is bright and strong and overpowering. In that whole region there is quite an affinity with the Māori tribes and what the light would bring; the light on the land, the light in the sky. So it’s quite a spiritual identity really. Most of the mountains, most of the iconic things in that area, have all been named by English surveyors, so it’s another sort of history, but it’s not the history that we feel is closer to the land. Alongside that, my husband is very interested in conservation, so we’ve got a very big conservation project going in regenerating all the seedlings from the native trees that were originally from that area, so we will be planting probably around three hectares in natives. That’s really the next big project in between everything else!’

When is the best time to drink your wines?

‘I don’t like drinking them under two years post bottling. The Pinot Noir we’re drinking at the moment is 2013, and it’s beautiful, it’s a Decanter gold medal winner. We’ve drunk our wines at 12 years old, and they’re beautiful, they’re really beautiful. I think it’s taste and your own preference. The 2015 Pinot Noir at the moment is really lovely and that’s probably about the right time to start drinking it, but once again, it depends on the vintage! So the vintage will dictate it, so if it’s a deep, brooding and intense vintage, or whether it’s a slightly lighter vintage, that will give it a lot of clues about when’s a good time to drink it. I really like from 2-3 years onwards, you can’t go wrong with that!’

What type of food pairs best with your wines?

‘Duck is beautiful with Pinot Noir. We’re a bit traditional, we like rosemary infused lamb, its fabulous with it, but then so is salmon! There’s quite a wide variety of things you can try it with, and also chocolate cake! Chocolate desserts are stunning with it, particularly if there’s plums or raspberries. On the whites, the Gris and the Riesling, are just stunning with a bit of spice, Asian foods or anything with a bit of a kick, or a dressing that has a hit on it. Pretty much any fish with the whites is lovely, and pasta! They’re very food friendly wines. The whites come through in this lovely full-flavour intensity but very distinctive from one-another.’

How would you describe the New Zealand way of life?

‘Very individual. If you want to do it, think about it, have a go at it, you probably can, with as little interface or requirement from anybody or anything. For a lot of people, it’s quite liberating. For others it may be just too remote, hence the coming over to England for six months of the year! It is remote, and it is extreme. You know, you’re pretty much prepared for anything. New Zealanders adapt greatly to what’s on offer at any time of the year.’

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