Aotearoa New Zealand’s Central Otago wine region – on the south of the South Island – is remarkably new. Serious viticulture didn’t begin until the late seventies, according to legend Alan Hardy and the inestimable Rudi Bauer of famous Quartz Reef Wines. Vinifiable grapes didn’t arrive until the early eighties. Central Otago is barely four decades old. In contrast, Burgundy has been making wine for nearly a millennium! Bear in mind, winemaking bears little resemblance to brewing beer or distilling spirits which can be produced year round. Wine follows the circadian rhythms of the four seasons. Spring is budbreak; summer is for ripening; fall is sitting on the edge of panic waiting for the phenolic ripeness and sugar levels to come into balance for harvest; in winter the grapes go to sleep, are pruned in their hibernation in preparation for the next annual cycle. There are no shortcuts. You only have one year to get it right, and whatever subjective choices you made in the winter and spring you will die on that hill in the fall, in victory or defeat. This is the beauty and the poetry of wine that surpasses any other alcoholic beverage in its sublimity. To some it’s just fermented grape juice; to others it’s a life, wedded to a distinct topography, at the mercy of the climate, crucified on the cross of subjective decisions that will spell the fate of next year’s vintage. It is a profession not for the faint of heart.
Enter Yoshiaki Sato. He and his wife Kyoko came to New Zealand from the banking world looking, like so many, to live a more personally fulfilling life liberated from the soul-destroying burden of a 9-6 job that had no hope of ever etching one’s own unique footprint onto something that would be remembered. Sato knew nothing about wine when he came to NZ, but he started taking courses, got jobs at wineries, was enthralled by the challenge, by this stunningly beautiful Central Otago terroir. Five years ago he bought a tiny parcel of 3.2 hectares (a mere eight acres) on a craggy hilltop outside Cromwell. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the king and queen of Central Otago because of the region’s temperately old climate and metamorphic schist soils where grapes need to struggle to achieve their finest expression, so it was a surprise when Sato told he had also planted some Chenin Blanc (makes sense), Gamay (huh?), and Cabernet Franc (the only winemaker in Central Otago to plant Cab Franc).
Sato is a hardcore biodynamist. To him, any form of intervention in the winemaking process is a profanity. He and his wife spend way more time in the vineyard than they do in the cellar. He will not let anyone else prune his eight acres except he and his wife. He is the only winemaker I’ve met who, by choice, uses a basket press, and he makes a compelling argument for why all grapes would benefit from this labor-intensive method, its gentler pressing technique resulting in softer wines with fewer of the harsher phenolics found in larger bladder presses that then require fining and filtration, anathema to Sato.
Sato Wines is small production, preposterously young and still vinifying their first vintages with some of their varieties. Sato asked me what I wanted to taste. He only wanted to open one bottle at his new facility, which will one day have a proper tasting room and will be swarming with oenophile tourists on this craggy slope overlooking Dunstan Lake and the, in June, snow-capped mountains to the distance. Even though I’m pigeon-holed as a Pinotphile because of Sdeways I said I wanted to taste his inaugural Cab Franc (’19, 16 months in barrel), since it’s the only one made in Central Otago. From three-year-old vines! In the glass it was a midnight purple. In the mouth, like almost all Central Otago wines, you could taste the quartz and mica its rootstock suffers mightily to ripen in. It tasted unlike any Cab Franc I’ve ever had. When asked, Sato said it tasted like matter below the forest floor, like plums that had ripened underground. Sato explained to me that the wine will be different every year as the vines mature and the taproots wriggle ever deeper into these hardscrabble soils that consist of less than 5% organic matter.
Sato is making wines at the edge of the world with a fierce loyalty to, and respect for, the land, the terroir. He is an stubborn believer in wine expressing place and year. Period. No tartaric; no over-ripeness and watering back; no phenolic manipulation with centrifuges; no fining agents; clusters from his hands carried mere meters to his winery for vinification. He told me, with a burden of spirit and heartache in his narrowing eyes, about last year’s six-hour gale force winds in the middle of harvest that annihilated many of his beautifully-ripped clusters. He is braving the elements for the wines he believes in. Call him the second wave of Central Otago.