With 76 individual vineyards dotted across a 2,362 ha property at the eastern end of Waiheke Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, Man O’ War has a unique and special viticultural operation.
Starting as a small, experimental planting of Bordeaux wine grapes in 1993, Man O’ War vineyard is now a complex, quality-driven and uniquely beautiful enterprise. Its 76 vineyard blocks spread from east towest, north to south, on slopes across the Waiheke property, plus 7 ha on neighbouring Ponui Island, to create a breath-taking patchwork of vineyards of around 60 ha in production. The biggest single vineyard is just 3 ha.
Vineyard Manager Matt Allen has been here since the beginning, working with the property’s owners, the Spencer family, to fulfill their vision to produce quality wines and improve profitability of this land which is challenging to farm due to location and drought.
“We couldn’t look over the fence to see what others were doing because no one had planted grapes out here before!” says Matt. “It’s always been a team effort between myself, the owners, our winemakers and various consultants.“It’s not traditional grape country, compared to the Poverty Bay flats where I come from. We don’t have any flat ground on Waiheke, so it’s a European style vineyard. The whole property was mapped for soil, slope and aspect, and with weather station data, we put together the patchwork of vineyards we have today. We targeted north-facing slopes for the reds. On the lower parts of the property, soils are more clay-based which gives us weight and structure for these wines. Higher up, it’s more of a free- raining,volcanic soil, and a little cooler, so we planted Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc which helps retain freshness and acidity.
We didn’t get it all perfect and have made some changes by grafting.” Specialised equipment like a small Niko tracked viticultural machine enables trimming, mowing and spraying on the steep slopes. A tracked tractor by Antonio Carraro has also been a great tool. “We work vine by vine, row by row; no multi-row equipment for us given the limitations of topography, and all pruning and harvesting is done by hand.”Matt acknowledges the support of his Fruitfed Supplies Technical Horticultural Representative Steve Sherson who travels to Waiheke weekly or fortnightly from the Helensville branch.
“My relationship with Fruitfed goes back to the early ‘90s when I worked for Montana. Ross MacDiarmid was my first rep, having taken the initiative to come to Waiheke and provide service for vineyards here. Steve now provides that regular service. Others have come and gone, but we are very grateful to Fruitfed for sticking to the service and they’ve built a relationship with many growers on the island.”
Steve explains that “Fruitfed’s relationship with Waiheke wineries dates back 30 years or so. Starting out monthly when there were only a couple of vineyards, now I make weekly trips over on the ferry during spring and summer, and fortnightly trips in winter. To help growers between visits, commonly-used crop protection products are made available at a secure storage site for them to access.” Man O’ War’s location, 40 twisty minutes’ drive from the Oneroa ferry, has seen investment in backpacker-style accommodation for like-minded wine people from all over the world who come for pruning and harvest.
“The recently opened tasting room was an important evolution for the brand,” says Matt. A function pavilion and beachfront chapel is now complemented by a brand-new wedding pavilion. “We have a tight crew here and these facilities combine to make a fantastic offering.”
Matt says they broke all kinds of records with this year’s harvest. “We’ve got close to 400 tonnes before, but this year we picked 620 tonnes with some vineyards coming in to full production after grafting. We hada great run with weather, great flowering and an amazing growing season. It’s brutal on everybody – not too many people in the country hand-harvested 600 tonnes! Throw a few boat trips in there as well, but it’s been really rewarding. Quantity will be up there with some of the best years Waiheke has ever seen.”