by Andrea Frost

On wine and wondering

Even though I spend a lot of time wandering in and wondering about nature, I confess I felt foolish being dropped in a vineyard in Marlborough, New Zealand, so I could sit on my own to think.

“Don’t judge me,” I said over my shoulder, trying to make light of the situation as I walked away from the four-wheel drive toward a clearing at the top of the Fromm Clayvin vineyard.

“It’s OK, I get it, you need your Zen moment,” said Will Hoare, Fromm General Manager who had generously driven me to the vineyard in Marlborough’s Brancott Valley. Still in the driver’s seat, with one elbow on the window ledge he asked, “Sure an hour will be long enough?”

“Perfect,” I said, trying to sound more confident with the idea than I was.

“See you then,” he said and drove off.

I had asked to sit in a vineyard because I wanted time to wonder. I had been in Marlborough for a week, tasting wines, meeting winemakers, scribbling notes and yet, I had no idea yet what I thought about anything. I figured some time in one of the most celebrated vineyards in the region would be just the tonic to order my thoughts and gain some clarity.

The Clayvin vineyard was Marlborough’s first hillside planting of Pinot Noir in the southern valleys. In 1991, when it was first planted, it was contentious. Sauvignon Blanc was Marlborough’s hero variety where it flourished on the valley floors and, subsequently, wine bars the world over. Yet, with the right blend of gumption and persistence, the Clayvin vineyard and other sites deeper into the southern valleys have shown themselves to be the best places to grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Marlborough.

As Will drove away, I made my way to the highest point of the vineyard where an old wooden chair and table faced down the valley. Clearly, someone else had the idea of contemplation up here before me. At ten in the morning, on a midsummer’s day, the land was fully lit as the sun beamed down in piercing rays of light. Behind me, the southern valleys were bald and golden and so dry that Will said “even a rabbit would struggle to get a cut lunch up there”. In front, the vineyard rose and fell in waves all the way to the valley floor. The vines were lime green, the bunches were still as small and loose as lace, and the leaves were wide like lily pads. Large insects and small birds darted around and the sound of farm engines hummed in the distance. I don’t know if it was a Zen moment, but it was certainly a pleasant one.

I love to wonder and I go to great lengths to make time to do so. Wondering is an adventure for your mind without any of the restrictions that come with being an actual human on earth. You are free to explore ideas, matter, time and place as far as your imagination is willing to go. You can ponder things that don’t make sense and turn over those that do, until eventually you find they don’t make sense either. It’s not worrying, because that assumes you know something about what you think about. It’s not thinking either, as that has more purpose. It’s free play for your mind. These days, too many people consider wondering a wasteful indulgence rather than a spectacular way to spend your time.

Wine is a wonderful subject to contemplate. I’m yet to find a more satisfyingly complex topic than wine about which to explore ideas, or a vineyard a more pleasing place to do so. As I sat in the bright sunshine, my mind ran away with thoughts and ideas about what I had seen, heard and tasted.

For one, it wasn’t lost on me that I was sitting in what was once a controversial vineyard and is now one of the most lauded in the region. It got me thinking about what it takes to do something truly innovative. True pioneers of thought, experimentation or exploration are never really given permission. If you’re going to be the first, I thought, you’ll be on your own for a while.

Another thing I turned over was the role imagination plays in our relationship with nature. When faced with a limiting factor – distance, ice, height, oceans, fire, drought – we innovate. That’s how we got to the top of mountains, the bottoms of cliffs, across valleys, through hardship or, in this case, grew vines in more extreme places. Once considered marginal because they were too cold, dry and prone to frost, many of Marlborough’s most promising vineyards are now tucked deep into the folds of the southern valleys.

Then there’s the affect of geology on a wine. I am always in awe of how a unique and often traumatic set of geological factors can give rise to a wine’s character, even becoming the feature that makes it flourish. The Richmond Ranges protect Marlborough on one side from the howling winds that tear in from the Tasman Sea, while the Kaikoura Ranges formed along a fault system provide shelter from the freezing southerlies. These borders create a halo of sunshine and warmth under which the most distinct style of Sauvignon Blanc is made. With a little imagination, I like to think it’s this set of factors that people in a bar in London are really celebrating when they toast their wine. I’m sure naturalist, philosopher and writer John Muir didn’t have Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in mind when he wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” but it applies just the same.

Most importantly for me is the personal experience that meditating on a landscape affords. Wine is riddled with such mystery that total knowing is out of reach. There will always be something to find out and, more enchanting still, something we can’t ever know. For the eternally curious, this is as exciting as is it relieving. Wine’s constant source of astonishment is a way of staying engaged in the world. As far as I can tell, this is half the job of being alive done. As Einstein said, “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

I realise I’m being hopelessly romantic and that no-one sends me on a trip to contemplate my place in the cosmos, but I do believe it’s important for the pleasure and deeper understanding of place to take a moment to wonder. Who knows? Start with wonder and you might well end up with a distinctive vineyard like the one I was sitting in.

As I was flipping all this around in my mind, a car trundled up the bumpy vineyard track and pulled up next to me. It was one of Fromm’s original dreamers and current winemaker, Hätsch Kalberer, with another guest. The hour had already passed. I started to explain why I was here and that I was to be picked up soon, but he seemed to understand. Waving my words away, Hätsch pulled out a bottle of 2003 Fromm Clayvin Pinot Noir and poured three glasses. We stood with our backs to the southern valleys, raised our glasses and took a sip while admiring the view. How did the wine taste? Wonderful, of course.

Photos of the Clayvin Vineyard and Hätsch Kalberer © Tim Atkin MW