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Chris Simmonds prefers the simpler and less expensive vertical shoot positioning method of trellising, although he did inherit 3 acres on the Scott-Henry system on the first vineyard he purchased:
I think that with VSP and good canopy management to expose the fruit at the right level, and get a nice high canopy going, we can grow as good, if not better, fruit.
In his first fifteen years as a grower he sold his grapes to a variety of wine companies, with most of it initially going to Corbans, ‘but we terminated that arrangement’. He cites his Gewurztraminer vineyard as an example of the way he has since associated with different wineries as his vines matured and he became more experienced. For five vintages he sold most of his Gewurztraminer to Cloudy Bay, before in 1999 selling to John Forrest who won a gold medal with it. This wine was also the best in its class at the 2000 Romeo Bragato Wine Awards.
By the 2000 vintage Chris had settled on supplying three companies of small to medium size – Forrest and Highfield Estate in Marlborough, and the Auckland firm De Redcliffe. These smaller wine enterprises, and particularly Forrest Estate, keep Chris in touch with their progress in producing wines from his grapes.
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John Forrest rings me up and says, ‘Look, come over, we’ll do a tank tasting of the Sauvignon. That’s just a heck of a lot of fun and he is just an amazing fellow. I’ve learned a lot about wine from him.
The ideas Chris bounces off John sometimes have their repercussions in Forrest’s own business when, after one of these discussions, ‘he goes back to his viticulturist and says “I want you to try such and such”. The viticulturist commonly replies, “Oh, you’ve been talking to that bloody Simmonds again!”’
Chris agrees with John Forrest’s approach to deciding when grapes should be picked. As vintage approaches, John monitors the state of maturity of the berries by their sugar and pH but picks each variety when he thinks the flavour of their fruit is right. Highfield has an even more flexible system: ‘If fruit are ready prior to reaching their top figure, they come in and say, “We’ll take it now and pay the top figure.” Chris is adamant that he never wants to grow for a very large company again. When supplying Corbans in the 1990s the price that growers received was related primarily to the sugar level of the grapes which, to be fair to both parties, requires careful measurement in the vineyard. Chris was unhappy with the differences between his and the company’s measurement of these sugar levels.
The banker in Chris emerges when he discusses his pride and joy – the spreadsheet he developed to monitor the performance of his vineyard: ‘I put all the variables into it, including row spacing, plants per hectare, and so on and so forth – and it works really, really well. He began assembling the information when they bought their first vineyard and the spreadsheet’s utility has increased year by year as more information accumulates, until it has become his main recording and management device. Its value derives from the variety of scales he can analyse. These range from the whole vineyard to a single parcel of land, to the performance of a particular variety or even clone: ‘I now have a spreadsheet that I can run any vineyard through in the space of 20 minutes and give you a four-year projection on its performance. He even uses it to convince his grape-growing friends to modify their viticultural practices:
I’ve got a friend whose property we put into the spreadsheet and as a result of which he is top-grafting his Muller Thurgau – it was this that convinced him. He sort of knew that he needed to do that, but when you really looked at what he’s making off that variety he actually made the change.