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In the early 1990s, Sir Clifford Skeggs considered buying 10 hectares in the Bannockburn area and planting a vineyard. When he explored the economics of winegrowing his commercial experience soon revealed that ‘you can’t make money off 10 hectares’. By 2000 he had accumulated sufficient land to have most of 52 hectares of predominantly Pinot Noir grapes planted on the higher slopes of Bannockburn. His unpretentious brick winery ‘Akarua was nestled alongside the road to Cornish Point and the restaurant attached to the winery was operating. He had even established a small brewery in the same complex – something many winemakers avoid because of the yeasts active in one fermentation adding undesirable species to the other – ensuring that the brewing and winemaking were isolated.
Clifford Skeggs has Southland and Otago in his DNA. He was born and raised in Bluff, Invercargill and before venturing into winegrowing had already had a successful career in a variety of primary industries ranging from inshore and offshore commercial fisheries to mussel farming in the Marlborough Sounds, to deer recovery by helicopter and deer farming. While confident that his deep experience of marketing these products and the systems his firms had developed could be applied to wine, he also recognised that he needed expert advice. Robin Dicey suggested that he contact John Hancock, the experienced initiator and part-owner of Trinity Hill in Hawke’s Bay, to advise him about his vineyard and its development. Hancock assessed the north-facing slopes of Bannockburn that Skeggs was considering and pronounced them suitable for Pinot Noir.
Keen to establish his winery as quickly as possible, Clifford Skeggs visited Marlborough to evaluate a number of its small and medium-sized wineries. He was not impressed by some of the outdoor ‘tank farms that he encountered and the general crowded appearance of some small wineries. This experience convinced him to build a winery capable of handling 600 tonnes of grapes – a yield of about 12 tonnes per hectare from the 50 hectares he had accumulated. He was aware that he was unlikely to achieve a yield this high in the Central Otago environment but also considered the possibility of buying in grapes locally, albeit an expensive option in Central Otago during the 1990s when many vineyards were being planted but few were yet bearing. The vineyard ended up about 80 per cent Pinot Noir with the remainder split evenly between Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. ‘I don’t sincerely believe it’s the right land for Chardonnay, Skeggs graciously concedes. ‘However, I’ll continue to drink it! Many experienced vinifiers have expressed similar doubts about producing Chardonnay of consistent and distinctive style from grapes grown in Central Otago.
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Looking northeast across Felton Road and the Kawarau River towards Lowburn. Akarua’s recently acquired Felton Road vineyards sit in a long band below the hillside. Akarua Winery
In mid-1999, Clifford Skeggs again used John Hancock to assess the winemakers who had applied for the position at Akarua. They appointed Steve Davies, a New Zealander with experience in Bordeaux and California. Steve uses his Californian experience to interpret the Central Otago debate over the difficulty of producing Chardonnay of top quality in this region. He attributes this limitation to the paucity of different Chardonnay clones available in the 1990s when Central Otago was developing rapidly. When he returned to New Zealand in late 1998 most of the Chardonnay being grown in Central was Clone 6 that he considers analogous to Clone 4 which is widespread in California. And I don’t know anybody who makes better than good Chardonnay out of Clone 4. There’s Mendoza down here and that seems, at least in Gibbston, to set poorly and has high acid problems.
He also has some interesting observations about the influence of yield of grapes per hectare on the economics of winegrowing in Central Otago compared with parts of California: