New Zealand Road Map
Robin quickly became an advisor and mentor to other Central Otago grape growers, many of whom had little formal training in viticulture. By 2000 he was managing fourteen vineyards of various sizes and advising on five others as well as consulting when the opportunities arose. In his spare time he started teaching a viticulture course at the polytechnic in Cromwell from 1992 and continued doing this into the twenty-first century. Members of the Central Otago winegrowing community, such as Steve Green of Carrick, who took the polytechnic course attest to its influence on both their own practices and maintaining the close personal relationships that are a feature of the community of Central Otago winegrowers.
When Robin Dicey came to Central Otago he rethought his whole approach to trellising vines. Identifying frost as the primary environmental problem on their flattish Felton Road site, his solution was to get the canopy and fruit higher off the ground because at screen height air temperature is up to 2.5°C higher than at ground level. To take advantage of this temperature gradient he configured his trellises with a single high wire with the foliage sprawling downwards from this wire. Pinot Noir has this recumbent tendency naturally. Robin admits that his thinking was influenced by his distaste for cane pruning: ‘I’ll do anything to avoid cane pruning. I hate it, it’s so damned expensive. So he settled for a ‘high wire system, unsupported foliage, just flopping foliage, spur pruned’.
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After assessing the performance of different varieties on their Felton Road property he also reduced the area planted in Chardonnay on the basis of his North Island experience:
Gisborne does it as well or better than we do. They can crop at a higher level than we can. With our lower tonnage and ripening ability, we shouldn’t be stuffing around with it. And there’s no great difficulty in making a good Chardonnay – you can do it in any grape-growing region in New Zealand.
Other growers had a similar view. As a proportion of the Central Otago vineyard, Chardonnay dropped from 22 per cent in 2000 to 4 per cent in 2010. Pinot Gris at 9 per cent and Riesling at 4 per cent have replaced it as the premium white varieties in the region.
Robin favours a low density of vines per hectare with 3 metres between rows and 2 metres between vines within each row. This spacing reduces the number of passes with the tractor when spraying or cultivating. Such reasoning makes sense when he explains that they have adopted Geneva Double Curtain trellising. In this system the canopy is split to both sides of the vertical trellis. Such a configuration fits with the spur pruning and flopping canopy that he advocates:
And the second thing was I’m of the opinion that we have enough power and enough guts in these soils to actually split the canopy on a Geneva Double Curtain and that’s why they’re so wide With a 3-metre-wide row and GDC, you effectively end up with a 1.5-metre-wide row.