Make a splash at the Wrekin
Gracie is no ordinary Jersey, admits Jan Johns, who raised her from a calf and considers her part of the family. And though she looks like she doesn’t care about the world, her head bowed in expectation of warm words and fresh hay, Gracie plays a standout role at The Wrekin, as the only source of poop buried in cow horns.
The Wrekin is not certified biodynamic, but the cow droppings pits, and the rhythmic – then chaotic – mixing of the preparations, according to the lunar cycle, are the key to this extraordinary property. On the surface, visitors to The Wrekin see a happy cow and a picturesque patchwork of vines, interspersed with an olive grove and duck-laden pond, park-like hills of oaks and redwoods, groves of native trees and a backdrop of golden hills. , where Jan and her husband Andrew raise beef and superfine merino.
But beyond the naked eye, there are vine roots that plunge deep, thanks to their mostly dry cultivation; a supercharged microbiology, thanks in large part to Gracie’s poop preparations; a line of beers buried in compost barrels and bricks, transfigured manure, eggshell and basalt; and a thriving earthworm population under the vines. “The ground is alive, and I think the place is more alive,” says Jan. “The soil is better, and we think the grapes are better.”
The Johns purchased the land in 1997, leaving town soon after to fulfill Andrew’s longtime desire to become a farmer. They were drawn to the sculpted tawny hills, an 1873 farmhouse reminiscent of the days of settler farmers, and 2,000 olive trees, which seemed like a good prospect at the time. They soon realized that the romantic dream of farming olive oil was a world away from reality, although the olive harvest is now a key event in their calendar, with friends and family gathering under the trees.
Fortunately, the land had much more to offer than olives and pasture. They hadn’t been long at The Wrekin when Ivan Sutherland – a pioneer of the Marlborough wine industry – took Andrew home from a sailing mission in the Marlborough Sounds and gazed at the gentle hills around the farm. “He said ‘you should put grapes here’,” says Jan.
They focused on research, discussed with the winegrowers and in 2002 planted 10 hectares of Pinot Noir, determined to enhance the terroir without disturbing the fragile structure of the soil. Winemaker Jeremy Hyland assisted with the design, carefully selecting an elaborate lineup of 10 clones and numerous rootstocks to smooth out the variation in slopes, row direction and appearance. It continued to do so as The Wrekin expanded into other varieties – Chenin Blanc on a hill above the pond and Chardonnay in a gap given up by the olives – with rows and varieties selected in depending on contour and aspect. “It’s definitely one of the most complex vineyards in the country,” says Jeremy, who clearly adores every corner of it.
Jan has always been interested in organic, but only started working towards certification in 2012 because wine companies were not interested in organic fruit, associating organic with “messy” vineyards and bad wine, “and everything that goes on,” she says. “At that time, people thought the orange stripes on the vines were cool.”
This was still the case when she took a course in biodynamics to deepen her own knowledge, and was pushed by an inspiring speaker, who explained to her that it was not enough to go organic for her, “you had to do it to the society”. Although Jan is already well on the “organic path,” The Wrekin needed a bit of a “punch” to get certified and deepen biodynamic practices, she says. “And Jeremy is the punch I needed”
The winemaker has been involved since 2001, but joined the Johns full-time in 2017, a year before certification. He had long been “intrigued” by biodynamics and had spent time with New Zealand biodynamic sponsor James Millton while working in Gisborne. “But I never had time to do it – I never took the time to do it,” Jeremy says. A health scare in late 2015 gave him at the time, and also made him look differently at the other places he had worked and the fruits he had sampled over the years, “Now I I feel bad when I smell chemicals.”
He notes that organic certification can be achieved “by doing nothing” except excluding chemical inputs. At The Wrekin, “nothing” has been potent – with no earthworks, no water (unless the vines are in jeopardy) and no chemical inputs since 2012. But biodynamics is about working from that and working for get better, says Jeremy. “I felt it was the natural way to go – the next step if you will.”
He has therefore brought his ‘oomph’ to the operation, and in turn is fueled by the enthusiasm of the owners, staff and visiting grape pickers, and by the classes of biodynamic students who come to see the work being done at The Wrekin. “Energy feeds on itself,” says Jan. And the proof is in the pudding, with a 2018 survey revealing that The Wrekin’s earthworm count is higher than any other organic vineyard in the country.
Winemaker Hätsch Kalberer used The Wrekin fruit in Fromm and makes The Wrekin pinot noir for the Johns’ own label. He calls the Upper Fairhall Valley vineyard one of the few estates that is not a monoculture. “There’s a vineyard here and a vineyard there, and a lake in between – it’s very well thought out,” he says. “You can see there’s someone on the other end who really cares.”
As soon as they got their certification, people like Hätsch were “knocking at our door,” says Jan. “I didn’t know this would happen.” She converted to organic for philosophical reasons, “but now premium wine is expected to be organic.” She loves that these days winemakers show up to stir a concoction and talk thoughtfully about the moon and microbiology.
Jan also loves the science behind the biodynamic principles they follow, “which I didn’t understand before”, and the sharing community it has attracted. “They are open-minded people, who also care about the planet,” says Jan. “Biodynamics is much more about soil science and takes it to the nth degree than we ever thought. And it makes sense.”
The Wrekin Cellar
Making wine on site was a natural step at The Wrekin, where a small gravity-fed winery is now nestled into a hill surrounded by wine.
This means that the Hätsch Kalberer winemaker can transform the fruit during harvest, protecting the microbiological signature of this biodynamically cultivated land and providing more flexibility and resilience to the operation.
The winery was built last year, but shipping delays (including a remaining box in a French port) meant they just squeaked for the 2022 harvest, says owner Jan Johns. “The basket press arrived the week before the start of the harvest.” Other necessary equipment arrived after the harvest, but in time for fermentation, she says.
The winery started small, with seven tonnes of fruit processed for The Wrekin’s own label this year, given how quickly the equipment arrived, Jan says.
Designed to leave the lightest possible footprint, the chai is “very basic”, with sewage used in the field, grape pomace composted on site, and no need for trucks to come and go.
Meanwhile, it allows those working on the land – “all fascinated” by winemaking – to follow their fruit through the process, “the European way”, says Jan, herself intrigued by the simplicity of turn good grapes into good wines.