"People thought I was nuts not spraying and not tilling to develop the soil pre-planting, but it's been alarmingly easy."
The more winemakers we meet, the more we understand that the greatest winemakers are also the most humble. That’s definitely the case when it comes to Theo Coles of the Hermit Ram. When we chat with him, it’s clear his enthusiasm for his craft grows on a daily basis, but so does his way of thinking - with experience, he becomes more open-minded, not less.
It’s arguably this mindset that has brought him to where he is today; creating some of the most thrilling and exciting wines that New Zealand has to offer.
But why - and how - are they so great? You might ask. It’s due to their rawness and transparency that these wines are able to communicate their place. In a sea of New Zealand wines that often taste the same, these stand completely apart. They’re unique, and they’re not afraid to be unique.
“I feel like I’m still learning, I like to understand, of course, but I’ll never tell someone what to do.”
This is Theo in a nutshell: hungry for information. He might have two decades’ experience, but he’s still learning every day.
He says people can often be surprised when they first taste his wines:
“My wines are definitely still a work in progress. The thing with New Zealand wine in general is that it can be so polished. As a country, we’ve done really well... Just thirty years ago, they told us we couldn’t even grow leaves on grapevines, let alone make wine. But now, the wines from our country are consistent and precise. But people say, I want to taste New Zealand in a glass, not just a really well-made wine. That is by proxy what the Hermit Ram is about.”
Before that, however, Theo had inadvertently fallen into the more natural side of winemaking while working harvests in Europe. At Château de Saint Cosme in Gigondas, where he worked in 2001 (and again for a stint in 2004), he’d learnt winemaking via natural yeasts, whole cluster fermentation and little or no new oak. It's also where he discovered the notion of co-fermenting varieties and parcels, something that would stick with him. He remembers,
“Château de Saint Cosme's cuvée “Les Deux Albion” is the wine that introduced me to the idea of a 'synergistic ferment.' That’s become very important to me. They fermented the varieties and parcels separately in tank, but then they made another cuvée where they picked all the grapes together and co-fermented them. That made a wine that was 20 times better. That made me go, wow, there’s more to this than just ticking numbers and boxes and going for it.”
While in the Rhône, he met up with his cousin who had been working in restaurants. They decided to start a wine business together, and so after a few twists and turns, their winery Crater Rim was born in 2003. At the same time, Theo was working as assistant winemaker for another New Zealand winemaker, Danny Schuster. He remembers,
“We’d inadvertently been working naturally there, too - no fining, no filtering, no sulphites… everyone thought he was crazy. As I was making wine under his tutelage, I was also thinking of Saint Cosme.”
Unfortunately, tragedy struck in 2009 when the Crater Rim winery burnt down. While it was being rebuilt, Theo needed to pay the bills, and found himself doing some consulting for other clients, which involved making some wines conventionally. Although not his style, it perhaps spurred him on even more; especially given he’d begun reading about daring and groundbreaking winemakers such as Frank Cornelissen. In fact, he was so smitten by the Cornelissen wines that he began importing them; although back then he admits the market for them was pretty small (perhaps not yet ready?)
While consulting meant he had to stick to the visions of other people, it also presented him with some opportunities to buy some fruit here and there.
In 2012, an opportunity that would change his path arose. He met Gareth Renowden, who owns a little vineyard (just 900 vines) of Pinot Noir vineyard in Waipara Gorge. What came from the parcel via natural winemaking was a distinct forest-like, salty tang. It spurred Theo on; the Hermit Ram had been born; so named after an etching of a defiant, solo ram that he had bought a decade earlier. Next, he began contemplating what he could do to further explore his own vision of what New Zealand wine could (and can) be. He remembers,
“It occurred to me that we don’t have an awful lot of old vines here – rather we had vineyards that were planted to Riesling, Cabernet and Syrah because the owner liked wines from the Mosel, Bordeaux and Hermitage, so they planted a bit of everything. None of the single varieties were particularly compelling by themselves, but I thought – what would happen if I fermented them together?”
So he picked Riesling, and had bits of Pinot, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Cabernet Sauvignon.
“It took it to another level in terms of what that site was. Now I can’t make enough of it! I let my imagination go wild a little bit, while having the safety of not really having to live off it. I was very lucky in that respect.”
People asked him, why did you do this? And it took him a while to realise that what he was trying to do was find the best way to express the site in question. The next wine he felt he succeeded with was a skin-fermented Sauvignon, which has become somewhat iconoclastic in the world of New Zealand wine. Theo says,
“At first it was fun and explorative, but now I feel like I’ve hit the nail on the head. The Sauvignon on skins reminds me of driving up the New Zealand coastline; it smells salty; a bit like kelp and rock pools. I’ve inadvertently developed this New Zealand-ness in the wine and that’s what I want to do.”
“New Zealand is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The country is battered by winds, it's sea-focused, but we also have forest, which gives these characteristic earthy smells. The smells I think I’m starting to pull out in my wines feel like that; forest in the Pinot and the rocky, ocean element in the whites.”
Although much of Theo’s winemaking has resulted out of philosophy and creativity, at heart he is an ecologist:
“My first degree was ecology, so I wanted to focus on that. When you work naturally in terms of winemaking, you’re of course observing the ecology of bacteria and yeasts functioning in balance to make the wines, but we also think about that in the vineyard.”
So, in addition to the other vineyards he works with (all of which are farmed organically), he decided to plant a vineyard of his own; the focus of which is to find a way to make viticulture less damaging in terms of CO2 emissions. He explains,
“The key focus for the new vines is carbon sequestration — how can we become carbon importers in the vineyard? Traditional vineyards might be beautiful, but the traditional way of managing them pumps out carbon into the atmosphere. We’re producing a luxury good that not everyone can have, so can we do this in a conscious manner? We need to be taking care of our planet.”
He explains that by sowing a mixture of cover crops amongst his young vines over the winter time, he’s been able to ensure that once the wet season is over and when the plants would usually begin to struggle and need more water, the top layer of cover crop and mulch (due to cutting it from time to time) means the soil remains damp, providing the happy young vines with their much-needed water supply. Even after two weeks without rain, the soil is totally damp to the surface. So far, he hasn’t tilled. He says,
“It’s been alarmingly easy,” he smiles. “People thought I was nuts not spraying and not tilling to develop the soil pre-planting. I’ve never felt super comfortable with the amount of tillage that people do. I understand adding microbial life via biodynamics, and using natural products, but I couldn’t reconcile doing all of that and then tilling. There’s an entire ecology under there you’re destroying; I felt it’s quite damaging. When you look at swathes of countryside with cows and tilled lands, there's also the polluting run-off into rivers which comes with this… and it causes real issues. Here, we don’t have native dung beetles to take the cow manure away. So I arrived at no-till through ecological thinking. I’ve always had a dream that I would live at a site, grow a garden within the vineyard and have a meal from beginning, to middle and end; life from salad bowl to distillate. Then you get the true essence of that site.”
So far, so good. He comments further:
“The soil hasn’t been bare at any stage, but the vines are not stressed in any way, they’re just focusing on building roots and taking off when they’re ready.”
He explains that it takes a lot of retraining and rethinking to get to this stage; instead of seeing weeds as competition; perhaps we need to be reanalysing their purpose and place in a vineyard.
“When you get soil reports from a local agent, they’ll tell you ‘you have too much of this or that, but often these studies are based on table grapes in California. People are afraid of something if there isn’t enough prescriptiveness. Now I think about it, when we started to import Frank’s wines, he was explaining Fukuoka’s teachings. That rang a bell for me from an ecological point of view; it sat better with me than biodynamics. Different plants come up in succession; we’ve mulched this year and what’s come up since wasn’t part of our cover crop mix. You have to think about what each plant is doing – and what each plant is doing to find an overall balance. Competition is good for balance – all the plants are talking to one another. It might take a little longer, but ultimately the vine will be healthier.”
“Even the first set of wines — they each tell a story; from field blends to skin fermentation. I want all the wines to tell a story, that’s really important – else what’s the point?”
Theo explains that his experiences making conventional wines, and his experiences making zero/zero wines (nothing added, nothing taken away), have been equally important. He says,
“You know all the tricks. That knowledge means you think five or six steps ahead; just by knowing the conventional weaponry means you can home in on what you’re doing, and you know what could go wrong. You have memories of how good a wine tasted before something was added to it.”
For his varietal Pinot Noirs, it’s been an endless journey of exploration. The journey began (and continues) with the pursuit of limestone,
“As we know, limestone makes exceptional wines, but we don’t have much here. I have been lucky to find three spots in North Canterbury, which is kind of like ground zero for active limestone.”
Nevertheless, there is some; although it’s a different, younger kind of limestone, with a powdery, sandy texture. There’s also some marl; on which his new vineyard is planted. For these parcels, the goal is honest and transparent winemaking. He explains,
“I want to make sure what I do isn’t misrepresenting the site. So we choose neutral vessels. I’ve also learnt that here in New Zealand, whole bunch doesn’t always seem to work.”
He explains this may also have to do with the climate, saying,
“Here we have a long start, with medium heat and a long Indian summer. This means we have a lot of sugar, which also results in thicker seeds and the skin structure being thicker. We also have thicker skins naturally from hairdryer winds on top of this, so if you work traditionally, you pull out a lot of green tobacco spicy tannins from the skins.”
This means that his handling of the fermentation is gentler, and he has also discovered that this fruit suits longer fermentations; sort of by accident. He explains,
“I once forgot to press a vat for three months, and that was the best wine. Next year, I did that for all wines. It’s taught me to be prepared to make mistakes and accidents; you might learn from them. I thought I knew everything 10 years ago, and now I think I know nothing. We haven’t even planted the best sites yet!”
He laughs. It was a valuable mistake which has made him ponder further as to why the longer skin maceration might suit New Zealand Pinot more;
“I think our ferments follow the path of our climate – long and slow. Burgundy seems to like short two-three-week ferments, which mirrors their climate. So we introduce some air to get the natural yeasts moving, then do some foot plunging with the lightest person in the cellar, and then lock the wine down.”
Through a friend, he found some lined amphorae (he was hesitant to used unlined amphorae as he finds there can be a tendency towards Brettanomyces). He began to work with them for Müller Thurgau, and then explored their potential for Pinot Noir. He also works with oak and stainless steel. He plans on exploring a mixture of all three for the baby plot when it comes to fruition.
“Every vessel will tell a little bit of a different story in terms of the structure of the wine, but don’t tend to affect the aromatics. It helps to bring some layers through the wines; particularly from the parcels that aren’t on limestone; where the site doesn’t have as much soil to tell.”
Although he’s nailed the technique for some of his wines, he’s still an experimental soul. For example, he says,
“I had a play with a long skin maceration on Pinot this year  and this sounds crazy, but it’s almost like soy. It spent ten months on the skins in amphorae, and tastes like a distillation of kelp, soil, undergrowth and fermented red fruit. It reminds me a little of old-school wines like Tondonia; wines made by people that weren’t afraid to do things differently. I find wines like that really inspirational. They make me think - how do we tease out those salty, ferment-y characters — without the wine tasting like sauerkraut or kombucha?”
It’s people like Theo who make us stop and think. In fact, he makes us rethink what we know to be true for wine; are there other truths we can explore; other approaches that might suit our vineyards and our climates better? It’s these questions that propel viticulture forward, and they are essential for a more planet-friendly future.