As Cloudy Bay's first winemaker, Kevin is credited as having created a style of wine that put New Zealand wine, and Marlborough sauvignon blanc in particular, on the global winemaking map.
After 25 vintages at Cloudy Bay, it was time to leave and in 2009 Kevin set up his own label, Greywacke, named after the sandstone bedrock found throughout the Marlborough region.
I wondered whether Kevin ever gets fed up with being asked about his time at Cloudy Bay as clearly it's his own wines that he now wants to talk about. With a wry smile he says that he is immensely proud of the wines he made under the Cloudy Bay label but that he had always harboured a desire to do his own thing.
A man of few words, Kevin is refreshingly honest and straight talking. He's not one for over-embellishment and is quick to point out from the outset that there's no romantic back-story behind his getting into wine. 'I'd love to tell you that I was passionate about wine and had 'the wine bug' from an early age, but the truth is I studied winemaking at Roseworthy College in Adelaide and became intrigued about the wine business. I found the mix of agriculture and chemistry and the rural element interesting. It's one of the few professions where you're the primary producer, marketer and, along with your customers, consumer; I like the fact that the work is varied and seasonal and that you are constantly challenged by new things. The job is diverse, making you something of a jack of all trades.'
To call Kevin a 'jack of all trades' is to do him a disservice. He's not only one of New Zealand's most highly respected winemakers but is also a professional wine photographer whose images capture the beauty of his adopted country's winelands in a way that only someone with such intimate knowledge of his field could achieve. Kevin is fiddling with his mobile phone as I talk to him, leading me to think that he is bored with my questions, but in fact he is trying to find some shots he has taken on his trip to the UK – beautiful images that capture the wild wintry weather we were having in January this year. The pier at Southwold under a dark, brooding sky; Clifton Suspension Bridge outlined against a wet, sepia sunset. His boyish enthusiasm is infectious and charming. The photographs are stunning, but more of that later.
Distracted by the photos and now finding it hard to hear or be heard as the waiters start to busy themselves around us, I try to steer the questions back to wine. Kevin is a Brit by birth (perhaps that explains his understated manner); born near Southampton he moved to Adelaide at nine years of age, his parents were 'Ten Pound Poms.'
In the right place at the right time
Rather laconically, Kevin puts his success down to an element of luck. 'I'm just grateful for being in the right place at the right time,' he says. 'I got my first job working alongside Geoff Merrill at Chateau Reynella in McLaren Vale. When Thomas Hardy & Sons bought the business my job changed and I was put in charge of tank-fermenting sparkling wines. It wasn't what I wanted to do and I wanted to be the winemaker not a winemaker so I looked around for another job.'
Kevin's ambition took him to New Zealand where he ended up working for the Selaks winery. He and his wife Kimberley had intended to stay for three years in New Zealand and then to return to Australia, but then along came David Hohnen. 'He turned up at the winery asking strange questions, I wasn't really sure what he was after. Soon after he rang to offer me a job. There was no winery and not even any grapes at this point!' But a shared vision and passion and combined leap of faith brought these two men together to make what has now widely been recognised as one of the world's genuinely iconic wines.
Kevin started working for David Hohnen in 1984. David managed to source some Marlborough fruit for the first vintage of what was to become Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc, he supervised the harvest and the grapes were shipped up to Gisborne. Kevin gave instructions for making the wine over the phone in secret (he was still finishing the vintage at Selaks at the time). The wine was then sent to Auckland for bottling.
Soon afterwards, Kevin moved to Marlborough to supervise the building of a new winery. He was the only employee at this time. Both he and David had a very clear idea about the wine they wanted to make and were confident that the Marlborough district was the place to do it. 'We wanted a dry but very aromatic and intensely fruity style of sauvignon blanc.' In a nutshell, the classic Marlborough style that the world now knows so well.
The Marlborough sauvignon blancs being produced at the time tended to have an overpowering herbaceous character. 'We worked very hard with the growers in the first few years to eliminate this greenness,' Kevin tells me. 'There are still growers that like this green character, but it wasn't what we wanted. The key to our style is getting the fruit really ripe, cutting back leaves on the vines to allow the grapes to get properly ripe.'
A solo venture
Now, with his own solo venture, Kevin can take this signature style to new heights. He produces just seven wines under his Greywacke label with no intention of increasing the range. He doesn't own any vineyards (though he says he'd love to) and uses Dog Point's winery and facilities (owned by ex-Cloudy Bay colleagues Ivan Sutherland and James Healy) to make his wine. His principal wines are sauvignon blanc (which he makes in two styles) and pinot noir.
He sources grapes from prime low-yielding vineyards in the central part of Marlborough, principally in and around the Southern Valleys. Approximately 75% of the fruit comes from the Sutherland family, the rest from a handful of small individual growers with whom Kevin has long-standing agreements, formed, he says, 'on a handshake'. 'Working with good growers that you can trust is essential,' Kevin says, 'Ivan and I have worked together for many years and have similar aspirations. Talking to the vineyard workers and building up solid relationships is vital.'
I wondered if possible conflicts of interest or overlapping styles could be a risk of working in such close proximity with the Sutherlands and Dog Point. Kevin explains that though he and Dog Point have some source plots in common, their approach to winemaking and the styles of wine they aim to make are quite different. 'While Dog Point insist on hand harvesting all their fruit I prefer to pick my sauvignon at night when it's cooler and I don't mind a bit of skin contact.' Kevin puts all his wines under screwcap, whereas Dog Point prefer to stick with cork for their chardonnay and pinot noir.
Both Dog Point and Greywacke produce an alternative style of sauvignon blanc, fermented in small old oak barrels. Kevin explains that his Greywacke Wild Sauvignon and Dog Point's Section 94 'are like chalk and cheese; the difference is all in the winemaking.'
In touch with the wild side
With his non-interventionist approach to winemaking, Kevin is keen on the use of wild yeasts to ferment his wines, so as well as the Greywacke Wild Sauvignon, his chardonnay, pinot noir are also made exclusively with indigenous yeasts and all the aromatic wines are 50% wild. The classic Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc is made with 10% wild yeasts.
'What I like about wild yeasts is that they give personality to a wine, another dimension, a savoury element, texture,' he explains. The downside or challenge is that the outcome is harder to control. 'Sometimes the wine just doesn't taste that 'wild', so I like to have several batches on the go and make a blend of the barrels to get the character I am after…there's a progression; as alcohol levels increase the yeasts change making the end result unpredictable.'
On the subject of alcohol levels I ask Kevin for his view on their general increase. He says that he doesn't do low alcohol very well. 'I'd be more than happy to produce wines lower in alcohol,' he says, 'but alcohol is a by-product of ripeness and full ripeness in my grapes is my main goaI.'
On the subject of ripeness, he explains 'We have lots of sunshine in the Marlborough district but it is a cool climate. We can achieve full ripeness over a long growing season, this is why the region's so well suited to aromatic varieties like sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and riesling.' He also points out that although at 41,5º latitude, Marlborough is the southern hemisphere's counterpart of the middle of Italy, and enjoys a similarly high angle of the sun, there is really no comparison as the moderating effect of the sea is so great here. With no land mass between here and the Antarctic, the cooling influence of the ocean's icy waters is dramatic.
I knew that Kevin was a keen photographer but hadn't really appreciated that he is a lot more than just that, having taken pictures on a professional basis for many years and published several books. As with making fabulous wines, capturing beautiful images is an art that demands patience, persistence and painstaking effort. Taking great photos on a particular subject requires an intimate knowledge of your field and a lot of dedication. Kevin has put the same love and attention into the photographs of the New Zealand wine landscapes as his wines. He clearly loves this side of his work but tells me that regretfully he has little time to go out with the camera these days. Taking photos is something Kevin has done since his teens, way before he was claimed by wine, his father's darkroom at home having sparked an early interest.
Marlborough's beautiful landscape is the inspiration for both Kevin's passions, which happily we too can benefit from.