Chasing pinot noir and aromatic whites around the globe
Paul Pujol, winemaker at Prophet's Rock in New Zealand, tells Societynews how he got to where he is today
What is a standard or normal career path in winemaking? The short answer is that there isn't one – and simply reading A Year in Provence is not quite going to be enough. The key for me was focus, discovering my passion for cool-climate wines and then chasing them around the world. It's the journey of a lifetime and has certainly been a lot of fun so far.
I visited Marlborough in 1999 on a fairly debauched university field trip whilst completing my post-graduate oenology and viticulture degree. My goal for the trip was to find an inspirational winery doing interesting things and then harass them for a job.
My pick was Seresin Estate, who were fans of wild fermentation and making some fantastic wines. I worked for them during the Uni holidays and they employed me once I finished my degree. I worked in the vineyard and winery, a formative experience during which I followed the grapes through the season and into the winery while working under an organic framework. A notable discovery was that machines can have personalities, particularly under-vine weeders, pumps and RDVs (a big cantankerous filter).
Four vintages in one
Being both keen and naïve, I decided to try to do five vintages in twelve months. After completing the 2000 vintage at Seresin, I took off to France and worked three harvests in quick succession: Languedoc, Sancerre and Alsace. After the 'Tour de France' I was going to do the vintage in the Hunter Valley, making it five vintages, before returning to Seresin for the following harvest. I never made it to the Hunter and I didn't make it back to Seresin either, thanks to some good timing in Alsace. Still, four vintages was probably enough, there are only so many tanks and barrels you can clean in twelve months before going insane.
I learnt a lot on the trip, the most crushing revelation being that winemaking in France is not all pastis, pétanque, cheese and girls in summer frocks... well, not quite anyway.
This eastern corner of France is the winemaker's equivalent of Disneyland. There are eleven grape varieties (by my count) and a mind-boggling range of soil types along the foothills of the beautiful Vosges mountains. To top it off, the wine villages tend to be fortified, medieval strongholds dripping with geraniums. Thanks to some good timing and an open and progressive wine family, I was offered the head winemaking position at Kuentz-Bas, the first non-family winemaker since 1795 – and I think perhaps the first in the region.
Getting to make wines from six grands crus and from vines planted in the 1930s was a dream come true and a real honour. I loved using the old oak foudre and getting to make such a diverse range of wines from dry pinot blanc to opulent dessert wines. In France, I have always been struck by the sensitivity of the winemaking. Their knowledge of the characteristics of the vineyard dictates how that wine is handled in the winery. With many lessons behind me, I was then off to a more literal version of Disneyland, Lemelson Vineyards in Oregon, USA.
Alsace to the USA was quite a culture shock: the cars go from economy diesel to urban assault vehicles and the cheese is suddenly orange and tastes like rubber. In a wine sense though, Oregon is a region that very much takes its cues from France rather than neighbouring California. Eric Lemelson has taken great care in selecting and vinifying his six organic vineyards as true Oregon studies of terroir. The winery is a beautifully designed gravity-flow facility that captures something of Eric's father Jerome Lemelson's inventive spirit. After a couple of great vintages in Oregon, it was time to head home to Central Otago, a region with a similarly singular focus on pinot noir and aromatic whites.
Prophet's Rock, Central Otago
It is very convenient that Central Otago has a wine industry, as I have always wanted an excuse to live here. For anyone who hasn't visited, the place is almost intimidatingly beautiful with the vineyards clustered around alpine lakes and snow-capped peaks. The opportunity to work with the fruit from Prophet's Rock's two gorgeous vineyards, and to develop the winemaking programme and branding from the ground up has been a very special experience. Applying old-world techniques and sensibilities in Central Otago is the perfect way to finish this stage in the journey, chasing pinot noir and aromatic whites around the world.
I say 'this stage' as the travel hasn't quite stopped. I went back to Oregon for the 2006 vintage and to Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé in Chambolle- Musigny in 2009 – a fantastic time. Otherwise I'm very settled in Wanaka, that is, unless I get offered early retirement with cheese, pétanque and frocks somewhere charming in France.
Members will not have missed the fact that Seresin Estate, Kuentz-Bas, Lemelson Vineyards and now Prophet's Rock are all Wine Society listed producers. Clearly Pujol has left (or started) a fertile trail around the globe.
First Published in January 2012