Full circle for Ata Rangi winemaker

By Louise Johnson
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Helen Masters, winemaker, Ata Rangi, Martinborough, New Zealand

Helen Masters, winemaker, Ata Rangi, Martinborough, New Zealand

The wheel has come full circle for winemaker Helen Masters, who started her career at Ata Rangi in Martinborough, New Zealand, as a cellar hand back in 1990. After years studying, working and travelling she is now responsible for crafting the range of wines from the iconic brand, including pinot noir from the famed "Abel Clone".

Helen is in Melbourne in March to cohost a session on Pinot Noir at the Melbourne Food and Wine festival's Langham MasterClasses. VisitVineyards.com caught up with Helen before her visit.

How did you get into winemaking?

I am from a family where wine and food were an important part of any family get-together.  My older brothers purchased a lot of the early releases of wine from Hawkes Bay and Auckland which we used to blind taste.  What I loved about wine then, and still love about it, is that there is so much to learn, and so much that you can never quite put your finger on.  

I knew I wanted to be a winemaker so in the gap year between school and university I thought I’d better get some experience.  I wrote letters to all wineries that had the best reviews and Ata Rangi took me on. 
What inspired you to stay and become a winemaker?

I spent the year at Ata Rangi working in the vineyard, winery and cellar door and I was never bored - it never felt like a grind.  I went onto university and after graduating spent a further seven years in the industry both in NZ and offshore before re-joining the Ata Rangi team in 2003. In terms of inspiration ,  it was great to be able to see the way people relate to wine. I have met many people who relate their first wine epiphany with a reverence and appreciation I don't think you see with any other products.

What do you love most about the role you’re in now?

Firstly I love working with the fruit here, especially the older vines which are really showing a character that is distinct to our place here in Martinborough.

The role of head winemaker at Ata Rangi is a very varied one which I love.  As with most small businesses, you have to know a lot about alot of things,   starting with the vineyard right through to our customers.
Which are you most excited about in your current release?
The 2007 Craighall Chardonnay and 2008 Sauvignon Blanc are both for me exciting. They have both captured an earthy mineral aspect with the Craighall Chardonnay having not only weight but beautiful, ethereal white floral notes on the nose. The Sauvignon Blanc has a finely tuned tight structure which really persists in the mouth.
How has the 2008 vintage shaped up in terms of quality? 
We had a lovely even fruit set and a long dry summer which meant that the fruit was picked with good even ripeness. The Pinot noir shows a gorgeous silky suppleness which is definitely very seductive.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever made?
The 2006 Ata Rangi is to me a very classic and tightly tuned Pinot Noir which will continue to evolve. I look forward to drinking it in 10 years time with a fabulous meal.

What is it about Pinot Noir that captures the imagination of winemakers?
We spend a lot of time thinking about (vineyard through to winery) what makes the best Pinot Noir because it is so hard to get right consistently. The season has such a big impact here that you cannot take anything for granted - it is too easy to drop the ball.  In the winery you have to watch it all the way so as not to over play any character. It really is about balance.
What makes a perfect Pinot?

The nose should be beguiling – ripe, bright expressive red/dark fruit layered with perfumed notes (violets, spice, blood roses, the list goes on), tempered with a hint of sinewy, earthy notes.  The palate should have fineness of texture, balance and gracefulness but with concentration and persistence of length. 
Tell us about the Abel clone and how it came to Ata Rangi?

Clive Paton founded Ata Rangi in 1980. His first vintage in 1981 was with a chap called Malcolm Abel whose day job was with NZ customs, and who Clive had heard had got hold of an interesting pinot clone. As the story goes, a vine cutting was confiscated from the gumboot of an in-bound passenger who had allegedly jumped the wall at Romanee Conti.  The cutting was taken into quarantine, was propagated by the Government research station of the day, and later cuttings were planted in Malcolm's own vineyard in Kumeu near Auckland. Clive brought this clone down to Martinborough in 1981 and planted his first Pinot Noir blocks here.  Not long after this, Malcolm Abel tragically died.  The Abel, or ‘Gumboot’ clone showed, right from the first harvest, how well it was suited to our soil and climate. It continues to be one of the main components of any vineyard we own and a favoured clone in the mix. 

What’s your biggest challenge in winemaking?  

I wish I knew every year what the season was going to deliver in terms of weather and therefore fruit condition and ripeness. It would make it much easier to have things spot on, being able to plan ahead of time.  Making the very best of any given season would certainly be less challenging….. but then, living on the edge and having to think on your feet keeps the adrenalin going through those long hours at harvest!
What would you like to see change in the world of wine?

I would like to see less people just trying to make a quick buck out of wine. It makes it difficult for those who are really working to deliver something that is a great expression of variety, people and place.

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March 10th, 2009
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