We went to visit the beautiful family behind Unkel Wines in Nelson recently to chat vintage 2020 and life back in New Zealand. Ash (Everyday Wine) and Rob (Unkel) worked harvest together in 2017 with Patrick Sullivan (Legend) over in Victoria, Australia. It was high time they kicked it and caught up over a few vinos since Rob, Kate and baby Oscar moved back to the Mother land. Here's a loose transcript of what went down...
Everyday Wine: Hey Rob & Kate thanks for having me! Before we go too deep down the rabbit hole, can we start with a quick back story for everyone? Why wine? How did you get into it?
Rob Burley: Umm…I guess it was just that classic story of not knowing what you’re doing after high school. I went to Dunedin because my brother did, and it sounded like a fun time…you know drinking beers and partying. I didn’t really have a direction, but I’ve always liked smells… I’ve always liked smelling things. I love how scent can evoke memories, like if I smell certain flowers it reminds me of my Grandma. Certain scents can take you to certain places, you can travel by smell. So during this time at University when I was doing very little, I was talking to my Dad at the pub about what I could do that involved smelling things for a living! My dad was like, you could make perfume or you could make wine? And yeah I thought, wine sounds sweet. So, I sort of just followed that… I got a summer job at Mills Reef (Tauranga) who get all their fruit from the Hawkes Bay and then just pulled the pin on University. It was a bit heavy, I missed my flight to head back down to Dunedin and guessed it was just meant to be!
I love how scent can evoke memories, like if I smell certain flowers it reminds me of my Grandma.
RB: So from there, Kate and I did a road trip down to Martinborough. We had friends in Wellington and wanted to check it out. Pete Caldwell who is now the winemaker at Dalrymple in Tasmania, he hired me and I started from there! I got the bug, enrolled in EIT for a Bachelor of Wine Science and Viticulture and worked my first vintage in 2008… In 2010 we moved to Australia, and I continued studying. Funnily enough… being in my early 20’s I thought “I’m not going to grow the grapes, I’m going to be a winemaker” and so I never did the fourth year of Viticulture.
EW: Why Australia?
RB: Kate had finished University and we wanted to start our travels, so we thought let’s move to Aussie, I’ll smash out my last year of school and then go somewhere else, go somewhere new. I did some part time gigs while studying… I didn’t even play golf but I worked at a golf shop.
EW: Classy fella Rob.
RB: Where else did I work? Oh actually, real buzzy cause it’s out of character for me, I had this wine sales job. It was a company called WIV, out of Sydney, and they would mail drop these surveys in different postal code areas asking people if they were interested in at home wine tastings. I was looking after areas in Wagga Wagga and would jack up a wine tasting with these people who had responded to the survey… it was a sales thing, I would go to their homes and make a night of it showing people all these wines and hoped they would order some booze at the end of it.
EW: So you basically ran the Tupperware party of wine tastings? This is a skill you should utilise more often! In home Unkel tastings would go off! Did you get to wear a suit?
RB: Man it was real weird. Nah, I didn’t wear a suit, it was casual but I had one of those like steel looking briefcases for wine with the foam inside. I didn’t even know heaps about wine, I just regurgitated what I had been told. Yeah so I would drive around to all these appointments and sell wine, it was bizarre and so not me.
EW: So how did you end up slinging bottles at Terroirs (London) after finishing your Wine Science degree?
RB: After a couple of years in Aussie, we moved to the UK in 2013 after doing a vintage in Oregon in 2012. Oregon was a good experience, but the wines were just beasts… they would pick super late, so we would fill these half tonne picking bins with tartaric acid and water, then dump that into ferments and pump it over. It was a smaller winery, so I didn’t expect that. Back in Australia I was working at a 1000 ton winery and it just wasn’t very inspiring. I was going to these wine tastings every Saturday at Prince Wine Store and there was some cool stuff there like Jamsheed, but in general with my work I was struggling to get excited. Thankfully, my friend Chris who was working at City Wine Shop started showing me wines like Radikon and Ganevat and they blew me away, showing me wine didn't need to fit into a certain box.
EW: So it was a saving grace you were introduced to these minimal intervention wines just as you were starting to lose interest in your profession?
RB: Yeah, exactly! Really weirdly… before basing ourselves in the UK, we did some woofing gigs around Europe and I was just thinking “I want to work somewhere where I can learn more about these wines”, so I emailed Jancis Robinson! And she replied to me! She told me to get in touch with the guys from Terroirs. I loved all the wines I got to try but I mean hospo doesn’t come naturally to me. It was cool to be exposed to that scene and be exposed to all these crazy cool wines but working hospo just wasn’t my thing. But there was this one late night at work when we were waiting for one last table to leave and it was the guys from Les Caves de Pyrene, and Patrick Sullivan was with them. I recognised Pat, and I just asked for a job. Kate and I were always going to head back to Australia and I thought maybe Pat could help me find some work, we kept in touch and then went there the start of 2016. For a while I worked for both Pat and Bill Downie, helping out where I could and then when Pat started to ramp things up, I went full time with him.
EW: So we can thank Jancis Robinson indirectly!
RB: I should try find that email.
EW: What a chance encounter you met Pat at Terroirs and then ended up as his right-hand man.
RB: Yep, it was serendipitous.
EW: That’s nuts how fast everything worked out for you. When I came to do vintage with you and Pat in 2017, it just seemed like everything had been set up and systems were already in place for Unkel. And you had only started a year earlier. That’s amazing.
RB: Yeah, well I just thought, I don’t want to miss this opportunity. Pat was amazing, he really pushed me. I thought I would do 3 tonne for my first year under Unkel in 2016, and Pat would just say “Nah man you’ve got this” and we ended up processing 7 tonne in my first year. We had no money, and thought how the hell are we going to do this, and Pat was super encouraging we just thought why not, let's go all in.
EW: So we can thank Pat directly!
RB: Absolutely, he’s a smart man and he just pushed me and was like “You’ll be right”.
Kate Burley: Yep it was hard, we had this tiny little budget just enough for 3 tonnes of fruit and then Rob came home and was like “Yeah, so Pat is gonna help us get more fruit…we’ll be right.”
EW: So, on the topic of Minimal Intervention wines, Organic and Biodynamic Viticulture and I guess your overall philosophy and approach to Unkel, what of this did you learn in school and what did you learn by first-hand experience?
RB: Ahh, yeah there was no organic or biodynamic viticulture at school, at all. Yep, there was no chat of that and no chat on minimal intervention winemaking at all.
*Little baby Oscar starts crying*
RB: I mean, I wasn’t hugely into “natties” per se at that time, but I do remember in a wine production paper, discussing all the additions and avenues you can go down for white and red winemaking, I did really poorly. I wasn’t in depth enough with fining and filtration in my assignments, so absolutely the school didn’t support minimal intervention winemaking. I also knew nothing about growing grapes until I was thrown into the deep end with Pat… we owe so much to him. It’s incredible, we wouldn’t be where we are today without Pat’s help. That’s a fact!
EW: I’m really glad you guys made the decision to come back to New Zealand, what brought that on? Did you have a plan for your own estate in X amount of years, and wanted to be based in Nelson or has this just happened randomly?
KB: Originally we were pretty set on staying in Melbourne, and then one day in 2017 we were house sitting for Pat and went down to the local Gippsland pub. We were sitting there and I just said to Rob “I can’t do this”, and Rob was like “what!?”.
*And that’s when Kate left Rob…*
KB: “No not us, just this!”. We were just thinking about what the next step is, we should start looking for own place at some point… and literally right then and there we thought maybe it’s time to move back to New Zealand. It just made sense, when we start to do our own thing full time it really should be in New Zealand. After a couple more years in Aussie, we visited Nelson and we just thought it could be a better lifestyle for us. It all happened so fast, we were pregnant, and this vineyard and winery came up so we thought “let’s just go”.
RB: Even when Kate said, “I can’t do this”, I thought “yeah Gippsland is awesome, Pat and Bill are here, but I’m not really connected to this place, there wasn’t really a connection to the land and I want that. I want to farm my own fruit and be connected to the land”. Nelson captured us by climate, lifestyle and I could see what wine I could be making here. There is still so much potential here, I truly do love the wines from Nelson, and this realisation kind of came after we moved.
EW: Man, so after making the decision, was it a massive ordeal to move over? You brought everything from Australia with you, wine press and all right?
RB: Yep, press, barrels, tanks, corker, dog… it was super expensive, but it didn’t make sense to sell everything and try start again. I mean Pat gave me a good deal on the press and gave me the corker for free… he’s a legend like that. I was even thinking, there was a similarity between the wines I made in Australia and the wines I’m now making here and I wonder if that has something to do with my press. I mean people asked me before I left “Do you think you’re going to make the same kind of Unkel wines in NZ?”, and the short answer was I don’t know… but I’m going to make wines that I want to make, and I’ve been thinking about it recently and I thought, maybe it’s a press thing… it extracts a really nice amount of phenolics… I really wonder if the press helps.
EW: Yeah that’s interesting, I was going to ask, and it’s kind of a silly question but I’ll ask anyway… what do think the main differences between Victoria and Nelson are? Yeah for sure, they are completely different regions with different microclimates, soils, grape varieties etc but what differences really stand out to you guys?
RB: Yeah, I mean I haven’t changed my thought process behind how I make my wine. I guess the biggest thing I’ve found is that looking at the wines 3-4 months post ferment they are still all over the show here. They don’t look anything close to being finished, but in Australia, post-ferment I had a clear idea of what the finished wine would be. Obviously not finished, but I could take a tank sample a month post ferment to drink with Kate on a Friday night cause we had not money to buy wine and we knew what the wines would become. And here, it’s not like that at all and last year I was like “Holy shit… these are real buzzy”.
KB: Yeah and I mean, it was also our first vintage in Nelson, so we were questioning everything!
RB: Yeah, so I wonder if it’s a malo [malolactic fermentation] thing going through in conjunction with alcoholic ferment in Aussie, where it's warmer. Whereas here, they are two quite distinct processes.
EW: And I guess the biggest difference is now you have a baby!
KB: Yeah, the other thing was our whole lives changed moving over here because we had Oscar. So we can’t compare our lives in Australia to our lives in now, it’s 100% different. In a good way, we love it!
EW: Speaking of family. Has it been more rewarding moving here so family and friends are not only close by, but are also able to access your wine more easily?
KB: Just recently we got our wines listed at the Palace Burger in the Mount [Mt Maunganui] and we didn’t realise how special that would be. Our wines have always been accessible to us and our friends who we are with, but now mates from where we grew up can have a glass of Unkel at the local, and they are so stoked.
RB: Yeah, I was also thinking about that the other day. I always wanted to send wine back to NZ for my family when we were in Aussie, but it was just so expensive. So now, I’m super stoked. It’s just another reason why farming the land where we are from is more important to us.
KB: The other thing is now our friends and family can come visit us, help throughout the season, help with harvest and make it more of a celebration.
EW: I was speaking to a winemaker friend today who has been working in Europe and is now back in NZ. We were discussing how the culture and support for natural wine is more prominent and how we are both so tempted to move back because of that. But… do you think we have an obligation to make some changes to how viticulture and winemaking is done here? To promote organic, small scale farming and minimal intervention winemaking?
RB: Yep absolutely. Jim and I were talking about this just the other day. It’s almost a case of the grass is always greener… but I feel like even this, this chat right now, and why Everyday Wine wants to create original content is a part of that. We need to stop living vicariously through the old world, and just consuming other cultures apart from our own. We need to champion and celebrate what we can do here, I think that’s really important. Just because we don’t have the history, doesn’t mean we can’t start creating something of our own. We’ve got this amazing blank canvas to work with. Even compared to Aussie, where there are already so many people jumping on this minimal intervention band wagon, the movement here has been slow. Which is pretty standard for most things… and I hope that means we won’t have this fanfare where everyone wants to start making wine because it's "cool", where pretty much every man and his dog makes a bit of wine on the side and then we get this dilution of quality. I hope we avoid the whole “Oh unfiltered, unfined, this must be good” and actually just make good wine first and foremost. Minimal intervention is our philosophy, as is organic farming, but we are still focusing on quality wine. That has to be the most important thing. Not letting natties into the market just because, when the brett [Brettanomyces] is through the roof or it tastes like vinegar… that’s not wine. I remember my mate Chris who is now running Annandale Cellars, who introduced me to all these amazing wines telling me he had someone come into the shop ask for a wine that tasted like the floor of a hospital… I really fucking hope we avoid that kind of thing.
We need to stop living vicariously through the old world, and just consuming other cultures apart from our own. We need to champion and celebrate what we can do here, I think that’s really important.
EW: I really hope we do too! There is a risk of fucked wine being misunderstood as natural wine…let’s hope we dodge that bullet.
RB: Yep, we need to have a benchmark for quality. This isn’t new to the world and it’s not a fad. We all know this is a practice that is thousands of years old going back to Georgia… but where this could be a fad is when people start making natties for the sake of natties in NZ, and it just ends up being crap wine.
EW: We got these incredible Michel Tolmer posters in recently… it makes me think of one in particular…
Jim Brown: I know the one!
RB: Haha! Same… But yeah, the risk is that real wine lovers and conventional winemakers will turn around and say ‘Fuck natural wine’ when that is so dismissive.
EW: Maybe with Tall Poppy Syndrome, Kiwi’s won’t put wines out there unless they whole heartedly stand by them… I mean, that’s how we approach what we stock at the shop for sure.
RB: The chat needs to go back to quality wine… the focus has to be on well-made wine, which is organically or biodynamically farmed and happens to be unfiltered and unfined or without sulfur if that's what works for the wine. I’m not dogmatic about fining and filtration or anything like that, and it just so happens I like to drink wines which have been made with minimal intervention as I believe they are more expressive and more accurately portray their sense of place … but it’s not unfined and unfiltered just to write that down on the label
EW: For sure. I am certainly guilty of frothing on some of these real dank wines 4-5 years ago, just because of the ‘purity’ and ‘nakedness’ of it all, and then I went and learnt more about winemaking and realised yeah, nah, quality wine is the goal, organics and minimal intervention is the method.
RB: Haha, yeah I'm the same for sure and it’s a learning curve… I remember the first wine I made ‘Raz and Friends’, I went to do a sulphur add before bottling and I umm'd and ahh’d about it for so long, and it was such a small amount. But i've had some bad experiences with some no sulfur experiments so its about striking a balance and what works for you and your wines.
EW: Talk us through this year’s vintage. Lockdown and all. This is maybe the worst year ever (globally speaking) how did it all go down? I’ll pour us a blind wine…
RB: Oooh, yeah well pipe up Jim if you’ve got anything to add...
EW: Oh, yeah, we also have Jim Brown here from Brood Fermentation, Rob’s right hand man!
RB: Um, I think it was a double edge sword. It was the worst in the sense of happening during lockdown but it was an amazing growing season. It was dry, warm, we got just the right amount of rain, and actually couldn’t ask for a better season. So in that sense… climate wise it was insanely good. We starting picking on a Sunday… and then on the Monday, Aunty Cindy said we would be full in lockdown by Wednesday. And I thought, man... even if wine was not considered an essential skill, of course I was going to harvest this fruit. But getting enough pickers was tough… being in a bubble and all. Our family from up North couldn’t come down anymore, so it was a bit stressful. Somehow, we found some extras to stay in our bubble and managed to get through pretty easily. So… on the whole, nothing actually changed, once we found our crew, we were ok. Some of our friends and family couldn’t come down which was a bummer, but we just kept it going. The biggest disappointment was Kate couldn't get involved as much with vintage as she wanted as she had to look after Oscar
EW: Yeah man, I feel like we were blessed with a pretty amazing season, and we just had to manoeuvre some logistical issues… I guess that’s the real beauty of being small scale right? As long as you’ve got enough pickers, you could get it all done unscathed.
RB: Yeah, we picked all our fruit over a 10-day period, with 7 actual days of picking and it was really sweet. We didn’t have to rush anything, there was no disease pressure, luckily no rain pressure. We processed just over 27 tonnes for Unkel.
EW: Nice, so what do you reckon about this wine?
RB: I like it.
JB: Old world! Yeah, nah it’s got this real lovely fruit sweetness, minerality and slightly oxidised character. It smells like Chenin…
RB: Yeah, I think the oak is a touch heavy, but it’s beautiful. I reckon it’s Chenin… I reckon it’s Old World.
JB: I wouldn’t be shocked if this was Loire… this could be Mosse Chenin?
EW: I wanted to show you this, since I heard you guys are wanting to work with Chenin.
RB: Yeah, we are set for Spring! We are going to graft Chenin onto the Pinot Gris!
EW: So tell me what’s next for Unkel? Wine wise, life wise… try this wine too…
RB: Cool, yeah well vineyard health is our first goal. I want to try and bring the health of the vineyard back up, introduce some biodynamic practices. I want to buy a spreader so I can spread compost and I want to try and find a cover crop that I don’t have to till. We are midway through the BioGro organic certification, which is exciting.
KB: We also want to open the cellar door and see how that goes. We’ve got another vineyard we will take over next year. We’ve also got a few new export markets to explore.
RB: Yeah, and also we’ve been talking about how we can be more than wine and give back..we are unsure how we would go about this and what avenue to take but feel it is important to acknowledge and include local iwi into this as it's their original land we are farming. I've always liked how Dane from Momento Mori has sited this on the back of his wine labels.
EW: Awesome… that’s super exciting, keep us posted with what you come up. What releases are coming up?
RB: Is this one of Bill’s Pinots?
EW: Haha, yes. Nailed it.
RB: It’s super yum! Unmistakably Bill. Oh, so we will do some kegs next month, and then look at a late October release and another release in March… we will see how it all goes.
EW: A couple last questions for ya…If there were some grape varieties you would love to work with that you are not currently, what would they be?
RB: Yeah, Chenin and Gamay. Oh man, and also Cabernet franc… oh I like the Loire Valley. Grolleau would also be awesome… but yeah right now Chenin & Gamay are on the wish list.
EW: If Raf and Juno had a baby, what would you name the puppies?
JB: Jaf & Runo…
EW: What wines from the shop are you vibing right now?
EW: Hey thanks for so much for having me and kicking it this afternoon. It’s been awesome to chat and good luck with the rest of pruning!
Rob and Kate Burley from Unkel Wines have been based down in Nelson since 2019, after having moved back home from Australia. We love what they are doing, and are glad to see they have remained loyal to their soil. Check out the range from Unkel here.