In November 2016, Chris Scott, winemaker at Church Road Hawke’s Bay Winestate, was awarded the prestigious New Zealand Winemaker of the Year title by Winestate Magazine for the second time in four years. Chris talks to XYNZ about his journey and what it takes to be a winemaker.
Where did you go to school and/or University?
I went to school at Fairfield College in Hamilton. I then went to Waikato University for a year and a half before moving to Hawke’s Bay to study a Bachelor of Wine Science from the Eastern Institute of Technology Hawke’s Bay in association with Charles Sturt University, Australia.
How old are you?
Old…. let’s just say I’m over 40 vintages. I’m aging much like fine wine (getting rounder!).
Where are you mostly based?
I live in Hawke’s Bay and I love it, great climate, beautiful countryside, beaches, rivers, lots of events, great food and of course lots of great wine. There’s definitely no place like home.
Your favourite type of wine?
I love cool-climate styles, they have so much more balance, freshness, drinkability and show the aromatic potential of the grape so much more. Classic styles of Bordeaux reds, Syrah and Chardonnay are all great passions of mine and what we do so well in Hawke’s Bay, but it is also fun to make a wine that’s a little outside the square and discover something new. We’re having a bit of fun with Tempranillo at the moment.
Have you always wanted to be a winemaker?
I was actually studying a business management degree at Waikato University when I bought a book about New Zealand wines for Dad that he never opened! I ended up reading it and it inspired me to visit Hawke’s Bay with my future wife on a wine trail adventure. My whole career path changed when I tried an outstanding chardonnay and recall thinking “I want to learn how to make that.” I’d been bitten by the bug. Much to the shock of my parents, and a half finished accounting degree, I moved to Hawke’s Bay and changed to winemaking, studying a Bachelor of Wine Science degree and the rest is history. Jumping from a commerce background into science was a bit like taking a degree taught in a foreign language! The first year was pretty tough, but it’s amazing how quickly you can get up to speed when you’re passionate about the end goal.
What led you to winemaking?
Refer above. I got to Hawke’s Bay as fast as I could where I started my vinous studies. I was lucky enough to get a part time job at Church Road Winery working in the vineyard and cellar door during the summer months and weekends while studying for my degree in wine science.
In 1998, I joined the Church Road winery team working as a cellar hand which brought me closer to my passion which was (and still is) winemaking. In 2000, I moved to Gisborne as a trainee winemaker for the 2001 and 2002 vintages, before rejoining the team in Hawke’s Bay in 2003.
For someone who wants to become a winemaker, what skills should he/she start working on?
Anyone can make wine, but to be good you need to be passionate about wine and the creative process behind it. Work on your sensory skills, this really means being able to smell and taste in conscious and analytical fashion. Most people have the ability, it is simply a matter of training. Taste widely, trial lots and be open to new ideas and your own evolving tastes. A wine science degree is a great foot in the door, but as one of my university lecturers once said, “we can teach you the science, we can’t teach you the art.”
Be prepared for lots of hard work especially during the tough harvest season – long hours and dealing with the unpredictable. It’s hard, dirty work, you’ll end up covered from head to toe in grape juice. Some people have this romantic notion about sitting on the deck fine tuning an award winning blend whilst watching the sun set over their vineyard. There might be moments like that, but mostly it’s hard grind.
I have worked my way up from the menial jobs over summer through to becoming senior winemaker at Church Road. I was lucky to start as a summer worker at Church Road Winery, well I’m not sure it was ‘lucky’ – it was hard, manual labour on minimum pay during summer holidays! But it was a start, and it meant a foot in at the vineyard and the cellar door.
Tips and lessons you’d want them to know?
Don’t let fear get in the way of flavour. You’ll learn lots of things about ‘safe’ winemaking at university and out in the industry. Safe winemaking makes fairly boring, characterless wines. Sometimes you have to choose taste over science and numbers.
What’s the best thing about winemaking?
For me it’s having someone pay me for what I love doing the most.
What makes a good wine? How about a winemaker?
Great vineyard sites and great people. The inherent potential quality exists in the soil and the climate where the grapes are grown. After that it is cultural. It’s about people getting the best out of that potential.
Winemaking at Church Road is a team effort, and it’s great to be a part of a viticulture and winemaking team with the same passion and commitment for winemaking. After all there’s one vintage a year and you get one chance to make it into an outstanding wine! If you’re a chef and you burn the steak, you can cook another one. It’s the same with winemaking except you wait for 12 months before you get another steak…
Follow Chris Scott on Twitter @ChrisScottCRW