The roots are deep at the Wānaka vineyard

Photo: RNZ / Cosmo Kentish Barnes

Rippon winemaker Nick Mills gazes out over his family vineyard on the western flank of the Upper Clutha Basin, overlooking Lake Wānaka.

He says the earth has its own spirit which he feels strongly.

Ask by country life to elaborate, he puts it like this:

“This land is about belonging, relationships, love, family, team, voice, being blessed to be a place that grows grapes… who can speak with warmth and precision in this beautiful place.”

Rippon’s vineyard is, Nick says, his family’s tūrangawaewae.

Rolfe Mills and Punga

Rolfe Mills and Punga
Photo: Richard Brimer

Nick Mills’ family has been farming this land for 110 years.

In 1982, his parents Rolfe and Lois planted their first block of commercial vines. Today, their children take care of the property, cultivate the land biodynamically, cultivate and produce wine.

“We are newcomers to the land though. The Maori came from the east coast for hunting and fishing, as well as for gathering and a place of education; it was a place where you could raise your children and learning all these things, survival, basically, in this environment.

Family legend has it that Rolfe’s father got the idea to plant grapes on the family farm after being in Europe during World War II.

“He came back from serving in the submarines and passed through Portugal where he saw the shale soil that supported the cultivation of vines for the port. This seemed to have sparked an interest in viticulture at the time. “

Recently, the family traced their interest in winemaking even further.

It seems that in 1895, Rolfe’s grandfather, Percy Sargood, attended a speech given by Italian winemaker Romeo Bragato in Dunedin about how ideal Central Otago was for growing grapes.

“He wrote to his father talking about the potential of this place for viticulture.”

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Photo: RNZ / Cosmo Kentish Barnes

Whatever the spark, Nick’s father, Rolfe, had decided in the 1970s that the land was good for grapes – and goats.

Since the planting of the first experimental vines in 1974, the family has gone from experimental pioneers to famous winemakers, known in particular for their Pinot Noir.

At the time, however, “we were kind of crackpots,” says Nick.

“There was our dad in his 50s, silver-haired, with a young wife and a young family. We had Angora goats in a pool that was merino and a few cattle here and there; mostly rabbits, really.

“I think we were seen as [being] a little weird [due to] Angora goats. Then viticulture, it was really, really weird.

“But the vines had meaning for [Rolfe]. The rest is history.”

Grapes being processed at Rippon Vineyard

Grapes being processed at Rippon Vineyard

Today, Rippon Vineyard and surrounding land is farmed biodynamically, with composting at the very center of the operation to enrich the soil and a sense that the land has individual character and spirit.

“You have to walk past it every day,” says Nick.

In the compost, everything goes from cuttings and grass to the skins of the grapes.

The compost replenishes the earth which, according to Nick, has its own character and, like the Whanganui River, its own identity.

Decision-making in Rippon involves considering the land as a partner in conversation, he says.

Does Nick have a favorite wine?

He does, and mentions a few, but says that for him the joy is not with the final wine itself but in the process of working with the land to create something unique.

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Photo: RNZ / Cosmo Kentish Barnes

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Photo: RNZ / Cosmo Kentish Barnes

Lois Mills

Lois Mills
Photo: provided

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