August 15, 2015

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When Tohu Wines was launched in 1998 it was the world’s first Maori owned wine company. Now in 2015, it has its own winery, a case of industry awards for its wines, a commitment to conserving the environment for future generations, and to producing quality wines reflecting the unique characteristics of their vineyards.

Tohu Wines are produced from grapes grown in Marlborough vineyards. While the region is best known for its sauvignon blanc, other varieties are producing quality wines, such as Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Tohu’s vineyards are certified by Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand and their wines are carboNZero accredited. The carboNZero programme assures the consumer that a particular item is an independantly verified and certified carbon-neutral product. This means that vineyard practices are in line with SWNZ guidelines, guaranteeing that environmentally sustainable practices have been used from the vineyard to the bottle.

The company has won awards both in New Zealand and internationally which is a testament to the skills of winemaker Bruce Taylor and his team.

Bruce joined Tohu in 2008. His philosophy is that a wine should “encapsulate a place and time”. Fruit quality and quantity (and consequently the wine produced from that fruit) differs from year to year, and between locations, and Bruce aims to reflect that diversity.

There are two distinct brands that are produced. Kono Sauvignon Blanc is a blend of a number of vineyards, while the Tohu brand is a single vineyard wine. Bruce says about 6 years ago the company decided that as a medium sized entity they could not compete on volume, so the emphasis was placed on creating a differentiated product.

There are advantages in spreading the vineyards throughout the region and creating a blend such as Kono Sauvignon Blanc. A diversity of areas gives more certainty around climate variability and production in heavier, more fertile soils. It ensures cover for events such as hailstorms, and more fertile soils produce higher fruit yield, at around 15 – 20 tonnes/ha. It also allows for a more manageable production process during the harvest.

A single vineyard wine is a riskier proposition. Tohu’s Awatere Valley vineyard is around 250m above sea level and with the Awatere River on its western boundary, the stony river terraces produce intensely flavoured fruit. As well, access to the Awatere River Scheme provides much needed water during the dry spells such as the summer of 2014/2015. The growing season is longer at this vineyard, with a drier and cooler climate than in other parts of Marlborough. Although yield varies from year to year, production off this vineyard is around 9 – 11 tonnes/ha. But Bruce says, the costs to produce that are much the same as on more fertile soils.

The effect of the dry summer was lessened by having access to water from the Awatere Water Scheme. Water is also used at the vineyard for frost fighting, although windmills are also employed. Bruce plans to install more windmills in the future, as he believes using water in this situation is having a detrimental effect on the vines’ new growth.

Bruce works with a strong team, including Mondo Kopua, Marlborough Group Vineyards Manager for Kono Beverages. Mondo is responsible for much of the work that is carried out in the vineyard, not only producing grapes, but working towards creating a sustainable environment. To further this work, a native vegetation planting programme is currently underway at the Awatere vineyard.

As well, the company is involved in assisting a PhD student from Lincoln University to carry out a study into organic control options for grass grub (also known as Bronze Beetle). Chilean student Maurizio Gonzales Chang is working with the assistance of Callaghan Innovation. Grass grub is a particular problem for organic vineyards but the outcome of the study could also have solutions for pastoral farmers.

Tohu’s winery was purchased in 2012. Bruce credits part of Tohu’s rising success and recognition at wine awards to being able to control all aspects of the wine-making process. This was more difficult when having to work around other winemakers and their timetables and commitments in a contract winery. Bruce says they are now able to use the dedicated winery that’s set up to their own requirements to produce consistently high quality wines.

Skins and pressings from the wine-making process are collected by a neighbouring farmer who feeds them to his stock, a bonus feed supplement in the recent dry summer experienced in Marlborough.

Assisting with vintage each year are a number of international workers. Tohu advertises for workers each September advertising to people in the industry who move from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere with the vintages. Bruce says about 200 people applied for the 14 available places at Tohu. It’s a very high pressure job, with a massive amount of responsibility, shifting very valuable product from place to place, and it’s important to get people he can trust to do the job well.

A challenging part of Bruce’s role is having to wear “many different hats on a daily basis”. It’s one advantage of working in a relativey small company, where a hands-on approach allows control of the entire process; from growing the grapes to harvesting, fermenting and finshing the wines. Then on to the bottling, marketing, sales, logistics and financial considerations.

Bruce believes the Marlborough region may well be at capacity for wine production, with water a limiting factor. There is however a sense of the maturing of the industry, with the vines now more mature and winemakers with more experience in growing in the region. He notes that as vines mature, there is a geographically more compact harvest period, with more uniform ripening across the region.

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