When was the last time you thanked the Cold War for giving you a great glass of wine? It's not an everyday occurrence for me either, but with the afternoon sunlight streaming in over my shoulder as winemaker Hätsch Kalberer passionately described what was behind the wine I had in my glass, the idea that this pleasurable Pinot was due, in some measure, to the threat of nuclear annihilation made me smile all the wider. (In fact, it turns out that Marlborough Pinot Noir as a whole owes a lot to the nuclear arms race, but hold that thought for a moment).
I had been smiling since I pulled down the gravel driveway into the parking lot at Fromm Winery and looked up amidst the sprawling wisteria vines to see a Riesling decal on the upstairs office window.
Fromm Winery is named after its founder George Fromm, a Swiss winemaker who purchased a section of the old Wairau river plain in the Southern Valleys near Blenheim, New Zealand and decided he would start a winery in 1991. In truth, Fromm had been thinking of starting a winery since he began vacationing in New Zealand in the late1980s and befriended a local couple that were already growing vines.
But it was only when he crossed paths with Kalberer, a fellow Swiss citizen that had transplanted himself to New Zealand, that Fromm felt ready. With Kalberer's help, the two planted his initial vineyard, and began the odyssey that Kalberer continues today.
Kalberer grew up in Switzerland, and had what he describes as a relatively idyllic childhood and adolescence. "I never had a car, only a bicycle, but I did have a wine cellar from a rather young age," relates Kalberer. Despite living in famously neutral Switzerland, Kalberer was profoundly disturbed by the escalating tensions of the Cold War, and decided he needed to do something about it.
"I left Switzerland with a one way ticket," he recalls. "There I was in the middle of Europe with all these nuclear warheads pointed everywhere. There were even missiles in Alsace! I thought there could be disastrous consequences for all this stupidity, and so I needed to leave. New Zealand was literally as far as I could go."
When Kalberer arrived, he played tourist for a while, traveling around, buying wine, and then found a job picking apples. "I had no qualifications as a winemaker," he admits. But eventually he made his way down to Gisborne and poked his head in at Matawhero winery, which, in the late 1980s, was one of the highest-profile, small wineries in New Zealand.
Surprisingly, even to him, they gave him a job. "It was basically an eight-year apprenticeship in winemaking," says Kalberer. "I grew up with the wild yeasts, but the wines had density and character. The Gewürztraminer was good. And we were the second winery in New Zealand to plant Syrah, a year after Stonecroft."
By the time he ran into George Fromm and his dreams of a Marlborough winery, Kalberer was an accomplished winemaker. In Kalberer, Fromm saw a fellow Swiss, of course, but also someone who could relate to his European sensibility and palate.
"Having a euro-centric palate was important to George," says Kalberer. "I wasn't trained at some modern university with a controlling attitude towards winemaking and the goal of teaching you a certain style." Together, the two agreed to begin a winery project that would attempt to synthesize that European point of view with the brave new world of Marlborough.
"We started at a time when viticulture was pretty primitive in Marlborough," recalls Kalberer. "It was mostly industrial. We did a lot of things differently."
For starters, the two planted only red grapes in a region that was, even at that early stage focused on white wines. Of course, as is often the case, these pioneers didn't choose the right grapes. They began with Cabernet, Merlot, and Malbec, but then ripped out all but a tiny bit of the Malbec (which is now the oldest planting in New Zealand) in favor of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Kalberer put in the vineyards on his own at first, and then Fromm and his family moved out permanently in time for the first harvest, and the two began finding their way to an understanding of the local terroir.
"The 1994 harvest was the first set of decent wines we made," recalls Kalberer, "and the '94 Reserve Pinot Noir we made was the beginning of what we now have here in Marlborough. That wine was suddenly something that people said, 'we have something here that is equal to the best white wines that were made in Marlborough.'"
"Most of the Pinot really got started in the early 2000s," he continues, "but you can trace the movement back to that '94 vintage."
Kalberer and Fromm worked closely together until Fromm's decision to sell the winery in 2004 the wake of his divorce. Luckily a good friend named Pol Lenzinger stepped in to purchase the shares held by Fromm's wife, and Fromm was able to sell his shares to George Walliser, another Swiss transplant to New Zealand. These two new owners were smart enough to keep Kalberer.
"I'm the sole survivor" says the 58 year-old Kalberer somewhat wistfully.
Now, instead of Fromm, Kalberer has a new collaborator in the person of 35 year-old William Hoare, an accomplished winemaker in his own right, who was appointed General Manager by Lenzinger in 2004 after the ownership change. Hoare, though young, has established an impressive reputation in the industry, and was recently appointed Chairman of the Family of Twelve, a group of some of the oldest and most respected pioneers in the New Zealand Wine Industry.
Together, these two seem to run basically everything at the winery, and with their respective experience as winemakers, they each seem to be involved with the intimate details of production. It takes some fairly direct questioning for me to even figure out who truly does what.
Hoare is a Marlborough native. "My parents were the second grape growers for Cloudy Bay," he explains by way of background. "I made my first wine with [then Cloudy Bay winemaker] Kevin Judd at age 11," he laughs. "It was awful."
Hoare grew up wanting to be a winemaker. As soon as he was old enough to be employed, he worked the bottling line at Cloudy Bay and started taking winemaking courses by mail. Like many aspiring young winemakers, he traveled the globe working as a harvest intern in France, America, and South Africa, among others.
"I really wanted some single vineyard experience," recalls Hoare, "so I sent a fax to Hätsch in 1999 asking if I could work the harvest."
Kalberer put Hoare to work as a cellar rat for a year. It went well enough for George Fromm to remember Hoare and recommend to the winery's new owners, several years later, that Hoare be brought on as General Manager. In the meantime, Hoare had been busy working with Jim Clendenen at Au Bon Climat winery in California.
Together Hoare and Kalberer now preside over a gem of a winery. With 14 acres of estate vineyards that have recently been certified organic, and partnerships in place that allow them to buy choice parcels of fruit from a few additional vineyards, the Fromm portfolio offers a wide variety of wines carefully made in rather small quantities.
In answer to my probing questions about just how the two divide the responsibilities when it is clear that either could do the winemaking, Kalberer says, "At some point we thought we might divide the production, but that didn't make sense. Now we just make joint decisions. This place is far too small to have a senior winemaker and then another winemaker."
Kalberer handles the day-to-day work in the cellar, and works closely with Hoare to manage the vineyards. "I'm happy to take a back seat when it comes to the marketing stuff and stay in the cellar," admits Kalberer. "If there's a choice between cleaning out tanks or going to Wellington to sell some wine, I'll take the tanks."
The winemaking regimen over which Kalberer presides involves native yeast fermentation for all the red wines, and some of the whites (the Sauvignon Blanc is inoculated). Those wines that see any oak spend their time in large puncheons that have been used for several years. Fining and filtering of the reds is avoided for the most part.
Though perhaps an unlikely couple, the softer-spoken, quite philosophical Kalberer and the more gregarious Hoare seem to have forged a partnership that works quite well, at least if the wines are any measure of their true teamwork.
Currently Fromm's total production ends up somewhere between 4000 and 5000 cases each year, which is a significant reduction from the past, and the result of a winery that is very much trying to right-size itself.
"We had to rethink what we were doing," says Kalberer, "and get into a situation where we were bringing in enough fruit. We need to consolidate, and then grow sustainably with a focus on quality."
Through a combination of their paired talents, as well as some of the regions more established and mature vineyard sites, Kalberer and Hoare are clearly on track to do just that. While not all the wines in their portfolio are phenomenal, the core of their offering is as strong a set of wines as I tasted anywhere in Marlborough, and their top Riesling and top Pinot Noir are contenders for being some of the top wines made in the region. I highly recommend them.
2012 Fromm Winery "La Strada" Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale gold, nearly colorless in the glass, this wine smells of gooseberries and green apple. In the mouth, bright green apple and green plum flavors have a tart sourness to them with bright notes of lime zest that linger through a crisp finish. Juicy, bright and tart. A deep minerality underlies the wine that makes it quite compelling. 250 cases made. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2012 Fromm Winery "Dry" Riesling, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of cold cream, poached pears and wet stones. In the mouth, flavors of unripe pear, wet stones / wet chalkboard, and lime zest have a wonderful crisp dryness to them. Notes of grapefruit linger in the finish. Juicy and bright. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2012 Fromm Winery "Spatlese" Riesling, Marlborough, New Zealand
Palest gold in color, this wine smells of white flowers and pears and wet stones. In the mouth, bright mandarin orange and pear flavors have an ethereal brightness and crispness thanks to fantastic acidity. Moderately sweet, the wine also has a wonderful tart sourness that lingers through the finish and makes the mouth water. One of the better Rieslings I've tasted from New Zealand. 7.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2010 Fromm Winery "La Strada" Chardonnay, Marlborough, New Zealand
Palest gold in color, this wine smells of wet stones and honey-roasted peanuts. In the mouth the wine has bright lemon and slightly bitter apple fruit. A nice silky texture to the wine, plus nice salinity, adds complexity to this wine. Nice citrus zest notes linger in the finish along with wet concrete. 14% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.
2010 Fromm Winery "Clayvin Vineyard" Chardonnay, Marlborough, New Zealand
Palest greenish gold in color, this wine smells of green apple, warm hay, and wet stones. In the mouth, somewhat austere flavors of green apple skin and wet stones have a light honeyed touch to them, along with a bit of yeastiness. Notes of chamomile and other herbs linger in the finish. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2010 Fromm Winery "La Strada" Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of bright forest berries. In the mouth, somewhat simple flavors of cherry and raspberry have a pleasant earthiness to them along with notes of cedar. Slightly leathery tannins grip the edges and back of the tongue as woody and earthy flavors with a hint of bitterness linger in the finish. Simple, and straightforward 14% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $21. click to buy.
2009 Fromm Winery "Brancott Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry, cherry, and cedar. In the mouth, intense raspberry and cherry flavors mix with cedar and wet earth. Crushed herbs and woody notes linger for a long time in the finish with a sort of heat to them as if there's hot pepper powder in the wine. Unusual and quite interesting. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.
2010 Fromm Winery "Clayvin Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of floral, raspberry and earthy aromas. In the mouth, briary raspberry and wet dirt flavors also have a citrus brightness to them. Excellent acidity and softer, suede-like tannins add bounce and depth to the wine along with structure. Quite pretty with good length and a deep earthy finish. Nicely balanced. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $41. click to buy.
2010 Fromm Winery "Fromm Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of forest floor and pure cherry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth wonderfully powdery, velvety tannins wrap gently around a core of raspberry and cherry fruit mixed with a deep, stony earth tone that is quite compelling. That earth note lingers in the finish along with bright citrus oil notes that soar for a long time in the back of the palate. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2010 Fromm Winery "La Strada" Syrah, Marlborough, New Zealand
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of saucisson sec, white pepper, and cassis. In the mouth the wine strikes a remarkable balance between floral notes and a meatier savory quality that recalls a very jovial butcher for some reason. Powdery tannins seem linked to the deeper, stony earth quality that provides the basso profundo for this wine. Muscular without being too ripe, and juicy without being jammy, this is a seriously good example of the form. Great finish. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $21. click to buy.
2009 Fromm Winery "Fromm Vineyard" Syrah, Marlborough, New Zealand
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of gorgeous violets, crushed rocks, and a hint of pepper. In the mouth gorgeous black pepper, violets, and cassis fruit have a wonderful brightness even as brooding dusty tannins seem welded to deeper notes of wet earth and dried herbs. An aromatic sweetness pervades the wine and hangs as a pretty, cassis high note through the finish. Has a touch of Viognier in it, somewhere between 2 and 4 percent. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2009 Fromm Winery "Fromm Vineyard" Malbec, Marlborough, New Zealand
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and black cherry liqueur. In the mouth slightly spicy black cherry and cassis flavors have a dark earthiness. The middle of the wine is slightly hollow, but the flavors are good and the tannins tacky and grippy around the edges of the mouth. Good acidity and nice length, but there's a gap in the mid-palate. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5.
Unfortunately, only a few wines in the company's portfolio are easy to find in the United States, and quite disappointingly this does not include the Riesling. I've put links to purchase whichever wines I was able to locate online. For those with a strong interest in the wines, they are brought into the U.S. by K&L Wines in San Francisco.
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