Jane De Witt: On life and wine

13 Feb 2024

The first thing you’ll notice about Jane De Witt is her broad smile and carefree laugh. She eschews pretension – in wine and life – while succeeding brilliantly in both. As Lion’s Head Winemaker North Island, she leads the production of seven brands and myriad wines, dominated by sparkling production. 

She wouldn’t have it any other way, relishing the “art” of bubbles. “I love taking my time with the assemblage; ideally at the kitchen bench in my home, where I have the flexibility to make a blend then come back later to see how it’s evolved in the glass.” 

Jane was brought up with strong European connections and an understanding that wine was a happy addition to an evening meal. Her father was Portuguese, from the Azores Islands, and moved to New Zealand aged 17. Her mother is a Kiwi but had a Belgian father. “There was no pretentiousness around enjoying a glass of wine in the Pereira household,” Jane says. She remembers her parents hooking the trailer to the car and taking the family to San Marino Vineyards (later renamed Kumeu River) to purchase wine. “My sister and I would spend the better part of the day playing hide and seek in the vineyards and around the tanks.”

“I love taking my time with the assemblage; ideally at the kitchen bench in my home, where I have the flexibility to make a blend then come back later to see how it’s evolved in the glass.”

Jane didn’t set out to be a winemaker, but grew a skill set that proved a natural fit. After graduating from James Cook High School in Manurewa, she started the veterinary programme at Massey University. A year in she decided to shift into sciences, completing her science degree two years later, with a major in microbiology. Her professor encouraged her to apply to Lincoln University’s wine science programme, but she elected to take a year off to work in the lab at Auckland’s waste treatment plant. “It sounds rather gross, but it was fun. As a student desperate for money, I took every opportunity to get the $50 bonus for gathering algae samples from around the property. And I met my best friend there.”

With the algae and cash collected she set off for Lincoln, where the entrance interview proved gruelling. “He told me I’d never make it in the wine industry. It certainly fuelled my fire to succeed.” So, she completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Horticultural Science (focused on oenology and viticulture), then worked for a couple of small wineries before accepting a position with Glengarry Wines. “My global wine knowledge grew exponentially,” she says. “My interest was piqued, and I decided it was time for an OE.” Jane travelled to Champagne, Alsace, Bordeaux, Oporto, Asti and Veneto, while also fitting in a vintage in Surrey, England.

“He told me I’d never make it in the wine industry. It certainly fuelled my fire to succeed.”

She relished being close to so many established wine regions and decided to stay on in England to work as an au pair for the elderly. “It wasn’t glamorous, I don’t recommend this line of work to anyone,” Jane laughs. “But its structure of approximate three-week contracts was rather convenient as it allowed for wine trips in between placements.” A standout memory was when wine writer and merchant Steven Spurrier came to lunch. “That was pretty special. The daughter of a woman I was caring for invited him over. I think her husband was the chancellor of the Bank of England or something,” Jane recalls. “Anyway, Steven Spurrier was very nice, and he generously arranged visits for me in Bordeaux and introduced me to several of his colleagues, including fellow Kiwi and winemaker Jenny Dobson.” Jenny and Jane still catch up and are both board members for the New Zealand Society for Viticulture and Oenology.

Upon returning to New Zealand in 1996, Jane joined Corbans as a lab technician and set up robust testing systems at its International Bottling Company. Her attention to detail saw her move into a quality assurance role before being promoted to cellar manager.

In 2000, a few larger New Zealand wine companies began significant business movements. Montana purchased Corbans and in 2001 Jane moved to its site in Glen Innes as Assistant Winemaker. Next, Allied Domecq bought Montana, before Pernod Ricard bought Allied Domecq. Amidst all this, Jane worked her way up to Senior Winemaker. A decade later, Lion purchased a handful of established wine brands, including Lindauer, Corbans, Huntaway and Saints from Pernod Ricard. With an increased and active portfolio of North Island wines, Lion needed a head winemaker for the area and Jane determined it was an excellent new challenge. “I was already the winemaker for Lindauer and

Verde,” Jane says. The new role would see Te Hana, and then Morton, added to her sparkling portfolio. “I changed Te Hana from Charmat production to bottle fermented pretty quickly,” she says.

“I saw a lot of potential for Lion’s sparkling wines and wanted to produce a range that over-delivered for the consumer.” True to her word, Jane’s wines have won 26 sparkling trophies since she joined Lion, including nine Champion Trophy awards in 12 years at the New World Wine Awards and, for the third year running, the Sparkling Trophy at the 2023 New Zealand International Wine Show.

The list of medals, trophies and ‘best buys’ achieved by Lindauer, Verde and Te Hana is extraordinary. “I don’t like going on about wine awards,” Jane says. “However, as my sparkling wines are in the approximately $20 RRP category, they can suffer from not being taken seriously. Lindauer really is great quality and great value; all the Sparkling Wines I make are.”

This article was first published in New Zealand Winegrower magazine issue 143 and is republished with permission. 

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