Rob Burley had been working in Australian wine for a few years when he began to feel like “a cog in the wheel”. The winemaker had enjoyed cellar hand work with big wineries around the country, “but felt disenchanted early on with the big scale production”, says his wife Kate Burley, speaking from their small vineyard on Nelson’s Bronte Peninsula, tucked between Richmond and Mapua.
“Once he started working with the more natural winemakers, he realised that side of things was for him too,” she says. “Not just organic, but putting more time and love into working the land.”
The quality of the grapes they bring in from their vineyard allows them to be “as hands-off in the winery as possible”, says Kate, who manages the marketing side of their wine label Unkel. They add minimal sulphur when required, but lean heavily on Mother Nature getting things right.
Named in celebration of the archetypal “cruisy, fun, slightly wild uncle in your life”, Unkel was started in Australia in 2016, with the couple buying in organic fruit. When the time came to consider their own vineyard, they looked back to New Zealand, securing the lease on a 4.9 hectare vineyard in 2019.
The couple are both from Tauranga, but Nelson “piqued our interest as one of the smaller winemaking regions”, says Kate. “And we think it has a lot of potential.” They were also shopping for a lifestyle for their very young family, and Nelson “ticked all the boxes”.
Two years on they are loving it, saying the support from the winemaking community, and in particular those with an organic and natural bent, has been enriching. “The nice thing is we all want the region to succeed, so everyone supports each other,” says Kate. “We want the winery down the road to do as well as we are.”
The move has highlighted how much further down the natural wine track the Australian wine market is, “and we always knew it would be the case”, she says. “In Australia the style of more funky minimal intervention was definitely a bit more popular.” But they reckon their timing is spot on. “People are starting to understand it a bit more, and Kiwis are opening their eyes to what is out there.” It’s “slow and steady”, says Kate. “But in the last couple of years it has really taken off, which is great to see.”
This story was first published in issue 129 of New Zealand Winegrower magazine.