Helen Masters: Winemaker of the Year

07 Feb 2019
Helen Masters, winemaker at Ata Rangi

Last week, Helen Masters won Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine’s New Zealand Winemaker of the Year. Helen’s passion for Pinot Noir and dedication to the expression of site has seen Ata Rangi become an icon of New Zealand wine.

Helen and Gerry Rotman with her award

She has a hands-off approach to winemaking and in 2010, Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, along with Felton Road Pinot Noir, was honoured with the first Tipuranga Teitei o Aotearoa or ‘Grand Cru of New Zealand’.

Bob Campbell MW labelled her winemaking as ‘thoughtfully rebellious’, adding that Helen prefers to lead rather than follow. 

“The best thing about being a winemaker is that it doesn’t feel like work. I love the change and the challenge winemaking offers. Every year is different. I also like being involved at every stage from vineyard to the customer.”

Martinborough – along with Gladstone and Masterton – is one of three subregions in the Wellington Wine Country.

Helen, the youngest of 12 siblings, is well accustomed to the feeling of ‘small but large’ that is part of life among the vines in Martinborough. It’s a small village, albeit one forging its own path on the international wine scene, and at the same time it’s a big family.

“It’s a compact region,” she says. “I think what’s really interesting here is [all the wineries] are really interwoven with each other. We all have very small blocks that are almost touching. I would say that it’s very much a labour of love. It is very much about running small vineyards and managing them very hands on.”

The winemakers of Martinborough, Helen included, are all about authenticity and letting the wine speak for itself. “There’s a lot of interesting diversity and a lot of people with passion making wines that they feel are compelling,” she says. “They’re not necessarily trying to be fashionable. They don’t necessarily suffer from FOMO.”

"I think the region is quite true to itself. Quite true to its personality and the fruit that it produces.

Ata Rangi vineyard

The wines are wholesome, and they have inherent integrity that comes from people that farm the land. And when you farm the land, you can't but help be so respectful of that fruit because you've nurtured it all year.”

“The wines aren’t that fruity, they’re more savoury,” Helen says. “It's all about that 9 months of the year that’s in the vineyard and the wines show that. And that 3 months when it's in the winery, people are trying to be as low-interventional as they can, and that's kind of the philosophy of the region which is very kind of backcountry, and that's what gives it that kind of beauty.

Utterly original, Martinborough is well worth a visit – even if it’s just via a bottle of their wine. “We make wines that represent a village,” says Helen, and that village has got the goods to take on the world.

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