New DI Producer to Watch: New Zealand's Matt Connell

New-Zealand.jpg

New Zealand is killing it right now with Pinot Noir. Recent vintages have shown an increase in structure and all-around quality that has critics taking note, namely James Suckling who just released a report in October praising Kiwi Pinot and even bestowing 100 points on the 2010 Rippon Mature Vine Pinot. According to JS Senior Editor Nick Stock: “There’s a widespread trend in New Zealand Pinot Noir that sees producers heading past the strawberries and cream zone and beyond simple varietal flavors. They are dialling down to greater detail and subtlety in their wines. This shift is delivering tannins that are more sturdily carved and fitted close around the sapid lively fruit in the bottle. New Zealand Pinot has always been delicious but so many are now vastly more interesting and powerful without sacrificing any straight-up appeal.” (10/2019)

So what’s going on Down Under? Being a younger wine producing country, their vine plantings needed the last ten years or so to really get to a place where they’ve had adequate time to age, and the complexity of fruit has developed in step. Whereas 15-25 years ago, NZ Pinot was known for lively acid and fruit, there’s now a discernible presence of structure and tannin that is making the wines a contender for cellar space. Further, winemakers used to rely on whole-bunch fermentation to achieve tannic structure, but they can now achieve it more naturally from the fruit itself. It’s that combo of vine age and fine-tuned winemaking, along with the general trend toward greater global temperatures, and we’re seeing wines with deeper power and intricacy in general.

Anyways, we are completely on board the NZ Pinot train, and our Australia/New Zealand Buyer Thomas Smith is one of its biggest advocates. He’s brought in some stunning wines from new Direct Import producers that are really breathing life into the category for us. And we’re excited to use this blog space to introduce you to them.

One of the first new Direct Imports we’d like to feature is a fellow by the name of Matt Connell. He’s located in Central Otago—a snowy, breathtakingly beautiful area on the Southern Island that is also known for its ski resorts. His wines, both a Pinot and a Chardonnay, showcase that cool-climate terroir to a T. He has twenty years of winemaking under his belt and has produced a range of wines and won many accolades for them, most recently the Show Trophy and Champion Pinot Noir Trophy at the New Zealand International Wine Show in 2018. When asked to describe his wines, he says, “My wines show consistency of style and warmth of spirit.” I caught up with Matt and learned a little more about him and his winemaking. 

matt-connell-370x250.png

KS: I read that you studied Parks & Rec management. That doesn’t actually seem that far a cry from working in the vineyard—at least in the sense of loving the outdoors. Do you spend a lot of time on the farming side of winemaking? Can you talk a little about the vineyards you’re working with?

MC: Yes my first degree is in Parks and Recreation Management. I absolutely love the outdoors and spend as much time as I can flyfishing, hunting and generally out there doing it. My company logo shows my love of the outdoors and takes the form of a Red Stag Antlers. Central Otago is made up of mountains and lakes and rivers and is the most beautiful part of New Zealand.

I have various long-term contracts on a variety of vineyard sites and this has enabled me to work with sites and growers that I value. I actively work with the vineyard managers on these sites to work towards getting the best from there grapes.

There are six subregions of Central Otago: Bendigo, Bannockburn, Lowburn, Alexandra, Gibbston and Wanaka. All of these subregions produce Pinot Noir with different characteristics.

I currently source fruit from Bendigo (warmest subregion with Pinot Noir that tends to show structure, increased tannin, and fruit weight); Lowburn (beautiful floral aromatics and softer structure, mix of red and dark fruit characters in the Pinot Noir and beautiful stone fruit character in the Chardonnay); and Bannockburn (the subregion considered to have vineyards that produce some of the most complete wines, rich aromatics and fruit weight, supported by fine tannins and great length).

KS: How did you decide to work with Pinot & Chardonnay? Can you talk a little bit about what’s characteristic of wines grown in Central Otago?

MC: I initially worked in South Australia making Cabernet and Shiraz, which I still love, but always had enjoyed Pinot Noir. My wife is American, and we had decided that we wanted to be closer to family so we moved to Oregon, and I took up a position at Elk Cove Wines in the Willamette Valley. I absolutely loved my three years in Oregon, and this gave me a great foundation and love for making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I love the fact that they really do show vintage variation and the characteristics of the areas they are grown in. They develop well as they age but are also challenging to make.

Pinot Noirs from Central Otago tend to be slightly lighter in style than Californian or Oregon Wines but very fruit forward and rich with fine acidity and good length. As they age they can also show some dry thyme characters, which was planted by gold miners here in the 1880’s.

We tend to have warm, dry growing conditions with a shorter growing season but very long days as we are at 45 degrees south. Being amongst the mountains we see warm days but cool nights as warm air cools and falls back down the hills in the evening. This provides ideal conditions to ripen fruit but retain acidity, which I believe is the key to making balanced wines with potential to age. 

KS: What’s your favorite part about being a winemaker?

MC: Variety. No two days or seasons are the same. I get to work with growers and sites I really admire and see the joy it can bring when it all comes together and you produce a special bottle of wine.

KS: Can you talk a bit about your approach/style and what consumers can expect when they pick up a bottle of your wine?

MC: My wines tend to be fairly fruit forward but balanced with beautiful aromatics, weight and length. I produce Pinot Noirs that age and have been fortunate to have produced some of the most awarded Pinot Noirs in New Zealand. By targeting various vineyard sites I look to highlight individual sites’ characters though my single-vineyard series whilst my main cuvée, “Rendition” is a blend of sites which express the best of Central Otago Pinot Noir.

To me winemaking is very much my life. It is about family, friends and striving to make something special that adds enjoyment to people with food and occasion.

KS: The art on the label is very cool! How did you find the artists? Do you work together to come up with the designs?

MC: I love street art and look to support up-and-coming New Zealand street artists to produce their rendition of themes that I am interested in for my Rendition label.

Rendition is my take on a given season, and, as each season is different, I like to change up the art to reflect this. I look for new artists on my travels and especially in my hometown of Christchurch, which has developed an active and vibrant street art scene following the devastating earthquake of 2011.

KS: Anything else folks should know about you?

MC: I have an American wife Beth who hails from Kansas and Nebraska and two children, Emma (16) who was born in Portland, Oregon, and Noah (13) who was born in Alexandra in Central Otago. We keep in close contact with friends and family in the United States and it remains a big part of our lives. We are thrilled to have the wines represented by K&L. 

- Kate Soto