Steve Voysey started out over 30 years ago, as a young winemaker down in Marlborough with Montana, the country’s largest wine producer (now part of Pernod Ricard). After a few years he was promoted to the position of Gisborne winemaker, news he broke to his wife Eileen while she was in the Blenheim hospital having their second child – which went over about as well as might be expected. Nevertheless, they decided they’d “give it three years”.
On the outskirts of Gisborne, Spade Oak Vineyard basks in the sunlit central valley known locally as “the flats", the heart of Gisborne wine country, on land that has produced grapes for generations. But the Voyseys' vision is about unlocking the region’s potential, creating wines of quality from a some say brave and eclectic selection of new and classic varieties. Most of the varieties that came with the purchase are now long gone; the likes of Müller Thurgau, Chasselas, Dr Hogg and Reichensteiner, which ruled the roost when sherry was the favourite tipple for many Kiwis.
“We want to capture our soils, sunshine, passion and labour,” says Eileen, “and we want to put it into the wine.”
By 1993, with a growing family, Steve and Eileen were ready to purchase half of the original vineyard. At first, the goal was just to boost the family’s income by growing grapes. “All the grapes were contracted to Montana,” says Steve. “I’d make wine in my ‘day job,’ and then hop on the tractor when I came home.” In 1996, they bought the remaining half of the block, increasing their holdings to 17 hectares, and decided it was time to make their mark on the place.
The place conjured up stories Steve had heard as a child from his grandfather, about a special place called “Spade Oak Farm” near the Thames River in Bourne End, England. His grandfather had managed the farm for years and lived there; his love of the land and times made a lasting impression. “We felt as though we were embarking on a similar story – about finding a place that pulls at your heartstrings a little, finding a place that feels like home,” says Eileen.
To create their own piece of history the family planted two oaks at the entranceway to the farm lane. Later plantings of pin and scarlet oaks – as well as a small grove of cork oaks by the farm shed – are now well established and tower over the property.
Right from the start, Steve’s winemaking skills were put to the test on Gisborne’s glorious fruit. Involved in the establishment of the iconic “Letter Series” of Montana reserve wines while still in Marlborough, Steve brought the concept to Gisborne, creating the now famous “O” (Ormond Chardonnay) and “P” (Patutahi Gerwürztraminer) – wines sourced from grapes grown on the sites for which they’re named.
The wines soon garnered critical approval and major international awards from the likes of the London International Wine Challenge (IWC) and the China Wine Awards. More importantly, they demonstrated to Steve’s satisfaction what the Gisborne region could offer – wines of complexity, elegance and power, with ripe, weighty characteristics enlivened by the pure flavours of fresh fruit.
“I like to approach winemaking with an open mind,” says Steve. “The goal is always to make a more complete wine, but not to lose the type of grape, or where it comes from.”
Over time, the Gisborne portfolio of wines blossomed to include the “Terroir Series,” showcasing the expression of single-vineyard varietal wines, as well as a large range of sparkling wines. Steve’s growing reputation as a “winemaker to watch” meant he also began to receive invitations to be a wine judge. he reckons he’s served as a senior judge at dozens of shows throughout New Zealand – often playing the role of “Ambassador to Gisborne" at the same time.
Gisborne is best known for Chardonnay, and the Voyseys pay tribute to the variety through their line of Spade Oak Reserve wines, which also includes Viognier and Syrah, as well as a Noble Viognier.
But the vineyard has a few surprises too. A wealth of new varieties has arrived in New Zealand recently and Steve and Eileen have been fast off the block with their plantings. Careful research has been done in wine regions overseas, looking for that varieties suited to Gisborne's soils and climate. Typically, a red and a white from each region is planted to complement one another: Temprañillo and Albariño from Spain, Grüner Veltliner and St Laurent from Austria, and a trio from the Rhône Valley and southern France – Syrah, Viognier and Marsanne. There's also Petit Manseng, the Jurançon grape.
“I want to explore reds and whites that might be compatible with Gisborne growing conditions,” explains Steve. “The range lets us make single variety and single vineyard wines, and gives me the potential for innovative blending. It also lets me have fun"
Some of the plantings are tiny – 0.1 hectare for Marsanne and Petit Manseng – but they act as a “nursery block” letting Steve experiment in the vineyard and the winery, assessing performance and developing new wine styles.
Inevitably, Steve’s and Eileen’s commitment became a branded range of “Spade Oak” wines, starting with the limited release of a Gisborne Chardonnay and Viognier from the 2007 vintage. Soon after the wines became available for sale, changes were made at Steve’s employer. In 2010, ownership of the Gisborne winery was transferred from Pernod Ricard to Indevin, an independent contract winery with substantial holdings in Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay. Steve was kept on as winemaker and encouraged by Indevin to explore the creation of his own brand at Spade Oak. The transition from contract grower to a family-owned wine label was complete.
“There is a world of difference between waving goodbye to your fruit as it’s driven away in a truck and seeing things all the way through to a bottle of wine with your name on it,” he says.
The creation of their own label has kindled a passion for the brand, to see where this might take them. For Steve and Eileen, it also means the freedom to make wine as they want to, without the demands of a large company with multiple offerings at every price point.
“I’m not interested in making show wines, or in making a lesser product in order to hit a rock-bottom price target,” continues Steve. “Spade Oak wines are what I want to drink. I’m not afraid to miss a vintage if the grapes aren’t up to scratch.”
The Voysey's philosophy is founded on viticultural decisions, like planting some varieties in narrow rows at Old World densities with lower yields per vine, or trellising to achieve a low fruit zone - the key to more flavoursome grapes and, ultimately, wines with a lower alcohol level.
And in terms of winemaking decisions, it’s a mix of Old World and New. “Our wines are made entirely on natural wild yeasts,” says Eileen, “and Steve has some very definite ideas in terms of gentle fining, filtration and reductive handling.”
The company’s second label, “Heart of Gold,” is used for benchmarking the new alternative varieties and for making blended wines.
“Some of these varieties are virtually untested in New Zealand,” Steve continues. “The Heart of Gold label gives us freedom to experiment until we find a variety’s ‘sweet spot,’ at which point we can confidently make a reserve offering under the Spade Oak label.”
Steve has now turned consultant and his services are used by a number of Gisborne brands. The Spade Oak brand itself is spreading New Zealand far and wide being available from Queenstown to Whangarei.The newest addition to the fold is the sparkling "Le Champ" which has just come to market. A "natural” for the winemaker who helped make Lindauer famous.
“We like to imagine ourselves doing this as we grow old together,” says Eileen. “It’s a family affair, with our kids lending a hand over vintage, and both of us out in the block as the fruit moves closer to harvest.” Steve adds “It’s also a way of controlling our own destiny, doing what we love.”
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