Each year Air New Zealand supports and showcases a selection of New Zealand’s finest wines, the Fine Wines of New Zealand list is selected by seven Masters of Wine and a Master Sommelier. This year’s list includes four from Neudorf Vineyards that were hand-crafted by winemaker Todd Stevens.
We have bought Neudorf Vineyards wines for more than 30 years, not just because they are made locally but because they are world class wines, wines that are regularly recognised as some of the very best made in New Zealand, and indeed, the world.
Established by Tim and Judy Finn and with Tim as the original winemaker they needed to employ staff to help to help as the business grew. Todd has been their winemaker since July 2012.
Of course, when Tim handed over the reins to another winemaker he maintained a very close relationship with making the wines to ensure the dedication to absolute quality in every part of the business is maintained; in Todd Stevens they have a very talented winemaker who shares the same passion for quality, while also being prepared to express his winemaking ideas and philosophies in the wines he produces at Neudorf.
Todd says, “It’s about continually looking to move the company forward, with the occasional new variety and evolving the wines we make, it’s about the innovation Tim and Judy brought to the business right form the word go.”
Like any winemaker he has built his knowledge not just from text books but from travelling to other parts of the country and the world to hone his skills and to bring ideas and techniques to his winemaking experience.
Todd was originally an IT contractor specialising in Oracle database products and worked in Wellington, the UK, Switzerland and New York before he decided he wasn’t destined to be sitting behind a desk in the city for the rest of his life.
When he was in the UK he started to do wine appreciation courses, “there was so much on offer there and at the time the New Zealand wine industry was taking off, the idealistic and romantic view of making wine in the countryside was an obvious attraction when considering winemaking as a profession, but the reality is quite different.”
He cut his ties with the IT industry by leaving the UK and working a vintage at the Montana winery in Marlborough before heading to Oregon for a vintage. By this time he knew his future was in the wine industry so he came back to New Zealand and did a post graduate diploma in viticulture and winemaking at Lincoln University.
From university he went down to Central Otago where he worked with Rudi Bauer at Quartz Reef for three years before moving on to Felton Road where he continued to develop his skills working with their winemaker, Blair Walter, for five years.
Todd added to his knowledge and experience by working vintages in Austria in 2005 and Burgundy in 2007, “these are places that have been making wine for centuries, wine is heavily ingrained in their cultures and they have a totally different way of approaching it.”
In Austria he worked for a small producer, Wiengut Wenzel, who are specialists in sweet wines. “The winery has been in the same family for 13 generations, in New Zealand we are just seeing the second and third generations coming through.
“When you go to these places as a winemaker you don’t just go over to use another press or watch wine ferment in barrels, it is much deeper than that, you actually immerse yourself in the culture and heritage of winemaking. It’s not just dealing with winemaking in a production sense but experiencing the generational aspect, the legacy if you like, of winemaking in those countries.
“When you go to the old world their understanding of the raw material and points of balance in the vineyard and wines is profound, they can talk about it with generations of experience and it’s those deeper, more esoteric learning curves that I got a lot from.”
Todd has brought this ingrained understanding of different varieties back to New Zealand and has been learning how to apply this knowledge to fruit grown here, fruit that has quite different characteristics when grown here compared to other countries.
At Neudorf Tim and Judy were among the early pioneers of the modern era wine industry in New Zealand and much of their learning was by trialling different things, from varieties that suit their location to winemaking techniques and Todd says this attitude is ingrained into the Neudorf business.
“There is never a flat out ‘no’ when you want to do something, it’s the pioneering aspect and desire for continual improvement, we had a spare piece of land and could have planted more chardonnay but why not plant something different to keep the company moving forward. This is very much the personality of the company, to just give something a go but with enough experience to experiment without being cavalier.”
When he moved to Neudorf from Central Otago Todd says he had a huge amount of knowledge sitting right next to him, “I could sit on the fence for the first couple of years and learn from Tim, however you do bring some aspects of where you have worked in the past to what you are doing now, you are dealing with different wines with different fruit personalities.
“Having Tim sitting right next to me meant I could take some time to understand Neudorf and its wines, having the benefit from his 40 years’ experience was enormously helpful for me. He didn’t have that, he had to do it himself so you could say I got a bit of a free ride.”
So any changes to the winemaking style at Neudorf will be subtle under the winemaking guidance of Todd, they have been moving to less new oak in the chardonnays they produce and want the great qualities of the fruit from their vineyards to shine.
“One of those great qualities we seem to have is this amazing acidity and too much oak covers that rather than showcasing it. We also naturally have depth and power, so we do not need to chase it with over extraction in our Pinot Noir’s.
Going forward Todd says there’s nothing on the horizon that’s a big game changer, “but it’s continual evolution, more understanding of our individual vineyard blocks and some experimentation in winemaking, we only get to make the wine once a year so it a long learning curve. If you compare this to a chef who gets to make his signature dish multiple times a night, his learning curve and ability to refine is much shorter. Like most things, it is just a function of time … in essence, we are setting it up for future generations”
One thing I haven’t mentioned is just how similar Tim Finn and Todd Stevens are, they don’t only think alike when it comes to making wines they both tend to understate their abilities, but those abilities shine in the wines they produce.
Published in the Nelson Mail 15.05.19