Cabernet Franc is the new King of Matakana

 Fine Magazine June 2015, Text: Rainer Schäfer Photography: Johannes Grau

Fine Magazine June 2015, Text: Rainer Schäfer Photography: Johannes Grau

Jim Vuletic and Providence Vineyard are not easy to find. No signpost leads to the vineyard, it is not mentioned in any local wine guide and even the association of New Zealand wine growers does not mention the name. It lies hidden in the green hills of Matakana, 70 km north of Auckland on New Zealand's North Island. All of a sudden this wooden shed appears amidst proliferous greenery, with no-one to be seen anywhere. The vineyard receives visitors only on special occasions. He's a loner who keeps to himself, say the other wine growers. James Vuletic, so his official birth name, sits in the shed, his estate. "I'm Jim", he introduces himself in his shirt-sleeves and doesn't seem standoffish at all. With him at the table is his daughter Kristina who supports her father in the vineyard and Cosmo, a friend from New York, who is helping with the harvest. It is April and autumn in the southern hemisphere, the midday sun feels hot and the thermometer shows 24 degrees. Next to the shed there is a palm tree. Jim Vuletic is wearing short jeans and sandals, he is tanned, with cheeks aglow.

Providence is also one of the most mysterious vineyards in New Zealand. One does not know much about it and its owner. Jim Vuletic prefers to travel overseas where he has loyal clients und fans whom he visits regularly. His wines are appreciated mostly in the United States, in Asia, in Germany, Switzerland and Belgium, and he admits that "in New Zealand I am an outsider rather than part of the scene in the wine world. I am not particularly interested in what the others are doing". And he adds that the prices for his wines are seen as inflated. "Why should I bother about that? I have no time for that," he says and slowly wobbles towards his vineyard. It looks as if he was suffering from aching muscles but it's his damaged knees which impede his walking.

Jim Vuletic is seventy and officially a pensioner; he workedas a solicitor in Auckland for almost forty years.  He could sit back and relax like many others at his age or live with his wife Jane in in Newcastle in Australia where she works as a coroner. But Jim Vuletic wants to make wine. "I just have to make wine,"  he emphasises. Not any wine; he aims for the ideal which for him is the Bordelais and, above all, the Château Cheval Blanc. For him "good wine is man's greatest cultural achievement" and Cheval Blanc remained unsurpassed: a "miracle of elegance and perfection".  The 1947 vintage, which those in the know consider the best wine of the last century, he "has drunk already fourteen to fifteen times".

 

 

"I need no château and no catwalk, it's the wine that has to make the difference." A simple shed is Jim Vuletic's Providence winery. Here the former solicitor has been living his dream of being a wine maker for twenty five years - with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and, since 1993, also with Syrah.

 


 

As a solicitor he could, for a while, afford to drink Cheval Blanc and other luxury wines. "That was quite expensive," he says, and recalls the prices: one bottle of Cheval Blanc's 1994 vintage cost him 450 New Zealand Dollar. Today, he says, ordinary people could no longer afford these overexpensive wines. Jim Vuletic has stopped collecting wines from the famous Chateaux, he is concentrating completely on growing his own grapes. Providence is already his second vineyard project in Matakana. One would have been enough for him but the first one went badly wrong. "A personal tragedy," he sums it up, "no other way to put it." Together with his younger brother Petar he had founded The Antipodean winery in the early 1980s, the name symbolizing the 'other side of the wine world'. With their grape varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec, the Vuletic brothers showed their preference for Bordelais grapes. They were among the first producers of Bordeaux blends in New Zealand. Antipodean was Jim Vuletic's idea, in 1985 the first vintage was produced and came on the market in 1988 for the proud amount of 90 Dollars per bottle. Just one year later, the brothers fell out and Jim left the project to establish his own vineyard.  "Petar wants to be the only one in the spotlight," Jim Vuletic says of his brother. It grieves him that they "haven't spoken to each other for years." Particularly at Christmas, the season of love, he gets sometimes emotional and longs for a reconciliation. So far in vain.

Now Jim Vuletic knew that the unusual French vines would grow well at Matakana "but I still had to find the right soil for them." He was looking for red volcanic soil which one recognizes if the grass growing there is particularly parched. He discovered the ideal location just one and a half kilometres from the first vineyard. With a spade Jim Vuletic stands between his vines and uncovers the soil profile; under a layer of heavy clay he exposes the red volcanic soil. It gives his wines the particular spicy mineral character, he says. Jim Vuletic named his winery Providence. He firmly believed in his project and in this location. That's what the name was meant to convey. 1990 he planted two hectares and made a substantial change: "I knew that Merlot and Malbec grew well here but that Cabernet Sauvignon had problems," he explains. He replaced it by Cabernet Franc. It was a gut decision but he may have been influenced by the fact that Chateau Cheval Blanc relies on this grape. "It was a risky move but Cabernet Franc is the new king of Matakana." When he planted 1200 of these vines, his vineyard became the biggest with Cabernet Franc in New Zealand. It lies between the Pacific Ocean and the Rodney Ranges which ascend to a maximum altitude of 400 metres. The nearby Pacific Ocean sends its saltspray which settles as salty traces on the vines. As a fourth type of grape Syrah was also planted in the meantime.  When Jim was forty-eight in 1993, his first vintage went on sale for more than 60 dollars. "My wine is not expensive", he adds to this, "it's not quite cheap." The cheeky guy loves this sort of word-play and hastens to add another one: "I'm not old, it's just been a while since I was born."

He did not wish to imitate the Bordelais with his Cuvee of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. "How could that possibly be done at the other side of the world?" he asks. "But those who love the elegance of the Bordelais will also love Providence; we are on the same playing field." Jim Vuletic sees his wines as "untypical" for the style of wines in the New World, which he thinks are often too sumptuous. His wines are rather a "bridge between the old and the new world of wines". Though a latecomer to wine making, Vuletic has grown up with wine, albeit of a rustic type. He comes from one of the Dalmatian families who shaped New Zealand wine growing for many decades. His father Nikola emigrated to New Zealand in 1923 from Kozica, a village in the vicinity of Split. "My family has always made its own house wine" he says, "without much technology but with craftsmanship and skill." He says that he has learnt it all from his father, and his daughter Kristina everything from him. "I hope we are doing it a bit better with every generation," he says,  "we call that progress". Jim Vuletic has a sense of humour. Naturally, he knows that one cannot compare his reds with the home-made Dalmatian style wines. From the very beginning he had a very different aim: "I wanted to produce a type of red wine which could compare with the very best wines from Saint-Emilion."

 

"I'm a bit of a clean freak". In the creative chaos of Jim Vuletic's kitchen it gleams and sparkles just like in his cellar. Previously he collected the wines of the famous Bordelais Châteaux, today he is concentrating on his own wines. Only in very good years he fills them into bottles, and he puts the labels on them himself. The 2010 Matakana Private Reserve has met the strict criteria of his critical palate.

 

One could consider him a bigmouth: Did this solicitor from Auckland really presume that he could compete with the world's best wines?  Jim Vuletic was accused of hubris; at a wine-testing session in England the well-known wine journalist Jancis Robinson confronted him: "How dare you put your wines on an equal footing with the most famous ones?" In October 1996, Paula Bosch was present as a sommeliere at the Tantris Restaurant in Munich when Vuletic's Private Reserve 1993 was presented in a comparative tasting with the 1990 vintage of Château Petrus and Château Cheval Blanc. "Pretty daring or perhaps even arrogant of a man whose main occupation is dealing with legal texts and paragraphs," that's how she describes her first impression.  But Providence surprised not just the professionals present, several times the Private Reserve won against first-class European competitors in blind tasting sessions.  Since then, it has been considered the best red wine from New Zealand.

"Many were surprised that my wine, coming from young plants, could hold its place so well among the others," says Jim Vuletic. He sees the special quality of the tannins as the main reason that his wines are accessible at an early stage, yet are still able to mature. At the beginning he was hoping for this but "now I know it. The 1993 vintage is still perfect". The warm but maritime climate and the considerable difference between day and night temperatures guarantee high-quality tannins and a mature, long-lasting acidity. "Many do not understand how important this is," says the lusty pensioner who tends to have a very critical attitude towards his own wines. Apart from his Private Reserve he also produces a Syrah but both only in good years. "In normal years I bottle no wine," says Vuletic, a wine maker with an ethos that may seem old-fashioned but which describes his character well: He regards his clients also as his friends, whom he could not offer anything but the best. In 2011 and 2012 he did not want to sell his wines. For many months there was not a single barrel in the Barrique cellar, and this "was not a pretty sight". But with the 2013 vintage, a wine is again maturing which will satisfy his high standards. Karl Heinz Johner, who is a wine maker from the German state of Baden and, since 1998, has also been growing wine in New Zealand, knows and respects Jim Vuletic. His wine, says Johner, has only one fault: it is rare and it has its price. The by now two and a half hectares do not even yield 10,000 bottles a year. Jim Vuletic considers his best vintages the years 2000, 2005, and above all 2010: Starting with a delicate bouquet of elderberry and blackberry, it feels sinewy on the palate, with fine tannins and a taut acidity. It is a Bordeaux Blend which artfully combines finesse, complexity and harmony in an artistic balancing act.

 

"Those who love the elegance of the Bordelais also love Providence." In the open wooden tubs are fermenting Malbec and Merlot which show Jim Vuletic's preference for Bordeaux. He produces his wines with traditional craftsmanship, without much equipment but with a lot of intuition. Twice a week his cellar master Jerry Fowler refills the barrels in order to balance the loss caused through the maturing process.


 

Jim Vuletic has been working in his wine shed for 25 years. He was one of the first wine makers on the hills of Matakana. Now there are also a number of flashy Boutique-style vineyards. But such outward appearances do not interest him. "I needno château and no catwalk, it's the wine that has to make the difference," he says. In his cellar Malbec and Merlot are fermenting in open wooden tubs, the Cabernet Franc has not been harvested yet. Jim Vuletic sleeps little because he wants to be close to his grapes and his musts. Again and again he cleans his wine press and his cellar, "I'm a bit of a clean freak," he says with a grin. He develops the wines for two years in new French Barriques of the Tonnellerie Aquitaine. Toward the Bordelais, which has been his inspiration for a long time, he has now developed an ambivalent attitude. It was the elegance of these wines which so beguiled him and which "I am now often missing. It's a shame that so many blockbusters are mixed together these days." In many cellars wine makers 'manipulated' with reverse osmosis and micro oxydation, he says, while he did not even know yet how this was functioning. Anyway, one finds him most often in his little vineyard which, for him, is a 'magic place'. Jim Vuletic produces his wines with traditional craftsmanship, without much equipment but with a lot of intuition. "We oldies know that, once upon a time, the Bordelais was different and had a different taste," he says somewhat nostalgically. It may sound strange when a New Zealander in Matakana claims: "I am still producing the traditional Saint-Emilion." But that best describes his work and his style of wine.

Jim Vuletic works against the trend and against the current fashions. He probably just cannot help it. Karl Heinz Johner says about him: "Jim can't be lulled into complacency, he is terribly strongheaded. But you have to be like that if you are to produce such wines." The winemaker can get quite excited, for instance when it comes to environmentalism. Vuletic is one of the few wine makers in New Zealand who does not work according to the 'sustainability program' which demands a sustainable use of resources. "That's marketing and not radical enough," he gets agitated and the veins at his throat start swelling. One could get worried about his health, even more so since he has already had problems with his heart and had his first bypass done when he was forty-two. But Jim Vuletic waves it off, he says he is living a healthy life and feeling well and that the cigar and cognac after a meal are a thing of the past. And after a few moments he is grinning happily again.

A few weeks later Jim Vuletic is travelling in Europe and Germany in order to present his wines. He is accompanied by his wife Jane and daughter Kristina who now produces her own wine, the Four Apostles from Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah and Malbec. In this the 25-year-old is supported by her sister Margy, who is two years younger and studies law in Lyons. Jim Vuletic has had his left knee operated upon so that he can, "once again, move around the vineyard in a more agile way". He wants to produce "a few more good vintages" before he wants Kristina, who is still studying Business Administration, to take charge of the vineyard. This would then fulfill the last part of the providence which determines his life. One may call Jim Vuletic an eccentric, but whatever he does he subjects to his aim: to produce great wine such as he got to know it in the Bordelais.

Providence - What I thought in New Zealand about the development of wine making - Lecture by Usuke Asai, Japan

Providence and James Vuletic lost a great friend when dedicated wine educator Usuke Asai died in Japan. We include his thoughts on Providence in honor of his memory. 

Mr Asai visited Providence a few days after harvest had ended to observe and understand our winemaking practices. Some of his observations surprised him, including the highly successful use of traditional wine making practices employed at Providence. 

“It would seem Jim’s wine making does not take in to consideration the microbes in nature, from the time he puts grapes in to vats after crushing to the time he decides “O.K, now it’s time to transfer to barrels.” It is all about punching down earnestly and cleaning around the vats thoroughly. In a manner of speaking, the necessary scientific management like stopping microbes by adding SO2 or inoculating with selected superior yeasts does not exist here. No matter how high the fermentation temperature goes up lassies faire. If it was the dry commercial yeast used worldwide, it would stop the fermentation. I wonder if it is not the strength of natural fermentation that prevents any problems. 

That punching down which seemed too violent and the fermentation seemed abnormal to me, must be connected deeply to the methods before modern times, like no addition of SO2 and natural fermentation. However, for them to bring big success to Providence something more fundamental must exist. Probably it is the big potential that exists in the grapes themselves. You cannot pinpoint anything claiming this is the secret of Jim Vuletic’s wine making. But the whole process is in harmony. After observing his work, I wonder if wine making, which is supposed to have progressed by the remarkable development of scientific technology, goes beyond the quintessential of pre-modern winemaking? 

After the tour of the major producing areas recommended by Jim, we went back to the humble winery in Matakana and I had a sudden realisation. The grapes, which are often buried in state of the art equipment, become wine in your own hands here. This is far more important than the efficiency of the facility. 

As I was shooting nails in to the wooden boxes of the newly released wine, I thought working like this in New Zealand might be the real development in winemaking.”