l am crazy for great Bordeaux. One day I fancy a Latour, another day I prefer Lafleur. But Cheval Blanc fascinates me over and over again. Thus, it does not come as a surprise that I am striving to equal with my wine this great role model."
For a winemaker who has his winery somewhere between Pauillac and Pomerol, this ambitious goal would be easy to understand. James Vuletic, however, lives and works with his wife, Jane, at the other end of the world. His vineyard of only two hectares, is located on the North Island of New Zealand, a good one hour’s drive north from Auckland.
In the gentle green hills of Matakana, the cows are grazing and the hens are scratching in the yards. Nothing makes you think that in the weather—beaten shed at the edge of an unpretentious vineyard, New ZeaIand’s best or at least most expensive red wine is produced. While in the past most of his colleagues in the area have been focusing on Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, in 1990 Vuletic planted on his small vineyard a totally atypical blend for this region, consisting of 70 per cent Merlot, 20 per cent Cabernet Franc and 10 per cent Malbec. "l do not care very much about what the others do", says the maverick with the thin hair, the constantly alert eyes and deep—setreading glasses seIf—confidentIy. "Everyone is thinking they must grow Cabernet Sauvignon at all costs. Of course, this type of vine grows here. But it does not bring the result - the flavour that I have in mind."
The first "Providence" Vuletic presented in 1993. The red of, at that time, the very young vineyard, was already of outstanding quality and caused a sensation in the world of wine. "The actual improvement in quality was achieved between 1996 and 1997", remembers the man who enjoys the pleasures of life and has a good sense of financial success. "The more the roots of the vine were digging their way into the rather porous loam soils with its vast quantities of iron, the more minerals were brought upwards and the greater got the concentration of extracts in the wine." The outstanding 1998 vintage as well as the barrel tastings in 2001 and 2002 prove him right. The wine appeals through its fine scent of flowers and ripe berries, a slight sensation of tobacco on the palate, a bit of vanilla and a touch of tar, and a long and firm aroma of soft tannins. Vuletic: "When I drink a wine and its taste lingers on the palate, then l'm longing for a second glass. However, when the taste is gone very quickly, I simply feel betrayed." Wines containing a high percentage of alcohol — as they are produced for example in Australia - Vuletic finds disgusting. His philosophy: "Wine does not simply need power. Wine must have elegance, finesse and complexity. And it has to be harmonious in itself — only then is it a pleasure drink. As far as it is possible, l’m trying to leave nature its way. Only this results in an individual wine." Other producers are controlling their wine throughout the whole production process in a laboratory. And Vuletic? "This here is my laboratory", he says with a grin on his face and is sticking his tongue widely out of his mouth. A concentrator in order to give a bit of a boost to the wine in weak years? "Never ever in my life! But I have to admit: as the owner of a big Chateau that has to sell half a million cases a year, I'd probably take another view."
It was more by accident that Vuletic ended up in wine growing: his father, who in 1923 emigrated from Dalmatia to New Zealand, had a grocery shop, was keeping some milk cows and was growing a bit of wine. James Vuletic and his brother Peter founded the Antipodean Vineyard in 1976, the red wine of which still plays in the top league of New Zealand. But soon the brothers were at loggerheads and James started his own business on a piece of land, which he came across rather by accident. "l am only a farmer on a hill", says the contentious winegrower modestly. Actually, he studied law and is still working as a lawyer, although he insists that his law office is going downhill: "l’m crawling around my vineyard too much". That does not come as a surprise, in the vineyard mainly handwork is necessary. "At least we have - as my German friend Karl-Heinz Johner, was correctly remarking — no work with cutting extensive leaves from the vine - this job is done by the often stormy wind". So the individualist Vuletic employs only one estate manager and some occasional workers. Apart from this, during the harvesting season the fans of "Providence" come even from Japan in order to volunteer to help for some bottles of wine in return.
After the harvest the grapes are brought into the winery within one hour and then pumped in to the small open fermenting vats of durable totara wood, which VuIetic's father had already acquired in the forties. About three weeks remain for the fermentation and the maceration, whereby natural yeasts from the vineyard are used and Vuletic influences the temperature only when it is absolutely necessary. After a deliberately long pressing time, the wine is filled in new small oak barrels from Bordeaux, in which it matures for about 24 months before being bottled. "The wine will be bottled only when the weather is fine. "My father once taught me never touch a barrel when there is low pressure", Vuletic says. "Of course, you can already imagine how the wine will become before it has completed its time. But in the end, it is a raw material that you fill in the barrel and only after 15 to 18 months will it reveal what the final result will look like".
Even without the Parker-ratings Vuletic does not have to worry about the sale of 5000 to 11000 bottles a year - whereby the domestic market has hardly ever been of any importance. "l have one dealer in Christchurch and one in AuckIand", he says, "to them l sell about 200 bottles — for rather a lot of money." This means in the end a retail price of about 300 New Zealand Dollars, about 150 Euro. The rest is bound for export — especially to Japan, England and Germany. "l have never spent a cent on advertising", Vuletic stresses, “I have not been looking for a market — the market has discovered my wine." The fact is that the market is actually already demanding more "New Zealand Bordeaux" than James Vuletic produces, he does not care very much. "Now my vineyard is of a size where I can prune and tie all the vines by myself, if I’d wanted to. If I’d expand my business Providence Vineyards wouldn’t be the same anymore."