Isabel Gilbert Palmer interviews a French man who has settled in Havenlock North, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand and who has just started to produce wine under the Maison Noir label. Like many in the food and wine world, he took a long time to find out what he wanted to do in life and after a life in music decided to work in the wine industry, studying winemaking and wine marketing and then becoming a harvest nomad to travel around the world. He finally settled in New Zealand, the place where he met his wife and had a daughter.
Guillaume as the first New New Zealander in this series lets begin with..
So where are you from originally ?
I was born and spent my childhood in a very small French village,there were only 12 homes, in La Vrignais in the Aigrefeuille-sur Maine, the Loire-Atlantique department of western France, in fact near the city of Nantes on the Atlantic coast, in Brittany.
Its perhaps an assumption to say that because you were born in a historical wine growing district that you would naturally become winemaker ?
It certainly didn’t actually go like that from the beginning.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My father was a psychiatrist, my mother a social worker. My brother followed her example and works in social services with disabled people. But their paths weren’t the path for me. I was a good student so at first I tried working towards a career in science but it didn’t quite work so I went off to think and discover what I wanted by becoming singer in a rock band. I went into the music world totally and sang various things from 70’s rock, guttural, melodic music, jazz and classical through to singing in choirs. I still love and cherish all these styles today but they now come after my winemaking ..or some times right besides it.
I am known amongst friends to party, eat, drink and sign parties to eat late into the night.
That seems a course that is followed by many winemakers and chefs these days. Blues, rock n roll and punk as a starting point.
I loved the band life and touring around the country but eventually I got tired of the behind the scenes social life and became disillusioned and quit.
I asked myself again what do I like in life and realised how good it was being with my more “civilised friends” eating well, drinking well, travelling, so that was a natural start.
I then got closer to a neighbour in the village who I hadn’t ever taken that much notice of in my quest to find my own way. He inspired me, re-became my friend and he shared the romance (and challenge) of winemaking with me. That and the fact that I could combine life, a lifestyle, travel, technology, which satisfied the scientist in me, and being able to be and work with nature.
And who was this friend?
Olivier Bachelier. He makes an excellent, very cheap Muscadet (Domaine de La Vrignais) that I highly recommend. Muscadet is one of the wines made in this region alongside the Loire River. He works on about 20ha of land with different local varieties and wine styles. The locals support him wholeheartedly, buy a lot of his production so it has become the house wine of many homes.
I react to the joy and delight in that, having my own winemaker in you now in New Zealand.
Thank you ! I realised how much I value this limitless passion and interest I have for winemaking, and the life style that goes with it.
Tell me more about this.
It begins with my passion for discovering and learning and understanding the regional nature of wine growing, worldwide. The multitude of styles of wine, the geography, terroir, soils and climates. I am fulfilled and stretched at times with the technology and scientific aspect of today’s wine growing. I studied winemaking and viticulture once I had made up my mind it was what I wanted to do and, on the left bank of Bordeaux and wine marketing in Montpellier. I worked in Bordeaux and Languedoc in the south of France, and also in the Muscadet region.
I worked with Olivier on several occasions, mainly helping out during vintages when his Father retired, the last time being in 2006 and 2007 when I was in between travelling.That was before I came to New Zealand ten years ago. All this took place when I was a harvest nomad.
A Harvest Nomad ?
Yes we get the call or invitation from friends and colleagues to come and work a harvest somewhere and because of that I worked in Margaret River and travelled through Australia, worked in the Knight Valley (in between Napa and Sonoma) and travelled along the West Coast of California and also in Tokaj, Hungary and not to forget Hawkes Bay, in New Zealand. I was planning on more travels around South America but it didn’t happen. I met a beautiful New Zealand woman who became my wife and we now have a beautiful (bilingual!) daughter and New Zealand is my home.
And how do you feel being in New Zealand?
It is liberating and freeing. It is literally the New World and interesting because wine here is also studied and practiced as a business compared to France where there are many regulations but perhaps more passion and definitely a very long tradition in wine growing.
Finally, what I can do here that I couldn’t do in France is probably starting from nothing, without a heritage from the local wine industry, and still being able to produce what I want and call it what I want. It is a lot of work, sweat and doubts but it is so satisfying to see the start of a possible success, and maybe even creating a living out of it.
I have visited your vineyard, new house, workshop, seen your little guest house and wonderful garden.
Yes, it is a the property 1.5ha that came into our lives after one of my wife Esther’s uncle’s passed away. We were living in the local village of Havelock North at the time and all of a sudden we realised that life was short and that we needed to try to fulfil our dreams. Esther asked me what was mine since she had realised hers was being an artist having been a successful lingerie shop owner and I talked to her about growing my own grapes, making my own wine. In 2011, we bought the land with a strip of a sea view on the eastern coast and tucked within a cool rural community of houses and immediately started realising our dreams! Of course the downside is that Esther hasn’t painted since we bought the place but it is on the map for her to go back to her art when our daughter Lilly goes to school (at five years as they do here.)
What have you planted for your future on your property?
I have got some Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc. I am banking on these varieties to be in the upper market range if my whole trial works according to plan.
How long have you been making your own wine? Where do you source your wines for the time being?
I have tried to make my own wine since 2008. In a lot of ways, it all depends on whether, as a winemaker, you are allowed or not to make your wine on the premises you work in. If it is not allowed you can play with stuff and look for a better place where winemaking becomes a real activity. That’s what I have done and I am still working on it. Sourcing the grapes is about finding the people who want to give you a shot, and it is not necessarily about commercial purposes.
And your name Maison Noire and label?
We tried to pick up a design and font that were unique and distinctive, as well as arty, and we fell in love with the Bifur font, very Art Deco, which turned out to be…French! Its from the 1930’s and ties in very well with Art Deco. (In February 1931, Napier, the region’s biggest city, was ravaged by a severe earthquake and was rebuilt in the styles of the 1930s: Art Deco, Spanish Mission and Stripped Classical.)
The drawing is an interpretation of the black house we live in, with an arty reference to wood carvings intrinsic to Maori Culture to create a a distinctive New Zealand link.
What styles are you producing, are they distinctly Hawkes Bay, what is the region known for producing.
My wine styles may not be defined as Hawkes Bay. However, they come from here, with a touch of french winemaking I believe Hawkes Bay is famous for its Syrah, Bordeaux varieties blends and Chardonnays. There is, however, so much more if you consider all the microclimates available here. That is what I love the most. This outstanding potential.
Where are you doing, in the interim, while building up your own vineyard?
I work at The Hawkes Bay Wine Company, which is a contracting winemaking facility. We work with very big companies throughout the country as well as small ones, like my own brand that involves just a handful of barrels for each variety.
What are your greatest challenges?
The greatest challenge is the sacrifice we have to make to get this business to work and give back!
How do you see the next 5 /10 years?
Ideally my own brand can see us making a proper income in the next few years. In a perfect world it could also hit some European markets so I could go to France on a regular basis to see friends and family more often.
Thank you Guillaume and nau mai, welcome to Aotearoa.