A grape grower, but Peter remains a farmer at heart
Peter Jackson still sees himself as a farmer rather than a viticulturist, despite having grown grapes on his Marlborough property since the early 1990s.
Peter and his wife, Deborah, grow 127 hectares of mostly sauvignon blanc grapes over four blocks in the Wairau Valley.
Plus, a recently acquired 39ha block is being planted this year. Like many vineyards in Marlborough, the property was converted from a mixed sheep and cropping business.
Peter is the fifth generation of his family on the Runnymede home block. After the first plantings, the area of grapes progressively increased over time.
With viticulture burgeoning in the 1990s, establishing vines was no problem. Sauvignon blanc vines were grafted on to predominantly SO4 root-stock, one of the most widely planted root stocks in the region at that time.
Garlic, grown on 40ha and exported to Australia and Fiji, remained a key crop and provided a good income.
But a bout of white rot meant it could not be replanted in affected areas, so converting this land to grape vines was the logical solution.
“I pulled the pin on the garlic about 10 to 12 years ago,” Peter says. The vineyard supplied Villa Maria on contract for about 20 years.
The winery paid well for the Jacksons’ grapes which, based on Villa Maria’s assessment of their quality, were probably in the top 10 per cent of Marlborough sauvignon blanc, he says.
However when prices fell 60 per cent following the global financial crisis, the majority of the harvest was initially sold for three years to an Australian company, Warburn Estate, which had a Marlborough sauvignon blanc wine supply agreement with Pinnacle Drinks.
This contract was then assigned over to Pinnacle Drinks (NZ), a subsidiary of Endeavour Drinks Group, which manages supply and wine brands for Woolworths.
About half of the 3000 tonnes of the annual harvest is now supplied to Villa Maria, with most of the balance still going to Pinnacle Drinks.
The different locations of the vineyards provide a good variety of terroir.
“We don’t have the same soil types in any one vineyard and I believe this gives us the advantage of differing flavours across our range of supply agreements,” says Peter.
“Additionally, the flavours obtained from our individual vineyard terroir offers variances for each individual winery.”
The new block on the northern bank of the nearby Wairau River was bought following the sale of a coastal property of the same size about 20 kilometres away,. It’s an extremely high yielding vineyard, but more challenging to manage, he says.
“We’ve got blocks that are mostly all stone and just a bit of silt, and then places where I grew garlic are silt loam with free drainage.”
There is also variation in the depth of the stones, from 500 millimetres to two metres. Grapes grown in stony soil ripen faster because of the warmth they retain.
“We haven’t got one vineyard with the same soil all the way through. I think that’s where you get your different flavours, in different blocks.” Sheep are grazed on the blocks during winter.
A well established practice, this has the advantage of reducing costs by not having to herbicide-spray or mow the vineyards while the sheep are grazing.
As well as keeping the vineyard clean, the sheep also contribute to the soil’s biomass through their manure. The soil structure is also improved through the reduction in compaction from tractor use.
Yields are typically 15 tonnes per hectare across all the vineyards, but they were affected by wet weather during this year’s harvest. The results were 30 per cent less than last year’s exceptional harvest and 10% down on the long-term average.
Peter is philosophical about this loss and looks at individual harvests in the context of a longer-term average.
“It goes with the job really. I don’t farm year by year. If you have a good year, you put it aside. We look at blocks of three to five years.
If you do that, you’re coming out on top.” One of the Jacksons’ greatest assets is their vineyard manager, Ken Pascoe, says Peter.
A long-time worker for them, Ken previously worked in the New Zealand Air Force; Runnymede backs on to its Woodbourne base. Ken’s air force experience has rubbed off in the way the vineyard is run, Peter says.
“It’s military precision. Everything is very tidy and numbered. He runs a good ship. He runs everything from daylight till dark; all the winemakers, the harvesting, everything.”
Deborah, a former real estate agent, also plays a key part in the business; she looks after the office administration and is “the driving force behind everything”, says Peter.
Peter, now in his early 70s, says thoughts of retirement are increasingly occupying his mind, so having the day-to-day operation of the vineyards in good hands is reassuring for the Jacksons.
However the line between work and retirement remains a little obscure for Peter.
“I’ve really enjoyed it. I haven’t really had a job. I’ve just gotten up in the morning and gone and done the things I enjoy doing.”