Hunter’s the family way

“The company’s first six wines to emerge were all award-winners its 1982 Marlborough Muller Thurgau Dry winning at the National Wine Show.”

“The company’s first six wines to emerge were all award-winners its 1982 Marlborough Muller Thurgau Dry winning at the National Wine Show.”

It’s a business flavoured by family at Hunter’s Wines in Marlborough. Headed by New Zealand wine stalwart Jane Hunter and boasting a combination of dedicated relatives and loyal staff, the winery is the epitome of a new generation as it approaches 30 years’ operation.

Hunter, who with late husband Ernie established the winery on land in Blenheim in the 1980s, runs the business alongside brother-in-law Peter Macdonald. Her sister Libby and nephews James and Edward also work at Hunter’s, and she says it is exciting to see eager new blood beginning to take over the reins.

“Things have certainly changed in Marlborough since I arrived here in 1983 to take up the role of viticulturist for Montana Wines,” Hunter – who was born in South Australia – says.

“We are now seeing eager new blood beginning to take over the reins – and it is exciting. Our chief winemaker Gary Duke retired early last year after 21 years at the helm of the winemaking team.  The baton was handed over to my eldest nephew James Macdonald and then assistant winemaker Inus Van der Westhuizen.

“The younger generation query how things are done, aren’t backward in suggesting new ways of doing things and have boundless energy,” Hunter says. “We give some latitude but pull things back when we think we need to. Our target for 2016 is to have a seamless changeover and to move forward consolidating grape supply and export markets.”

Hunter, who was awarded the Companion to the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009, received an OBE for service to the wine industry in 1993. Hunter’s Wines have won more than 165 gold medals at national and international wine competitions, with the original vineyard area increasing by 2.5 times’ its original size. The company’s annual output has grown to around 100,000 cases of wine, nearly 80% of which is exported.

Hunter’s exports to 23 countries, with one of its highlights being its success with sparkling wines – MiruMiru Reserve and MiruMiru non-vintage – in the past 12 months, winning trophies and accolades in the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

It’s a far cry from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when Irishman Ernie Hunter arrived in New Zealand and decided Marlborough was his pick for wine growing. The land was primarily used for farming, growing Lucerne and barley, and grazing sheep, and no one had considered growing grapes before. The Hunters planted Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muller Thurgau, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.

The company’s first six wines to emerge were all award-winners, its 1982 Marlborough Muller Thurgau Dry winning at the National Wine Show. Unfortunately, just five years after producing the first winners, Ernie was tragically killed in a road accident. A highly qualified viticulturist, Jane took over immediately and determined she would build on the vineyard’s proven potential and success.

New Zealand sauvignon blancs first came to the attention of international wine drinkers when Hunter’s won the top award at the Sunday Times Wine Festival in London on 1986…and again in 1987, 1988, 1992 and 2001.

What is most pleasing, Hunter says, is that her family can carry on the legacy that she and Ernie built from bare land in an area never considered suitable for vine-growing. Nephew James Macdonald has worked in the winery and vineyards from a very young age and, after graduating from Lincoln College with a degree in oenology and viticulture, did vintages in the Riverland, the Yarra Valley, Victoria and Bordeaux, France. In between vintage jobs overseas, he worked back at Hunter’s. 

“James has wine in his blood,” Hunter says. He is a fourth generation grape grower/winemaker…his great grandfather and grandfather had vineyards in the Riverland of South Australia, and his step-grandfather had a vineyard and small winery in the Barossa region of South Australia.”

He will be joined shortly by brother Edward Macdonald, who is returning from London to join the team. With an economics degree, he will be undertaking some accounting courses to round out his management skills in order to become an integral part of the team.

“James and Edward as part of the family undertake marketing roles and travel on behalf of the company,” Hunter says. “Jeremy Adsett joined us two years ago to fill the marketing gap. He has gradually added domestic sales to his role and this year will be undertaking his first marketing trip to the USA. He is a whizz with social media. “ 

Alongside the family are highly experienced staff members like Inus Van der Westhuizen, who is from South Africa and has been with the winemaker for seven years. He and James co-share the winemaking, along with the company’s newly appointed assistant winemaker Katie Laing.

Gary Duke has remained as a consultant to the winemakers despite recently retiring, and the company still retains Australian consultant Dr Tony Jordan, who has worked with the team since 1986.

Jane Hunter says 2016 looks like being a challenging vintage – as harvest seems to be of late. Wineries have had late frosts, extreme dry and water shortages, which suggests a very large cropping year, although obviously there is some way to go yet.   

“Recent rain has alleviated our worry about water shortages for a while but we do need more rain to get us through to harvest,” she says. “The challenges long term are fluctuating exchange rates, challenging climatic conditions and the worry of another over-supply situation.”