Robin Ransom – A grape discovery

Sometimes the best discoveries happen by accident: think penicillin, Post-it notes, and for former Matakana Coast winemaker Robin Ransom, carménère.

In his early years as a wine grower he planted some vines that had been grafted locally, with a clone of cabernet franc imported from Italy. But as the leaves and fruit emerged, he could see they looked nothing like the existing cabernet franc in the vineyard. He sent some cane samples to Australia for DNA testing and discovered that the supposed cabernet franc was in fact an ancient and little known Bordeaux variety, carménère.

The case of the imposter plants could have been seen as a disaster, but Robin saw it as an exciting opportunity. ‘I was curious to see what kind of wine would emerge and it became one of my favourite varietals.’ He laughs. ‘We discovered later that Chilean vineyards had been producing it for decades and calling it merlot. I don’t know how they could have made that mistake – while both merlot and carménère have cabernet franc as a parent, the vine morphology and the wines are as different as chalk and cheese.’ 

Robin’s passion, curiosity and creativity is typical of what you’ll find among Matakana Coast winemakers. ‘You won’t find ‘big wine’ around here. We’ve come from all different walks of life and everyone is here because their primary motivation is a passion for wine and winemaking.’

That willingness to experiment and discover has led to the Matakana region becoming one of the most diverse wine regions in the country. Alongside classical and lesser known French and Italian varieties, you’ll find Spanish and Austrian vines too, all within a relatively compact geographical zone. 

‘The maritime climate here is very favourable for winegrowing, as long as we don’t get too much rain in March and April,’ says Robin with a wry smile. ‘Nearly all the vineyards are on Whangaripo clay loam soil which suits a wide range of varietals.’

Robin and his wife Marion discovered the pleasure (and pain) of winemaking in 1991, when they helped a friend in Nelson’s Moutere Hills with a vintage. Within two years they’d purchased their own 20-acre block on north-facing slopes just south of Warkworth, planting cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and pinot gris. At the time there were only three existing vineyards in nearby Matakana, but they were producing some impressive reds and with the close proximity to Robin and Marion’s work in Auckland, the couple were sold. 

Within a few years they’d added carbernet franc and the unexpected carménère, followed later by albariño and syrah. Over two decades the couple grew the business from a dusty old shed to a purpose-built winery, becoming a favourite local destination for delicious wines and seasonal platters and even exporting wines to China, Japan, the US and the UK. 

Robin recalls his red winemaking days with a particular fondness. ‘It’s a generalisation, but you could say that white wine is more science-driven, whereas red wine making has more elements of art. When we’re making red wine, we’re operating closer to nature, working with gut feeling, instinct and operating more with our senses during the winemaking process. There’s a wider range of variables, so the winemaker’s decisions play a bigger role in the process.’ 

The couple sold the vineyard in 2016, when the land was rezoned future urban by Auckland Council and they could foresee a time when suburbia would encroach on their piece of paradise. The winery has since closed, but the couple retain close friendships with many local winemakers. 

‘For all the years I was involved in Matakana Winegrowers there was always something to look forward to and a real sense of fraternity among the winemakers. I don’t know of any other New Zealand wine region where that sense of camaraderie exists to the same extent.’

For Robin, a great wine tasting is all about the story. ‘Come for a weekend, visit two or three wineries on Saturday and another two or three on Sunday. Talk with the winemakers, ask questions, listen to their stories and hear the meaning they’ve made of their wine. You’ll get a real sense of their dedication to producing something which reflects our climate, soil and culture.’

When you’ve tasted enough wine, Robin recommends heading off for a swim. In his post-vineyard life he’s returned to his former love of swimming, co-ordinating a local group on a daily one-kilometre swim from Point Wells boat ramp across to Big Omaha wharf, timed around the tide. 

‘We’re always keen to have new swimmers and you don’t have to go the whole way – you can just swim to the first or second channel marker and back. It’s like a daily meditation for me.’