There are powerful distractions when sampling wine at The Canyon, the seductive wave-shaped black timber tasting room at Tarras Vineyards. While savouring its award-winning pinot noir, admire how its curves echo the backdrop of the muscular Central Otago mountains, framing a wide green canyon below. And then reflect on how the wine in your glass is also a liquid window into inspirational indigenous values.
Tarras is a founding member of TUKU, the world’s first Maori winemakers collective, whose ethos weaves an underlay of ancient native values about land, family and hospitality into the process of making ravishing wine in ravishing landscapes.
“For me, what we call kaitiakitanga comes first – caring for land, people and culture with a long-term, intergenerational mindset,” explains Tarras owner Hayden Johnston. A member of the Ngai Tahu iwi (tribe), Hayden also pays homage to his 19th-century Maori great-grandmother Kuru Kuru – not only in giving her name to his wine brand, but emblazoning each bottle with her ancestral moko kauae, the mark carved on her chin to signal her respected position in Maori society.
The TUKU collective was founded in 2018, and brings together Maori-owned vineyards working with premium grape varietals in renowned wine regions. Tarras is also close to atmospheric old Otago gold mining towns such as Cromwell and Clyde, as well as tourist beacons like Queenstown.
Johnston recalls the moment that set him on a new path with Tarras. “I set up the vineyard in 2002 and followed conventional advice, which saw me controlling the growth of weeds using glyphosate. It was only in 2008 when walking through the vineyard that I suddenly felt the impact of this intervention on the whenua – this beautiful, precious land we are taking care of. It didn’t smell right, it didn’t sound right,” he says. “The next day we moved to organic farming practices. Life came flooding back into the vineyard. It smelt like nature again, the sound of thousands of insects doing their thing came back.”
Hayden has taken those principles of sustainability into the Canyon by building its bar from recycled pallets and creating a natural wastewater system. Back amid the vines, the soil is nourished using compost made from the winery’s organic waste.
Forging close connections
In North Canterbury – 300km north of Tarras, just east of Christchurch – Sue McKean is another TUKU pioneer, working alongside her partner Royce at Tiki Vineyards. The TIKI name was inspired by Royce’s great-great-great grandfather: Ngatiuenuku chief Tikitere Mihi. Set between the forested and trail-laced foothills of the Southern Alps and the city offerings of Christchurch, Tiki plays an active role in the thriving food and drink scene of this close-knit winemaking region. Though the vineyard doesn’t yet have a tasting room, they hold tastings across New Zealand and abroad (as far afield as London), as well as appearing at events like the North Canterbury Wine and Food Festival.
“The Maori values the TUKU collective put together distinguish the group from their peers,” says McKean. Alongside the guardianship role of kaitiakitanga highlighted by Hayden Johnston, she stressed whanaungatanga – close connection between people – as well as the Maori commitment to hospitality known as manaakitanga.
A shared heritage
To the north of Christchurch, Haysley MacDonald – whose tribal affiliations include both Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Rārua – champions TUKU’s principles at Te Pa Vineyards in the heart of the renowned Marlborough wine-growing region at the top of the South Island. MacDonald highlights the benefits TUKU has brought by creating a Maori community (whanau) within the New Zealand wine industry “to elevate the profile and mana (prestige/authority) of indigenous producers”.
“We do this through storytelling, advocacy, supporting each other and sharing knowledge, and by providing informed commentary on topical issues that impact the wine industry, such as the use of Māori logos, icons, names, and concepts in the wine world.
He offers up an example of the latter. “It’s been heartening to see more awareness around the parallels and differences between the traditional fine wine concept of terroir, and the powerful Maori concept of tūrangawaewae, which can be understood as ‘a place to stand’.” The French word terroir captures what some have called ‘somewhereness’ – a unique sense of a place conjured by tasting a wine. For TUKU’s wines, this might include the resonances that come from the perfumed wonder of Otago pinot noir at Tarras, or the lush fruitiness of Chardonnay from Tiki.
“What makes TUKU unique is that we’re bound together by shared whakapapa (Māori heritage) and shared values.”
TUKU is looking to extend its ethos beyond New Zealand’s shores. “In the future we hope to connect with other indigenous wine producers and collectives from around the world, to create and share new knowledge and practices in doing so,” he says. For now, TUKU wines are spreading their ethos at bars and restaurants across New Zealand, taking in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, plus tourist beacons like Queenstown, the whale watching hotspot of Kaikoura and green shell mussel “capital” Havelock. The wines are also exported in small – but growing – amounts to the UK, the US, Japan, Hong Kong, China, Australia and Southeast Asia.
MacDonald says, “There’s never been more interest and demand for authenticity and provenance when it comes to wine, so we are excited and enthused to advocate for and elevate the reputation and protection of indigenous producers and our cultural taonga (treasure).”
TUKU collective wines will feature at Tohunga Tūmau, an annual celebration of Maori food and drink talent taking place this year on 13 July in Christchurch.
3 Tuku wines to buy
Tarras The Canyon Pinot Noir 2019
A thrillingly complex wine that has garnered rave reviews. The tasting notes include intriguing flavours such as dark cherry, tapenade, smoked game and truffle.
Tiki Vineyard Pinot Noir Rosé 2022
Light with refreshing acidity. Savour red apple and apricot notes with lemon zest and sweet strawberry aromas in the latest in the vineyard’s line of award-winning roses.
Te Pa 2020 Chardonnay
This expression of a classic New Zealand grape scooped the Champion White Wine award – and a 96 point score – at the New World Wine Awards. It is a bright and aromatic wine, with flavours of stone fruit, florals and toasted nuts.
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