A place for us – Helio

Helio wine bottles

One of a slew of new labels to have crossed our paths this year, was a Hawke’s Bay based label  – Helio. Kicking things off with a limited availability Chardonnay that sold out En Primeur and arrived with sensational packaging. You had to hope the wine within was as delicious as the presentation. It was. (https://winefolio.co.nz/?p=1059). David met up with one of the founders – Sarah Little, in Havelock North recently; waiting for the sun…

WineFolio: So, Helio – it’s going well?

Sarah Little: Yes, it’s exciting. Mathew and I had talked for a long time about making our own wine; and although we’ve made wines over the years, we’ve never actually got as far as putting a label on it. We’ve never been able to come up with a name that we were happy with! That’s not our forté. That’s where David and Amy came into it, with their background in branding, design and advertising, and that became a nice fit. Mat and David met through the filming of ‘A Seat at the Table’ that David produced, and realised, over lunch, that they liked a similar style of wine and talked about potentially doing a project together. So finally we were able to get it off the ground. It’s evolved quite quickly, from talking about it, to actually doing it. The whole process is a collaborative effort.

WF: Have you got big plans for it, or going to try and keep it manageable?

SL: We would like to keep it on the smaller side. Our ’19 was four barrels and that sold out within a few weeks. En primeur started in April and it sold out within two months. We’ve increased production for the 2020 Chardonnay so we can share a bit more with the trade. We always planned to do a Pinot Noir for 2020. 

It’s from a pretty special pocket of Martinborough, again the style of Pinot we all like. Getting a little bigger but we want to keep that smaller style. We like to do minimal intervention, let the vineyard and the fruit speak for itself. There are lots of ways to make Chardonnay. Working closely with our growers to ensure optimal fruit quality.  Aiming to make a more restrained form of HB Chardy than perhaps is the norm, with a focus on minerality, fruit purity and balanced acidity.

Helio Chardonnay

WF: I wondered if you were going to do more than just Chardonnay, but I wouldn’t have expected you to say Pinot Noir I have to say..

SL: We do have a little Syrah and long term access to some fruit off a pretty iconic hill. We’re going to see how it goes, Helio is about integrity and what’s in the bottle – so if we think it’s good enough we’ll add the Helio label – we’re quite liking how it’s looking now, but further down the track we’ll make that decision. Our focus will be Chardonnay and Pinot, with possibly a Syrah. We’re also really excited about our Tempranillo Rosé, again the style of Rosé we like to drink, light, bright but textural, cliché to say but in a southern French style. More than just a bit of left over pinot juice!

Mathew and I have the winemaking and viticulture background; we honed our skills like many young winemakers by travelling and learning as much as we could from as many people as we could. I started out based in Central Otago working at Felton Road in the vineyard before working my way into the winery. We’ve both worked in NZ, Aussie, France & Austria, as well as Canada (for me) and the US and China for Matt, before settling in Clare SA for a few years (where our first child was born). All up that works out to 14 vintages for me so far before taking some time out to be a mum, and Mathew’s up to well over 20 by now.  We moved back to settle in Hawkes Bay 5 years ago. Our youngest is only ten months old so it’s been a busy few years. It’s been our dream to start our own wine brand that would enable us to do something in the wine industry while still having a family.

Helio has been about family as well – especially teaming up with David and Amy – they’ve got two little girls. With our complementary skillsets and both at the same stage family-wise, and that kind of thing.

WF: So I was told about it by a couple of people who suggested I had a look at what you were doing. And I decided I’d buy it – and when it came through there’s that ‘first 50’ thing. That’s quite a cool idea, it feels like you’re in a little special club. What are you going to do with that?

SL: COVID put a bit of a dampener on the full idea! David’s idea is to potentially have some kind of a dinner or a party once a year and invite the First 50 members. To be part of it you have to commit to a 6-pack of wine each year and that’s all. When we’ve got new wines, we’ll let the First 50 know first and they’ll get the chance to buy before anyone else, because we’ll be making small amounts, the First 50 will hopefully be a pretty prized list to be on in years to come.

WF: Did you do something like numbering the bottles? So that if someone’s in the First 50 they always get the same numbers? So I’m always numbers 320-326 – that’s my numbers.

SL: Ha ha! Sounds like a logistical nightmare!

WF (laughs) and you’re already dipping it in yellow wax..!

SL: Yes, the wax is labour intensive. It’s actually really enjoyable to do. We did work out how many bottles we could do in an hour. About 30 seconds to do a bottle? I love the colour. The first few bottles were probably a bit thin, it took a while to get it right. You’ve got to get the wax to the correct temperature otherwise it can bubble. But, yeah every single bottle is hand waxed and packed by us – once the kids are asleep!

WF: And you had to re-do all the ones that Mat had done..

SL (laughs) Exactly! Literally, I did have to re-do some. But it’s fun. It’s something a bit different you know. People see it and go “Cool, that’s different”.

WF: Yes, people I’ve shown it to have gone “ooooh, let’s open that” and I’ve said “let’s not”. Obviously I opened one instantly because I wanted to be the first to try it – of people I knew. And I was blown away by how good it is already. I do think it’s a keeper though, it’s got quite a pure acid line to it.

SL: I think so. We’re excited to see where it goes and how it evolves over the next couple of years. A lot of people have asked us why we went for a cork, and we say that one of the reasons is we really loved the bottle – the shape of the bottle, with that nice low shoulder. And the corks we’ve used (and paid more for) are triple checked for any taint so we’re pretty confident in the closure.

WF: Did you have any reference points when you were thinking about what you wanted to make?

SL: I think we’ve all been inspired by some of the people that we’ve worked for over the years, or that we know. Whilst there are many great producers we admire, and we’ve been lucky enough to learn from some of them, it’s not so much about emulating what they’ve done, but trying to forge our own path.  When looking at our first release we did some benchmarking of Helio alongside Chardonnays around the same price point of other NZ producers we admire to make sure we were happy with where we were sitting. One of the ones in New Zealand that Mat, David and I all respect is Michael Brajkovich at Kumeu River. I’d say Australia are probably ahead of us in trying to make more restrained styles of Chardonnay – we’re just catching up. Drinking Burgundy over the years has definitely inspired us as far as Chardonnay goes.

WF: Kumeu River is quite big now production-wise, and now with Rays Road, will be expanding. I’m quite into Maude as well – I love their Chardonnay.

SL: Matt and I have both worked there. I was there in 2008, and Mat in 2010, which is the year we met down in Central Otago, so that’s a little connection for us. Sarah-Kate and Dan are good value. It’s cool to see people supporting small producers as well. What’s happened with Coronavirus has been absolutely crazy for the wine industry. Fortunately we could keep making wine throughout – that was a bit touch and go. Our Pinot was picked the day before lockdown. So that was pretty close. During lockdown people were forced to change their buying habits, and we’ve seen people trying to buy direct from the producer, perhaps more so than they had in the past.

At the moment our wine is at Mat’s work but we’re working on our own home for Helio. That’s something we are looking at at the moment. We’d like to find somewhere to make our wine and do tastings by appointment. 

Helio chardonnay

That kind of thing is what we’re looking at. Hopefully that will happen in the not too distant future.

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