Soljans Estate Winery, Kumeu

Tyler Soljan

Soljans Estate Winery is one of those amazing local wineries that everyone you know has been to. And everyone’s got something good to say about it. Family-run, fifth generation – a classic West Auckland place. Except there’s not so many of them around now. And on a day when I hear news of another one of our great wineries being in trouble, it’s good to see that the Soljans out in Kumeu are still doing what they know best, and doing well. I caught up with Tyler Soljan out at the Cellar Door for a chat and a glass of wine.

WineFolio: Tyler, obviously I’ve been here before – more than once – we came I remember on one of the open days from Wineries out West and those of us who came still talk about the riddling boards and the Methode wines. So. I’d say you’re still kind of old school. You’re known for the heritage and that you’re now 5th generation?

Tyler Soljan: Yes, still do things traditionally as much as we can with some modern adaptations I suppose. People come for a bit of everything. Because we’ve got the café, you’ll get some people come in and not actually realise about the wine side! They’re just coming in because it’s a neat place to come to in the area. Some will come specifically because they’ve heard of the brand, or they’ve seen our port somewhere. Tried it and realised we’re pretty close to Auckland so they can pop out and see us. A bit of everything.

WF: I’ve heard of people who’ve come out to lunch and said ‘yeah the wine’s really good’… and I’m like ‘umm, yes, you’d think so – didn’t you go because of the wine?’ But they had just been invited out for lunch and hadn’t known.

TS: Yes, the café has become sort of its own thing. We started out doing only wine, but slowly built on the café. We were originally on Lincoln Road, and that was rural once. It was a big trek out from Auckland city once. Now you’d never have thought that it was full of vineyards. But now Kumeu is developing very very quickly and lots going on. A few wineries still out here which is good.

WF: And I think the redevelopment of that site into the Hunting Lodge, which a lot of people have heard of now, is good. People I know, who aren’t particularly into wine, like to go there because it’s a cool Sunday afternoon thing to do. Westbrook seems to be doing well too. And of course Kumeu River up the road. What’s your relationship with them? Do you two help each other out, or are you rivals?

TS: Never rivals. If one fails we all fail. If we all succeed it’s better for everyone. It stems back from Lincoln Road, 60 years ago, working together as families in the industry in the early days, and that’s continued. My grandfather works closely with them and we each borrow machinery.

WF: And you guys went back to Croatia for a trip – I’m sure I saw a photo of you looking about 15 years old?

TS: That was about 2015. Grandparents took the whole family over. That was incredible going back, seeing where the family is from. Seeing the old house, it was a pretty cool experience to go round with the family. The land is the longest recorded continually cultivated place in the world. So winemaking goes back a long time in that part of the world.

WF: What do they think, now that you guys now make wine here in New Zealand? I mean if I tell people back in the UK that I write a bit about wine – they’re impressed! So, making wine – that would be very well received!

TS: We are the third longest running family winemakers in the country. Babich are over a hundred years, and then Pleasant Valley. We have vineyards around the building here, and then we contract grow in Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough, working with smaller growers. Typically it’s the same people very year that we work with, and we find that works quite well.

WF: The wine that won our Top 10 Tasting of Pinot Gris – that was from here though wasn’t it? That was cool. Once again, there was a slight reaction of “well I knew they made wine… but this is really, really good!!”

TS: Over the generations I think we’ve slowly built our reputations on making good wines, with a couple of standouts. But generally there’s a really good standard level. And then recently we’re trying to make those more outstanding wines as well, to be noticed a bit more.

WF: Now, you were saying there’s a story behind your malbec?

TS: We do themed dinners – a cuisine from around the world once a month. We started off with Croatia, being our heritage. One of our Japanese chefs was really keen so we did a Japanese dinner. We then did an Argentinian style BBQ here. And of course Argentina is known for their Malbec. But we don’t make a straight Malbec, so I asked my grandad if we could bring down a barrel of our Hawke’s Bay Malbec and people could taste it on the night. We sold it on the night by the glass. It was a real big popular seller, as you would expect, but probably better than we’d thought! We then convinced my grandad to let us bottle off a couple of barrels – so we did – unfined, unfiltered. And just the neck tag is the label, and it’s been a very popular seller here since we’ve had it.

When you’ve got the opportunity to do something new like that – why not!? We could have just blended it in, but then that’s lost and nothing special comes of it – other than the wines that we usually produce. Being a small run, there’s a bit of risk, but as far as the reward – as well as the ability to have it yourself – I love a straight malbec which is one of the reasons I wanted to do it!! (laughs).

WF: With your growers are you down there often talking about what it is you’re after?

TS: It’s been developed over the years, where we understand the grower and they get to know what we want. My grandad visits countless times, and I’m starting to go down a bit more. Talked about picking and harvest because we work together.

WF: What’s your part in the business – are you learning all aspects of the family trade?

TS: a bit of everywhere. I do everything from helping with vintage and harvest, help with winemaking, to wine sales, marketing, Cellar Door, helping with events. You’ve got to do everything in a smaller family business. 

Eventually I’d like to make more of the wine. I’m always interested in that. I like the science side of that.

WF: Well that’s a good start, because I think a lot of people think it’s going to be flamboyant and artistic.

TS: My grandad always says: ‘50% art 50% science’ Without one or the other you’re not going to succeed too much. Styles and things always change in the industry and in New Zealand I think, because we are quite a new wine part of the world, we are quicker to develop than other places. With stainless steel and screwcaps – we’ve been very quick to take those changes on. You’ll notice as well with Chardonnay – how it’s gone from loads of oak to no oak at all.

Even with rosé you’ll have seen a style change. Historically there weren’t many rosés available on the market. It was viewed in a relatively negative light, being seen as a throwaway blend, but it’s never been that way for a lot of wineries. It used to be reasonably sweet, easy drinking and not a lot of it being consumed. Now of course rosé is growing faster than any other segment in wine. And a lot of the styles now are in the Provence style. So you’ve got a light, pale pink colour, nice and crisp and dry. That seems to be the typical style and trend. Made with Pinot Noir. And of course we do things a bit differently here. Our base wine is Malbec, adding a touch of Gewurz separately to give a nice floral component.

(we got through the winery doors to a pair of enormous barrels)

And our port still goes extremely well. It is amazing how well it’s gone. We’ll keep making that for many, many years. So these Totara barrels are what we blend our ports in. 500 gallon, and these are all full. Made in the 1940s and that was the standard size back then, and when you could make things out of totara. They’ve had port ageing in them ever since. So they’re very special to have. They’re like a solera system – we only ever take a small amount out and then top it up. My grandad always says “there’s a bit of this wine that’s sixty years old. I can’t tell you which bit…” We say it’s at least ten years old by the time the wine gets bottled.

There used to be coopers here and we used to make barrels – a lot were used in the brewing industry as well. Before stainless steel, wooden vats were one of the few ways you could store liquids. So it was common to make barrels, but now it’s not and all our oak comes from France.

WF: Have you seen those eggs that people are using now? Almost like going back to amphora?

TS: Yes, quite interesting. It makes a difference I suppose. I’d be interested to try those wines.

WF: And Kumeu – obviously Auckland is constantly changing. Any pressures from where you are? Will it be here in 50 years?

TS: Always something to think about. We’re pretty stubborn so we’re planning to stay where we are. My grandad’s got no intention of moving again in his lifetime. 

We’ve already moved once which was a big thing to move from Lincoln Road. And that was 2002, so reasonably recently. This place is still pretty new. We can’t move further out west, we’d be on the beach if we try again. We’re keen to stay as long as we realistically can.

WF: I suppose the threat is more obvious to something like a vineyard. That’s a field that’s growing stuff, and a developer looks at that and thinks ‘well I can get this much money per square hectare for houses’ It’s nice to think that there’s still a wine region within an easy drive of Auckland, without having to go over the water to Waiheke. And some of the wines from Kumeu wineries are as good as anything.

TS: And it’s where the bigger industry started out with the Croatian immigrants of the time. It’s important to keep that – it would be disappointing if we lost that heritage in this area. There used to be 37 wineries out west, so a lot have gone. On Lincoln Road you’ve still got Mazurans, and Babich are still out there but its nothing like it used to be. A lot of the brands and families have either sold and moved, or sold altogether and now they don’t have anything to do with it.

WF: And do you think people will still be drinking wine in the near future? Like our generation or our parents did?

TS: Everything is changing with consumers and what they drink. Within wine as well. I think there’s a trend, both from the sales side as from the consumer side, to drink less volume but higher quality. You see it with brands like Constellation. They’re selling their lower tier $10 supermarket brands, and trying to get those higher value brands. With the younger generation, I think their consumption is less. We’re trying to steer clear of the bulk stuff – not doing it as cheap as you can do. I hope people don’t stop drinking wine.

WF: Me too. I have actively sought out the wines that are coming through and a bit different though –  like natural wines, orange wines, and some ‘young’ wines where it’s had no oak, red wines released within 6 months of harvest, to be drunk from the fridge.

TS: I haven’t had a lot myself. I’ve tried a few. It’s not something we’ve ever done, so I don’t have any experience of making them.

WF: I’ve had some in places that you probably wouldn’t think, and they probably weren’t described as natural wines. I’ve seen it in kegs, in bars, that you just get a glass of wine, and no bottle is involved. Or wine in you think that a change is coming?

TS: I think that will be driven by consumers ultimately. Kegs is a good example. It’s a good way to store wine, and to get it out for quick consumptions to restaurants. New Zealand however probably doesn’t view that you can get a nice wine from a keg. It doesn’t sound as nice, or as romantic as having a nice bottle of wine, with a cork. If there’s enough consumer acceptance and drive for having more premium wines, from alternative sources – a keg for example, that would be a good change. If you reduce the number of bottles, labels and everything that’s only going to be good. 

But it will take a while for people to come around. Wine in cans is a completely different market as well. Traditionally wine in cans aren’t the same wines that are going to be in a fine wine store, in a bottle. Quite a different target.

WF: Low alcohol, or alcohol free?

TS: Definitely growing, becoming more important. You’re seeing it with spirits as well. Alcohol does add a lot to a wine. It’s 85% water, so it’s the other 15% that counts. Alcohol is a part of that mouthfeel, texture and body. With lower alcohol wines – my grandad always says “if you want a lower alcohol wine just water it down a bit”. The winemaker can still make it exactly how they want, so you still get those flavours.

WF: do you get that knock on from the craft beer explosion, where people are now always after something new. You don’t walk into a craft beer bar and order the same thing you’ve always had – you want to try a new version. Do you get that with wines? People don’t want the ‘old varieties’ – still a place for gewurz and Riesling?

TS: I’m a bit biased by my own views on that, because I’m very much into trying new things. I love craft beer, and I wouldn’t buy a 12-pack of the same one. Personally I’m the same with wine. I wouldn’t buy a crazy amount of one wine, I’ll always try different brands and varieties. I always want to change it up, and I think there’s a lot of people who stick to their same Sauvignon Blanc every time. Same brand, same wine. And there are other people who aren’t worried about trying new things and are happy to stick with what they know. They enjoy that safe option. People are interested in a straight Malbec though, or still like a Gewurz and other varietals.

WF: I was surprised recently, I went into a brand new liquor store in my area, and I asked where their Riesling was – thinking there was a small section that I just couldn’t see… and the guy took me over and showed the one single bottle they had, of Riesling! Even in established places, I find the shelves are stocked with established wines, and yet you go somewhere – Hawke’s bay for example – and it’s amazing how many different, new things there are around there now. Yes, even if you were touring around Hawke’s Bay you could just go to the well-known places, but there are a few new, or smaller places that are well worth a look.

TS: Easy to go and visit Church Road and Mission Estate down there and be happy with your visit. You don’t have to pop into De la Terre or Brookfields, or those slightly smaller wineries that don’t have that big flash expensive outlay, but you’ll get a different experience there.

WF: Yes, I was pleased when I went to Askerne. You could easily go to Te Mata, Black Barn and then down to Craggy Range – all excellent places – and miss them out. But it was brilliant at Askerne. Laura, the youngest daughter, was in the Cellar Door for my visit and she’s like a walking encyclopedia of Hawke’s Bay wine! She’d say to me “have you had so-and-so wine?” and I’d say, ‘well, yes I have – that’s my job – how have you had that?’ and she’s say “well, me too, and I’m interested in things – and did you know… that so-and-so does this and that…” she was so passionate about wine and it made my visit just fabulous. It’s everything you want at a Cellar Door.

TS: A bit like our Cellar Door here – you will likely meet a family member of the family-run winery, and could ask us anything and we’d probably know, because this is our life!

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