I’ve been to Man O’ War Tasting Room on Waiheke Island – like a million others have. Sat in that beautiful coastal garden setting, enjoying a glass of something yummy, lapping up the sunshine and view. I’ve also been to the winery and spent a couple of hours philosophising with winemaker Duncan McTavish over some lovely back vintages of Dreadnought, Gravestone and Valhalla. But I have also delved into the new-ish top tier of wines that are now being produced at Man O’ War – the Kulta range.
Over a series of stupendous tasting nights last year, I was introduced to this selection – a Méthode Traditionelle sparkler – Tulia – that echoes fine Grower Champagne; Mathilde – an absolutely stunning Chardonnay; Tytti – a right-bank Bordeaux blend red; and the Syrah – Totto – all of which sit very, very comfortably alongside their ‘old world’ inspirations – and the best of local competitors. Wines at the very upper echelons of New Zealand’s production.
With this in mind, I wanted to explore the idea of the ‘Kulta Family’ in more depth. As a membership scheme, this allows a participant to be invited ‘beyond the gate’ at Man O’ War – not only securing an allocation of these extremely limited supply wines (more on that later) but also to have the opportunity to spend time and chat with the crew behind the wine in your glass (or cellar). I find that time spent exploring the origins of a wine does deepen your appreciation of drinking it, so this would probably appeal to the wine afficiando more than your Average Joe – but, then, the prices do reflect that. A Kulta Family Membership starts at $800, rising to $1425 for a year.
Best to have another chat with Duncan McTavish then.
Duncan explains how the Kulta Family started: “Firstly we just wanted to put some different wines out there, but then… how do you actually leverage off the degree of uniqueness and scarcity, and get people really interested? That’s where the idea of a family came about. I’ve been at Man O’ War for thirteen years now, and we’ve just been quietly going about our business.I was just down in Central Otago and wearing our work shirts out and about, and the amount of people that say to you “Oh wow – Man O’ War!! What are you doing down here?” Which is phenomenal because I just live up here on Waiheke and don’t get out much. It’s incredible – the recognition that people have for Man O’ War, because we don’t do much flag waving. We do the local Expo and a couple of tastings, but having people come down to the Tasting Room and try our wines – that’s been about it. So the whole Kulta Family membership was very much our first foray into telling our story.
The way we tend to do it it pretty unique and irreverent. It’s an insight for people to see the kind of people that we are, and the way we want to enjoy wine and food. Get a bunch of like-minded people together and have a shindig”.
I ask Duncan whether – because when people travel down to the Tasting room, whether in a vehicle or going on their boat – it’s something for everyone; and quite a diverse slice of the population – doing this VIP club could be seen as a bit elitist?
“I guess what we’re trying to do is to get people beyond the gate. Anyone can go to the Tasting Room, but if you actually want to go and see where the wine is made and meet the people behind it…you literally have to go through a locked gate. And part of what we’re trying to do is swing that gate open. Especially for people who want to understand a bit more of the ‘secret sauce’ behind what we do. We’ve got so many small parcels, wines and ideas all frothing away – so when people come down, they get a full-on experience. For me it is like ‘Oh you’re interested? Let me tell you everything!’ But also, if people want to be part of it, love wine, but have no idea of the technical understanding.. then..cool – we’ll just taste wine!”
I sometimes wonder whether visitors to Waiheke see places like Man O’ War, Cable Bay, Stonyridge, Passage Rock, Mudbrick as an almost homogenous whole and don’t necessarily differentiate too much between them. So it would be good to get more of those different stories into people’s ears?
Duncan explains that “Sometimes we’re one third of the Auckland and Northland region’s combined production. Just Man O’ War. So we are big, on a small island. Small to medium-sized in the scope of New Zealand. I’ve just got back from Central – and we’re relatively big in that scale. We have a different set of challenges, with lots of vineyards and lots of moving pieces. I thrive in that chaos of harvest, with our scale”.
I wanted to know more about the flagship wines specifically. Do they have vineyards that are growing fruit that is destined for the range, or is Kulta a barrel selection at the end of the process?
“No, the idea that has evolved over thirteen years is to work with the vineyards and get an understanding of what they can deliver. And when you’ve got 70+ vineyards, there are definitely ones that are head and shoulders better than others. So as a marketing term – these are our ‘Icon Vineyards’. Our job is to take our very best and fashion it into a style of wine that sits apart not just from what else we are doing, but also, from what anyone else is doing. When I arrived at Man O’ War, the whole idea was to make something uniquely different. It’s about ‘dare to be different’”
That is echoed in some of the product that exists through the Man O’ war offerings. You can look at what they have done with Valhalla Chardonnay – that was to my mind, one of the first Chardonnays to emerge from that ABC culture, and adopt the ‘modern Chardonnay style’ in all it’s reductive, flinty, funky glory. I also see it in products like the Pinque Rosé and in particular in the Exiled Pinot Gris. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill wines. Having the balls to do something different and be a wine that some people will love, rather than just a wine that most people think is OK. Marking Kulta as something unique, it then becomes like the ‘signature’ of Man O’ War.
Duncan laughs – “that’s like my own signature – it is different every time!! Hopefully with the flagship wines, those who don’t like it, won’t like it. Those who do like it will actually love it! The other challenge is to move on from that and learn from it, so it is an on-going progression. We can’t stand here and say ‘this is as good as it is ever going to get’ We want it to be exciting for us and hopefully everyone else likes it as well”.
Having been to the Tasting evenings in the city where the Kulta wines are tasted alongside wines from the likes of Cote Rotie and Pomerol – one thing that the flagship range does do is to sit nicely amongst those benchmarks – but at a fraction of the price. So you might think – yes, this wine is excellent compared to a french Grand Cru – but then look at the cost of what’s in your glass – that where it becomes a bit special.
Again Duncan smiles – “That’s a pretty easy formula to use, and it is a concise way to show that, and to say ‘You know what – New Zealand can make some pretty awesome wine – under screwcap – for $150’ We’re not saying one is better than the other, but the price is what it is. We don’t have five centuries of production, or big Robert Parker scores, or whatever. You’ve got to have a point of difference, but it is a challenge. You’ve got to put something up that people want to come back to, and it has to be authentic”.
I mention to Duncan, that at one of the tastings in the City, as well as the owner, there was a guy who i think was on the viticulture side and he was really entertaining, and swore a lot, and was totally authentic. So you’ve Duncan doing his winemaker talks – David Nash who does the whole MC thing very well, then the owner, and sweary guy… and it’s all very ‘real’ and makes for a great, relaxed gathering.
“Yeah, that’s Matt. I can be just as sweary when i forget to put my winemaker hat on” adds Duncan.
One thing to be aware of with the Kulta wines, is that there is only a limited number of bottles – and therefore a limited number of memberships. There will come a time when you simply can’t join.
Duncan agrees – “The best wines are scarce, and we would rather make a few hundred cases at a good price, then a few thousand cases – that’s going the wrong way. We’re doing 300 cases of the reds, up to 100 cases of the Chardonnay. It could be more, could be less. 2022 is going to be a terrific vintage. 2021 was a great year – a drought and very low yields; which is great for reds, but incredibly hard for whites. We did forty cases of Mathilde Chardonnay. It’s hard to build balance in the whites in a year like that.
I think the key message to get across is that we think they’re good – we want them to be interesting, challenging and exciting – and some people will get it and some people won’t. But they’ll talk about it.
I can guarantee to anyone who is thinking of buying it, or coming to one of these events – that they will get something quite different”.