After sharing his first case purchase with his mum back in the early 90s, Ashton Ireland was hooked on wine. “Although I am not a winemaker I do have a good understanding which helps when working with our winemakers,” he told Restaurant & Café.
From sharing that first case, Ireland booked into a night school class with Duncan Win from The Village Wine Trader in Palmerston North. While working for Craggy Range in a GM role they put him through an overview course, deepening his understanding of the industry. In 2011 he created Hãhã Wine, combing his passion for wine with his experience as a financial controller.
The name Hãhã in Maori means savoury and luscious, something which the winemakers at Hãhã try to reflect in the finished product. Hãhã Wine is all about balance. “It’s about having enough complexity to ‘wow’ people but having the wine ready to go and enjoy as soon as you open it,” said Ireland. “I also think having a few layers of flavour to understand as you enjoy the wine without food, and then as you marry it up with a dish opening up with other great notes.” However, part of Ireland’s mission is to make Hãhã wines as accessible as possible. “We are uncompromising on quality,” he said. “First and foremost, the quality has to be the best. Then we ensure that the value is there – one of our goals is to offer great value wines to our customers.”
Hãhã has had a fair few successes over the years, winning multiple awards at wine shows both in New Zealand and overseas. Hãhã was also selected by Negociants Australia for Australian-wide distribution within a few years of operating, and is now the number three New Zealand wine poured on-premise across the Tasman.
Ireland credits much of his success to his mentors – Duncan Win, Adrian Baker (formerly of Craggy Range and now of 50th Parallel Wine in Canada) and John Belsham from Foxes Island. “They all gave me great advice,” he said. “Treat your customers as you would like to be treated, make sure you look after number one, and produce something you can be proud to put your name on.” Ireland also draws influence from his experience in the high fashion industry. “Chris and Helen Cherry from Workshop Demin - they taught me not to be satisfied with second best and to keep the branding simple.”
Rather than focus on a single vineyard, Hãhã Wine has embraced a model which gives them the flexibility to adapt to consumer trends. “Instead of a traditional model where the land was from three or so generations of family, we have a cool new concept where we contract out most of the services including the vineyards and the winemaking facilities,” explained Ireland. In 2016, this business model saw Hãhã named one of the most innovative wine companies by NZ Wine Tech magazine. Hãhã Wine has sites in Hawkes Bay and Marlborough – one of which is 200m altitude and offers great structure and acidity for the Pinot Gris and Merlot, according to Ireland. “All our vineyards we draw from are Sustainable Winegrowing NZ members so looking after our great environment, and minimal use of chemicals is a mission too,” added Ireland. “We’re hopefully working on some new initiatives too.”
Ireland has had his share of memorable moments. “Blending our Brut Cuvee with our bubbles winemaker Gary Duke was great fun and really challenging,” he said. “Some parcels were five years aged on lees and we blended from 10 tanks over two days. The result was sensational.” He’s also still very much a wine fan, coming off a month of wine touring with his wife. “Pol Roger Winston is a favourite,” he said. “I had a really old Riesling at Yalumba last year, I think it was a 1964, and the aged secondary characteristics were amazing.”
Ireland has a simple aim in wine – to get rid of the pretentiousness and stuffiness. “I want to bring the fun back!” He describes the Hãhã wines customer as those who “enjoy the clean, green outdoors,” and like enjoying wine with food. “They’re pretty relaxed about wine,” he said. “They’re not really collector types but enjoy learning about wines and experiencing new wines.”