Ever since first meeting at a wine tasting dinner in the Swiss Alps, Daniel and Ursula Schwarzenbach had the dream of planting their own vineyard in New Zealand, building a winery and marketing the wine under the Blackenbrook label.
The name Blackenbrook is a translation of the family name – Schwarz meaning black, and Bach meaning brook, or creek. “This is our philosophy in a nutshell,” explained Ursula. “We are a family vineyard, concentrating on producing the best possible wine from our 8ha vineyard.” The family aspect of the business even extends to the Schwarzenbach children, Thomas (13) and Isabelle (9), who, according to Ursula, are great helpers – “although it’s possible that they don’t get a choice!”
Daniel is the chief winemaker at Blackenbrook, a career path he took up in the early 90s after a stint as a medical chemist and microbiologist in the UK. After completing his studies in viticulture and winemaking at Lincoln University, he sought out some of Europe’s finest winemakers to soak up their knowledge and experience. He worked in Austria for Riesling producer Weingut Hirsch, Weingut Engelhof in Germany, as well as Swiss winemaker Georg Fromm.
Ursula's background is in hospitality, and after graduating from hotel management studies she took a position in a Swiss fine dining restaurant where her passion for wine led to her taking over the wine list and organising wine events. The pair met when Daniel was a speaker on New Zealand Pinot Noir at a wine event organised by Ursula, which eventually led to a move to New Zealand and the purchase of 14ha of sheep pasture just out of Nelson. The first harvest was in 2004.
The focus at Blackenbook is on healthy soil, strong vines and sustainability. Deep rooting is encouraged by removing irrigation after the establishment phase, trace elements are introduced through organic seaweed fertilisers and weed sprays have been replaced by under-vine mowing.
Nestled into the hillside in the middle of the vineyard, the winery is a direct reflection of everything Blackenbrook stands for – minimal interference with natural processes resulting in pure and genuine wines. All the fruit is hand-picked and hand-selected.
“The gentleness Daniel strives for comes from the minimal use of mechanical transfers,” explained Ursula. “Wherever possible gravity is employed: the grapes are gently lifted up and tipped into the press by a forklift with a rotating head, rather than by an orga and conveyor belt. We wanted to avoid this solution as the orga may rupture the pips, releasing bitterness into the juice. We allow the juice to drain naturally from the press to the settling tanks and it is moved only once more before the pre-bottling stage at the end of June.” All Blackenbrook white and rosé varieties are completely unfined – no egg, milk or fish – and are certified by the New Zealand Vegetarian Society.
The Schwarzenbach’s are always experimenting with new varieties. In 2001 Blackenbrook was the first vineyard in Nelson to plant the Italian red variety Montepulciano, which thrived in the clay soil and mild maritime climate. A few years later it was the turn of Muscat, which proved a bit more difficult. “Our terroir wasn’t well suited for this variety and some years the vines would struggle to pollinate and not produce a crop. After ten years we sadly had to remove them.” The Muscat vines were replaced by Pinot Blanc, which was planted last year and set to provide the first crop in 2019.
Daniel and Ursula are first generation winemakers. “It would be wonderful to see one or both our children following in our footsteps and one day taking over Blackenbrook. With our sustainable vineyard practices, we tread lightly on the land, hopefully ensuring a long and prosperous future for the vineyard.” At the moment Blackenbrook vines occupy less than half of the total section, leaving the option open for future expansion or experimentation.
“Wine is a living thing, wine is art and creativity, but also chemistry – and above all, it is different every year. There is never a dull moment as a winemaker!”