From peak to peak – New Zealand’s Swiss Pinot Noir pioneer

Hätsch Kalberer of Marlborough’s Fromm Winery

Escaping Cold War tensions in his homeland of Switzerland in the early 1980s, Hätsch Kalberer of Marlborough’s Fromm Winery, was one of the revolutionaries responsible for making one of New Zealand’s first commercial Pinot Noirs.

As the story goes, Hätsch got a job as a hose dragger at Matawhero Wines, on his arrival to the wild and woolly Southern land, where he slowly learnt the art of winemaking.

“In 1987 at Matawhero Wines we made the first ‘commercial’ Pinot Noir from the first UCD 5 and 6 clones in New Zealand, originally imported by the late Bill Irwin, founder of the estate,” Hätsch said.

“That wine was, and still is, a gift of nature and was an inspiration for many in the region at the time.”

By chance Hätsch then met fellow Swiss, George Fromm, who asked him if he could help establish the Fromm vineyard and winery in Marlborough. In January 1992 Hätsch took up the offer and hasn’t looked back since.

Pinosity caught up with Hätsch to get the lowdown on his long relationship with New Zealand Pinot Noir, his love of Fromm Winery, and his advice on how to best enjoy the great grape.

What sparked your interest in winemaking?

I started enjoying and cellaring fine wines at age 20, so it was a natural progression to eventually combine my interest in wine with my working life. I’ve actually never acquired any formal winemaking qualification.

What are the growing conditions at Fromm Winery?

We are working with several different terroirs here, all of which have some water holding capacity, meaning we have less reliance on irrigation.

Most of our Pinot Noir fruit is sourced from vineyards in Marlborough’s Southern Valleys, which are clay based to various degrees.

The only exception is the Fromm vineyard surrounding the winery, which has layers of alluvial gravel and compacted silt deposits that were formed during many historical flood events across the valley floor.

This is our most unique and expressive terroir, which is somewhat outside the flavour and structure profile of what is considered a typical New Zealand Pinot Noir.

Why is Marlborough such a great place to grow Pinot Noir?

The cool climate, together with dry weather conditions, results in low disease pressure, which therefore means it’s not too difficult for us to grow grapes organically.

The grapes also have the ability to reach physical ripeness before excessive sugar accumulation, so we avoid excessive alcohol levels in the finished wines.

How does Aussie Pinot Noir compare to the Pinot Noir Kiwis make?

Tasmanian Pinot has a similar texture and energy to the New Zealand examples from Central Otago, often very dark in colour, dark fruit, very expressive with an almost forceful presence.

Victoria is generally weightier, often with noticeable alcohol. These wines have sweet fruit and are sometimes balanced with lingering, often added acid and oak.

Also, dare I say it, gum trees are a common flavour profile that is not necessarily unpleasant, but one which many drinkers in Australia are immune to: however, New Zealanders always pick it up.

In contrast, the best New Zealand Pinot Noirs have varietal cool climate purity, they can be concentrated, rich (but not hot) and can have some ‘Old World’ refinement. In Marlborough you would probably get the best quality in the entry-level price bracket as well as some of the most profound Pinots New Zealand has to offer.

What’s the best bottle of Pinot Noir you’ve ever had?

There is no absolute best, but the DRC Grand Échézaux 1971 is one wine that comes to mind. I bought it in Beaune in my 20s and I opened it when it was about 36 years old – and please don’t anyone tell me it would have been better under a screw cap.

What is your most memorable food and Pinot Noir experience?

I am pretty relaxed and at times almost cynical about all these excessive wine and food matches.

Fine wine shared in good company is far more valuable for me – those are the occasions I like to remember.

I remember who I enjoyed the finest Burgundies with, but don’t ask me what we ate with it!

Never go to a winery without…

Being prepared to be occasionally disappointed (by wine, staff or exaggerated self-promotion) – that way you’ll appreciate the modest, honest and true ones even more.

Never open a bottle of wine without…

A corkscrew – unless it’s Champagne!

Never go to New Zealand without seeing…

At least some of the less promoted parts of the country, like the The Catlins and East Cape.

Never drink wine without…

Giving it its deserved moment of appreciation.

Never share wine with friends without…

A genuine “santé”, eye contact and a smile.