As Colin Hewens delves through his cellar he’s recalling the sights, sounds and taste of the summer just gone, a summer now measured in jars and bottles, kilograms and litres.
For besides preserving fruit and vegetables, Colin and partner Steve Richardson also make wine, cider and perry from their organic garden at Whakamarama, in the foothills of the Kaimai Range near Tauranga, a garden planted with just such an end in mind.
Starkrimson pears were discovered in the early 1950s in Missouri when a branch of red fruit appeared on a green-pear tree. Stark Brothers Nursery patented the variety in 1956. Photo: Sandra Simpson
“People are funny about fruit wine,” Colin says. “They think it should be ‘dry’, they don’t think you should add water or ice – and they don’t think fruit wine is wine, while wittering on about peaches, grass clippings and chocolate! Winemakers routinely add sulphides to grape wine to stop fermentation whereas we don’t add anything chemical. The great thing with home-made wine is that you can make it exactly to suit your palate.”
Colin (left) and Steve toast the fruit of their endeavours with a glass of mixed berry wine. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Colin has been teaching the simple art of making fruit and vegetable wines on and off since about 1976 after making his own feijoa wine. “It was horrible,” he recalls, “but it made me determined to get it right.”
The retired teacher learned his lesson well as some years later a New Zealand wine judge tried his tamarillo bubbly and claimed it was the best wine he’d ever tasted. However, Colin rates strawberry wine as the “elixir of fruit wines” and makes it with berries that are frozen as they’re cropped, keeping them until he has enough to make a batch.
“Berry wine samples nicely at six weeks but is too young to bottle,” Colin says. “We generally leave bottling for at least a year and do it only when we need the flagons. The longer they mature in the flagons, the better they are.”
Steve puts his back into winding the cider press, while Colin holds the table top device, bought from Trade Me, steady. Photo: Sandra Simpson
The couple have their own cider press and still – New Zealand is the only country in the OECD where it’s legal for private citizens to own a still, provided the output is for personal use. The gear for wine-making is straightforward: A food-grade 10 or 20-litre plastic bucket; two 5-litre demijohns or food-grade 5-litre plastic flagons with fitted air locks; siphon tube; screw cap wine bottles; pure water (no chlorine); sugar; acids (including pectolase to break down pectin in fruit to release colour, flavour and improve yield); tannin and wine yeast.
“Good-quality fruit, pure water and cleanliness are the most important things when making wine,” Colin says. “The rest of it is just chemistry.”
The red skin of the Maclear apple ‘bleeds’ into the white flesh. If the apples are refrigerated immediately after picking they make crisper and sweeter eating. Photo: Sandra Simpson
The 0.86ha property, which includes a firewood block, has been planted with modern and heritage varieties of apples, pears, plums, peaches, apricots, berries, feijoas, passionfruit, rhubarb, elder and grapes, as well as nuts and citrus. Colin also uses vegetables for wine, but says these need longer to mellow, with beetroot, “an earthy red”, needing about 8 years before it’s drinkable!
Billington and Black Doris plums have been struggling against the nearby gums – destined for harvest – but in the kitchen garden are damsons and Louisa, “the queen of plums”.
Hawera plums produce a good-coloured red wine. The variety’s name comes from where the tree was discovered, on a roadside in Taranaki. Photo: Sandra Simpson
A fine crop of pears last year encouraged Colin and Steve to use their cider press to make perry for the first time, a pear drink somewhere between white wine and cider. Among their trees are Starkrimson, Conference and Bert’s William Bon Chretian, a selection of the more famous variety named for Bert Davies, who planted an orchard at Wellsford in 1917 using scion wood his brothers had brought home from Italy. “It’s guaranteed to bear well,” Colin says, “and it eats and bottles beautifully.”
Bert’s William Bon Chretian. Photo: Sandra Simpson
The couple pick apples for six months – from Maclear, ripe by the end of December, to Tydeman’s Late Orange which has its final pick in June.
In 2015 the trees yielded 33 litres of juice, half kept as juice and the rest turned into cider. Colin and Steve, who has recently completed a permaculture course, have now also planted cider varieties – Yarlington Mill, Kingston Black, Bisquet, and Sidero – with a view to producing about 60 litres of juice a year. “The cider apples are quite sharp,” Colin says, “so blending them with something like Priscilla, which is sweet, will make a nice juice.” Apples are frozen then defrosted before pressing to make it easier to extract the juice, which is pasteurised for keeping.
Seibel grapes have proved the best in Whakamarama’s high-rainfall, high-humidity climate. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Their grapes have Colin and Steve scratching their heads – some do well and some don’t. Pinot Meunier, one of three varieties used to make Champagne, has adapted to Whakamarama’s fertile soil and hot, humid, sometimes wet, summers, while Tintara, supposedly a variety suited to the Western Bay of Plenty, is only average. “The best one up here would be Siebel, a French-American cross, but in reality we’re too wet for grapes,” Colin says.
This article was originally published in NZ Gardener and appears here with permission.