Unkel Life on Mars

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Winemaker: Rob and Kate Burley

Appellation: Tasman, Upper Moutere, South Island of New Zealand 

Grape Variety:  Pinot Gris (2/15 & Mission clone), Chardonnay, Riesling


Rob & Kate on this wine: “Forget the status quo and don’t think too much about this wine’s components…this just works. Whether you’re stranded in a desert, sinking your toes into the sand, or sitting in front of a fire, the varietal make-up of this wine bridges the gap between the conventional and “new world” thinking.”

Vineyard: 25-year-old vines on clay and gravel, organic and dry-farmed

Making of: the grapes were hand-picked. The Pinot Gris was stomped overnight and pressed to stainless. The Chardonnay was directly pressed to an old barrique. The Riesling was stomped overnight and fermented in old barrique. Bottled in the following spring, unfined, unfiltered, and with light sulfur addition.

Personality: “grapefruit and tropical aromas intertwined with a lick of sea breeze. The palate is a textural twist of tropical and slightly riper stone fruits crossed with a dry, mouth-filling touch of botanicals.”

 

“I was drawn into the winemaking world by my obsession with how things smell – I was even considering perfumes, but in the end, winemaking won,” Rob Burley laughs about his start in the wine industry. Accompanied by his high-school sweetheart turned wife Kate, the energetic New Zealander started an exciting odyssey that eventually led them back to the land they love. Their first globetrotting steps led from their native Tauranga to Australia, where Rob finished his winemaking degree and started working for big wineries, which “nearly drained the passion out of me. Luckily, a friend introduced me to wines of people like Saša Radikon or Jean-Francois Ganevat back then,” Rob recalls.

Happy to delve deeper into this re-found world of scents and flavors, the couple went overseas – traveling around Eastern Europe and helping harvest in the Loire Valley before ending up in Terroirs, a natural wine lovers’ den in central London. Fun fact: he found this job through the famous wine writer Jancis Robinson, to whom Rob “tentatively reached out”. Although working in the highly popular wine bar eventually made him realize that “working in hospo isn’t really my thing”, the gig made him meet Patrick Sullivan, which eventually led to the couple returning back to Australia and Rob back to winemaking in 2015.

The Burleys spent the following three years in Melbourne, with Rob working full-time for the natural wine stars Pat Sullivan and Bill Downie while making his own wine on the side – Unkel’s baby steps. “Being so close to Melbs’ vibrant food scene was a good way to start a brand, but I was kind of buying fruit from many different places and didn’t really like that. In the end, we felt the need to go back to New Zealand and start farming our own fruit, in a land that we feel way more connected and emotionally attached to,” they explain.

After a bit of searching for a spot to settle in, the couple got a tip about a vineyard block to lease in Bronte, South Island, from their friend Alex Craighead, the owner and winemaker of Kindeli, a famous winery nearby. “I think we really found a sweet spot here. You’ve got natural parks, walks, lakes, skiing, beaches with even a little bit of surf at your doorstep,” Rob smiles and, having briefly visited this incredibly picturesque and sunny piece of land next to the Abel Tasman National Park that has it all, we can’t but jealously agree.

“Not that we have a lot of time for it though, with our little son and mainly the vineyard,” Rob chuckles. Oh yes, the vineyard: besides being a great lifestyle choice, the Moutere area is also quite a gem wine-wise, especially in the upper part where the Burleys are. “You get cold nights and a bit more gravel in the soil compared to the lower parts, meaning more acidity and finesse in the wine, which is exactly what we were looking for,” Rob nods. There is an important, moderating maritime influence and enough sun and rain at the right times, and, quite importantly for a young starting family (both Rob and Kate are in their early 30s), the region is not (yet) in the limelight, meaning they could find a vineyard to lease for an affordable price.

Hence, since the 2020 vintage, Rob’s dream of farming their own fruit has come true: he’s now proudly taking care of 5 hectares of 25-year-old dry-farmed organic vines on a gentle north-facing slope. Once in the winery, “rather than being that hands-on, overbearing, parent or father figure, you can think of us more like that cruisy, fun, slightly wild Uncle in your life.
The ‘Unkel’ who will let you learn life lessons the hard but far more interesting and fun way, and only intervenes when totally necessary,” Rob explains the philosophy behind both their minimalist approach and brand name. The resulting wines are bursting with life, bright acidity, and energy that speak of their honest farming. They’re just as colorful as their joyful names and the eye-candy labels created by the couple’s friend suggest; an irresistible combo we couldn’t but introduce to the thirsty natural wine lovers stateside.

With one’s dream fulfilled, what does the future hold? “Oh, we’re only getting started,” Rob laughs. “I’m fine-tuning how to be an even better farmer, with things like under-vine management, etc. We’ll release a new Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from our home block, more sophisticated, and longer-aged than our current wines. I re-grafted a small plot of Chenin Blanc so can’t wait to see what this brings. See, there’s still a lot to learn. We’re definitely not just happy with where we’re at!”