How Tohu wines is sharing Māori culture, story and values with the world

A vineyard with rows of green grapevines and a hill in the background

It’s more than 23 years since Tohu wines was launched as the world’s first Māori-owned wine company. Rachel Taulelei, Kono CEO, shares the background to Tohu’s award-winning offering, the Whenua series.

Our vision in founding a wine company was to have a platform to share our culture, story and values with the world. They were modest beginnings, but thanks to the mahi and vision of pioneers such as James Wheeler and Mugwi Macdonald, and the hard work and talent of our winery and vineyard teams, we now create award winning wine that is enjoyed globally.

When Bruce Taylor, our chief winemaker, was looking ahead for his next challenge, he started working on a concept for a range dedicated to our whenua, our land.

With Tohu we are proud that we can take our own grapes from our vineyards, to our winery, to the people who buy and drink our wine. Through Tohu wines we get to take kaupapa Maori to the world every day. We strive to work in ways that are kind to people and the environment without compromising quality and integrity. We have a strong spiritual connection with the land and a responsibility to pass it on in good health to future generations.

This strong connection with the land, our turangawaewae here in Te Tauihu (the top of the South Island), is what is being celebrated and explored in our Tohu Whenua series of wine. In winemaking there is a concept called “terroir” – this is the characteristic taste and flavour imparted to a wine in the environment in which it is raised or created – climate, soil and terrain.

In Maori, we have a term, te wa. Te wa is about the convergence of time and place. It speaks of seasons and time, of areas and regions and space. When the human element is added to te wa, the relationship between people, land, the seasons and light result in a nexus of interconnecting elements. And it’s this magic convergence and our connection to the land where we grow our grapes that is celebrated in the Whenua series.

Each Whenua wine is an expression of the distinct contours and complexities of our turangawaewae, our standing place. All the wine in the Whenua series can be traced to the individual blocks from where the grapes are sourced. These blocks were chosen because they represent the true characteristics of the land. Our two vineyards, Whenua Awa in Upper Awatere Valley, Marlborough, and Whenua Matua in Upper Moutere, Tasman, have quite different characteristics and produce very distinct flavours in the wines.

Whenua Awa is perched high on the remote terraces of the Awatere Valley, where the climate is cool, winds are strong, braided rivers powerful and the frosts are harsh. It’s here where members of the whanau that owns Tohu wines, Rore Stafford, Mugwi Macdonald, James Wheeler, Paul Morgan and others, planted our first grapes – such a significant day for us.

Whenua Matua sits on the sunny slopes of Upper Moutere. It was given its name, which means “signifi cant land”, to recognise its deep meaning for the whanau of Kono’s parent company, Wakatu, as it was one of the original blocks of Tenths’ lands returned to us when Wakatu was incorporated in . It had been leased out for a long time, and when we took it back, it was covered in gorse.

We started planting grapes in, and now Jonny Hiscox and his team not only produce stunning grapes, but have also restored wetlands and planted thousands of native plants and trees, which has seen the return of native birds and fish to the area.

Both our vines and our people are sustained and defined by roots entwined in this part of the land; whenua that bore the footprints of our ancestors, and which we tend now in anticipation of the steps of our grandchildren’s great-grandchildren. Our inherited values underpin our treatment of the land and the wine. We take care to tread lightly and minimise our impact, and recognise the characteristics that make it, and us, special.

With this series, we’re giving an insight into some of the beauty and complexity of our turangawaewae through wine, and how it is woven through time as a part of us and our legacy.

A man walking through a field with his back to the camera

Best in show

The wine industry is raising its glass to Tohu wines – the only New Zealand winery to win a Best in Show award at the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards for its Whenua Matua Chardonnay, a single-vineyard wine grown in the rich clay soils of the Upper Moutere region.

The award is a major achievement for Tohu, the world’s fi rst Maori-owned winery; its Whenua Matua Chardonnay standing out amongst more than 8, wines from around the globe that were judged, with only being awarded the Best in Show accolade. Tohu was the only New Zealand winery to be given this award.

The Decanter World Wine Award success came hot on the heels of accolades for the winery at the Royal Easter Show Wine Awards, with the Whenua Awa Chardonnay claiming gold and winemaker Bruce Taylor being named Winemaker of the Show.

Kono CEO Rachel Taulelei says the company is immensely proud of winning the Decanter Best in Show award. “The Chardonnay is a special release for us. Each wine in the Whenua series is an expression of the uniqueness of our tu rangawaewae, our standing place, and our connection to the land.

“To be acknowledged and singled out from thousands of wines in such a prestigious wine competition is confirmation that care for the land and its bounty is totika, a beautiful balance.”

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