Tim & Judy Finn

POSTED ON 03/03/2008

Wow! At lunch in Wellington, John Comerford, chair of the Air New Zealand Wine Awards, brought along a palate-blowing, expansively, butterscotch-filled mouthful of sheer yum. It was 1991, my first trip to New Zealand. I needed to know more. This delight turned out to be turned out a 1988 Neudorf Chardonnay made by Tim and Judy Finn of Neudorf in Nelson. Sorry, where? I knew about Marlborough and Hawkes Bay, even Canterbury and Central Otago were starting to make a name for themselves. But Nelson? I had to look it up on the map, and finding that it was out beyond Marlborough towards the west coast of South Island, made tracks to the tiny hamlet of Neudorf, established by the Germans in 1842, to meet Tim and Judy Finn. They put me up in the pretty house that looked out over the vineyard in the Moutere (pronounced ‘moo-tery’) Valley they had established.

The first thing that struck me was being impressed that Tim was already using the internet, but as I realize now, it wasn’t so much despite as because of living so far off the beaten track. Tim and Judy Finn have never been parochial. They met while at University in Palmerston North. Judy became a journalist and Tim studied for a Masters Degree in Animal Behaviour at Ruakura Research Station. Close-by was a viticultural research unit, and its wine-loving scientists fed Judy and Tim’s interest in wine. The upshot was that they plumped for Nelson at a time when Marlborough was just getting off the ground with sauvignon blanc. The New Zealand wine industry was still in its infancy and the government was handing out subsidies for planting in Marlborough. There were none for Nelson and ‘the Rural Bank told us to think about sheep - there would be no future in wine’, say the Finns, but they liked the cut of Nelson’s jib.

Faced with the classic New World terra incognita of virgin soil, they started out in 1978 with a hunch that low vigour soils and deep moisture retentive gravelly clay would support grapevines through the dry summer months. ‘Tim dug each hole and I planted each grape’, as Judy describes those ‘days of wonderment and hope’. From a house with a leaky coal range, no hot water and electricity in only two rooms, they kept their day jobs, working till dark and every weekend to give birth to their first vintage 1981. First off, it was the aromatic yet restrained sauvignon blancs and rich, exotic chardonnays that cemented their reputation. Their high hopes for pinot noir took longer. The original clones joined forces with UCD5 and Dijon clones in the 1990s planted at higher density. Today’s pinot noir is a revelation, a perfumed, complex, textured red with savoury undertones that improves with age, and, in Tim’s typically modest words, ‘the poise and finesse that speak more of place than of winemaker’.

Having mastered the Loire and Burgundy styles, although Tim and Judy wouldn’t of course see it in anything like either mastery or Eurocentric terms, they planted riesling and latterly pinot gris, to create a mouthwatering array of wines so impressive that they are the only Australasian winery represented in the UK by the ultra-picky Richards Walford (think Le Pin and top red Burgundy). As Roy Richards says, ‘they’re intelligent people who ask questions, they’re good winemakers and their wines perform well against the opposition. I also happen to like them very much’. Since they’re bright, charming, cultured and fun, it’s impossible not to like Tim and Judy, but to their staff, the word ‘like’ doesn’t begin to describe the loyalty and devotion they command. Typically the Finns will tell you that ‘Neudorf is not Tim and Judy - it is everyone who works here’, but their dedicated staff and even Pip the Bearded Collie would concede that the heart of Neudorf, not to mention the spirit and soul, belongs to Tim and Judy Finn.

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