Turangawaewae: A Maori Expression of Terroir

You’ve heard of terroir. The famously untranslatable French term for “somewhereness,” that unique sense of place that comes through in wine.

But have you heard of Turangawaewae?

I’ve just spent the last three days at the 2017 New Zealand Pinot Noir celebration, an event that gathers producers from all of New Zealand’s wine regions together to celebrate what has become the signature red grape of this small island country.

New Zealand, unlike America or Australia most notably, has a much more respectful and appreciative relationship with its indigenous people, the Maori. While the effects of colonialism were much the same as many places around the world for the first century or so of settlement, New Zealand has managed to incorporate and celebrate Maori culture into its society and daily life in an amazing fashion. Maori phrases, stories and songs are taught in schools, and referenced frequently in popular culture.

Consequently, the opening ceremony of Pinot Noir NZ 2017 went something like this:

This traditional and formal Maori welcome, with its chanting, formal movements and fierce display of strength, was followed by a series of speakers who laid out what they described as one of the core tenets of Maori identity known as Turangawaewae (pronounced toor-angha-why-why).

Turangawaewae literally translates as “a place to put your feet” or more eloquently “a place to stand,” but its significance goes deeper than that. Each person has their own Turangawaewae, which really means a place to which they are deeply connected, and from which they derive some sense of their own identity.

I came to understand this concept as a place that is responsible for making us who we are. A place whose land and landscape, environment and circumstance significantly shape us to the point that we have a real relationship with this place, one that is mutual and symbiotic.

The Maori concept expressed in English uses the possessive when referring to Turangawaewae. People speak of theirs, and might ask you about yours. But it is clear that this has more to do with English grammar than a sense of how the Maori understand Turangawaewae. Listen to someone talk about the concept long enough, and you will come to feel that rather than someone’s Turangawaewae belonging to them, they feel more like they belong to it.

This idea was illustrated beautifully by winemaker Nick Mills, of Rippon Vineyards. He received what I’ve come to know as a typical Kiwi introduction before his talk:

“Nick Mills was asked to provide a DNA sample once,” said event chair Ben Glover. “There was some confusion and delay in the results when they came back. There was too much Rippon schist and compost. It spawned awkward questions on one front. On the other it served to reinforce what we always knew about him: that his family farm is his lifeblood.”

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Because his talk was so lovely, I’m reproducing it here in its entirety. I can’t think of a better expression (in English anyway) of what Turangawaewae really means.

Here’s what Nick had to say:

“Thank you for your welcome. What a room to be in, what stage to be on. What amazing company to be in. My name is Nick, my planet is Earth, my mountain — Tititea, My river — Matao. My town is Wanaka, my farm is Rippon. I’m a product of my environment. In some respects I’ve had little choice in the matter. I was born into Rippon. So talking about it has always come pretty naturally to me. Those of you who know me know that talking comes pretty naturally to me.

Strangely though, preparing for this talk was really tricky. The brief I was given has opened me up to consider pretty much all of what I know and love, so a greater sense of responsibility to do justice to all that has fallen upon me.

Detailing to a few hundred of my peers how we are connected to our land, further binds us to our task. That is to hold onto a beautiful farm and perpetuate certain pastoral values over successive generations of our family.

To be honest though, I spend an unhealthy amount of time terrified. Terrified at not being able to hold onto the farm and what that might mean to our family’s sense of self esteem and self definition. Talking about, it here with you, raises those stakes yet again. So I’ve asked myself to be here, in the present, and not limited by fear of the future.

I may talk about my place, but of course it doesn’t belong to me. I’m the second youngest of six siblings. I work with my mother, my two sisters, my brother, my wife, about four full time staff, some of whom have been with us for over a decade. We’ve been granted a moment of custodianship over a very special piece of land. We care for it collectively, but over time, each of us has developed our own unique relationship with it.

For me I believe that landform, as geology and geography, informs human culture as much as it does agriculture. Hang about long enough in one place, and you become subject to the rhythms of that place. So I’ve been asked to speak about our place and how it was shaped and how it has shaped us. I’m going to do that following my introduction. But it is a clear invitation of you all, over the next three days, to consider your place, and how that place has shaped you.

My planet is earth.

I and everyone else I know, all of us, exist on a molten ball of rock that spins around in a vacuum. It’s just the right distance away from the sun that water can exist in all three of its forms. At some point around 1 billion years into the earth’s existence, organic cells found a way to self replicate — metabolizing, eating, excreting, multiplying in a dark, wet, and airless place. Water became life. Almost 2 billion years later, the first plants, vines and trees evolved to put their roots down into this anaerobic mess and started to release vapor and gas and created our atmosphere. The balanced self-regulated world that we live in, began here. And now, all life as we know it exists in this thin receptive, fluid space between rock and nothingness.

My mountain is Tititea — Mount Aspiring.

Over time the earth developed a crust on the outside. It’s only about 1% of the earth’s volume. It’s kind of like the skin of an apple. Nevertheless it has become mostly, relatively rigid, broken only into large tectonic plates. At some stage the Australasian plate and the Pacific plate began to collide, pushing up land, out of the ocean, and laying it into a massive chain of mountains that have become known as Ka Tiritiri o te Moana, the southern alps of New Zealand.

Closest to us, and the massif that most closely guides our regions climate, is Tititea, our beautiful Mount Aspiring. Nestled under the eastern flanks of Mount Aspiring is a place of temperance, a place of rest and education.

My town is Wanaka.

Wanaka has the same root word as as wangana which in our native language is school or workshop. Maori used to come up from their strongholds on the east coast, and while the men would cross the divide in search of ponamu, New Zealand’s greenstone, their families — the women and the children — would remain and teach. They’d learn hunting, fishing, gathering, genealogy — essentially how to survive in this environment.

In the mid 19th century, a period of European land prospecting and pastoralization began. Of course, there’s a huge amount of history in the meantime. But now over 100 years later, Wanaka is one of the fastest growing towns in our country, yet arguably the values of rest and education still exist. They remain instructive to the culture of our people and also the nature of our wines. I mention that word pastoralization. And I’d like to talk about that idea and why it is so important to the development of our Turangawaewae.

Farming is what one does on a piece of land. The activities you do on the land. Pastoralization is the seeking to find the potential of a piece of land through any type of culture. City culture, agriculture, viticulture, horticulture. Adapting one’s culture to the land and not vice versa.

My ancestors bought Wanaka station, a large isolated, high-country run in 1912. By necessity, the whole place was run by horses. Feed had to be grown for the horses, the local community was the permanent workforce on the farm, so food had to be grown for them. There were gardens, mixed crops, orchards, sheep, cattle, goats, and many ways of using water for irrigation, grinding grain, and eventually, making electricity. They had a cook shop, with a large great oven, and live-in cooks that would feed the community. It was, in effect, a self sustaining farm unit.

This, then was the milieu that our father, Rolf Mills was built into. And he spent a life observing the land, particularly on the Rippon hill part of the farm. And adapting the culture, including the viticulture to that land. So over time, on the shores of lake Wanaka, through much trial and a lot of error, the potential of a place was found in wine growing.

My farm is Rippon.

Rippon is a very well defined piece of land. It’s got a hill, with steep slopes on all sides. Its vines lie on north facing slopes. And mixed crops, trees, animals, families, native habitats prosper on others. We farm Rippon as having its own identity. When we talk about Rippon we’re talking about a distinctive individual. It is our craft to maintain a culture, from micro all the way through to macro that maintains a relationship with this individual and helps it express itself as such. This creates a notion of terroir that is perhaps more aligned with Steiner, a farm voice which represents the living, breathing entity of the farm as a whole, rather than perhaps the Cistercian or Burgundian construct of a singular site or climat which we’re more familiar with in Pinot Noir.

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My family is Mills.

Rolf Mills. Lois Mills. My five siblings. Their children. My wife Jo and our two boys. As a family we’ve been on the land for over 100 years now. We’ve subjected ourselves to the rhythms of this place. Above ground and within it. The family house is made from earth. The earth was taken from the site. A hole was dug to make the cellar, and then the earth was rammed into the walls. Timber taken from the property, for the trusses and internal structures, the kitchen cabinetry were once the kaori workshop benches from the station’s old woodshed. This contributes to the feeling we have of roots growing out of our feet and down into our land, and it reflects an understanding about wine.

If one wishes to have a wine that is round and supple and alive and communicative of its soils, then when the wine is in its infancy, during the first 18 months of its life, when it is most receptive to its surroundings, then surely we must surround the wine in the elements we wish it to be. A vaulted cellar for example is round, supple, alive and communicative of its source. It is, in fact, made of those sources, and through the barrels maintains a symbiosis with the wines.

A Georgian quevri has similar properties. A rammed earth building, built from the land itself, made a house growing up completely encased in our farm’s own native context.

So that’s a start.

How else do we all maintain a relationship with this land? We feel we’ve been able to stay here, to gain our own purchase on this particular piece of land because of culture. The emotional spiritual base of this is family, love, community.

The physical biological base is compost. This is a regular inoculation of living material that grows down into the land and metabolizes minerals out of the rock into a form that the vines can then gain their nutrition from. These mature vines then, which are on their own roots and unirrigated, have now found true purchase in their place.

They are in fact the living tissue manifest of the land itself, and as such, are a vital part of our Turangawaewae.

The human link to our place begins the moment we are born. The fifth generation of our farm has their placentas buried under the roots of native trees. Placenta and land share the same word in Maori — whenua. This strengthens the bonds between humans and their place of birth, enhancing their sense of belonging.

The land on which these trees are planted, faces the place where the ashes of their ancestors are are kept. And as with any type of farm, trying to safeguard the relationship with a piece of land so that it may remain intact over successive generations is the greatest most rewarding challenge we face.

This is particularly true in viticulture. For the quality and accuracy of a wine depends on the health of the land. And the vine. Yet vines, and land, far outlive a single human generation. We can’t simply insist that our descendants carry the craft on. They have to fall in love with the land on their own terms. They, like us, have to find out for themselves, that it is something that might occupy and satisfy their passions over a lifetime.

If wine growing remains the clearest way of caring for the land, then learning the craft becomes a natural thing to do. In the meantime, as a family we remain active participants in our greater environment. We lie, walk, swim, run, climb in it. We bring our children up as as being active parts of the place. But engagement in land doesn’t always need to be active. It could be as simple as sitting, looking, listening.

The engagement in a place can also be in the form of a reconciliation. Aiding the reestablishment of flora and fauna that was here before humans arrived, for example, on our own land but also in public lands.

This is a hand hoe.

I’ve included it here as a totem representing an approach to team culture. As a team we come to work 10 minutes before actual start time for a huddle. We shake each other’s hand. We look each other in the eye. We talk about what we’ve got to do during the day, and then we get out onto the land and go hand-hoeing. Virtually every pair of hands on the property start their day on a kanuka handle of a heavy hand hoe and in the dirt. We connect with our land manually on a daily basis. We start each day as a collective, equally engaged towards the same goal.

Our terroir is not just in the soils, climate and wines. It’s in us.

But it’s just as importantly in how we communicate with each other. It’s also in how we share our culture with others. The Rippon Hall, also built from earth and wood from the property is a place where we and our local community can get together and share the culture of our land. Theater, music, art, celebration, education, community groups. Further afield, this is also the basis behind the Central Otago Burgundy Exchange, now into its eleventh year. And it is from these encounters, we understand that we are not alone or isolated in our work and in our values.

And this is important.

Why wine has developed certain geographic parameters over time — regions, appellations, particular sites — these may help us to better identify their nuances. But what we do and what we believe in as winegrowers has a clear universality. Ultimately I’m proud and completely comfortable being identified as coming from a distinct place. But as my introduction affirms, I identify this simply as being within a zone of crustal upthrust that has now become known as Rippon, Lake Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand.

I identify myself as being part of THIS place, but my real peers aren’t just from here. They’re simply those who believe in the craft of the winegrower. That is, the development of living plant tissue from a particular site, and then guiding it through a natural secondary process into something that we can taste, feel and assimilate into our own bodies.

This doesn’t have political, national, or even hemispheric boundaries.

We’re on a ball. The equator is just a line on a map. Old world, new world, does that really mean anything anymore? Our craft is universal. And I hope that this event can stand as testament to that. It’s a celebration of Pinot Noir in 2017. It is held in New Zealand, in this country, and has certain directive of promoting this country’s produce. But first and foremost it must be a celebration of our craft, and the brilliant way it can make sense of time and place.

This sense of place exists on these islands. It’s here now. And from what we’ve just heard, it’s been here for some time. What’s left for you — for us all — is to go out from this room and find it. To feel it.

I’m immensely grateful to be given this opportunity to share, over the next few days, our place with you. I give my heartfelt thanks to those who have made it possible. Above all I’m happy to be here to share our time in wine together. We’re here now. This is our clan. Let’s make the most of it. For now, at least, this is our era.

Welcome.”

And with that, the 700 attending winemakers, journalists, sommeliers, and wine buyers began our three-day immersion into New Zealand Pinot Noir.



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