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Domenic Mondillo, who trained in restaurant management and culinary arts in the United States, owned two restaurants in Queenstown and, in his words, ‘had the pleasure of employing Mike Wolter’, who worked as a kitchen hand for him in the late 1980s while looking after Ann Pinckney’s vineyard and winery:
I ended up going out to the vineyard with Mike during the day, because we were only open for dinner, and also started helping Mike in the winery at Taramea. It was a privilege to know him as an individual – and he was a huge inspiration to me.
Wolter went on to establish the Central Otago Wine Company with Sam Neill and his death in a winery accident in 1997 was tragic both for his family and for the close-knit community of Central Otago winegrowers.
Domenic was friendly with other influential members of the small Central Otago wine community of the mid-1980s including Rob Hay (Chard Farm) and Greg Hay (Peregrine) as well as Alan Brady of Gibbston Valley. By the time he sold the first of his restaurants in 1990 and the second in 1992 he had already begun a comprehensive private apprenticeship in viticulture and winemaking. Domenic had participated in vintages for more than a decade and pruned at Gibbston and other vineyards in most years.
By 1996, having completed the Eastern Institute of Technology’s viticulture and winemaking qualification, Domenic was running the viticulture for Gibbston Valley. His appointment there coincided with more Central Otago vineyards coming into production. The Bannockburn vineyards of Mt Difficulty and Felton Road, for example, were beginning to bear fruit in the mid-1990s but their wineries were not yet built. For the vintages of 1995, 1996 and 1997, Gibbston Valley bought substantial quantities of Pinot Noir fruit from them. Being one of the first functional wineries in Central Otago made it possible for Gibbston Valley to begin increasing its production with grapes bought from growers who were intending to make their own wine later. At the same time, it needed to start planting more of its own vineyards against the day when this contract fruit was no longer available.
The first vineyard developed was in Alexandra, just beside the racecourse on Dunstan Road, in 1999, and under Domenic’s stewardship Gibbston Valley also convinced John Perriam of Bendigo Station to sell them some land. It first purchased and planted two blocks on the gentle slopes west of the Quartz Reef vineyard. As the qualities of Bendigo’s north-facing, higher terraces were recognised, many other enterprises, including Gibbston Valley, continued acquiring land there. It has two parcels on the Chinamans Terrace, named after the creek draining the lower slopes of the Dunstan Range, as well as a large parcel east of School Creek on what has been christened Schoolhouse Terrace. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Gibbston Valley had accumulated a total of 75 hectares in six parcels as well as leasing several other vineyards, including two from John Perriam.
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Domenic and Ally Mondillo planted two of their own vineyard sites in the Bendigo locality. One is above the apex of the Loop Road with its highest point at 305 metres and the other further east on the Schoolhouse Terrace that is 388 metres at its highest
Mondillo’s four vineyards on terraces above the Loop Road, Bendigo.
They bought these sites from Bendigo Station for $15,000 per hectare when land suitable for viticulture in Marlborough was selling at over ten times this price. Their four interconnected vineyards above the Loop Road are on three levels all facing slightly west of north with steeper land separating them but linked by carefully sculpted tracks. They are all exposed to the afternoon sun. Pommard vines (clone 5) make up 40 per cent of the total and the more recently selected Dijon clones (114, 115, 667 and 777) make up the remaining 60 per cent of the vineyard’s Pinot Noir clones. At this stage of the evolution of their enterprise the Mondillos are making only two wines – Pinot Noir and Riesling. Their winery equipment consists of just three 6-tonne stainless-steel fermenters and Rudi Bauer vinifies the grapes for them in Cromwell. They vinify only about 25 or 30 per cent of the grapes they grow and Pernod Ricard buys the rest.
Right from the first vintage in 2004 the Mondillo Central Otago Pinot Noir impressed judges in blind tastings and won a haul of medals. With the vines now older, and Domenic and Rudi understanding the Bendigo environment more deeply, recent vintages have eclipsed earlier results. The Mondillo 2008 Pinot Noir was awarded a gold medal and judged champion wine at the 2010 Royal Easter Show. By 2009 their Pinot Noir came from vines being grown sustainably and received a ‘Pure Gold’ in the Air New Zealand Wine Awards of 2010. These local results have been endorsed by commercial success in the United States.
The vineyards along the Loop Road are an excellent example of the need to be wary of spring frosts in Central Otago. In the spring of 2003, for example, frost significantly reduced the crop on some of the vineyards on the Bendigo flats. Aurora’s crop was severely affected. Even the lowest rows of Quartz Reef’s Loop Road vineyard had some frost damage because the cool air ponded near its poplar shelterbelt and flowed back to the vineyard. Gibbston Valley responded by installing fans for frost protection on its two more gently sloping vineyards west of Quartz Reef. Frost-protecting fans are also installed on two of the Mondillos’, almost flat, Loop Road vineyards.
To avoid ‘green’ flavours in his wine, Domenic Mondillo does his best to keep his yields down, but not too low, somewhere over 5 tonnes but less than 8 tonnes per hectare. He believes that if yields are any lower there’s a danger of prematurely getting high sugars in Pinot Noir before getting ripeness. The objective should be to maximise the flavour development without the sugars being ‘ridiculously high’, as too many shrivelled berries give a port-like character to Pinot Noir that is ‘equally undesirable as green flavours’. Like other viticulturists in Central Otago, during the late spring and summer he measures and keeps a close eye on the evapotranspiration numbers each week. In many vineyard regions of New Zealand viticulturists expect the canes to reach about the top of the post at flowering. Domenic’s experience of numerous sites in Central Otago suggests that the canes seldom reach this level by flowering. He sees his overriding role in the vineyard as achieving a balance between helping the vines to grow while limiting their vigour. This involves being careful with applications of water, in particular, and also fertiliser.
In future, the Mondillos intend to sell fewer grapes and produce more wine under their own label, and to this end have set aside a portion of land for a winery site. But Domenic’s long experience of winegrowing makes him cautious: ‘You know, you’ve got to walk, and then you’ve got to walk quickly, before you can run. But I suppose long-term, I’d like to be processing all of the fruit into wine.’ The downturn of the New Zealand economy and those of its international wine markets temporarily slowed these developments, but Domenic and Ally Mondillo’s experience, enthusiasm and initiative are likely to see their plans implemented sooner rather than later.
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