What Is A Winemaker If Not An Interpreter Of Nature And Time?

In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Tai-Ran Niew is not just making wine but taking minimal intervention back to the vineyards.

What Is A Winemaker If Not An Interpreter Of Nature And Time?
While the Willamette Valley region in Oregon is better known for pinot noir, winemaker Tai-Ran Niew has chosen to plant chardonnay at Niew Vineyards.Images: Peter Schweitzer

Upon immediate opening, the Niew Vineyards Chardonnay 2019 is tight, precise, austere, but with a lemon-lime freshness, lean minerality and solid backbone that hints at a wondrous possibility. It is understandably shy — still too young at barely two years old — but its potential is unmistakable. 

Leave the same bottle open for a day and the wine opens up and sings a glorious symphony of vibrant lemon curd, toasted brioche and sweet vanilla, backed by a soothing salinity and invigorating tension — pointing to an even greater potential once the vintage is bestowed the luxury of time.

Luckily, Tai-Ran Niew, the 53-year-old winemaker behind Niew Vineyards, seems to be in no hurry. It’s certainly not as if the British-born, Singapore-raised former investment banker fell into winemaking overnight either. 

A passion for wine and academic curiosity led former investment banker Tai-Ran Niew down the winemaking path.Images: Peter Schweitzer

Armed with a PhD in aeronautical engineering from the University of Cambridge, he spent 12 years as an investment banker in Hong Kong, Singapore and Beijing before calling it quits in 2006. 

Driven by a love for wine, he started making inroads into the world of wine — earning a Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) certificate, assisting with research on a book co-authored by wine critic Jancis Robinson, working as a harvest intern in South Australia, blending wine in Bordeaux and doing research on biodynamics in Burgundy.

“The initial stages of my travel and studies in wine were not simply about a love for wine, but were rather fuelled by academic curiosity. Viticulture and oenology meant I re-engaged with science and technology, something I missed dearly,” he explains. 

It was the opportunity of communing with nature, through an academic lens, that ultimately led to him putting down (literal) roots. Married with two young sons — Wen Hao and Wen Han — Niew bought a 32-hectare plot teeming with indigenous flora and fauna at the northern end of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, on which he planted 2 hectares of chardonnay vines in 2015. He lives with his family in the city of Portland, a 40-minute drive from the vineyard.

He had settled on Oregon because its cool climate mirrors the wine regions of Europe, particularly Burgundy, Champagne and Chablis, and he wanted “to make wines of a style characterised by the relatively cooler regions of the winemaking world”.

While he could have had a much easier time buying over a vineyard and a winery, the academic in him relished the prospect of self-discovery. 

“The context to which I started this is very different,” he says. “I am intrigued by the academic aspect of the whole process — from farming to making wine. I spend a lot of time asking questions of why are we doing it this way, why not another way?”

He acknowledges that he is in a rare, privileged position to be unconstrained by business plans or financial targets, which allows him to constantly re-evaluate and tweak processes at Niew Vineyards.

With the goal of making “the most ethereal Oregonian wine there is”, farming at the vineyard is inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka, the late Japanese farmer and philosopher who was an outspoken advocate of the value of observing nature’s principles. 

Niew was introduced to Fukuoka’s concepts when his wife bought him a copy of The One Straw Revolution. He had been researching biodynamic agriculture at the time and found the contrast between Rudolf Steiner’s prescription for human intervention in farming activity and Fukuoka’s do-nothing approach revelatory.

“At its apogee, a Fukuoka vineyard will grow grapes with just air, rainwater and sunlight. No fertiliser, no compost, no sprays of anything and no tilling. Is that not how a vine would grow and produce fruit in the wild? His philosophy is so much more scientific, simple, yet elegant. I didn’t know if it would work with a vineyard, but it was so intriguing that I had to try,” Niew expounds.

“The path I have chosen is not a critique of conventional, organic or biodynamic winemaking — it’s a personal choice of finding a protocol that’s logically consistent and philosophically interesting.”

When planting his chardonnay vines — comprising 12 different clone selections on three different rootstocks, taking advantage of his region’s loam- and iron-rich Jory soils — Niew opted not to till the soil or use any chemicals. So far, the vines have not received anything but rainwater, sunshine and a spray of milk. 

And even though the vines have been growing within that same environment, there are huge differences in vine vigour throughout the 2 hectares of chardonnay. Some vines have perished while others are thriving and growing fruit. Niew’s approach is to observe them without being too reactive, noting that it is only with time and patient study over each season that he will then develop a truly intimate understanding of the ecosystem he is working with.

Eventually, he will create massal selections from his matured vines in the vineyard for future plantings.

Niew made only 1,320 bottles of the Niew Vineyard Chardonnay 2019. The wine label’s calligraphy, which reads “Niew Family Vineyards,” was written by Niew’s father.Image: Peter Schweitzer

“The absolutely fundamental principle of Fukuoka’s philosophy is that I cannot farm to a prescribed yield, I will only find out what the vineyard will naturally give me each season. Last year, I managed to get 100 pounds of grapes! Unfortunately, because of the wildfires, I chose not to use them in that vintage.” 

As his vines are still young, Niew currently sources his grapes from elsewhere. His first vintage, the Chardonnay 2019 which was bottled in March 2021, is made from organic grapes from Lingua Franca, a winery in Willamette Valley’s Eola-Amity Hills, with the addition of an “insignificant” percentage of chardonnay from Niew’s plot. 

With his vines yielding more grapes with each growing season, he hopes to increase the percentage of estate-grown grapes used in future vintages.

Thanks to Fukuoka’s do-nothing, natural farming approach, Niew is still able to work his vineyard on his own, save for a pack of goats and a llama that roam freely on the property to mow the grass and fertilise the soil.

“I would probably need help when I get to the point where I make my own whole vintage. But right now, I make it up as I go along, see what’s going on then react to it, rather than having a big exact plan,” he says. 

Yet, Niew also concedes that should his current natural farming methods falter, he would ratchet up intervention — as minimally as possible — but keep to an organic approach.

“We don’t grow grapes or make wine, we create the environment for vines and wine to thrive. That is the essence of our ethos; farming sensitively through constant observation. The whole process has been very personal because of this beautiful philosophy that I hope my children will enjoy and appreciate, and of course, the consumers too,” says Niew, who has also chosen to feature his father’s calligraphy on his label. 

Ultimately Niew Vineyards is more than a winery. The hope, says Niew, is that it becomes a generational endeavour. In the meantime, as its current custodian, he relishes in reaping the knowledge and joy that nature has to offer while producing wines that are an unadulterated expression of the land.

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