The Story behind the best Pinot Noir in the world by John Saker

The story behind the world's best pinot noir

Derek Hager junior with his son Brad
Derek Hager junior with his son Brad

"I'm sorry, who?" The name on the label, Lansdowne Estate, drew blank looks. No one – not even the New Zealand-based judges present – could shed any light as to the identity of the Wairarapa pinot noir that had just won the prestigious Bouchard Finlayson Trophy in London last year.

This trophy is bestowed on the top pinot noir at the annual International Wines and Spirit Competition (IWSC), a massive taste-fest that draws entries from 90 countries throughout the world. New Zealand has had a remarkable run of success in the pinot noir category, especially of late.

The last nine Bouchard Finlayson winners have all been Kiwi wines. But names like Villa Maria, Peregrine and Valli rank among the country's established pinot aristocracy; accolades for them are not unexpected. Lansdowne Estate? What's the story?

William Beetham (far right) with a group of grape pickers in the Lansdowne vineyards, circa 1898
William Beetham (far right) with a group of grape pickers in the Lansdowne vineyards, circa 1898

The story turns out to be a remarkable one. It contains almost everything a good script demands – a struggle against adversity, family love and loss, and victory against the odds. There's even a fascinating link to the winemaking pioneers of the 19th century.

It begins in 1953, with a 17-year-old immigrant stepping off a boat in Wellington to start a new life. Derek Hagar is a Geordie from North Shields who was drawn to New Zealand by everything he had read and heard about a society that cares about who you are, rather than who your parents were.

Derek trained as an engineer in Wellington and settled happily into his adopted land. One important matter saw him return to Tyneside after a few years: he went back to marry Margaret, the North Shields girl he'd courted when he was 16. Together they raised a family in New Zealand and Derek finished his engineering career in a managerial position with the Department of Labour in Wellington.

It was in the late 1990s that their son Derek junior, who was working as a sales rep, told his parents he'd found them the perfect retirement bolthole. It was a property in Lansdowne on the edge of Masterton with a roomy house sitting beside a large sunny terrace that ran to the edge of the Ruamahanga River.

The Hagars bought it in 1998. Almost immediately, Derek senior entertained the idea of growing grapes on the land. That whim grew into a firm resolve when a local viticulturist told him the conditions were perfect for vines, and even more so after the history of the land came to light. The Hagars' patch, it transpired, occupied the site of the Wairarapa's first vineyard, planted by William Beetham and his French wife Hermanze in the late 19th century.

The Beethams' vineyard was one of New Zealand's early wine success stories. We know it was planted with pinot noir and syrah, among other varieties, and that pinot particularly excelled on the site. In 1901, The Wairarapa Daily Times reported: "Beetham has tried other varieties… but the 'pineau noir', his first favourite, still surpasses all others."

Lord Ranfurly, the Governor of New Zealand and something of a wine connoisseur, tasted the Beethams' wine at Lansdowne and said it equalled, if not surpassed, the best Australia could produce at that time. Sadly though, the Beetham wine venture didn't last – it's likely that phylloxera put an end to it. After years of declining yields, the vines were pulled out in 1907.

While there is no way of knowing the exact location of the Beetham vineyard, circumstantial evidence does point to at least part of it being on the Hagar property. So, more than 100 years after the Beethams, the Hagars began planting vines. They followed the example of their predecessors by deciding to put in both pinot noir and syrah, along with some pinot gris. But just before they began, shocking news arrived from England.

Their son Derek had been living in Southampton and late one night, after locking up the restaurant he was managing, he was assaulted; hit from behind on the head with an iron bar. He survived, but it was a seriously brain-damaged son the Hagars welcomed back into their Masterton home.

"His speech and eyes were affected, he couldn't concentrate, his memory was all over the place. And he was on all these drugs," recalls Margaret. Young Derek went to work alongside his father creating the new vineyard. It was no easy task. Inhospitable boulders had to be manually extracted and nearly 90 per cent of the first vines they planted died. But Derek junior took to the work eagerly, and it proved therapeutic. "He improved week by week," says his father. "After two years he was doing crosswords, had thrown away his glasses, and was coming up with ideas. The more he was challenged, the better he got. He took on more and more of the load and became very knowledgeable."

Derek junior knew what he wanted for Lansdowne Estate. He told his father they had "a terroir as good as anywhere" and they shouldn't compromise on anything. The vines were close planted, the yields kept punishingly low and from the start they chose not to irrigate.

"One day we'll make the best wine in the world," Derek said to his mother on more than one occasion. Margaret was far from convinced. "I was the doubting Thomas," she says. "I used to close my ears when they started talking like that."

The first Lansdowne Estate wines were made in the 2009 vintage by Karl Johner (who has also made all the estate's subsequent wines). They were entered in the IWSC in 2011 and all three varietals received medals, with the pinot noir gaining silver. The two Dereks were elated. Clearly they were on the right path.

The following year, 2010, the grapes ripened well but conditions at harvest proved difficult and only around 300 bottles of pinot noir were made. The Hagars kept it cellared for several years, as they do with all their wines. In early 2013, Derek junior was impressed with how the 2010 pinot noir was coming along.

Late in the growing season that year he told his father it was time to enter the wine in the IWSC. "Dad, I reckon it will win," he said. Around that time he also told his father there was no place in the world he'd rather be than where he was, doing what he was doing.

The night before they were to start the 2013 harvest, Derek junior had a brain haemorrhage and died instantly. He was 48. According to doctors, the attack in Southampton had had the final word. His death is the main reason the name Lansdowne Estate has remained virtually invisible beyond its presence in a handful of restaurants in the Wairarapa and Wellington.

It was the younger Derek who was to have led the marketing effort. "He had the experience to do all that. Without him, I simply haven't had the time," says his father.

The wines can be bought online ), although stock of the trophy-winning Lansdowne Estate Pinot Noir 2010 is running very low. But if somehow you do find yourself in the presence of a bottle, turn it around. After winning the Bouchard Finlayson, Derek senior was told by an IWSC judge, "this means you've made the best pinot noir in the world".

So he added a small extra label at the back. On it is a photo of his son Derek, with the words "You fulfilled your dream. Well done, bonnie lad."

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