Jake Dromgool's Northland

Josh Mellsop
By Josh Mellsop
5 months ago
4 min read

Just north of Auckland, the long skinny tip of New Zealand surrounded by the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean is one of the country's best-kept wine secrets: Northland. 

Northland is steeped in vinous history, and is home to New Zealand's first vineyards. It's the warmest of the Kiwi wine regions, but enjoys cooling sea breezes. The wines from this region are typically at the riper end – for New Zealand. There are the usual suspects... Chardonnay is particularly plush (being more reminiscent of California than Hawke’s Bay), while syrah is bolder and bigger – again, comparatively. But Northland is smorgasbord of varieites, and you’ll even find things like pinotage, chambourcin, viognier and pinot gris in the mix.

"Northland is unique in a lot of ways," says winemaker at 144 Islands, Jake Dromgool. "It’s a long skinny bit of land, the hottest part of the country with the highest growing degree days. There's a massive maritime influence from the east and west, and the two coastlines are only 10km apart in some areas. Viticulturally it's very different. 

"There can be six different soil types in the same distance you can throw a paper plane," says Jake.

"This means the vineyards produce interesting wines. Higher than average rainfall makes vineyard management pretty interesting. It's similar in some ways to regions like the Hunter Valley, even Uruguay or Virginia, and in good years maybe some parts of Margaret River. "

Jake's no stranger to adversity, pushing boundaries, or playing the underdog. Kinda seems to go with the territory, like he and Northland were made for each other.

"When I was 14 or 15," says Jake, "I had an opportunity to get school credits through a work placement program and saw it as a chance to get out of school for a day, ideally in horticulture or agriculture. I started working in the vines at Marsden Estate, and it quickly became an obsession. I went on and got a business degree, and spent a few years working and travelling before coming home and getting back into the vineyards. Since then, I’ve been working full time in viticulture as well as planting my own vineyards and starting 144 Islands."

Jake's family happened to have some land with an overgrown orchard on it that hadn't been tended for 70 years or so, including some grapevines. At 300m altitude, it was relatively high for Northland.

"I planted my own vineyard as an experiment of curiosity, planting unusual things not found in Northland; petit manseng, marsanne, roussanne, grenache – a bit of everything. I wanted to see how these vines responded to the Northland terroir. 

"But if I had to choose one grape, it'd be syrah."

"It expresses where it comes from in such a way that nothing else is like it, says Jake. "In good years you get these big, beautiful monster wines – ripe fruit from the warmer growing conditions with elegance and power."

It has been a battle for Jake, taking his Northland offerings to the wider world of wine, where more famous regions rule the roost.

"There's heaps of potential here, and I think the broader NZ wine community are starting to recognise that, slowly but surely," says Jake. "It's been pretty challenging getting into the already saturated market, as a 25 year old, working full time and managing a young family and business as well. Viticulture and winemaking isn’t for someone not wanting to put a shitload of time in, but I don’t mind the long hours because I love what I do. 

Jake's advice for aspiring winemakers?

"I’m still young myself, and getting my head around everything. You’ve gotta work really hard, but you need balance. There are gonna be good and bad years. If you work hard in the bad years, the good years are easier. Do it with passion and conviction, but, don’t get too far down the rabbit hole. Keep your life in balance, and you’ll love what you do."

While Jake's philosophical about work, his undercurrent of optimism and the coming vintage is palpable. 

"My main goal is just to make wines that express the unique Northland terroir. The 2019 whites are gonna be outstanding. We're preparing to pick early, because conditions have been so good. This is also the first year that all the fruit from my own vineyard will be coming in, now that the first vines I planted in 2015 have reached that age threshold. They’re all dry-grown on gravelly soils, so whens it's dry like this year, the vineyard is very dry, concentrating the fruit. It’s a very exciting vintage."

Follow Jake's vintage and the journey of 144 Islands on Instagram.