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A former rugby champion makes award-winning wines

The Junction in New Zealand is a vineyard by former rugby player John Ashworth who produces award-winning pinot noir

Former New Zealand All Black rugby player John Ashworth with his grape vines at his home at Junction Wines vineyard in Takapau.
Former New Zealand All Black rugby player John Ashworth with his grape vines at his home at Junction Wines vineyard in Takapau. (Photo by Marty Melville, AFP)

It was on a New Zealand rugby tour of France in the 1970s when ex-All Blacks hardman John Ashworth tasted the wine that inspired him to become an award-winning winemaker.

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At The Junction, his vineyard near the small town of Takapau, a three-hour drive from Wellington, a room off the cellar door is packed with rugby memorabilia from Ashworth's glory days.

Next to the stacked wine bottles is a treasure trove of international rugby jerseys, including the first All Blacks shirt of his nephew Brodie Retallick, a World Cup winner in 2015.

The vineyard's signature wine is a reserve "Front Row" pinot noir. The label features a photo of a muddied Ashworth packing down at the front of the All Blacks scrum during a Test match.

His wines have won dozens of awards including a gold medal for his aromatic pinot noir at the New Zealand International Wine Awards last year.

'Straight to my toes' 

Now 74, Ashworth's eyes light up when he recounts how he discovered pinot noir on a tour to France in 1977.

"It was my first All Blacks tour--a culture shock with the language and food," Ashworth told AFP.

"We were interested in trying some French wine to go with the garlic snails.

"I found the bigger reds were beyond my palate. One of the other props suggested I try a pinot noir.

"It went straight to my toes. No other wine had given me that experience."

Time has diluted Ashworth's memory of exactly where in France his love-at-first-taste passion began.

"It was in Burgundy, I think. Or maybe further south. I should have kept the bottle."

He started to dream about making his own wine.

"The idea came to grow (grapes) around the house, as a hobby, to go with our lamb on the farm. One thing led to another."

In his day, Ashworth was an uncompromising forward who played 52 games for New Zealand. He was known as an enforcer for the All Blacks.

Argentina star fly-half Hugo Porta was left nursing a bruised jaw when Ashworth's elbow caught him during a 1979 international match in Dunedin.

The previous year, on a tour of the United Kingdom, Ashworth earned notoriety when his boot tore the face of JPR Williams at a ruck, leaving the legendary Wales full-back needing dozens of stitches.

Ashworth still regrets the incident and toasted Williams when he heard that the Welsh great had died recently.

"It's something you don't forget, it certainly wasn't done with malice. I've raised my glass a couple of times to him," he said.

'Haven't got a bloody clue'

Ashworth's dream of his own vineyard became a reality after moving to his current farm nearly 40 years ago.

Things got serious when son Leith decided to switch his course at Lincoln University, near Christchurch, from agriculture to viticulture and oenology, the art of winemaking.

"He'd come home to help me plant, then went back to Lincoln, rang me up and said, 'Dad, you haven't got a bloody clue what you're doing. I'm going to change my degree.'

"That's how it all kicked in."

Ashworth has a soft spot for the pinot noir grape because it needs particular care.

"It's the thinnest skin of the reds, so you have got to treat it with a lot of love and gentleness. If you get a good one, it really is a beautiful wine to enjoy."

He tends to the vines, helped by the sheep on his neighbouring farm, which eat the leaves.

Once the grapes are harvested, Leith takes over.

The vineyard produces half a dozen different wines, but Leith says the pinot noir is particularly hard to grow because of the vineyard's gravelly soil.

"It's temperamental, gives a low yield with good quality," Leith added.

He says his father has mellowed since his rugby days.

"His reputation on the field is different to his persona these days," Leith said.

"All he wants to do now is convince people to drink pinot noir with him."

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