New Zealand 2020 – Marlborough

This is the third part of a four-part report from my tour of some key New Zealand wine regions in 2020.

  1. New Zealand 2020 Overview and Kumeu River
  2. Central Otago
  3. Marlborough
  4. Hawke’s Bay

Marlborough

At the northern tip of the South Island, Marlborough is yet another jewel in New Zealand’s dazzling landscape, framed by mountains, the sky blue, air crystal-clear, and with a wonderful coastline that produces fabulous seafood and boasts the unique watery world of the Marlborough Sounds.

Marlborough is also the engine room of the entire New Zealand wine industry, responsible for 77% of the country’s production. The oil that lubricates that engine is Sauvignon Blanc, accounting for four of every five bottles of Marlborough wine.

Marlborough ‘Savvy’ is a phenomenon, a combination of place and grape variety that enjoys global fame and a fanatical following that no other Southern Hemisphere country can match. Is Sauvignon’s massive popularity a blessing or a curse? That depends on where you are coming from, but while winemakers in New Zealand’s other regions must surely harbour some resentment at the focus on this one category, they also recognise that Marlborough Sauvignon is the bedrock of the industry, and puts this tiny country firmly on the world wine map.

It’s impossible to deny that there’s a lot of ordinary Marlborough Sauvignon about. By ordinary, I mean undistinguished rather than poor quality: even the biggest brands deliver wines of excellent quality. It’s just that so many of them do seem very much alike. Could entry Italian Pinot Grigio or Chilean Merlot be accused of exactly the same thing? Definitely, but Marlborough Sauvignon is so distinctive that similarities are more obvious. Maybe that’s part of the secret of the success?

But Marlborough is not only about one wine style, nor indeed is it only about Sauvignon Blanc. Several producers of Sauvignon are making very different styles, both by focusing on specific terroirs and the differences they can make, and by adopting wild yeasts, barrel fermentation, lees ageing and other complexity-giving techniques. Pinot Gris is leading the chasing pack of white varieties, with plantings now on a par with Chardonnay, and while Pinot Noir is undoubtedly Marlborough’s flagship red, a whole range of ‘alternative varieties’, from Syrah to Tempranillo, and from Gamay to Saperavi, can be found. There is much more diversity in Marlborough than even just a decade ago.

Understanding and coaxing the best from the specific soils, climates and characters of sub-regions is the big movement today. The Southern Valleys (pictured) boast clay soils and a cool, relatively dry climate, the Wairau Valley offers old gravel riverbeds and sea-breeze moderated coastal sites, while the Awatere Valley, further inland, is cooler, drier and windier, with a degree of elevation. Expect increasing focus on these, and individual vineyard sites, in the future.

The Estates

Dog Point Vineyard

An estate that has really impressed me over the years, Dog Point is organically farmed and certified, with a non-interventionist philosophy. Fruit is hand-picked from low cropped, estate-grown vines. I toured their vineyards in the Southern Valleys with winemaker Murray Cook, in a glorious landscape of undulating hills, hollows and folds, that’s very unlike many of the vineyards on the flat around the town of Blenheim.

Dog Point is one of the oldest estate vineyards in Marlborough, plantings dating back to the early 1980s. White wines comes from free-draining silt and clay loams on the flats, though some hillside blocks have more clay and “add to the interest of the Chardonnay blends,” according to Murray. Clay and loam soils on gentle, closely-planted slopes are suited to Pinot Noir. All began conversion to organics over a decade ago. Today vine prunings and winery waste is turned into organic compost, planting cover crop like buckwheat and phacelia between rows has encouraged beneficial insects, and over the winter months, 2,500 sheep roam the property to keep down grass and weeds and add organic matter to the soil.

That evening we had dinner at the superb Arbour restaurant near Blenheim with Murray’s fellow winemaker and son of the estate’s founder, Matt Sutherland. Ivan Sutherland and James Healy met while working at Cloudy Bay and say they “decided to return to a more ‘hands-on’ approach to winemaking,” using fruit from the 80-hectare vineyard established by Ivan and his wife Margaret. Joined by James’ wife Wendy, Dog Point launched with the 2002 vintage. Murray and Matt are smart team, quietly confident and ambitious, without necessarily looking to change this impressive operation.

Mahi Wines

I’ve followed Brian Bicknell’s path from a distance since we first met around 15 years ago, as house guests at Waterfall Bay, Michael Seresin’s striking home on the Marlborough Sounds. At that time Brian was head winemaker for Seresin, having previously held the same position at Viña Errazuriz in Chile amongst others. Around 2001 he started the Mahi project along with his partner Nic (pictured), but did not make the leap fully until 2005/6 when he quit his job in Seresin and the couple purchased an established winery in Renwick – formerly home of Daniel Le Brun’s sparkling wines, complete with deep natural cellars carved into the hillside.

Brian was in London at the time of my visit, so winemaker Duncan Patterson, who has been with the project since 2008, led me through a tasting of their range. Mahi is focused on specific vineyard sites, with nine hectares owned or leased, by also sourcing fruit from growers across seven vineyards. Blended wines are made, with fruit from all seven vineyards, but also separate singe vineyard bottlings.

Pat ran me through the vineyards as we tasted, such as the Ward Farm, close to the sea in the south of Marlborough, where it benefits from cool southerly winds, the stony Byrne Vineyard in Wairau on a gravel riverbed, or Boundary Farm in the Southern Valleys with its soils of clay and wind-blown loess. Expressing the character of those sites is the mission of this experienced team.

Forrest Wines

Dr. John Forrest is the much-respected owner and winemaker at his eponymous estate, today joined in the role by his smart and experienced daughter, Beth (pictured). Before heading to their popular cellar door for a tasting of Forrest Estate’s wines, we meet-up at one of the key vineyards in the company’s recent ‘The Doctors’ low-alcohol project. A growing category in Marlborough, spearheaded by the Forrests, natural techniques in the vineyard are employed to produce wines with around 9.5% alcohol. The techniques are mostly to do with specific sites that allow a new regime of canopy management and earlier picking, yet delivering flavour ripeness.

For the category of reduced alcohol wines, The Doctors’ range is truly excellent. And there’s the caveat: they achieve the goal of retaining flavour and ‘vinosity’ extremely well and they are massively successful – John can envisage their sales overtaking Forrest Estate in time. But though good, they cannot have the complexity or ‘seriousness’ of Forrest Estate’s wines. As he drives me back to the cellar door, I ask him how he feels about the Doctors’ potentially being his legacy? “Do I want to be remembered only as the man who made the low alcohol wines?” he asks with a rueful smile. “Well, the main thing is to make sure a viable business carries on,” he says.

John Forrest knows Marlborough as well as anyone, and also makes a significant amount of wine for other estates, broadening his perspective even further. “Pinot has to come from the old clays of the south, the heavier soils, with water retention and more complexity,” he says for example, as we run through the wines and what the properties of the vineyard give to each. It’s a great range, with phenomenal sweet wines too, and though not tasted here, the Forrest picture also includes yet another label ‘Tatty Boggler’, with wines from Central Otago and Waitaki.

Wairau River

The next two estates literally face each other across Rapaura Rd in Marlborough and have many similarities.

Wairau River is a family concern, but a significant one. Started in 1978 by local farmers Phil and Chris Rose, this was a pioneering project for the area, though estate bottling of their own wines began several years later, in 1991. Today all five of their children – plus partners – are involved in the business which includes the winery, cellar door and a thriving restaurant where I met up with Nick Entwistle, who shares winemaking duties with Sam Rose. Sam’s brother Hamish is Wairau River’s viticulturist.

The Vineyards here were some of the first planted in the north of the valley, on the banks of the river. Phyloxerra devastated the vines in the 1980s, but today 360 hectares have been successfully planted and replanted on resistant rootstocks in the free-draining, stony soils. A broad range of wines is produced, including Albariño, Viognier and Syrah as well as the more typical varieties of the region.

One of Nick Entwistle’s big targets is yield control, and the vineyards get plenty of attention: “What’s above the ground needs to be balanced by what’s underground,” he says. “A big canopy and small root system, or vice versa, is unbalanced.”

Giesen

Giesen is another of Marlborough’s big players with almost 300 hectares of vineyard. This family-owned company began in the early 80s, when brothers Theo and Alex Giesen arrived from Germany, to be followed a couple of years later by younger brother Marcel, whom they’d persuaded to train as a winemaker. Today, like their neighbours at Wairau River, a substantial cellar door and casual restaurant business is part of the offering.

I met up with Roscoe Johanson, their global brand ambassador, and Head Winemaker, Nikolai St George (pictured). The enormous range the company produces runs the gamut from their enormous-selling Sauvignon Blanc (the biggest selling New Zealand wine in Australia), to super-premium single vineyard wines and a zero alcohol collection.

Named New Zealand Winemaker of the Year 2019, Nikolai’s appointment four years ago is one facet of the Giesen’s brothers’ decision to invest $13m in “quality and premiumisation,” following the financial crisis of 2008, which coincided with a grape glut in Marlborough and tumbling prices. Another significant part of the programme was their purchase of the Clayvin vineyard in 2015. Planted in 1991, the densely-planted hillside vineyard is legendary in Marlborough, and long regarded as one of the region’s ‘grand cru’ sites. Organically-farmed on clay soils, it’s low yielding vines have provided fruit for some of the region’s most iconic wines.

In fact, 11% of Giesen’s vineyards are now farmed organically. “Organic viticulture can change the style of the wine,” says Nikolai, “You have to open the canopy for sun, which changes the pyrazines and thiols in the wine.” Those are the compounds that give Sauvignon Blanc its particular pungent character, so Nikolai has a huge number of components to work with. Though Giesen does produce huge quantities of commercial wine, he is part of a concerted effort to also celebrate the best of Marlborough, and Giesen is certainly playing its part in that.

Riverby Estate

Kevin Courtney is the managing director of this family business, boasting some of Marlborough’s oldest vineyards, and perfectly sited next door to Cloudy Bay on Marlborough’s famous ‘wine street’, Jacksons Road. The property has been in the family’s hands for over 100 years, all wines coming from their own vineyard first planted in 1989, with several blocks planted on their own roots. It’s a substantial farm with over 70 hectares planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Semillon, Syrah and Grüner Veltliner.

As Kevin takes me for a drive around the estate it becomes clear that knows each block, each row – each vine – intimately. It’s a farming-led operation, where yields are kept very low and several varieties are hand-picked. Sustainable grape-growing techniques are practised throughout the growing cycle and, in a throw-back to past glories when this was a substantial sheep farm, sheep are used to control weeds and grass, wandering throughout the vineyard.

The wines are made by the estimable Dr John Forrest, whose expertise not only with Sauvignon Blanc, but with Rieslings both dry and sweet, makes the best of this beautiful quality of fruit. It’s a boutique operation with a large number of wines in its range, thanks largely to Kevin Courtney’s huge personal enthusiasm, including delivering tutored tastings to his local wine group on the world’s wines. “Look, I’m not a winemaker,” he says modestly, “I’m a wine drinker and wine lover.” That is a prime qualification.

Jules Taylor Wines

Jules Taylor is one of Marlborough’s most experienced winemakers, born in the region and making wines for many years before launching her eponymous label alongside her husband, George.

Jules Taylor Wines began as a little side project in 2001, crafting just a couple of hundred cases while Jules held down her winemaking day job as Chief Winemaker for the Kim Crawford group. Over the years I suspect the corporate life appealed less and less, and in 2008 the couple took the plunge to transform JT Wines into a full-time business.

Purchasing grapes from local growing families is part of the business philosophy, “Because they care about what they produce. It is their livelihood; their bread and butter,” says Jules. She does however play a very hands-on part in the growing and decision making on every aspect of the viticulture, including picking dates and fruit selection. I guess that ability to source fruit widely aids her ‘small batch’ production ideals, with plenty of experimental wines including her OTQ range.

Standing for ‘On The Quiet’, this is the portfolio of small and ever-changing batches of wines – some organic, some ‘natural, some skin contact – that stand apart from the excellent, but more orthodox Jules Taylor Wines label. It’s a playground and an ideal illustration of the freedom she now enjoys, with a sense of fun and mischief always bubbling beneath the surface.

Saint Clair

“Saint Clair now makes the country’s, and perhaps the world’s, best Sauvignon Blanc.” That claim is made not by Saint Clair, but by New Zealand writer and Master of Wine, Bob Campbell. That’s quite an accolade for this family company, pioneers in the region when Neal and Judy Ibbotson set up in 1978. They are still fully involved as directors, as is the next generation with son Tony’s design business looking after all packaging and promotional material, and daughters Sarina and Julie working within the business in sales and marketing.

I met up with Senior Winemaker Stewart Maclennan for a tasting over lunch at their excellent cellar door restaurant. Stewart has been with Saint Clair since 2003, part of a winemaking team that also includes fellow Senior Winemaker Kyle Thompson and Head Viticulturist, Hamish Clark. They utilise fruit from both estate vineyards and contract growers, where Hamish shares his viticulture expertise and incentivises growers who provide exceptional quality.

With vineyards across Marlborough (and in Hawke’s Bay) there is a rich diversity of terroir at their disposal, and several single-vineyard bottlings seek to express these sites. A sustainable approach sees minimal use of sprays, with disease pressure managed by achieving good light and airflow, leaf plucking, fruit- and shoot-thinning.

It’s a large portfolio divided into six ranges: Vicar’s Choice is the ‘lifestyle’ entry level, moving up to the main Saint Clair range. The James Sinclair range are expressions of sub-regionality, while the Pioneer Block wines are made from small parcels of fruit from specific sites. Reserve wines are “Saint Clair’s finest,” fruit specially selected and handcrafted. Finally, Saint Clair ‘Dawn’ is a limited release sparkling wine.

Tohu

Kono is a Māori owned food and beverage company, based in ancestral lands in and around Marlborough and Nelson, producing not just wine, but cider and fruits, and harvesting seafood from surrounding waters. I visited their Tohu winery in the Awatere Valley, established in 1998 and focused on estate-grown, single vineyard wines. I met up with winemaker Anna McCarty, who works alongside chief winemaker, Bruce Taylor. Like everyone I met from this operation she seems to embody the company’s philosophy of respect for the land, and building a sustainable business for the 4000 owner families.

Tohu describes its vineyards as Ngā hua a te whenua – our gift from the land – with fruit sourced from the Awatere Valley in Marlborough where the wines are labelled Whenua Awa, and Upper Moutere in Nelson, labelled as Whenua Matua.

In the Awatere their vineyard is beautifully sited around a business-like modern winery, on a ridge of the stony, free-draining river terrace at 200 metres above sea level. Two thirds of the 70 hectares planted here is Sauvignon Blanc, the rest Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Some Sauvignon blocks are organically farmed. In Nelson the small 3.5-hectare vineyard is all planted to Pinot Noir, with the 777 and Abel clones (Abel, legend has it, originally illegally imported as a cutting from the Romanée-Conti vineyard).

Hans Herzog

Hans Herzog (the man) marches to a very self-assured beat that is quite different from many of his peers in Marlborough, making some spectacularly good wines from his certified organic vineyard.

Different? Well, with 26 varieties planted, from Saperavi to Montepulciano, and his absolutely ‘hands on’ dedication in both vineyard and winery, Hans and his wife Therese do not fit the Marlborough norm. Wines are ‘natural’ with no added yeast, bacteria, acid, enzymes or tannins, sulphur is added sparingly, and the wines are not cold stabilized or fined. They are also released after significant bottle age.

I had dinner with Hans and Therese at their onsite restaurant – one of the best in Marlborough as I can attest – but only after the tall and aristocratic Hans walked me through his vineyards, which he knows intimately. Not that he talks that much: he’s the strong, silent type, still with a notable accent even though he left Switzerland for New Zealand in the early 1990s. The bubbly Therese makes up for that.

The couple owned a successful wine estate and restaurant in their native country – the restaurant holding a Michelin star – but Hans found the cool conditions, not suitable for ripening all red varieties, limiting, and their search for a place to replicate that success took them to Marlborough where the land was purchased in 1994, and vines planted in 1996. Yields are extremely low, aiming for profound and concentrated, handcrafted wines and based on the evidence of tasting, they have absolutely achieved that ambition.


Go to part IV – Hawke’s Bay

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