Clear Thinking from Blank Canvas Wines

A blank canvas for an artist, like a blank piece of paper for a writer perhaps, can be full of hopes, dreads, and uncertainties. Until the first marks are made or words written, it’s sometimes hard to know just what will begin to emerge.

Matt Thomson and SophieIt seems the blank canvas name and its associations are entirely positive for winemaker Matt Thomson and his wife Sophie Parker-Thomson, as it’s the name of their recently-launched New Zealand wine brand, the first project entirely owned by the Kiwi couple. Matt has been one of the world’s most eminent ‘flying winemakers’for over 20 years. I spent a balmy summer evening having dinner with him in Marlborough a few years ago, tasting various wines that he was making, all very impressive. He has continued to rack-up successes, both in New Zealand and across the globe, making wines in Chile, Italy, France, Spain, Romania and Hungary.

Blank Canvas embodies, he says, a philosophy that “embraces using as little manipulation as possible to uphold, over everything else, the wine’s sense of place.” As a flying winemaker he acknowledges that you cannot make the more esoteric, perhaps more risky, wines that might be close to your heart, because the first obligation is towards the client to make wines that are both excellent, and commercially successful. Matt has described Blank Canvas as “Our sand-pit,” a suggestion perhaps that he and Sophie are rather enjoying the freedom to make their own experiments, safe in the knowledge that any risks are all theirs.

Blank Canvas WinesOn the evidence of these four wines, that is not a concern. The wines are terrific, and acheive exactly what the couple set out to do: express not only their varietal character, but the typicity of the places they come from. And (with the exception of their Grüner-Veltliner, the Austrian variety that is still a relatively minor player in New Zealand), they have chosen classic terroir and grape matches: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from clay soils in Marlborough, Syrah from the Gimblett Gravels of Hawkes Bay.  I really enjoyed all four of the wines below, for their effortless and natural style, capturing the essence of this merging of European and Antipodean philosophies.

There are also a couple of Sauvignons Blanc and a Riesling in the line-up, as well as another cuvée of Pinot, which I look forward to trying, but it is clear that this is an agile set-up, sourcing fruit from trusted growers in the best sites that the couple know intimately, and a very sensitive and experienced approach to winemaking.  Oak tends to be very carefully used, mostly larger sized barrels, with low- to medium-toast, and most ferments use only wild yeasts. The fruit also tends to come from single vineyard sites.

It’s a cracking range of wines with quality clearly visible, and well worth investigating. The wines are imported by Liberty Wines. My samples come from Rude Wines, who have more wines from the range and special offer prices at time of review.

The Wines

(2018) This is another winning wine from Matt and Sophie Parker-Thomson. Large French oak barrels, new and used, where employed to vinify this wine, but it wears any hint of oak very lightly indeed, focusing instead on vibrant, essential-oil fruitiness and crispness. Orange, lemon rind and pepper dominate the nose, and yes, a subtle sheen of creamy oak, but the palate is bright and ram-jam packed with flavour, the lime and mandarin orange clarity of the acidity in the finish is just lovely. On offer at £14.95 at time of review, it really is a top-notch expression of Grüner.
(2018) Matt Thomson is one of New Zealand’s most respected consultant winemakers, behind numerous top labels, and now he and his wife Sophie Parker-Thomson have established Blank Canvas, a premium label sourcing fruit from top vineyards, like this single-vineyard Chardonnay, fermented with wild yeast and aged in large French oak barrels, around 40% of which were new. It’s so appealing, with a flinty mineral edge to cool orchard and lime fruit, given creamy intensity from the barrels. In the mouth there’s an unabashed ripeness of fruit, edging from succulent ripe pear and apple into more tropical nectarine notes, buttery Brazil nut creaminess beneath, and zipping-fresh lemon and salts acidity. A serious, top-end example of Kiwi Chardonnay. On offer at time of review for £22.90.
(2018) In Côte-Rôtie, one of the most famous appellations of the Rhône Valley, it is very common for winemaker to blend just a touch of the fragrant white wine grape, Viognier, with Syrah, and Matt Thomson has performed the same trick here with Grüner-Veltliner, to add a little aromatic lift. The result is another firm, really rather European-style from Blank Canvas, pepper, liquorice and black cherry aromatics with a touch of cedarwood too. On the palate this has plenty of grip and edge – it’s a brisk, fairly lean and muscular style, the fruit is very good in a dry, savoury, pepper-edged style that cries out for some winter venison, roasts or slow-braised beef dishes. On offer at time of review at £21.95.
(2018) What a fabulous showing for all of the wines in the Blank Canvas range I must say. From a single vineyard in the Waihopai Valley of Marlborough, a large proportion of this was fermented as whole bunches of grapes, with wild yeasts, before ageing in French oak barriques. What an aromatic Pinot Noir, floral and herbal, bright cherry melts into a subtle earthy and nutty note, then the wine powers onto the palate: it as its seductive side for sure, with juicy, dense fruit, but there is light and air in this picture too, an edge to the firm tannins and the acidity, spice and subtle truffle character, and then a pristine finish almost like a white wine with its cool focus and length. Seriously good Pinot Noir this, multi-faceted and delicious. On offer at £23.95 at time of review.

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