NZ 2010: Marlborough

(by peter)

The mobile road sign read “tsunami alert” as we drove towards the coast on a blazing hot Sunday morning in Marlborough.

We stopped, and turned the car around.

It was just one of the many sobering reminders of the Chilean earthquake that have been filtering through to us in recent days. Being on the road, we’ve been somewhat disconnected from the real world of late, and have not been able to be in touch with our many Chilean friends and colleagues as we would have liked.

As our trip draws to a close, we’ll be rectifying this as soon as we can and will convey the latest news we gather as we do so. We’ll also be posting details of the earthquake appeal fund that has been set up. Please check back in due course for more details.

Back in Marlborough, our diverted journey turned out to be a very diverting one. Instead of carrying on towards the coast, we stopped in at the Marlborough Farmers’ Market in Blenheim. Rabid foodie that she is, Susie is something of a market fanatic (I’m sure there’s a book in that somewhere) and we feel it’s always a good way to take the gastronomic pulse of any place we’re visiting.

Our verdict? Good quality produce – but pricey. (You can get a virtual feel for the atmosphere by clicking on the video below.)

As for the wines we came across, there was no such simple (or simplistic) verdict to be had. Marlborough, it appears, is an increasingly diverse and multi-faceted wine region: hard to pin down, and all the more intriguing for it.

At one extreme you find vat loads of stereotypical, charming clean-green Savvy; at the other, there are tiny producers making outstanding wines of real class and ambition. It’s no longer just about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc: now it’s about the intricacies of sub-regional nuances, from the tropical aromatics of the Wairau plain to the dense minerality of the southern clays, not forgetting the taut, vegetal salinity of the Awatere Valley. And then there are the Pinots, the Rieslings, the Chardonnays, the Gewürz, the Gruner…

We were lucky enough to visit two contrasting but equally fascinating producers: Dog Point and Villa Maria. (The latter, we should state in the interest of full disclosure, kindly put us up during our brief stay in the region.)

Villa is a large operation, but far from the largest on the New Zealand wine scene. Over many years it has built up an excellent reputation as a producer of sound branded wine at a range of price points – even if Susie and I have been a little underwhelmed by some of their wines at a number of tastings over the past few years. So we entered this tasting and visit with an open, if questioning mindset.

The extensive tasting we did at the winery was by and large a pretty decent showing, although it was let down by the fact that we tasted quite a few reds from the decidedly iffy 2008 vintage, which made some lacklustre, weedy reds (especially Pinot Noir). We also thought the Reserve Chardonnay needs a lot more work to deliver at the level it should be (the 2007 is just still too sickly and lacking vibrancy and structure).

The 2009 wines, by contrast, tended to show more promise and concentration. And it was great to see the 2009 Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc, the company’s calling card, back on track after a few vintages in which it had veered into overly commercial, slightly bland territory.

Around three quarters of Villa’s production is Sauvignon Blanc; Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc sells some 4m litres per year. We took a shine to the Awatere Valley Sauvignons – particularly the Graham Single Vineyard. Of the reds, it was actually a Syrah that most took our fancy in the line-up.

We had a fascinating tour (and chat) around the region with Villa’s head Marlborough and Waipara viticulturist, Michael Croad. On the way, we stopped off at one of their top Pinot Noir vineyards, named Rutherford, high up in the Ben Morvan Valley, in prime southern clays territory up towards the Wither Hills. In the following video, Mike introduces the vineyard and the wine:

(Despite Mike commenting that this fruit costs around NZ$4,000 per tonne, our daughter spent most of the visit cheerfully munching on a picture-perfect bunch of Pinot Noir grapes. While birds may be one of New Zealand’s major pests, there will always be some critters that get past the nets.)

Mike raised some fascinating, sometimes controversial points, during our foray. (Some of these are picked up on in the post Insider Opinions: NZ 2010.) The following points are a quick-fire summary:

• The 2008 vintage was a “tipping point” for the New Zealand wine industry, when it moved from under-supply to over-supply during a mediocre vintage and in the teeth of a global economic downturn. “Sometimes Mother Nature gives you a kicking,” mused Mike, noting that the ensuing enforced reduction in yields in the 2009 vintage (some Villa vineyards left as much on the ground as they harvested) “made for our best ever Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc.”

• To illustrate the rapidity and nature of change in Marlborough, in 2005 many growers in the southern valleys requested that Villa bought their Pinot Noir along with the in-demand Sauvignon Blanc. But the southern valley Pinots have proved a hit and nowadays the same growers request Villa take their Sauvignon Blanc along with the in-demand Point Noir…

• Villa’s trials with organics are proving successful – the company currently has a 30-ha block in Marlborough and a 30-ha sister block in Hawke’s Bay. The organic block costs the same if not less to run as conventional vineyards and the wines, according to Mike, are better, with phenological ripeness occurring often at lower sugar (hence alcohol) levels. Mike would like all Villa’s vineyards to be organic within five years. “The main barrier is the mindset of our growers,” he commented wistfully (Villa takes 70% of its production from growers). “With the smaller producers, it’s easy to go organic overnight,” he said. “With us, it’s like tacking the Titanic”.

• The intensity – and, sometimes, quality – of Sauvignon Blanc declines with vine age, in Mike’s view, if the vineyards aren’t properly managed. He mentioned this as we drove through some of Marlborough’s most historic vineyards in the Wairau plain: Cloudy Bay, Hunters, Allan Scott and other vaunted names. If true, this clearly has significant implications for the Kiwi industry, as well as turning one of the wine industry’s received truths on its head (that older vines generally give better quality fruit). The solution? Proper vineyard fertilisation in conjunction with a constant vine renovation programme. In the meantime, keep an eye out for any deterioration in quality of your favourite Kiwi Savvy.

• The exaggerated style of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, as pioneered by a number of well-known names, is gradually falling out of fashion, as these often multi-award winning wines fall flat in the bottle after a few years (especially where the bottles haven’t been stored or shipped properly, as heat degrades many of the aromatic compounds very swiftly). Instead the pungent yet taut styles of Awatere are what many producers are increasingly favouring.

On our viticultural tour with Mike, he mentioned the “phenomenal talent” that is James Healy, former long-time winemaker at Cloudy Bay, now co-owner and co-winemaker at Dog Point.

This small winery, not far from Villa Maria along the New Renwick Road, makes for a fascinating visit – if you can get in. It’s one of the few producers in the region that doesn’t have a cellar door (a small wooden sign seems designed to deter rather than invite passers-by) but is well worth dropping in on.

Primarily because, in our view, Dog Point unquestionably makes some of New Zealand’s finest white wines.

Here’s James (plus Susie, our unruly child and the far better behaved Stella, James’ sheepdog) introducing the winery and vineyards from a blustery hilltop vantage point overlooking the Brancott Valley:

In the early days, the fruit was all sold off, to producers including Cloudy Bay. But now roughly one third of production is kept in-house: the first wines were made in the 2002 vintage. The emphasis is on low-yields, hand picking, whole bunch pressing for all whites, and hands-on winemaking, often with a healthy dollop of risk-taking (the outstanding Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc, together with the Chardonnay, both take about 14 months to ferment in barrel). Sauvignon Blanc accounts for 60% of production.

The overall aim is to make ageworthy wines of concentration and subtlety, rather than the exaggerated but short-lived styles of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. “I’ve been making Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc since 1982,” comments James laconically, “so I know a bit about it. If I want passion fruit, I’ll go and buy a passion fruit.”

The avoidance of high yields, machine harvesting and skin contact, in James’ view, is a fundamental part of ensuring this style and quality. He believes these techniques give higher pH, exaggerated aromatics but short-lived wines lacking in texture and structure.

This tied in with what Mike had been saying. But, as ever, the proof is only ever in the wines, not the words. And, in the case of Dog Point, I’d say James is more than vindicated. Sure, it’s a definite style that might not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s fine wine that’s ambitious and deftly made (and no doubt cannily sold).

To our mind, this was undoubtedly a high point on the trip.

Beyond Villa and Dog Point, we visited a fair few producers, and generally had a good rummage around the region (periodically fuelled by “lolly” pit-stops, as demanded by our back-seat passenger).

We cruised through the coastal vineyards of Rarangi (on our way to the scenic White’s Bay) and over the parched Wither Hills into the blustery, bright, arid Awatere Valley, source of some of our favourite Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs. We ate in a few of the many excellent cellar-door restaurants (the steak sandwich at Wairau River comes highly recommended).

We left sated and educated.

Tasting highlights

Villa Maria Single Vineyard Graham Sauvignon Blanc 2009, 13.5% (£12.99) – this Villa-owned winery is in the coastal reaches of the Awatere Valley and this is an extreme yet very satisfying style of Savvy. The nose is all crunchy green pepper, nettle and fresh herbs. The palate is juicy, crisp and invigorating, with a class and depth that’s lacking on many of the other Sauvignons in this portfolio. Lovely combination of structure and depth, very long and impressive. 7.5-8/10

Villa Maria Private Bin Syrah Viognier 2007, Hawke’s Bay, 13.5% (£10.99) – sourced 40% from Gimblett Gravels (Villa are the largest producers of Gimblett Gravels wines), this is a wine that punches above its weight. Lovely floral red fruits and white pepper on the nose. The palate is fresh and juicy, with a floral lift. Very good at the level, especially if it’s promoted. Nice nip of tannin. Refreshing style, pleasant woody edge: well judged. 7.5/10

Villa Maria Reserve Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2007, 14% – dense plum and blackberry aromas: not so obviously peppery/floral as the Private Bin but it’s still young and just reticent: the black pepper and all spice is in there. Also a meaty hint. Spicy, savoury palate, dense. Tannin very fine and savoury. Is it a bit overdone versus the Private Bin? Perhaps, but it’s more ambitious and with a lovely Syrah linearity. Really promising. Great sweet/savoury balance. Even at 14% it holds up very well – excellent integration and harmony. Needs time. 8-8.5/10

Esk Valley Winemaker’s Gimblett Gravels Merlot/Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, 14% – we tried a couple of Esk Valley wines during our Villa tasting (Esk, along with Vidal, is a sister winery to Villa). The wines seemed to have an attractively rugged, spirited streak to them, perhaps the influence of renowned winemaker Gordon Russell. This wine packs in lots of smoky plum and cherry fruit, with floral notes. The palate is grippy, rounded and savoury, with lots of creamy oak but it works OK. A somewhat hedonistic style, with quite high alcohol, but it’s interesting, with finely textured tannin and a nice touch of spice. 7.5/10

Dog Point Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Marlborough, 13.5% – subtle, mineral and citrus nose with gooseberry and matchstick notes. Unusual and inviting. Tangy citrus mouthfeel, linear and focused, with lovely harmony. Young. But complex, stylish. Old-world minerality and complexity here. Tight-knit and engaging. Challenging but very satisfying. 8/10

Dog Point Vineyard Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Marlborough, 14% – the highlight of this spectacular range. The 3,500-case production is made in old barrels and kept on the lees for 18 months. The nose is subtle, showing gooseberries and herbal tones, with some hints of honey, blanched nut and roast lime. It opens up slowly, magnificently, in the glass. The palate is splendid: lovely textural richness with depth and grace. Complex, layered and food-friendly – the antithesis of classic Marlborough Savvy. Brilliant, bright citrus minerality. Would be even better with a degree or so less alcohol, but this is its only fault. 9-9.5/10

Dog Point Vineyard Chardonnay 2008, Marlborough, 14.5% – golden lemon colour, with a toasty, nutty, buttery nose and some earthy notes. Palate, as with the Sauvignon, has thrilling acidity, and also layered flavours. To my taste it lacked a little harmony and savoury elegance, especially compared with some of New Zealand’s very top flight Chardonnay, but it is subtle and sensual, as well as uncompromising – which is always a good sign. 8.5/10

Fromm Clayvin Vineyard Chardonnay 2005, 14% – this Swiss-owned producer is making a fine reputation for itself, primarily with its southern valley Chardonnays (though the Syrahs we tried were also very good). This particular vintage shows engagingly funky, wild-herb and sour cream aromatics, with a broad yet structured palate. Subtle mineral tones blend with nutty, buttery richness. Lovely stuff: ambitious and mould-breaking. 8.5/10