The most famous wine region of New Zealand, Marlborough, is found in the north East corner of South Island. No less than 77% of the country’s wine originates from Marlborough, around the towns of Blenheim and Renwick in particular. Factor in the fact that 85% of Marlborough’s grapes are Sauvignon Blanc and we begin to see the importance of this variety to the reputation of wines from the region and, indeed, the rest of the country.
Certainly, the region is very different to Nelson, the focus of my last blog. There the vineyards are part of a much bigger agricultural scene, fruit orchards, hops, cattle and sheep mix with vineyards in the Nelson area to create a true pastoral landscape, e.g. in the Moutere Valley.
Journeying into Marlborough across the hills from Nelson the vines do not appear until shortly before reaching Renwick. But then vines stand, row after row, mile after mile. Wineries which put the country on the world wine scene stand side by side, Wither Hills with its many vineyards, Hunter’s, Villa Maria are all producers which played a major role in my personal learning about wine and, especially, wines from New Zealand.
The winery which first drew attention to and recognition of the potential of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was Cloudy Bay. Named after the beautiful bay to the East of the vineyards. This winery now produces a number of different wines but it was the Sauvignon which really made its name and established New Zealand as a quality producer. Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc is also the long time favourite of my wife so a visit was obligatory.
Cloudy Bay itself
A very professional tasting room and comfortable garden allowed us to taste the celebrated Sauvignon 2017 which was classic Cloudy Bay but also the oaked version Te Koko 2014 which wears its wood ageing well. In addition we were able to taste a rare old version of the Sauvignon, from 2005. There was still plenty of acidity, the wine had become a little flabbier but had a dry finish. Not many bottles of 12 year old Cloudy Bay still exist I’d imagine, it was interesting to see that they do age quite well though I would drink any bottles younger. Pelorus NV sparkling wine and the Pelorus vintage 2010 (only available at the cellar) were both pleasant enough, the latter definitely had more weight and flavour. Chardonnay 15 was wild fermented in barrel (82% of it at least) and the oak was subtly done, a good example of the grape.
Herbicides and machine harvesting but a lovely setting
On to reds and the Pinot Noir 15 was very good, one of the best Pinots of the trip so far, fresh, fruity, juicy with good length. The Pinot Noir 2010 had already gone the way of so many older NZ Pinots, all forest floor and mushroom. It obviously appeals to Kiwis but not to this Rosbif. Neither did the Central Otago sourced Pinot Te Wahi 15, there was some rose scented fruit but this was very oaky and tannic, again not my style. There was also a very good Late Harvest Riesling, good Riesling notes, acidity balancing the sweetness.
Interestingly, Cloudy Bay has made the decision to reduce the varieties it uses. Riesling and Pinot Gris are out, they will concentrate on Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir alone. Cloudy Bay owns 50% of the vineyards it uses to make its wines and works with growers for the other 50%. This is common in the region, growers provide the grapes, the winery gives instructions on how they want the vines to be tended.
There are wineries which grow all their own grapes and I visited two, both organic producers. I had tasted Fromm wines before, notably a very nice Sauvignon Blanc La Strada 2016. On this visit we mainly concentrated on reds. Pinot Noir La Strada 16 was a little unforgiving to my taste, not much fruit showing. For once the older wine was more to my taste, the La Strada 10 being more open and balanced, red fruits and just a little earthiness. On to two single vineyard Pinot Noirs. Churton 16, more weight and concentration than the entry level, still very young and tight. Quarters 16 was different, more spicy and fruity, grown on more clay soils than the Churton. On to Syrah and I liked the La Strada 16 with its peppery, spicy notes and more friendly flavours. The Fromm Syrah 16 was more concentrated with rich pepper notes, quite tannic still, I am sure this will be very good. I must add that Syrah has been my favourite grape amongst red wines in New Zealand.
Two white wines to finish, the highlight of the tasting for me was the Riesling Spätlese 17, well named being very much in the style of a Mosel spätlese, lovely apple fruit with zingy acidity and a lick of sweetness too. Finally, a Late Harvest Gewurztraminer 15 had classic aromas of the grape, spicy and floral but the wine had very fresh acidity cutting through the sweetness. Apparently this variety suffered in 2018 but I liked this wine, very well made.
My favourite visit of the day though was undoubtedly to Hans Herzog. The domaine is next to the Wairau river on one vineyard which the Herzogs have planted with lots of different grape varieties. They have planned this carefully so that sunnier aspects get grapes such as Montepulciano and Tempranillo whilst cooler areas are planted with white grapes and Pinot Noir. The plan makes for fascinating reading.
This is a biodynamic domaine and only a small amount of SO2 is added at bottling, these would qualify as natural wines for many people though I was surprised that harvesting is mostly by machine. There is a beautiful restaurant in the gardens next to the vines, with a splendid trellis supporting lots of different grape varieties and notes to explain each one. A treat for those, like me, who love to study ampelography. The food was very good too.
The Herzogs are Swiss and Hans comes from a family of winemakers of long standing. It was a young Swiss woman, Petra, who gave us a very generous tasting. Wild Gewurztraminer 2017 is named after its open fermentation and longer period on skins. It had vibrant aromas in the glass, spicy and dry flavours, a real treat and a sign of good things to come. Pinot Gris 16, 5 days on skins, was apple and pear notes, lovely and fresh.
The Sauvignon Blanc 15 was made on lees which are stirred and there was a yeasty aroma to the wine which was very dry and quite textural, one of those rare wines which actually tasted of …. grapes. Very good. A sparkling rosé wine to follow, Cuvée Therese made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with red fruit notes and a dry finish. Finally Gruner Veltliner 14, yellow in colour, pear and quince aromas and lovely texture and clean finish, lovely.
On to the reds. Pinot Noir 2011 was macerated 18 days on skins, aged for two years in bottle. My favourite Pinot Noir of New Zealand so far, fresh, vibrant spicy red fruit with a balancing acidity and complexity and gentle tannins. This is how Pinot Noir should be in my opinion. Tempranillo 14 was a lovely surprise. This is not a grape I usually like that much but this example was just lovely. The light red fruity notes of a young Rioja but without any oaky notes even though it was aged in barrels for 22 months. Energetic, lively, smashable. Spirit of Marlborough 09 is a Bordeaux style wine made from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 26 months in barrel and then more years in bottle. Again this would not be my favourite style of wine but somehow this works. Finally, and definitely worth waiting for, was the Nebbiolo 2013. Petra told us that this was the wine which is opened as a treat at the end of harvest, only one barrel was made. It is a stunning wine, easily my favourite in this New Zealand trip. Aromas of rose and fresh tropical fruits (yes in a red wine) and then, amazingly, hints of peach and apricot as well as red fruits. Light in the mouth yet with concentrated, long flavours. I loved this wine and was very impressed by the range, there is a real energy and vivacity in them. So different to a lot of the more commercial wines produced in the area and, hopefully, a sign that quality will win through.
Ampelography lesson over lunch, perfect!