Reflecting on the brilliant and bountiful Wellington on a Plate festival held recently, I had the opportunity of frequenting the pop-up Match Wine Bar, a collaboration of 20 wineries from Martinborough, Gladstone and Masterton offering 40 wines by the glass and a pairing menu of 20 small plates created by legendary Chef, Ruth Pretty.
On the opening night of Match I had the pleasure of accompanying our estimable Wellington club member and indefatigable gourmand, Brett Newell, and as we liberally sampled our way through the menu and wines discussing the splendid food parings the conversation expanded to the virtues of having all these wonderful wineries on our doorstep, only an hour and half drive away.
This discussion evolved to the comparison of our beautiful harbour city and its cardiovascular-energizing hills and the similarity to San Francisco along with its abundance of wine regions in its environs such as Napa Valley, Sonoma County and West Coast, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Bennett Valley, Russian River and whilst on a much smaller scale, we too are equally lucky and justly proud to have our local wine regions Martinborough, Gladstone and Masterton in similar proximity.
I then commented , “But what about Marlbourough?” which drew blank looks from our gaggle of imbibers around the table followed by a chorus, “Oh, that’s over in the South Island…not really Wellington”.
I guess in the sense of Island rivalry, it is a fair comment. And even in geographical terms, it could also be a reasonable argument; that Marlborough is ‘over there’ and obviously there is quite a lot of water in between.
However, I proffered, “It is after all only water”, and in actuality Blenheim is marginally closer to Wellington than Martinborough. Indeed it is 73km to Blenheim and 80km to Martinborough which is a one hour and 30 minutes drive and yet it is only a 20 minute flight across the Cook Strait to Blenheim. Ok, door-to-door will take you a little longer to Marlborough, but largely because of waiting around the boarding lounge but once you arrive you will be right in the heart of vineyard territory in 10 minutes of stepping on to the tarmac in Blenheim.
By now the discussion (or debate as it were) had progressed to the concept of the locavore, that being people interested in eating food that is locally grown or produced and not moved long distances, generally within 100 miles of its point of purchase or consumption. And there is my point; the Wellingtonian locavore can rightly embrace produce, and that includes wine, from as far north as Whanganui or as far south as Nelson and clearly Marlborough is well within this radius.
Without labouring the point, perhaps I am more now more attuned to the concept of locavore and the notion of Marlborough being a part of the greater Wellington region having lived overseas for over three decades and the last eight years in Singapore, where most of the produce is flown or shipped in from thousands of miles away, indeed a good proportion of it from New Zealand.
And having only been back in Wellington for a year, maybe I see things in a different light, perhaps through rose-tinted glasses as we relish in the abundance of wonderful (relatively affordable) produce moreover, admiring the magnificent view over the Cook Strait (on a good day!) to the Kaikoura mountain ranges and the snow-capped Mount Tapuaenuku seems so tantalizing close when I am often walking our dogs in Owhiro Bay.
So, that is my case and I hope you will agree, that the greater Wellington has an affinity with the South Island and we should embrace Marlborough as a ‘local’ wine region. Which brings me to my New Zealand visit in February 2013, primarily to attend the Pinot Noir New Zealand Celebration (www.pinotnz.co.nz) held in sunny Wellington, one of the highlight’s of my trip was visiting the Marlborough region.
Arriving straight after the Pinot Noir event, I joined a group of Marlborough winegrowers who had assembled a gaggle of international wine writers and seized the initiative to expand on their pinot noir story; a narration that turned out to be more of a trekking adventure really with a 4WD tour coined the ‘The Marlborough Pinot Noir Safari’ taking us up into the hills of the Awatere and Southern Valleys and through the back country routes of Awatere, Brancott, Omaka and Waihopai valleys to discover, in their words, “The special sites that are putting Marlborough Pinot Noir on the map.”
Driving and walking through these cutting-edge vineyards was certainly the best way to communicate a fascinating story of the regions rapid evolution and a progression towards the hills, where this vanguard of Marlborough winegrowers have come to the realization that pinot noir likes its roots in heavier clay soils and on cooler elevated slopes, and not the bony, silts and gravels of the river-flat soils that sauvignon blanc has proven to be so much at home.
It was a real eye-opener for me, having first visited Marlborough way back in 1984, in my formative years as Sommelier in Wellington, invited by Montana Vineyards. It was a very different place then to what it is today, indeed a day was sufficient to see pretty much everything that was going on there with Montana the only winery in full production; no Cloudy Bay, no wine tourism and still very much sheep country with vines barely noticeable.
I had this lasting impression of how very flat it was, like Bordeaux—which is probably why they (Montana and others) planted cabernet sauvignon—and almost featureless although the foothills and mountain ranges made for a wonderfully picturesque backdrop.
Most of the plantings were in the Southern Valleys then, on the flats in alluvial, glacial soils and stony gravels carried by the Wairau River and its braided river tributaries. The Wairau Valley plains soon followed and now a carpet of vines reaching up to the foothills. The first plantings in the Awatere Valley were around 1985, a year or so after my first visit, but there was no mention of this when I was there.
To be honest, the region did not impress me at the time, partly because I had developed an early disdain for large wine companies and bias towards artisan winegrowers, even though there were not that many in New Zealand at the time. Putting these pioneering days in perspective, sauvignon blanc was not even popular then; it was all about Muller Thurgau and cabernet sauvignon. More fundamentally, pinot noir was not even on the radar, and even though I was already a pinot noir convert, I did not grasp the potential of Marlborough for this grape.
Revisiting Marlborough many times over the years (read decades) watching the evolution of the region I have witnessed an incredible transformation and whilst it is hard to ignore the Cloudy Bay phenomenon and the dominance of sauvignon blanc, the meteoric commercial success of sauvignon blanc has perhaps been both a boon and bane for Marlborough winegrowers with its prodigious global popularity somewhat pigeonholing the region in grape variety and wine style on the international wine stage, inhibiting both consumer perception and the wine press in embracing any other wine style from the region.
Put more bluntly, the big question is, will Marlborough be able to repeat its success story of sauvignon blanc with the capricious pinot noir grape moreover convince a very different (read equally finical and fanatical) type of wine consumer.
It was interesting that at the Pinot Noir Celebration 2013, there was a distinctly upbeat kinaesthesia surrounding the Marlborough winegrowers stands at the regional tastings and I sensed a consensus amongst the wine journalist that of all the pinot noir regions in New Zealand and the wines we were tasting (showcasing a universally successful and flirtatious 2010 vintage), Marlborough showed the most upside and improvement in the wines across the board with a discernible increase in weight and succulence of fruit in their pinot noirs; you could feel a unanimity amongst tasters that there were some very respectable, and sometimes palpably impressive wines in the room.
Putting this into perspective, many of these wine journalists and trade have been to successive Pinot Noir New Zealand Celebrations over the years (I have been to all five of them, the inaugural event being in 2000) and use this comprehensive showcase to calibrate their palates, their thoughts and perceptions of the countries pinot noirs.
In the past, the ‘Goldilocks’ pinot noir regions of Central Otago and Martinborough have invariably dominated these events instilling a collective partisan viewpoint; pinot noir consumers and wine writers are quick to dismiss wine regions that don’t have the x-factor that the pinot noir grape commands and Marlborough had become the ‘Kick the dog region’.
Well, as the adage goes, ‘Every dog has its day’ (just ask Dog Point!) and there has been a groundswell of winegrowers determined to rise above the commercial success of sauvignon blanc and not only championing pinot noir, but also diversifying into other aromatic white grapes such as riesling, pinot gris, gewürztraminer and gruner veltliner.
Even the sauvignon blanc story and landscape of Marlborough is changing and we are seeing a stylistic movement at the artisan level with barrel-fermented and wild yeast-fermented wines that have raised the bar in complexity and character and already capturing the attention of the world wine press. Wines like Greywacke Wild Sauvignon, Dog Point Section 94, Churton Estate Best End Sauvignon Blanc, Mahi Boundary Farm Sauvignon Blanc and Ballot Block Sauvignon Blanc, Giesen The August Sauvignon Blanc, Spy Valley Envoy Johnson Vineyard Dry Sauvignon Blanc, Seresin Sauvignon Blanc, Astrolabe Vineyards Taihoa Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Cloudy Bay Te Koko and Terravin Te Ahu are indeed game-changers and appealing to the more sophisticated palate and wine enthusiasts.
The Marlborough region in conjunction with New Zealand Wine Growers is hosting Sauvignon 2016 (www.sauvignon2016.com) The International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration, the first of its kind in New Zealand and an opportunity for the New Zealand wine industry to host the world’s leading wine producers, experts and key influencers and shine the spotlight on this diverse, expressive and sought-after variety. The event will run over three days from Monday 1 February to Wednesday 3 February, 2016 in Marlborough.
These viticultural and winemaking changes have been paralleled by an awakening of wine tourism in Marlborough and also in the surrounding regions, for many decades the best kept secrets of New Zealand; the Marlborough Sounds and Queen Charlotte Sound with its secluded beaches and islands with an incredibly bounty of seafood, Motueka’s wonderful beaches and native bush, all within easy reach of the country’s major cities and strategically, Wellington.
This bourgeoning wine tourism is vital to building the Marlborough story and the consumer, both local and international, embracing this (new) pinot noir story and grasping the complexities of the land (terroir) and personalities of both wine and winegrower. One of the take-home messages of the Pinot Noir Celebration was “New Characters and Being True to Oneself – The Person Not the Pinot”.
I can tell you there was no shortage of personality and character amongst the Marlborough winegrowers and their wines that had come together to host the Pinot Noir Safari moreover, the intriguing subtleties and different nuances in their wines emphasising pinot noirs enchanting ability to articulate its soil and place so perceptibly. Tasting barrel samples from every ‘single’ vineyard as well as various vintages of the finished wine, we were able to build a fascinating and palpable topography of aromas, mouth-feel, textures, palate weight, tannin, dry extract and earthly nuances.
I have no doubt these nuances and subtle differences will develop into distinctive sub-regional and unique individual vineyard characters over time that will be sufficiently intriguing to captivate pinot noir enthusiasts and wine commenters to extol.
But what excites me most is the potential for Marlborough to emulate the global success of its sauvignon blanc with pinot noir; delivering (or is it over-delivering) a genuine pinot noir fix—pinot noir with broad appeal that is both approachable and affordable—complex yet unpretentious—with ample fruit succulence yet intricate, and above all—a tangible sense of place—distinctly Marlborough, Pure New Zealand.
To discover Marlborough Pinot Noir with altitude, look for these wineries:
Auntsfield Estate www.auntsfield.co.nz
Ballochdale Estate www.ballochdaleestate.co.nz
Dog Point www.dogpoint.co.nz
Nautilus Estate www.nautilusestate.com
Spy Valley www.spyvalleywine.co.nz
Villa Maria www.villamaria.co.nz