Winery of the Year – Schubert, New Zealand

Must-Have Wines Best of the Lunar Drinking Year Tiger 2010

Schubert Wines cellar doorIts six years since I first visited Schubert winery and I have been an avid follower of their wines ever since. Indeed, I would go as far to say Kai Schubert and Marion Deimling make some of the most profound pinot noir on this planet from their tiny vineyards in Martinborough and the Wairarapa, literally only a cupful relative to most wineries.

So why did it take so long to write up Schubert? Well I could plead journalistic paralysis. Or maybe it was something inside of me that did not want to give away the secret, when you discover something so good, rather than blast it out all over the place, let people discover it for themselves. And maybe I was being selfish in the knowledge the price of their wines should double however even if they did, would still be one of the great wine bargains of the world.

It was actually Phyll Patton at Ata Rangi that I have to thank for introducing me to Schubert wines, as originally I had asked her if she would drive me around Martinborough and Wairarapa on a morning, when visiting region with the New Zealand Pinot Noir Celebration tour. I wanted to get a better understanding of the geography and terroir before a regional winemaker’s lunch that was part of the program.

There are some wine writers that do not care for walking through vineyards or even believe in the concept of terroir however for me it all starts in the vineyard and personally how a vineyard looks and a vignerons approach to viticulture is everything, more so if they are using organic and biodynamic practices.

Phyll rang me to apologise she was completely swamped with journalists at the winery and couldn’t get away, and asked if I would like to meet Marion from Schubert wines, who was happy to do the tour for me, adding “She’s a really lovely person and I think Schubert is doing great things”.

To put this in to context, Ata Rangi is arguably one of the best makers of pinot noir in the new world and if Phyll says they are “doing great things”, you should take this onboard!  Determined not to join the hordes of wine writers sniffing and gargling their way around wineries or go near any cellars, moreover my inquisitiveness now heightened, I took up the offer.

So, Marion drove me around for several hours and we talked soils and geography, making our way through the different Martinborough terraces and valleys, and most importantly discussing the significance of the ancient Ruamāhanga riverbeds, the main river that runs through the Wairarapa.

The character of a river is generally determined by the landscape through which it runs and New Zealand’s rivers are very diverse in origin, some Alpine glacial and braided into vast river plains. Others like the Ruamāhanga, were fast-flowing through hill country and carved out deep gorges and cliffs, leaving escarpments of stony sub-soils and terraces with deep alluvial soils and top soils of loess (in parts) and silty river loam known colloquially as Tauherenikau silt loam.

These escarpments and terraces are where vines flourish, soaking up the nutrients and minerals from these ancient formations and there is a distinctive smell and taste of minerals and an earthiness in Martinborough and Wairarapa pinot noirs.

Schubert Wines Block B Pinot Noir 2008Marion drove beyond the borders of the Martinborough region to their vineyard in East Taratahi, essentially ‘Block B’, to which on a terrace next to the Ruamāhanga River they have planted from 1999 onwards, 8 different clones of pinot noir, including the newer Dijon clones, specifically 115, 667, 777, 114 and 113.

The significance of the Block B plantings is relative and somewhat crucial in understanding the characteristics of the other Schubert Pinot Noir and vineyard site in Martinborough, ‘Marion’s Vineyard’ which is made from a selection of predominantly two pinot noir clones; Pommard and the ‘Able’ clone, the latter a fascinating story that you can read more on Attack of the Clones

Talking with Kai Schubert on his specific sites, he attributes much of this concentration and structure of the pinot noirs to naturally extremely low yields due to the general harsh weather conditions – late frosts, fierce winds, significance temperature differences, which in the summer time can be hot days (30 degrees) yet plunges to cold nights (5 degrees) which keeps the fruitiness and acidity in the grapes.

The prevailing cool winds from Northwest are bone-chilling dry moreover, it is usually very dry from January till May allowing for a longer ripening time accumulating more complex flavours with harvest around early to Mid April, which translates to October in the northern hemisphere, significantly later than when they harvest in Burgundy. Such dry conditions also mean there are minimal problems with vine disease including botrytis, and makes organic and sustainable practices more feasible.

Kai adds the lower yield is not only due to having fewer grapes, but the grape bunches and berries are relatively smaller with a different ratio between skin and juice (more skin per juice unit). Furthermore, because of the harsh climate the grapes also develop a thicker skin which means more flavours and colour however most of the flavours are in or just under the skin, so it is necessary to have employ a cold soak (maceration) pre-fermentation and leave on skins for 3 weeks post-fermentation.

He surmises, “In a way, this all compensates for our relatively young vine age along with our high density planting the vines compete for soil, producing less grapes and the roots growing deeper gaining more complex and considerable depth flavours even though the vines were planted only in 1999”.

In my summation, I am glad that I made the (right) decision to go for a drive with Marion, and she is ‘A really lovely person’. She probably thought I was a pretty difficult customer though, turning down her offer to taste their wines back at the winery after our tour.

I had actually liberated a bottle of Schubert Marion’s Pinot Noir 2004 the previous night at the excellent Wellington restaurant, Logan Brown, taking my mum out for dinner. That said, it took as considerable effort to convince our waitress that we were worthy of Riedel Burgundy glasses, then realized that problem was Matt and Lynette Donaldson from Pegasus Bay winery and gaggle of winemakers were at another table with a sea of Burgundy glasses, to which I rectified the situation.

The 2004 Marion’s Pinot Noir we enjoyed over dinner was a revelation and having tried successive vintages of their wines ever since, I can attest they are consistently compelling pinot noirs imbued with intense fruit, earthy minerality, invigorating tension and Schubert are arguably making some of the most complex pinot noir in New Zealand, if not the world.

I might add, in a significant blind tasting held in Germany, their Block B Pinot Noir 2004 outclassed one of the Burgundies most coveted wines from a great vintage, 1999 Comte de Vogüé “Musigny Grand Cru”, a wine that sells for tens times the price of Schubert!

My Winery of the Year accolade is not specifically related to one wine although I have included detailed notes of the current offering of Schubert 2008 Block B, tried and tested with Kai Schubert at our table. This wine might well be tricky to find now as it recently cleaned up in the London wine shows being awarded the International Trophy for best Pinot Noir at Decanter World Wine Awards and also the International Wine Challenge Trophy for Sustainability.

Putting this in to perspective, there were pinot noirs from 19 other countries including France, Italy, Australia, the USA, Chile, Austria and Germany, so no small achievement to come out on top of the pack.

Decanter’s expert judges described the winning wine (2008 Schubert Block B) as: ‘Forceful, with vibrant, succulent fruits and sweet strawberry and loganberry flavour. Fine concentration and a fresh splash of acidity on the palate. Very long and sleek.’ My tasting note below is a bit longer than that, but I do tend to waffle on a bit.

Schubert’s 2008 Marion’s Vineyard Pinot Noir also made it in the overall Top 10 list of all pinot noirs entered from around the world, and I have to declare it was in fact the Marion’s Pinot Noir that first caught my attention about six years ago when I attended the New Zealand Pinot Noir Celebration and met Marion Deimling, Kai Schubert’s partner.

Reiterating the comments of the Decanter judges, “Forceful, vibrant, succulent fruits…Fine concentration”. To me these are hallmarks of the Martinborough and Wairarapa pinot noirs that set them apart from other regions in New Zealand. There is a distinctive element of earthiness and concentration to the wines and the tannins are noticeably more chewy, or firmer throughout the whole wine and metaphorically Chambertin-like, rather than Vosne Romanee.

In case you don’t realize it, owning a small winery in these highly competitive and somewhat testing financial times is a seriously difficult challenge. It requires a multi-skill-set the few people possess; from being a famer to a wine lab technician, a dynamic marketer to a bookkeeper. Moreover, the perseverance needed to go the distance in establishing a brand can only be outweighed by the mandatory genuine passion needed to succeed and stand out in a crowd of hundreds of thousands of wines on the international wine stage.

Every winery has a story, some more compelling than others, and some tell it better than others. Kai and Marion’s story is about fulfilling a dream that started when they were both at Geisenheim University Viticulture & Oenology in Germany. Having graduated they then went on to work with winemakers like Erni Loosen of Dr. Loosen Estate however, were eager to pursue their dream of establishing their own vineyard and growing their favourite grape variety, pinot noir.

So they set out working in and searching around regions like Oregon, California, Australia and parts of Europe, and New Zealand’s Wairarapa region in the southern part of the North Island, which turned out to be most fascinating and promising area to them. Eventually, and only after examining some 100 properties around New Zealand, they found two ideal sites in the Wairarapa in 1998 and began rejuvenating the existing vineyard and planting more vines in 1999 and 2000.

In relativity that is a fairly short time period for a winery to rise to such notoriety and accepted quality; certainly evidence of Kai and Marion’s determination and sheer hard work. Kai is the salesman and I have to say, for a winery of their size, he’s curiously everywhere around the world, one day in London the next in Berlin or New York. Apart from the stamina required to keep this up, and as disproportionate as this may seem, it is a strategy that has worked for Schubert, and his persistent marketing and promoting in these highly visible markets has paid dividends.

Even as I write this, Kai has just sent me an email, as he rushes out the door to catch a plane to Germany to attend ProWein, to go and tell (and sell) his story to the world, and it’s a continuing and evolving story of “Tangata Whenua”, in Maori terms literally meaning ‘the fusion of place and person’, yet profoundly explains terroir, in any language.

And, if you are looking to have a little time out in tropical paradise and an amazing gourmet experience, Kai will be joining me at the Datai resort in Langkawi Island Malaysia for, ‘The Wandering Palate and Friends at the Datai’

And if you want the “Perfect Match” with Schubert Pinot Noir, then check out my wife’s legendary Thai Duck Curry recipe devoted to Kai himself!


By Curtis Marsh | Must Have Wines | Related to: , | 2 comments

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2 Comments to Winery of the Year – Schubert, New Zealand | Comments Feed

  • Cassara says

    That’s not just the best answer. It’s the bseetst answer!

    May 5, 2011
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