The New Zealand wine industry has just finished hosting its 6th edition of Pinot Noir NZ, a tri-annual (now quadrennial) conclave that brings together the country’s pinot noir producers with the global wine community of importers, writers and other hangers on. Prior to the event, wineries from the Marlborough region hosted a few folks to an enlightened traipse through the vineyards of the Awatere and Wairau Valleys and I managed to add on a few winery visits around the trek. Following are a few observations and updates from my visit there.

The Earthquake

It’s clear that the recent earthquake in the country’s South Island had more of an impact on the Marlborough’s wine region than is generally known. Many wineries lost significant amounts of the stainless steel tanks that are needed to age and store wine with reports of some companies suffering up to a 20% decrease in storage capacity. This will cause some wineries to look for storage in other regions if they do not get existing tanks repaired in time or get new ones ordered and installed. That may take some time and the situation is not helped by shortages of stainless steel. Engineers and welders are in short supply and and are working 24/7 to not only get things ready for harvest but to get existing equipment up to newer safety standards.

There’s some concern that a good harvest could test the ability of wineries to process their fruit but a relatively cool summer has seen a slightly smaller cropload on the vines while ripening is anywhere from 5-10 days behind normal. Winemakers express their good luck and fortune that the quake did not come at night when workers were about and that it did not occur closer to harvest creating unimaginable difficulties in the region’s ability to process all the fruit.

Hanging in the Marlborough hills with Ivan Donaldson (Dogpoint), Sam Weaver (Churton), Luc Cowley (Auntsfield) (r-l)

Some nearby tourist areas will clearly suffer as the main road along the island’s western coast and its’ neighboring train track are out of commission. These routes are essential for trucking goods and services up and down the island, equipment, the industry’s workforce and finished wines for transport. Windy backroads are now handling increased traffic adding some significant time and stress for those travelling up and down the South Island. There’s no quick fix for things, estimates range from 18-30 months before roads and tracks are repaired.

New Sauvignon Blanc Styles Shine

Started when Cloudy Bay created its Te Koko sauvignon blanc, many of Marlborough’s savvy producers have taken to producing a more serious interpretation of the grape. This usually entails some barrel fermentation and aging, perhaps some natural yeasts to start things off and a bit of malolactic action as well. The first examples were interesting but tended to accentuate the grape’s herbal characteristics in not the best direction.

Today, wineries have now selected specific vineyards and reviewed their growing techniques to pick fruit that is better suited to these new techniques and the results have been well received by critics and consumers alike. Recent vertical tastings of Giesen’s “The August 1888” and Greywacke’s “Wild” sauvignon blancs revealed a new dimension to the category that the trade and wine enthusiasts should consider.

Giesen’s 2010 “The August” sauvignon showed the benefits of aging

While there is no doubt that the latest releases from both wines showed considerable appeal, giving these wines 4-6 years in the bottle really transforms them to another dimension. Initially focused and compact in their youth, the wines’ complexity and texture were ramped up considerably after spending a few years spent in the cellar. Taking on Burgundian sensibilities while providing hedonistic pleasure, these wines were an exciting revelation during my visit. Here’s hoping that wineries working with this new style of sauvignon blanc take some older vintages to market and show what these wines can offer with a bit of patience and, more importantly, save a parcel or two to be re-released for sale down the track.

Marlborough Turns Up the Volume

For the majority of this decade, Marlborough has seen very little new vineyard expansion. The global financial crisis led many wineries to hit the pause button and at the same time, the prevailing narrative has been that Marlborough would soon be fully planted with no room for left for new vines. Long-held views dictated that water scarcity and frost-prone weather conditions would make a westward expansion of the region’s vignoble a risky proposition. It seems, however, that the region’s nurseries and viticulturalists are back at work. This raises the prospect that continued demand for the region’s wines could see prices rise in the future.

Fueled by double-digit growth over the last few years, brands like Brancott from Pernod Ricard and Constellation’s Kim Crawford are projected to double their sales in the future so the move westward is on again. Apparently, the costs and risks involved with frost and securing water rights is worth it to secure the fruit necessary to maintain the strong growth in sales. And given the slow changes already happening in the region because of climate change, this bet could be a sure winner for those rolling the dice. The ultimate winner, however, is the Marlborough district as a whole as the region’s wines secure and maintain ever more demand for the future.

2014s Are Looking Good

Between the trip to Marlborough and the Pinot Noir conference a few days later, there were plenty of opportunities to taste both upcoming releases and see how some older wines are coming along. It’s pretty clear that 2014 will see a some exceptional wines. Kevin Judd’s Greywacke pinot was exciting aromatically as it offered up an exciting melange of red fruits and sweet spices. It was a thrilling of example of the bright, clean medium-full bodied style that the region can do so well. The Giesen family have now been working with the acclaimed Clayvin vineyard for a few years now focusing their efforts on understanding the vineyard and getting it more healthy. That seems to be paying off with their 2014 that is more structured and full-bodied than the Greywacke example. Here are slightly darker fruits with great precision presented on a balanced platform of focused tannins.

An oldie and a goodie

2007 in Marlbrough was the first superlative vintage to show off the contemporary style that has defined the region. The rich, mouth-filling textures that came to typify Marlborough pinot were the result of new clones, hillside plantings and maturing vines, all of which came together to produce some tasty wines. Dogpoint, like neighboring Greywacke, are classic proponents of the elegant, ethereal style of the region and the 2007 from magnum was holding up beautifully, ready to drink with open aromatics. The 2007 Highfield was always a bigger wine with a core of concentrated fruit thanks to the parcel of Omaka Valley fruit that made up a significant portion of the wine. Today, there’s some softer textures to be found but that deep core remains indicating a few more years remain. All in all, great to see how Marlborough is not just a producer of ready-to-drink pinots.

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