Not all hard work at Highfield

With just one week to go before the grape harvest begins Highfield’s winemaker, Al Soper, is understandably nervous. “This is my eleventh vintage at Highfield (tastings). We’re totally organised but I can’t help feeling uneasy about the things that are out of my control”. Like the weather. The season was looking good when an unseasonably heavy downpour unsettled Marlborough’s grape growers. Rain, particularly during warm weather, can spark an outbreak of vine diseases such as botrytis. Fortunately the rain was followed by strong winds, reducing disease pressure. The grape crop was in great shape and Al wanted it to stay that way.

“I don’t want a compressed vintage like last year”, said Al grimly. “The vintage is normally spread over five or six weeks but last year we crushed one-sixth of our grape harvest in a single day. It’s the first time I’ve worked for 36 hours in a single stretch and I hope it’ll be the last.”

Out of adversity … Al had just learned that two of his 2008 wines, Sauvignon Blanc (tastings) and Riesling (tastings), scored gold medals at a local wine show while his Chardonnay from the previous vintage (tastings) also won gold. “We have earned gold medals with every vintage of Sauvignon Blanc for the past decade – I doubt that any other winery could equal that”, grinned Al, adding, “we only enter our wines in three wine shows.”

Vintage is not all hard work. Before the grape harvest starts Al plans to take the entire winery crew down the Kaikoura coast to dive for crayfish and paua and perhaps do a little surfing. “It’s the last chance we’ll get to kick back and relax for a while. We also want to introduce our visiting cellar hands from France and Germany to a bit of Kiwi coastline”. Then there’s the pre-vintage party, a much anticipated annual event involving a spit-roasted pig. Al is on the organising committee for the post-vintage blowout – a large-scale celebration attended by over 1000 of Marlborough’s winery and vineyard workers. Oh, and of course there’s Highfield’s own after-vintage party, just in case the workers have any excess energy.

Dining at Highfield’s own restaurant is another perk enjoyed by all winery workers during vintage. “We’re small enough and organised enough to be able to stop everything at midday for a relaxed lunch. We’ve borrowed the tradition from the French who treat lunch with more respect than the typical “grab a sandwich and go” attitude in this part of the world. It’s definitely a better way to communicate than by email. Mind you, when vintage is over, it’s back to sandwiches.”

Highfield Estate is clearly one of Marlborough’s “first division” wine producers. The winery maintains a high level of quality by focusing on a small number of wine styles and by dedicating only a relatively small percentage of total wine to the Highfield label which is, in a sense, the winery’s flagship label. 95% of wine is exported with most being sold under buyer’s own labels. When you buy a Highfield wine you are literally buying the cream of the crop.

The benefits of this approach are obvious when I review my ratings for Highfield wines over recent years. The list is dominated by gold- and silver-medal awards, an impressive performance by any measure.

Highfield has always had a fairly heavy reliance on grapes purchased from contract growers. That emphasis has shifted in recent years as the winery leases more and more vineyards to give total control over its own destiny. That trend is likely to raise the quality bar even higher.

Highfield first established vineyards in the mid seventies. A winery followed in 1990 but soaring interest rates and a tough economic climate forced the founders to sell to a partnership consisting of a Japanese industrialist and a Bristol businessman. Highfield is as much a passion as it is an investment with the two friends taking an active involvement in the making and marketing of their wine.

The Tuscan-inspired winery sits on a hill with a commanding view of Marlborough’s Wairau Valley. Visitors are encouraged to climb to the top of a tower for a wonderful photographic opportunity – by my calculation nearly a million photos have been captured from its ramparts. It’s been nearly a year since I last dined at Highfield’s restaurant but I’ve always regarded it as one of the region’s best winery eateries. If you enjoy the food and wine so much you simply can’t bear to leave there’s a self-contained, air-conditioned apartment available for $250 per night (book via www.highfield.co.nz).

Wines currently available are a delicately aromatic 2008 Sauvignon Blanc in a crisp dry style; a low alcohol luscious “German style” 2008 Riesling with a suggestion of honeyed botrytis character; a svelte and complex 2007 Chardonnay with a silken texture; a mellow, dense 2007 Pinot Noir (tastings) and a sophisticated Elstree Brut 2004 Méthode Traditionnelle sparkling wine (tastings) that was developed with the help of the champagne house, Drappier.

On Highfield’s website Al reveals that his best remembered wine was “birth year Latour” (his birth year is 1970); his favourite grape variety is Pinot Noir; he loves mountain biking, cooking and eating and (curiously) building fences and that his most embarrassing wine moment was when he missed attending the National Wine Options Competition because he had to spend three nights in hospital. He reluctantly admitted that the cause of his admission was a botched fire-eating attempt at 5am during a party. He didn’t say whether it was a pre- or post-vintage event.


First published in KiaOra Magazine – May 2009.

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