Marlborough more or less

“We don’t need any more vines in Marlborough,” says Ivan Sutherland, co-owner of Dog Point Vineyards. “We are doing wonderfully well in a difficult world economy, but we need to keep reinforcing the quality aspect.”

He’s not unhappy that Marlborough had a much-reduced vintage in 2012 – down 20 per cent at Dog Point but about 30 per cent overall. Planting came to a halt in the region after two big vintages in 2008 and ’09, and Sutherland, formerly the viticulturalist at Cloudy Bay, hopes it will stay static. He expects the bulk wine exports to fall back and the supply-demand equation to come into balance. “Wine companies are advertising in the papers to buy grapes now,” he told me in early December.

“Global wine consumption isn’t growing. We have enough vines. But I would like to see yields capped at 10 tonnes per hectare.” Some growers yield as high as 15 tonnes a hectare, with consequent loss of quality. These vineyards tend to be on waterlogging soils which used to grow peas – and perhaps should go back to peas. “Some of the soils that are being used for vines now could even grow potatoes.”

Sutherland adds “I don’t like the cheap, low-quality stuff, but it’s part of the reality. Every wine region has its cheap wines; you can’t stop that. But Marlborough has established itself as a global wine region, and I have the utmost confidence in its future.”

In its short, 35-year existence as a wine region, Marlborough has risen to be New Zealand’s largest region by a big margin, with 24,000 planted hectares, producing 70 per cent of the country’s wine.

Sutherland and winemaker James Healy started Dog Point while both were working at Cloudy Bay. Their first vintage was 2002. After 12 years, in which they’ve established themselves as one of the region’s finest producers, they still have only four wines – which indicates how focused they are. The wines, sauvignon blanc, Section 94 barrel fermented sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir, are the cream of their crop. They own 100 hectares and sell a substantial quantity of their grapes. Some of them go to Kevin Judd, another former Cloudy Bay winemaker, who makes the wines for his Greywacke label in the Dog Point winery.

Sutherland says all his vines get the same attention, whether the fruit goes to Dog Point or not. That means yields restricted to a maximum 10 tonnes a hectare, and everything hand-harvested. All Dog Point wines except the regular sauvignon blanc are bottled under cork – Dog Point is one of the few New Zealand wineries still persisting with cork.

Sutherland and Healy were among the first to plant in the cooler ‘southern valleys’, which is the hilly country most suited to pinot noir. And pinot is the next big thing for Marlborough. “It will take 20 years till we know where the best pinot comes from,” says Ivan. “It takes time: we don’t use pinot for our wine till the vines are at least 10 years old. I’m a big believer in vine age (with pinot), and we’re seeing some very good vine-age in Marlborough now.”

Dog Point’s own pinot vineyard is in the Omaka Valley, the pinot noir on the hillsides where the soil is more clay-based and less fertile than the flats: loess rather than silt. Dog Point pinot noir and chardonnay are regularly among the top wines of those varieties from Marlborough. The ‘08 chardonnay (tasting) has developed beautifully with a few years bottle-age, and the latest pinot noir, 2010 (tasting), is a beauty.

But Marlborough will surely continue to grow. Success attracts. Rothschilds have recently bought land near Stoneleigh and America’s largest winemaker Gallo has bought into Whitehaven. The latest news is that long-time Marlborough mover and shaker Brent Marris (founder of Wither Hills and The Ned) has bought a 2000-hectare farm near Spy Valley in the Waihopai Valley. It’s not likely he wants it for sheep and cattle.

Self-made man of Marlborough

The Awatere Valley was the second valley in the Marlborough region to be planted to grapevines, after the original Wairau Valley. It is a half-hour drive from Blenheim, over the Wither Hills, and has a cooler climate than the Wairau, with later ripening, thanks to its more southerly orientation, which admits colder winds. Land in the Awatere is slightly cheaper as are grape prices, and growing conditions less predictable, less secure. But already it is New Zealand’s second biggest region – if you separate it from the Wairau: bigger than Hawkes Bay, Waipara and Central Otago.

Where the Wairau has a multitude of small wineries as well as large, the Awatere is dominated by big companies, including Constellation, Treasury, and Yealands.

The big companies were able to buy large tracts of land, at attractive prices.

The most controversial is Peter Yealands, who planted no less than 1,000 hectares of vineyards – mostly to sauvignon blanc. Then, reasoning that selling grapes was unreliable business, he built a huge $40 million winery and minted his own Yealands Estate label. The wines sell for relatively modest prices. The most recent sauvignon blanc I tasted was $15, while a riesling was $19, gruner veltliner $22 and pinot noir $27 (tastings – undiscounted Sydney retail prices).

None of them rated highly in my tastings, although all are clean and competently made.

But the sheer scale of Yealands’ project is impressive. To stand among his vines and be able to see nothing but undulating vineyards for three kilometres in every direction and be told they are all one man’s vineyard, is gob-smacking. They are neat and well tended and the winery looks very smart indeed and is state-of-the-art. Yealands makes a marketing point of sustainability and carbon-zero status. But apart from about 100 hectares of organically grown sauvignon blanc, the rest of the vineyard is not organic or biodynamic. Nevertheless, Yealands Estate has taken out the award for ‘sustainable wine tourism practices’ at the global Great Wine Capitals Awards, for three years running.

Yealands himself was raised in Marlborough and is a former Marlborough Sounds mussel farmer. He is a classic self-made man, who had only basic education, and has ruffled a few feathers along his way, including during the takeover fight for Oyster Bay Wines – which he lost to Delegat Wines. His story is well told in a biography published in late 2012: “A Bloke for All Seasons – the Peter Yealands Story” by Tom Percy (Wily Publications). It’s early days for Yealands wines, but the man himself is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 15 January 2013.


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