A flying winemaker speaks
Matt Thomson (pictured) has made wine at Saint Clair (tastings) in Marlborough since they started in 1994. Today he heads their winemaking team. Matt has also made wine in Europe since 1993 – every vintage without fail. By my calculation he has worked 42 vintages in 21 years, a fairly exhausting workload.
I recently tasted 25 wines he’d made in France, Spain and Italy. For the most part they were inexpensive wines from well-known appellations such as Valpolicella, Cotes du Rhone, Coteaux du Languedoc and Rioja; and popular grape varieties like Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Syrah.
As a group, they are impressive. Pure, well-made wines that expressed regional and varietal character. It helped that most were sealed with screwcaps. All are available on the UK market and a selection will be offered in this country. I plan to review the local offerings when they arrive and have prices (most will be in the $15-20 range).
Matt was quick to debunk the widely held opinion that Old World winemakers use less technology and are more traditional. He believes the reverse is true. ” When people visit Old World wineries they see old concrete tanks and caves and large format oak vessels. By contrast they go to a New World winery and see lots of stainless steel tanks which look far more modern. They’re just storage vessels and really as long as they are managed properly don’t have any major impact on the wines. What can have a major impact are things like thermovinification, reverse osmosis, carbon fining etc. In my opinion these things erode the sense of place that is a big part of the magic of wine” explained Matt, suggesting that these invasive techniques are more commonly used in the Old World than the New.
“A lot of what we have been doing is reducing the technology involved, choosing better grapes and keeping them separate. We chill white grapes before pressing and we ferment the juice a little cooler than they normally would have. As a result we use far less fining and in the case of Pinot Grigio we don’t use carbon at all to remove the colour. Carbon fining is what causes many of the Italian Pinot Grigios to be bland. Ours have more in common with the small producers of the Alto Adige who make wonderful characterful wines.”
In the Mediterranean wine producing countries they seldom drink wine, especially red wine, without food. Winemakers tend to be more tuned into the local taste for more austere wines. Matt and his team treat their red wines more gently to extract flavour without excessively harsh tannins.
“We’re not trying to make New World wines in Europe. I tried to make a more New Zealand style of Sauvignon in Friuli once. It didn’t work! If you’ve tasted the recent Ponte del Diavolo Sauvignon and compared it to our New Zealand examples you will understand just how different they are. If there is a common theme I’d like to think that they taste of the variety they’re made from and the region they’re made in.”
“We’ve been working with some of these people for 16 years now and we’ve become good friends, with a very healthy dose of mutual respect and trust. That’s perhaps expressed by the birth of Terrapieno. This is an estate owned by three of the winemakers we’ve been working all this time with, a viticulturist (who of course claims he does all the work), an administrator (who of course thinks he keeps us on line) myself and David (the wines UK distributor). We found some land, planted it and three years ago we started making our own wine from the grapes. Anyone who thinks we’re doing this with a short-term mind set had better think again.”