Isabel ringing the changes

Winners are grinners – Jeremy McKenzie after Isabel Wines show success (Photo: Instagram)

The winemaker for Marlborough winery Isabel, Jeremy McKenzie, paid a visit the other day and I was updated on this well-established winery’s new direction. It’s been owned since October 2014 by Pinnacle Drinks (part of Woolworths Liquor), hence its wines are exclusive to BWS and Dan Murphy’s outlets.

McKenzie has been making big licks of Marlborough wine for the various Woolworths brands for many years. Now he is the winemaker in residence at Isabel and obviously the plan is to position Isabel as a hero brand for the company, to use the modern jargon.

They couldn’t have lucked it better when the 2016 Isabel Chardonnay (AUD $35) won the trophy for the champion wine (top wine of the entire show) at last year’s Air New Zealand Wine Awards – the country’s leading competition. No doubt the publicity generated would have answered head office’s dreams – if head offices do dream.

Isabel also has a Wild Barrique Chardonnay 2016 (AUD $40), which is even more intense, refined, focused and has even more of the smoky character apparent in the regular chardonnay. This is a very New Zealand thing: when I last tasted them, the entire Villa Maria range of chardonnays (and they have a lot) seemed to have some of this character, which is a reduction or sulfide character created by wild-yeast fermentation of unclarified (‘high solids’) juice. And it’s successful: the judges love it, and it bags heaps of gold medals and trophies for Villa. But some winemakers and judges hate it: they insist that it obscures the fruit, and therefore the varietal, regional, and vineyard terroir characteristics. They have a point, especially when the smokiness reaches the levels of ‘fireworks’ or ‘electrical fire’, as some describe it.

The great French Chablis and Burgundies are the benchmarks and many of the best (eg. Coche-Dury) are noted for carrying a touch of reduction. This seems to have legitimised the wholesale use of the techniques in other parts of the world, some wines showing extremes of stinkiness.

But I really like the way Isabel is using it. The Wild Barrique also won a gold medal and a trophy at the same NZ show, so evidently the judges also really went for the style.

Isabel also has a Wild Barrique Sauvignon Blanc, and again, the wine offers more layers of complexity than the regular savvy, including a generous helping of struck-flintiness. The current vintage is 2015, two years older than the regular savvy, which is a bonus, while the wine is still lovely and fresh.

McKenzie says the Isabel winery has been updated and a new cellar door will be opening soon. The oldest vines are well-established and are now over 30 years old. Isabel used to supply Cloudy Bay with grapes in its early years.

“Isabel is unusual in Marlborough because it has 45 hectares of vines on a single site. It’s a very estate-focused winery: all our wines are produced from the estate.”

The winery is able to process 700 tonnes and the estate produces 500, so they can use the excess capacity for other Pinnacle products.

I tasted the pinot gris, pinot noir, and rosé as well as the two chardonnays and two sauvignon blancs. If the ’15 is any guide, pinot noir has a way to go to catch up to their best wines, while the 2017 rosé was very appealing in a bright, fresh, slightly clinical style. The pinot gris is a very well-made, slightly sweet, exuberantly peachy style. All are stocked by Dan Murphy’s.

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