The drive from the Waipara to Blenheim is an attractive one. Alas we faced grey skies and a bit of drizzle, but it was still very interesting. There’s something special about the New Zealand landscape. Sadly, there were no baby seals at the Ohau falls near Kaikora, but this is the wrong time of year.
We dropped the hire car off at Blenheim airport. It was just after 7, and a helpful member of the airport staff was locking up (the last flight had arrived some time earlier), and gave us a lift into town. It would have been tough trying to find a taxi. I love small town kindness.
Prior to the Sauvignon Blanc symposium there was time for a few visits, and I’d picked people I hadn’t seen before. We began at Huia, with Mike Allan. Huia have been working organically since 2008, and they’ve been certified since 2012. As well as their home block in Rapaura, they have another vineyard (Winsome) near Riverland with heavier clay soils. Since they began working this block biodynamically, the soil texture has improved massively, and they get great results here, particularly with aromatics.
Huia are an underrated producer. I particularly like their sparkling wine, which is all done by hand, including the disgorgement process. Both Mike and Claire have had experience working in Champagne. The Huia Brut 2009 is delicious, and has begun to show the first stages of development.
We tried the 2015 and 2005 versions of the Sauvignon Blanc. A decade apart. The older wine was lovely, showing some maturity, but not as much a you’d expect. I really like the 2015 Sauvignon, and the Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer are all quite lovely.
Then it was off to Astrolabe. This is an interesting producer. Simon Waghorn began this winery as a hobby when he was winemaker for Whitehaven, and he’s always been determined to make wines that suit his own palate. He says he’s trying to keep the New Zealand-ness about his wines while marrying this to the elegance of the European wines that he likes to drink, and in this I reckon he has succeeded.
From 500 cases back in 1996 – a cleanskin Chardonnay – he added Riesling in 1997 and Sauvignon in 2001. The current Astrolabe operation dates to 2002. ‘There’s no family money,’ says Simon. ‘Everything has been done on a shoestring.’
The majority of the grapes come from 8 or 9 families of growers, and 60% of the fruit is from the Awatare. Astrolabe also source grapes from the Kekerengu Coast, which is south of Marlborough. The wines are all quite impressive. ‘I’m drinking a lot more Chablis and Burgundy,’ says Simon, ‘and trying to make tight wines. Wines that will age with grace; understated in their youth.’
I was particularly impressed by the Kekerengu Coast Pinot Gris 2015, and the Taihoa Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2013 and 2009 (also from the Kekerengu Coast). My favourite wine was probably the 2014 Astrolabe Chardonnay, which was stunning, but – really – all the wines here are interesting and really good.
Then in the evening, it was off to Matua, for dinner. Matua are a big producer that is owned by Treasury Wine Estates, and they are famous for their newly re-badged Sauvignon with its sky blue label (apparently the correct term for this colour is ‘teal’). Since 2000, production has grown from 600 000 cases to 2 million annually, but of late quality has risen to the point that noted Kiwi wine commentators are commenting on how they have turned things around.
There are three tiers of wines: Teal label, lands and legends, and single vineyard. It’s the latter that’s potentially of interest for wine geeks. The Single Vineyard Marlborough Chardonnay 2012 is a very serious wine, with intense, powerful, complex fruit characters.
The 2014 is also impressive, with precision and a keen acid core. I also really liked the Single Vineyard Hawkes Bay Syrah 2014, which showed amazing supple, peppery, clove and juniper tinged fruit. This is a serious wine with lovely balance, and not just intense flavour. It’s great when you find large wineries doing a great job like this.