Interesting Marlborough: Mahi, with Brian Bicknell

brian bicknell mahi

Brian Bicknell has made wine in the Marlborough region since 1989, so he knows the region pretty well. But he’s also had spells abroad, providing much needed context. Most significantly, he was chief winemaker at Viña Errazuriz in Chile until 1996, when he returned to the region to take the job as senior winemaker at the newly created Seresin.

In 2001, after five years at Seresin, Bicknell decided he wanted to do his own thing. So he resigned in order to start Mahi. But owner Michael Seresin persuaded him to stay, and so for the next five years Bicknell built up Mahi while he still had the day job, making his Mahi wines in the Seresin cellar. Eventually, in 2006 he left and bought a winery.

What is currently the Mahi Winery in Renwick was originally Cellier Le Brun, run by Daniel Le Brun. Le Brun was one of the very first wineries in the region, and originally opened its doors in 1984, when there were just a couple of other wineries based in Marlborough. Along with the winery, Bicknell bought the Daniel Le Brun label and with it 600 000 bottles of sparkling wine. He ended up selling the label and the sparkling wine stocks to Lion Nathan, but kept the winery.

For the first four years all the wines were single vineyard, and this has been an emphasis of Bicknell’s work ever since, aiming to demonstrate that Marlborough isn’t just a single, homogeneous region. ‘You get massive differences in flavour from different sites,’ he says. He mainly focuses on the western end of the Wairau valley, which is cooler and lower cropping.

His winemaking style? ‘I want to get juice away from skins, so I hand pick or machine pick to bin, and don’t use pressings.’ He says that press wines get potassium from the skins which makes them taste a bit soapy on the palate. ‘There’s no protein fining, just bentonite. The low skin contact results in low phenolics.’ Bicknell’s preferred wine style is to be ‘subtle at the front with a nice long elegant palate.’

Bicknell works with six vineyards, and three of these are hand picked and put over a sorting table. The rest is machine picked to bin, which means that the bin can be tipped straight into the press so the fruit only gets moved twice. Around 10% of the ferments are done wild in barrel.

Every year he gets 300-400 European winemakers applying to do vintage at Mahi, and he has room for seven. He’s now done 32 vintages, so if you multiply that by seven or so each year, he’s worked with a lot of people. Each year, Bicknell tends to go and do vintage with  Jean Max Roger in Sancerre, which is a really good producer.

Mahi pays a bit more than average for fruit: typical prices for Sauvignon would be NZ$1780 a ton, and for category 1 wineries (smaller ones) its $1860. Mahi pay $2100 but the yields are a bit lower than the average (for Sauvignon in 2016 average yields were 16.5 tons/hectare). So, as you can see, if management costs are around $9000-1000/hectare, growers are doing quite well at the moment in this region.

mahi wines

Mahi Sauvignon Blanc 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
Complex and taut with nice purity. Has some citrus and grapefruit, but also a hint of spicy, nutty character under the fruit. Quite textural and rounded, with some prettiness. It has some of the Marlborough exotic quality, but it’s really nicely balanced and textured, with great precision. 92/100

Mahi Boundary Farm Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
High clay, east of Blenheim town. No additions (no SO2 in the juice even), hand picked straight to barrel (barriques), wild yeast ferment. This is rich and textural with nice intensity. There’s a delicate green quality that adds a spicy cabbage and herb note that sits nicely with the sweet pear and peach fruit. Finishes nutty and a bit stony. Lovely texture to this wine. 92/100

Mahi Boundary Farm Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Marlborough, New Zealand
This has lovely texture and delicacy. Fine green hints with lovely fine-grained citrus fruit and a delicate spiciness. Lovely harmony here with beautiful fruit expression and a really nice mouthfeel. Lovely wine that should age really nicely. 93/100

Mahi Alias Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
From the Byrne vineyard in Conders Bend just behind Framingham. Made the same way as the Boundary Farm. Very fine and fresh. It’s a cooler vineyard and it tastes brighter with more acidity. Nice delicate citrus fruit with a touch of dried herb. Some tangerine, too. Lovely focus on the finish with a fine spiciness. 92/100

Mahi Pinot Gris 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
From Ward in the Awatere. Machine to bin, off the skins, no sugar, no press wine, a bit of French oak. Pure, fresh and enticing on the nose with attractive table grape and lychee hints. Linear, fruity and pure with bright fruit and good lemony acidity. Dry and quite taut, but with some personality. Finishes brisk and salty. 90/100

Mahi Ward Farm Pinot Gris 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
From Ward in the Awatere. All hand picked, pressed to barrel, wild ferment, in barrel for 15 months, unfined and unfiltered. Nutty and creamy on the nose with a hint of vanilla. The palate is dry and quite complex with nuts, honey and spice alongside the citrus, pear and table grape fruitiness. Finishes a bit savoury with some garlic salt. 91/100

Mahi Gewurztraminer Twin Valleys Vineyard 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
Top terrace at the base of the Waihopai. Hand picked from three different clones. Don’t want to make an oily style so don’t pick it too late. Get it away from the skins and no press wine, no sugar. This is a grown-up wine with brisk citrus notes, a bit of lychee, and some grape. It’s dry on the finish with some fine spiciness. Nicely weighted with a crisp finish. 90/100

Mahi Gewurztraminer Twin Valleys Vineyard 2011 Marlborough, New Zealand
Top terrace at the base of the Waihopai. Distinctive with a salty, savoury twist to the herby lychee and yellow plum fruit. It’s quite textural and has a hint of cabbage alongside the fruit. Savoury, dry and a bit nutty on the finish. 88/100

Chardonnay is a big focus here. ‘We are 2.2 C cooler than Burgundy but we have a longer ripening period,’ says Brian. ‘The low temperature retains fruit character, but we still manage to ripen the grapes. I think it’s good. We are looking for another Chardonnay grower at the moment. It has a good future.’

Mahi Chardonnay 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
From three vineyards. Hand picked, no additions, whole cluster pressed to barrel with high solids. 15 months in barrel. Nice weight: there’s a spicy underpinning to the pear, apple and citrus fruit. Has a bit of nuttiness and a slight creaminess, with spicy bite on the finish. Nice depth and texture here. 92/100

Mahi Chardonnay Twin Valleys Vineyard 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
Hand picked, no additions, whole cluster pressed to barrel with high solids. All clone 95, picked at three different times. 18 months in barrel. There’s a lovely freshness to this wine. Bright with a mineral edge to the citrus and white peach fruit. Well integrated nuts and spice here. Lovely weight. 93/100

Mahi Chardonnay Twin Valleys 2013 Marlborough, New Zealand
Spicy and lively with lovely pear, ripe apple and citrus fruit. Nice precision here with some lemony brightness and an attractive mineral core. Has good freshness and acidity. This is a well balanced, focused Chardonnay. 92/100

Mahi Chardonnay Alchemy 2013 Marlborough, New Zealand
This is really pure and expressive with fine citrus fruit and twist of white peach. Lovely richness, but it still shows finesse and purity. Lovely precision. Finishes with fine nuttiness and some bread and toast notes, but they never dominate the pure fruit. 94/100

Mahi Pinot Noir

Mahi Pinot Noir 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
Blend of four different vineyards. 8 ton/ha at the most. Hand pick, sort, 30% stems. Small vats, hand plunged, wild ferments, 3 weeks on skins, go to barrel. This is ripe, sweet and quite textural with a nice spiciness under the red cherry and plum fruit. Has a bit of grip, and there’s a twist of damson bitterness and sour cherry that’s very pleasant. Nice mix of the sweet and savoury. Fresh style. 92/100

‘For Pinot we have been picking earlier and using a bit more whole bunch,’ says Brian. ‘We take all the wing bunches off. I want nice acidity.’

Mahi Pinot Noir 2010 Marlborough, New Zealand
15% stems. Shows a hint of cocoa and undergrowth development on the nose. Supple and fresh with some raspberry and cherry fruit, and some lovely elegance. Nice fine spiciness and a bit of peppery bite on the finish. Lovely combination of the sweet and savoury. 93/100

‘It has been interesting watching the evolution of New Zealand Pinot Noir styles,’ he adds. ‘In Central Otago they are extracting less. In the past, if it was dark it was Central and if it was lighter it was Marlborough.’

Mahi Pinot Noir Byrne 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
Cool vineyard. Three clones: 115, 5 (Pommard), 10/5 (Wadenswil). Compact, taut and intense with some firm spicy structure. Fruity and expressive with a lively spiciness. Nice sweet red cherry and plum fruit with a fine grained structure. There’s a hint of autumn leaf litter under the fruit. Proper Pinot. 94/100

Mahi Pinot Noir Byrne 2013 Marlborough, New Zealand
Sweet floral red cherry fruit nose. Pretty and expressive. The palate has nice tension with bright acidity. Really expressive and bright with good acidity and a very linear character. Stylish wine. 94/100

UK agent: Berkmann

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