The next stage in my exploration of interesting developments in Marlborough, New Zealand’s key wine region, was visiting Giesen.
Giesen are a sizeable producer in Marlborough, but over the last few years they have been making smaller quantities of high-end wines from privileged vineyard sites, in addition to their larger volume blends. Marcel Giesen, one of the three Giesen brothers involved in the winery, explained that this decision to try to do something more high-end was prompted by the GFC in 2008, when the region got caught out with a glut of wine that no one wanted. ‘There’s no future for Marlborough if it is just making cheap commodity wine,’ says Marcel. ‘In 2008 we had a big oversupply.’ So they began looking at their different vineyard sites, to see which ones had the potential for making serious wines if they were cropped a bit lower.
I visited three of the sites they identified with Marcel and assistant winemaker Andrew Hawker, before tasting the wines with them and senior winemaker Nikolai St George.
We began in the Matthews Lane Vineyard, which is in the main part of the Wairau Valley. The soils here are river silt/gravels and free draining, with quite a bit of variation. The rows are planted North-South, but the river ran East-West. As a result, there is variation within the row, with some bits more gravelly and some bits more silty. The bony, gravelly bits ripen a couple of weeks earlier than the more silty bits, and this gives the fully ripe/only just ripe variation in Sauvignon Blanc that the region is famous for.
Matthews is around 50 acres and was first planted in the early 1990s. It used to be mainly Muller Thurgau, but the majority was replanted with mass selection Sauvignon. The portions of the vineyard that are used to make Giesen’s premium Sauvignons are cropped at around 6 tons/hectare, where the average for the region is 16 tons/hectare (and many would take 20 tons/hectare if they could get it, says Marcel). Cropping a vineyard low like this poses viticultural challenges. The vine has to be retrained for low yields. ‘Skilled labour to do this properly is a challenge,’ says Marcel.
Next we went to the Ridge Block Vineyard. It’s an 8.5 hectare vineyard in Fairhall that was planted in front of a housing development. It turns out the developer wanted a vineyard in the front to look pretty (this creates problems: people who buy swanky homes like the vineyard views but don’t like the sound of frost propellers or helicopters in the middle of the night). It was originally planted to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and Giesen got hold of it in 2008. It was their first organic vineyard. They ripped out the existing vines when the GFC hit and replanted it at high density in 2009, but kept the organic certification. The soils here are interesting: fine gravels with a layer of ferric iron further down, as well as rocks from the southern valleys and a bit of clay.
The third stop was Clayvin, one of the regions most famous vineyards. This was the first close-planted, hillside vineyard in Marlborough and was established in 1991 by Mike Eaton, who’d spent time in Burgundy. He came back and found this land at the end of the Brancott Valley, and purchased it very cheaply off the Hille family. Mike planted the vineyard mostly with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on a shoestring budget, with ungrafted vines. However, phylloxera struck in 1994, which is also the year the first wines were made from the vineyard. This meant it had to be replanted, and the financial stress this caused meant that in the end Mike had to sell to George Fromm and Lay & Wheeler (UK wine merchant) in 1999. George sold his interest and moved back to Switzerland around 2010, and with the vineyard managed by absentee owners, it wasn’t in the best of shape. In 2011/12 Giesen made Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah from here. ‘We got interested in the vineyard and could see the potential,’ says Marcel. ‘It had always been talked about, but the wines were often tight and needed time to open out. There are some distinct characters on this site: you can pick quite early because the fruit doesn’t need high brix to shine, the pH in the must is low, and the tannins have a nice quality to them.’
But with a change of ownership in 2014 things got a bit rocky. The irrigation system was a mess and the vines weren’t performing to their potential. So in 2014 Giesen signed a lease to manage the vineyard for 10 years, and brought in biodynamic expert Kurt Simcic to help get things back in balance. ‘Now it’s better managed there’s a much nice shape to the tannins,’ says Marcel. ‘They aren’t stress related.’ In 2015 Giesen had the opportunity to buy the vineyard, which they did. ‘When we took over the weeds were right in the fruiting zone, and there was no undervine weeding equipment.’ Now they have a Geier crawler, which is a narrow tractor with caterpillar tracks that weighs just 1.1. tons (versus 2.5 tons for their previous tractor), and which exerts a downward pressure of just 60 kg, avoiding compaction.
So, to the wines. Giesen’s Fuder range of white wines made in 1000 litre barrels from Germany (known as Fuders) began with their high-end Sauvignon, the August 1988. August was the grandfather of the three Giesen brothers, and was born in 1888. He was a restaurateur, sommelier and bon vivant, and got up to all kinds of scrapes it seems. Marcel had been with Donnhof in the Nahe, Germany, and he saw the new Fuders arrive there, and decided he needed some, So in 2011 the Fuder barrels arrived and some of the parcels of the August 1888 were made in them. Some of the wines looked too interesting to blend, so in that vintage, 2011, the single vineyard wines were born.
These wines are hand picked and then whole bunch pressed, with a low yield of just 500 litres a ton. Two tons of grapes fill one fuder, and the yeast starters are made in the vineyard. ‘These wines are a completely different expression of Marlborough,’ says Marcel. ‘The idea of texture lies behind it: we all know what the fruit of Marlborough smells like.’
Giesen The Fuder Sauvignon Blanc Single Vineyard Selection Matthews Lane 2012 Marlborough, New Zealand
Powerful and weighty with lovely pear and white peach fruit, with a green hint (blackcurrant) and nice ripe fruit characters. Quite complex and broad with lovely density and a fine spiciness on the finish. It’s really textural and fine with a lovely mouthfeel, showing some greenness from the very cool growing season. 92/100
Giesen The Fuder Sauvignon Blanc Single Vineyard Selection Matthews Lane 2013 Marlborough, New Zealand
Linear and taut with nice citrus precision. Has some notes of tangerine and just a hint of cabbage, with nice intensity. Mineral and linear with lovely fruit drive, but also textural character. Nice reduction here playing a background role. 93/100
Giesen The Fuder Sauvignon Blanc Single Vineyard Selection Matthews Lane 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
Very fine and expressive with subtle green hints alongside linear pear and citrus fruit, and some elderflower aromatics. Lovely intensity and focus here with good acidity and weight. Has finesse and purity, but also lots of personality. Complex and fine with hints of pine needle. 93/100
Dillons Point was Giesen’s second organically certified block. It is the first vineyard they bought in Marlborough, back in 1993. It is dry farmed on silty soils. ‘It’s a bit more challenging in a wetter year,’ says Marcel, ‘but in a drier year have more reserves there.’ It’s located in the Riverlands area, closer to the coast. ‘This was perceived as potato country before,’ says Marcel, because of its fertile soils, ‘but now it’s sought after.’
Giesen The Fuder Single Vineyard Selection Dillons Point Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Marlborough, New Zealand
First vintage so new barrels. Complex and lively with bright citrussy acidity. Nice pear, spice and toast complexity. This has a compactness and focus to it even at year 6. Very intense and with some grapefruit bite, and a touch of sage. This is so lovely. 94/100
Giesen The Fuder Single Vineyard Selection Dillons Point Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Marlborough, New Zealand
Distinct green pepper and cabbage notes on the nose from the very cool vintage. Fresh and expressive on the palate with quince and green pepper, as well as some pear fruit richness. The green is present but integrates quite nicely on the palate. 90/100
Giesen The Fuder Single Vineyard Selection Dillons Point Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Marlborough, New Zealand
Tight and expressive. There’s a hint of mineral spiciness on the nose with some oyster shell character. The palate has tangerine, spice and herb notes. There’s a lemony freshness on the finish, with subtle herbal hints in the mix. Complex and delicious. 93/100
Giesen The Fuder Single Vineyard Selection Dillons Point Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
This is fleshy and delicious, but also has some nice taut restraint. Lovely fruit expression, coupled with nice texture. There are green herby notes meshing with subtle mango and pear, as well as some bright citrus. There’s some sweetness to the fruit too. Very appealing. 92/100
Giesen The August 1888 Traditionally Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2009 Marlborough, New Zealand
First vintage. Complex nose of fig, toast and spice with some pear and ripe apple. The palate is fresh and complex with nice spiciness and detail. Very fresh and bright. There’s a bit of green but it’s very well integrated. Lovely pear and citrus fruit drive. 92/100
Giesen The August 1888 Traditionally Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2010 Marlborough, New Zealand
Restrained and focused with fresh pear and citrus, as well as a hint of honeysuckle. Nice brightness and freshness with some grapefruit and dried herbs, alongside the pear and lemon notes. Still very fresh and linear with nice reduction. 92/100
Giesen The August 1888 2011 Marlborough, New Zealand
Predominantly barriques but with one or two fuders. Lovely depth here with a fine spiciness under the very fine citrus fruits, with just a twist of apple and pear richness. Lovely finesse with a twist of toffee and spice on the finish. 93/100
Giesen The August 1888 2012 Marlborough, New Zealand
Some greenness here, but also lovely well balanced pear and white peach fruit. Has some richness as well as the cabbage/green pepper characters. Stylish and linear, with nice textural quality. 91/100
Giesen The August 1888 2013 Marlborough, New Zealand
This is tight and fresh. Really linear with fresh, focused citrus fruit. There’s a compact quality to the fruit with great precision. Some stony, mineral notes, too, and good acidity. 91/100
Giesen The August 1888 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
Quite forward, but still fresh. Shows subtle green hints as well as some pear and white peach fruit. Crisp, linear and a bit spicy with nice depth. Fruity and fine with nice intensity. Some tangerine on the finish. 93/100
Giesen The Fuder Chardonnay Single Vineyard Selection Clayvin 2011 Marlborough, New Zealand
Complex, intense and finely spiced with vivid citrus and pear fruit, a hint of pineapple and subtle fig hints. Really expressive and complex, combining some richer, sweet fruit characters with delicious spiciness and subtle toast. Intense and profound. 95/100
Giesen The Fuder Chardonnay Single Vineyard Selection Clayvin 2012 Marlborough, New Zealand
Fine toasty notes on the nose with a hint of toffee richness. Very fine on the palate with some bready, toffee sweetness alongside sweet pear and peach fruit. Textural and broad but also quite fine with some delicate citrus on the finish. 92/100
Giesen The Fuder Chardonnay Single Vineyard Selection Clayvin 2013 Marlborough, New Zealand
There’s a lively freshness here with bright citrussy notes as well as some pear and fine toast. Good acidity. Quite linear and taut with a shy, reductive personality. Finishes with slightly hard acidity. Needs a bit of time to integrate and open. 92/100
Giesen The Fuder Chardonnay Single Vineyard Selection Clayvin 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
Fresh and expressive with lively citrus fruit. Linear and quite pure with keen acidity. Quite tightwound and more Chablis-like in style. Very stylish and with lots of potential, but needs time to show its best. Such precision and purity. 94/100
Giesen The Fuder Chardonnay Single Vineyard Selection Clayvin 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
Tight, slightly reductive nose with some minerals and a hint of mint. Lively, powerful palate with some pine needle, citrus and focused pear fruit. So pure, fresh, tight and expressive with very lemony fruit. Power and precision here, and needs a lot of time to show its best. 94/100
Giesen Pinot Noir Single Vineyard Selection Clayvin 2011 Marlborough, New Zealand
Aromatic nose with sweet cherry and plum fruit, as well as subtle meaty hints. The palate has sweet, rounded fruit with some sour cherry savouriness and a bit of bitter damson, together with iodine and blood, finishing dry and tangy. Still has good structure and acidity. Nicely complex with a bit of maturity. 92/100
Giesen Pinot Noir Single Vineyard Selection Clayvin 2012 Marlborough, New Zealand
Light, expressive and quite savoury with cherry and raspberry fruit and a linear, focused personality. Has fine spices and a twist of herbiness. Good acidity. Nice savoury hints here. A lovely wine in a lighter style with supple, easy fruit and some attractive non-fruit complexity. 94/100
Giesen Pinot Noir Single Vineyard Selection Clayvin 2013 Marlborough, New Zealand
There’s a distinct mint/pot pourri edge to the nose with sweet raspberry and cherry fruit. The sweet fruit theme carries over to the palate: lovely raspberry/strawberry jam character with sweet fruit the main theme, and some nutty, bitter notes on the finish. Sweetly fruited and ripe, with 14.5% alcohol. 92/100
Giesen Pinot Noir Single Vineyard Selection Clayvin 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
No new wood this year. This is ripe and sweetly fruited with compact, balanced cherry and raspberry fruit. It has some floral notes, but also nice savoury iodine and blood characters. Juicy and fresh but still quite harmonious and fine. Lovely finesse to this wine. 94/100
Giesen Pinot Noir Single Vineyard Selection Clayvin 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
Lots of second fill oak. This is beautiful. It’s dense and full, with good structure lying under the robust black cherry, raspberry and beetroot notes. There’s a lot of fruit, with real concentration, and the firm tannins are really nicely integrated. Dense, full and very expressive, with the potential for a lot of future development. A complex, complete wine. 95/100
Giesen Pinot Noir Single Vineyard Selection Ridge Block 2012 Marlborough, New Zealand
First crop. Highly aromatic and expressive with fine herb and bloody iron notes, as well as fresh black cherry and plum fruit. Juicy and expressive with lovely fruit personality and some savoury spicy notes. Good structure and depth here, finishing savoury. 93/100
Giesen Pinot Noir Single Vineyard Selection Ridge Block 2013 Marlborough, New Zealand
There’s a real mix of flavours here. There’s some soft, sweet berry fruit with a strawberry lushness, but also some lively spiciness and good structure. Combines sweet, warm fruit with some tangy, savoury, spicy notes. Has a leafy herbal edge, too. Very attractive and drinkable, but not quite fully integrated. 91/100
Giesen Pinot Noir Single Vineyard Selection Ridge Block 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
There’s some iron/blood/iodine savouriness here. Some sweet cherry and plum fruit but also some fine herbal characters. A bit of black tea, too, with a balance between the sweetness and savouriness. Drinking very well now. 92/100
Giesen Pinot Noir Single Vineyard Selection Ridge Block 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
Spicy, herby aromatics on the nose. Definitely some tea-like characters. Lovely rounded, sweetly fruited palate with cherries and raspberries. There’s a nice savoury, non-fruit dimension here. Very expressive and multidimensional, with a bloody edge to the fruit. 94/100
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