Going Green in Marlborough
I went to New Zealand with some high expectations. Going by my extensive knowledge of the country based entirely around having seen all three Lord of the Rings films multiple times, I knew that the New Zealand would be a rugged landscape of craggy mountains, rolling hills, lush forests, lakes, and general untouched beauty. It managed to exceed my expectations. The thing about New Zealand (actually I can just speak for the south island as I didn’t make it to the north on this trip) is that there just aren’t enough people there to stuff it up and ruin its natural beauty. The entire population of both islands is half that of London or New York City. And so New Zealand, blessed with some of the most stunning natural beauty I’ve ever seen, remains relatively unpopulated. But not in the ‘dirt road, naked people living in huts’ kind of way of course. It’s actually the perfect place to go if you’re like me–you love being in nature, but prefer to see it from an air conditioned car on a paved road with a plush hotel room and a nice bottle of wine awaiting you. (OK I admit it, I’m not as outdoorsy as I pretend to be.) New Zealanders are outdoorsy types, and the country is about as eco-conscious as I’ve seen from a ‘western society’.
So, it’s no wonder that New Zealand, famed for the past few decades for its fruity, green pepper flavoured Sauvignon Blanc and its highly drinkable Pinot Noir, is also dipping a rather big toe into the waters of natural winemaking. (Yes, I’m at last getting to the wine.)
I only had one day of winery-hopping in Marlborough, the biggest wine region in the country. I was accompanied by my husband and mother-in-law, neither of whom are in the wine industry. So there was only so much ‘wine talk’ they could take in one trip. There are so many producers using non-invasive winemaking techniques to stunning results so I had the difficult task of having to narrow it down to just three to visit. I decided to focus on three of the founding members of the newly launched Malborough Natural Winegrowers Association (MANA), a ‘collaboration between liked minded wineries in Marlborough that share the same values of traditional winemaking, matched with organic and biodynamic viticulture to make the best wines possible’. Yep, them.
My first stop was Fromm Winery where Swiss winemaker Hätsch Kalberer very kindly took time out from his weekend off to show me around.
Hätsch and his compost
This is Hätsch’s winemaking philsophy: ‘Our philosophy places terroir over technology, and grape quality over quantity. We are dedicated to producing intense, concentrated wines. All Fromm wines have an uncompromising emphasis on texture and drinkability. We carefully regulate crop size, follow organic principles and are committed to sustainable viticulture.’ That pretty much says it all. Fromm’s vineyards were beautifully kept with flowers and herbs growing in between every 10 rows of vines (apparently the distance insects can fly before having to land again!).
Tank sample anyone?
Being Swiss (but a resident of New Zealand for 28 years), Hätsch takes a lot of inspiration from the Old World, particularly Burgundy. Indeed Fromm’s Brandcott Valley Pinot Noir and 2005 Chardonnay could rival many of the Burgundian classics for their restraint, balance, and finesse. While their savoury Syrah (yes Syrah!) nodded more towards its New World home, Fromm’s Riesling Spätlese was that wonderful Germanic combo of low alcohol sweetness without the stickiness, and their late harvest Gewürztraminer was beautifully clean and refreshingly uncloying.
But Hätsch isn’t an extremist when it comes to natural (or ‘real’ as he prefers to call it) winemaking. In an interview with the New Zealand Herald he says, ‘All that matters is the wine. If it needs sulphur I will use it, if egg whites are helpful I will use them. However, I have my own standards of wine integrity and that is not to be compromised and does not need to be if the harvested fruit is of sound quality.’ And the proof is in the pudding–er–bottle. By not following the trends of the moment or giving into the latest technological toys, Fromm has gained itself a well deserved reputation for consistently high quality wines which reflect the land in which they’ve come from year after year. I wish all wines were made with the same care and attention.
Next up was a Hans Herzog, the smallest boutique winery in Marlborough–producing a mere 2,500 bottles a year. Yep, as the name suggests, another Swiss winemaker. In fact, none of the three wineries I visited had Kiwi winemakers. It’s just a theory, but perhaps it’s the Europeans leading the natural wine movement in Marlborough?!
Hans and Therese Herzog’s winemaking roots started in their garage outside Zurich. Their wines went on to earn national acclaim as well as their restaurant which won a Michelin star. In search a place to experiment with the European grape varieties Hans loved but couldn’t grow in Switzerland’s cool climate, they found that the land near the Wairau River created the perfect microclimate for Hans to experiment away. And does he ever. Herzog produces wine from a dazzling array of varieties: Montepulciano, Arneis, Barbera, Gewurztraminer, Semillon, Tempranillo and Zweigelt, not to mention the classics like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Most of them however, are made in frustratingly minuscule amounts. Because of this I sadly didn’t get to taste everything, but of the ones I did try, Herzog’s Montepulciano and Pinot Noir stood out on top. All were exceptionally well made wines that made full use of the techniques of a skillful European winemaker and the generous terroir of this New World region.
We also had a posh lunch in the estate’s beautiful gardens (next door to their top class restaurant), and I had their Sauvignon Blanc ‘sur lie’ (in extended contact with the dead yeasts). It took awhile to grow on me, but once it opened up, it made for a wonderful change from the typical Sauvignon of this region.
Lavendar and vines tend to like the same type of soil. The lavendar helps keeps pests away from the vines, but mostly it just looks pretty! Herzog vineyards are organic and follow many biodynamic practices.
After lunch Therese Herzog herself managed to find some time between her busy Saturday lunch service to show us the beautiful vineyards, cellar (including one for the restaurant and personal use of which I drooled over for many a minute), and the restaurant of which she is deservedly so proud.
Herzog has a reputation for being one of the top boutique wine producers (and restaurants) in New Zealand. From what I tried, I would have to agree. The problem is that so little of these beautiful wines exist, so that what is made fetches top dollar and gets snapped up rapidly. The Herzog experience, whether eating at the restaurant or drinking their wine, is not an every day one. It is meant for indulgence, for special occasions; which is a shame because I could easily polish off a bottle every night. And with all those grape varieties to choose from, life would certainly never be dull.
Our final stop of the day was at Seresin winery. Unfortunately the head winemaker, Clive Dougall, was on his summer holiday (back in his home country perhaps?) so I didn’t get a chance to meet him. I was instead shown around by Carolina and her boyfriend Martin, a winemaker at another winery!
Seresin were one of the first wineries in Marlborough to be certified organic. They are now also in the process of becoming certified biodynamic. Much of the time they use wild yeasts, steer away from filtering and fining, allow malolactic fermentation to occur naturally, don’t spray with sulphur, and use a minimal amount of sulphur in the wine itself…basically, despite hands being on all their logos, they try to be as ‘hands off’ as possible in their winemaking!
And yet their wines are very user-friendly and consistently good. I unfortunately didn’t get to try many because a huge bus of tourists showed up for a tasting right as we were there, and poor Carolina was swept off her feet. But I’ve also tried Seresin’s wines in London and always found them to be very approachable, but not necessarily simple. They make lots of Sauvignon Blanc and other well known white varieties like Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Riesling. But it’s their Pinot Noir that hits the spot for me. The ‘Rachel’ is particularly lovely with its red fruits, Christmas spices, smoke, and earthiness–a harmonious balance of all that I love about New World Pinot! I’m still waiting to get my hands on their ‘Sun and Moon’ Pinot which is meant to be brilliant.
View from Seresin's tasting room
If you ever get the chance to visit New Zealand’s south island, be sure to get to the Marlborough region to visit these fabulous wineries, all at the forefront of what I think will be a very successful natural wine movement in New Zealand. Oh, and for a real Lord of the Rings experience, drive along the west coast too. It’s just breathtaking.
In the UK, you can get your hands on Seresin’s wines here. Herzog’s Montepulciano here. And Fromm’s wines here. As always, if you’re in the US, pop the name of the wine into Wine Searcher to find the closest retailer to you. Happy drinking!