While New Zealand wine has always been innovative, it appears New Zealand consumers are also.
Tinpot Hut Sauvignon Blanc 2016 and Auntsfield’s Single Vineyard Southern Valleys Sauvignon Blanc 2016 were both ranked as Exceptional wines, in the August issue of Decanter. On the 100-point scoring system, any wine that achieves between 98 and 100 points is rated Exceptional. And Exceptional wines don’t come around very often, if previous panel tastings are anything to go by. A quick search of the Decanter website, shows that of the Top 20 Wines from Decanter Panel Tastings in 2016, not one scored a 98. The highest score was 97 (Outstanding) awarded to Dönnhoff, Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Großes Gewächs, Nahe 2014.
Going back even further, Natalie Earl, Tasting Assistant Decanter, says this is a first for Sauvignon Blanc as far as they can tell.
“Checking back through panel tastings (for where we’ve got the data), we’ve had no other Exceptionals for any other Sauvignon Blancs, from any region.”
Chairman of judges at the tasting panel, Bob Campbell MW says some wine critics and members of the wine trade can tend to be dismissive about Sauvignon Blanc claiming it doesn’t hit the high level of other varieties. That is a feeling he doesn’t agree with.
“The message I would like to get across to ‘bored critics’ is that there is such a thing as great Marlborough Sauvignon. There is not a sameness about it, there are sub regional differences, there are winemaking differences and there are sheer quality differences that change from vintage to vintage. Sauvignon Blanc can be truly exciting at that sort of level.”
The perception that Sauvignon Blanc is a workhorse, not worthy of exaltation is a shame he says.
“Because when it’s great, it gets very exciting. And these (top scoring wines) were very exciting wines for us all.”
Campbell also says there was no doubt in the three judges minds that these two wines were exceptional.
“Often in these things, someone goes for it, someone nearly goes for it and someone doesn’t go for it. Then you have the job of trying to talk people into it. There was none of that in this case. It was a fairly spontaneous bang, bang, bang.”
Achieving something that has never been achieved by a Sauvignon Blanc before, was a very large tick for the reputation of Marlborough as a wine producing region, says Wine Marlborough’s GM, Marcus Pickens.
“I think it is a bit of a game changer in many ways,” he said. “It has been accepted that Marlborough makes some of the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world, but in many ways we have not broken through the glass ceiling in terms of the way wine critics view exceptional. It seems as though that one term is reserved for old world regions such as Burgundy and Bordeaux. But these results show Marlborough can also produce exceptional wines. That this is a region that is exceptional in its own right.”
Even the winemakers from both Auntsfield and Tinpot Hut are praising the region, rather than their own winemaking skills. Luc Cowley, winemaker for Auntsfield agrees with Pickens, saying the Decanter results are a recognition of the region producing more serious wines of origin.
“It shows that quality Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc delivers exceptional wines with a strong sense of place and those rare characteristics of minerality, complexity and structure, and they deserve to be placed alongside some of the best wines in the world.”
For Fiona Turner, owner and winemaker of Tinpot Hut, the score of 98 vindicates her decision to make wine in Marlborough.
“I live here and work here in Marlborough because I think it is world class. Sauvignon Blanc is a variety that deserves to be taken seriously. People think it is easy to grow here in Marlborough, and maybe that is true. But to grow really good Sauvignon takes a lot of work, a lot of commitment and just as much time and effort as many other varieties.”
Turner said the fact that 25 of the 30 wines ranked with scores of 90 plus came from Marlborough, proves just how “exceptional” the region is. Added to that the majority of the wines came from 2016, which she describes as a “difficult vintage for many reasons”.
“The fact that we have so many good scores from that tasting (and that vintage) is really heartening.”
The Auntsfield and Tinpot Hut wines were two of 93 Sauvignon Blancs entered into the panel tasting. Of those 93, two were awarded Exceptional status, three were considered Outstanding (with scores of 95 – 98) and 25 were Highly Recommended (scoring between 90 and 94 points). Of the top 30 wines, 23 came from Marlborough, including the two Exceptionals, and three Outstandings.
Other regions to shine in the Highly Recommended category, were Wellington Wine Country (four wines), Nelson (two) and North Canterbury (one).
The exceptional winemakers
Fiona Turner, owner and winemaker for Tinpot Hut had no aspirations to become a winemaker. In fact, she only became involved in the industry in order to raise some money so she could travel overseas.
It was while she was completing her Masters of Science, in Chemistry, that the world of wine opened up for her.
“I was looking for a short-term job for when I had finished my Masters,” Turner says.
“I literally opened the paper one day and there was this ad for a lab manager for what had just become Rapaura Vintners (in Marlborough). I thought if they are big enough to hire a lab manager, then maybe they would take some people for harvest. I thought I could go and work there for a few months, earn enough money and then take off overseas.”
She didn’t get the vintage work, but was offered the lab manager’s role, which she decided to take on “for a few months” while completing her thesis. She had no idea that job was going to change her life. Working alongside winemakers like John Belsham and Ian Marchant during a period of rapid expansion, showed her just how exciting the wine industry was for those at the pointy end. She discovered she loved the work, the industry and the potential for growth. After two years with the company, during which time she completed her Masters, she headed overseas – to undertake northern hemisphere vintages. She came back to work a vintage in Hawke’s Bay, and went about gaining even more knowledge about the industry overall. That included spending time at a wine bottling company in Hawke’s Bay and seven months working for Oddbins in London.
“I was trying to pick bits and pieces out that I thought would broaden my experience. But I kept coming back to winemaking. In the long run, that was what I wanted to do.”
By 2002 Turner was back in Marlborough, this time working alongside consultant winemakers Matt Thomson and Kim Crawford who had established Kiwi-Oeno. “I have been doing that ever since, consulting and working with a number of different companies.”
While being a winemaking consultant offers up so many “fantastic opportunities” to work with different parcels of fruit, Turner was pretty keen to lay her own roots down in the region. Her fiancée (now husband) Hamish was working in Wellington when they got engaged.
“He had been spending a lot of time travelling round the world with his work and was getting a bit sick of it. He had always wanted to be a farmer when he was a boy, so we thought; why don’t we put our money where our mouths are, and started looking for a piece of land.”
They eventually found the perfect property in Blind River in the Awatere Valley. The week they settled on it, was also the week they got married.
“It was a big week for us. We signed a mortgage and signed a marriage certificate.”
The 20-hectare property had 12 hectares already planted and they have since developed the rest. All the fruit goes into the Tinpot Hut label, but is added to by fruit from a few select growers.
“The Sauvignon (that won 98 points) has always been a blend of four different parcels of fruit,” Turner says, “but the style is very much driven by the Awatere vineyards. We work very closely with our growers and they share the same quality aspirations that we have, which is really important. We believe in our style of Sauvignon that we are making, and we have been working with the same parcels of fruit now since 2006.”
The success of her wine is testament to the quality of the fruit and the solid career path Turner has followed.
“I thought I would work at Rapaura Vintners for 12 months, earn a bit of money and see what happens, but I really fell in love with it. Once I left to go travelling within the wine industry, that was the point that I thought; yes, this is what I want to do. I want to have my own piece of land, my own label. And now here I am – a few years later admittedly, but I’m here.”
Just like Fiona Turner, Luc Cowley had no real interest in winemaking as he was growing up. But that all changed when his parents purchased land in Marlborough in the late 90s and discovered that it was the home of Marlborough’s very first commercial vineyard.
“I was nearing the end of high school and unsure of what to do next, so I came down to Marlborough to check it out. After meeting some people who worked in the wine industry, I could see it was clearly a really exciting career. Being 1998, this was quite early on and there was a real pioneer feel to the industry.”
Cowley undertook the three-year winemaking and viticulture course at Lincoln, and was lucky enough to get work experience on Waiheke Island.
“The hook was my experience at Goldwater Vineyard and winery,” he says.
“That was the perfect start, as it was a small winery, led by Nikolai St George as the winemaker. It was a great way to learn, one on one. Nikolai had a wealth of experience. He was really generous with his time and his knowledge.”
While wine and food were always an important part of growing up, Cowley says the family career paths had seen his brother, sister and parents involved in the film and movie industry.
For him his first vintage wasn’t too different from what his family were used to.
“I remember when we talked about vintage it reminded them of their experiences on film shoots. Everyone comes together and works these hard, really long hours and gets very tired. Then it finishes and there is this amazing sense of achievement and the realisation that something important has happened. Everyone goes their separate ways, yet you have made friends for life. It has a real intensity to it.”
After graduating, he went back to Goldwater for another vintage, then headed overseas to undertake vintages in California and Oregon. In 2005 he moved to Marlborough full time, as a winemaker for Indevin – which added a completely different perspective to his career.
“Instead of being in a small winery, spending a lot of one on one time, it was a large winery where I spent time with a range of different winemakers. Eventually I became the red cellar winemaker, which meant I was responsible for making the wines to the specifications of the individual winemakers. It meant I was communicating with them about how they wanted their wines made, what their styles were, what techniques they wanted used and then getting all that to physically happen. It was a great way to be able to pick people’s brains.”
For the past 10 years Cowley has also been the winemaker for the family label, Auntsfield, with his brother Ben the viticulturist of the 65-hectares of grapes. That family relationship is vitally important he says, in the success of the company.
“We have a consistent attitude at Auntsfield of trying to reflect the site and create wines that are true to that site. The family trust between Ben and I is a huge advantage. The connection to the land is a real thing for both of us. We live out on the property, we see those blocks all the time. We both have a kind of intimacy with the vineyard blocks and the materials we work with. The relationship is pushing each other to succeed and wanting the other to succeed – those two areas are so intertwined.”
In total Auntsfield produces nine wines. Two Sauvignon Blancs, two Chardonnays, three Pinot Noirs, plus a Riesling that is sold off shore and a Muscat made from fruit that is grown on vines sourced from the original 1873 vines. All are either single vineyard or single block.
“The site lends itself to these styles, there are quite different soil structures within the property. The individual blocks have quite unique characters, which is what has led us down the path of making a range of single block wines.”
And while most would expect Cowley to list his favourite wine as the one that has just been rated exceptional by Decanter, he says instead he would chose the 2015 Single Vineyard Pinot Noir.
“I am really proud of that wine, although I am proud of all the wines if the truth be known.”
The top 5 wines
98 Points – Exceptional;
Auntsfield, Single Vineyard, Southern Valleys Marlborough 2016
Tinpot Hut, Marlborough 2016
96 Points – Grove Mill, Wairau Valley, Marlborough 2016
96 Points - Kono, Tohu Single Vineyard, Awatere Valley, Marlborough 2016
95 Points – Churton, Marlborough 2016