Saturday, 12 August 2023 15:25

World Wine Win: Awatere winemaker wins international accolade

Written by  Sophie Preece
Natalie Christensen Natalie Christensen

Accepting the coveted White Winemaker of the Year trophy at the International Wine Challenge was undoubtedly exciting for Natalie Christensen.

"But what hit me the most was when I went outside and had so many message from the team and friends and family and colleagues from around the world," she says. "That's when it sunk in."

The Chief Winemaker at Yealands Estate in the Awatere Valley was awarded the accolade in London in early July, while her colleagues watched a 5am live feed from their Awatere Valley winery, cooking up a celebratory dawn barbeque with head torches. That was "super touching" says Natalie. "The support back home blew me away."

Natalie says the win - the first for a New Zealander since Matt Thomson took the trophy in 2008, and 24 years after Jeff Clarke was awarded the title - was humbling. "The IWC is hugely competitive, and I was up against some incredible winemakers from wineries that are hundreds of years old. Yealands is so young in comparison."

IWC Co-Chair Oz Clarke - one of the world's leading wine experts - says the prestigious award recognised Natalie's "excellent winemaking" as she expands Yealands' range. "She has an incredible technical ability and is totally in tune with how to produce wines that give an intense sense of place." It was wonderful to see the White Winemaker of the Year award go to a woman, Oz adds. "This noteworthy accomplishment not only celebrates Natalie's exceptional talent and expertise but also lays the foundation for increased recognition and expanded opportunities for female winemakers around the world."

As well as the individual winemaker trophy, Yealands won the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Trophy for the Yealands Estate Single Block S1 Sauvignon Blanc 2022, along with 12 medals, with one for every wine entered. That shows "the breadth of our winemaking ability outside of our flagship Sauvignon", Natalie says. "Marlborough is well known for its Sauvignon Blanc, but to have a range of varietals performing so well in shows is really meaningful."

The 2023 vintage was Natalie's 10th at Yealands Estate, having joined the company after 18 months working Rias Baixas in Galicia, northeast Spain. And she's relished the experience of working for one of Marlborough's biggest companies, with its Seaview Vineyard stretching along the Pacific coastline. "I have worked at smaller places and you are quite confined by what you have got and what you are given and have to make," she says, comparing that experience to handling an "eclectic" mix at Yealands. "You can really play around with blending and make exactly what you want. So I think there's freedom and creativity and complexity."

In the 2023 vintage she worked with 13 different varieties in a range of levels, splendidly spoilt for choice. Sauvignon Blanc is a huge part of the Yealands offering, but her "favourite baby" is Albariño, which she grew to love while living in Spain, where she worked with fruit grown in coastal area, comparable to Yealands' Seaview Vineyard. "The hallmark we get out here is a subtle saltiness through the palate which is definitely a classic characteristic of Albariño from Rias Baixas," Natalie says. "There are lots of things about Albariño I think are super awesome," she adds, talking of the naturally high acidity of the fruit, along with thick skins and relative disease resistance. "I feel as though, now we are getting the tail end of tropical cyclones, potentially it is a variety that could ride the wave of a bit of climate action." Sauvignon Blanc remains a safe bet in the short term, with its sustained international popularity. "But I think Albariño is something that could potentially grow and something that could add and support the Sauvignon wave from Marlborough."

Natalie Christensen in vineyard FBTW


Natalie joined the wine industry 17 years ago, bringing with her experience as a classically trained double bass player, a graduate degree in music, and a master's degree in psychology. When she jettisoned a job in human resources and took up a stopgap vintage at Saint Clair Family Estate in Marlborough, she was hooked. Natalie went on to study wine at the Eastern Institute of Technology in Hawke's Bay, before taking huge strides in the wine world, including being named most influential women in wine in the wolrd by the Drinks Business Magazine (UK) in 2018.

Natalie's love of the industry is far from limited to her work at Yealands, as a long-time mentor for New Zealand Women in Wine, a member of the New Zealand Society for Viticulture and Oenology, and part of the team behind the Pinot Boot Camp held at Saint Arnaud each year, which transformed into a Chardonnay Boot Camp in 2022. They will repeat that focus this year, "becaus there's so much to explore with Chardonnay", she says. "That's one of my favourite groups to be on. That's fun."

Any opportunity she gets to work with people in the industry, "I am all about it", she adds. That's one of the reasons she came back from Spain. "It was cool being over there. It's amazing, but... I want to put my energy and time into working with New Zealand wine and supporting the industry."

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