Monday, 10 June 2024 14:25

Marlborough's Small Town Winery

Written by  Katy Prescott
Small Town Winery. Photo Credit: Finn Scott-Kelly. Small Town Winery. Photo Credit: Finn Scott-Kelly.

Marlborough’s 2024 vintage was “a return to form for Marlborough summers”, says Astrolabe General Manager Libby Levett.

Loose bunches ensured minimal disease pressure and hot, dry weather led to early ripening and a “dream vintage”. The smooth season was especially appreciated by the Astrolabe team as they coordinated receiving early fruit intakes with opening the Small Town Winery, Marlborough’s first urban winery and cellar door.

The dream of their own space had been fermenting for years, born of an ambition to integrate the team more closely, to focus even more on small-scale, hands-on winemaking, and to have an opportunity to showcase their wines directly to the public. “Dad always talks about succession planning” Libby says, referring to Astrolabe founder and Winemaker Simon Waghorn. “Previously our office was removed from the winery; we didn’t have that capacity to learn by osmosis.”

Libby’s sister Arabella Waghorn, Astrolabe Winemaker and Brand Manager, expands on the benefits: “If I’m in the cellar door or working in the office upstairs and Simon wants to taste through ferments, we can just pop out back. Simon has been teaching me about winemaking in the vineyard and managing larger production wines at New Zealand Wineries for more than seven years. However, at our new Small Town Winery, it is so easy to stay in touch with the whole process all the way through.”

It has also allowed the Waghorn team to indulge in some more experimental batches. “When it’s your own wine and your own time… you can be quite uncompromising,” Libby says. “When people are managing a whole bunch of different clients, they have to be quite pragmatic. We don’t – we can be quite romantic here.” Trials this year include a Syrah from the Comelybank vineyard in the Waihopai Valley – something that was too small to manage previously but fits perfectly in the little red fermenters at the new site. They have also trialled a cuve-fermented Chenin Blanc and a sparkling wine base.

The smaller-than-normal 2024 vintage helped, with 160 tonnes of fruit processed despite a maximum capacity of 250 tonnes. However, Libby notes that the compressed harvest period could have posed some challenges. “We were really lucky that it was a small vintage. With everything that close together and us at full capacity we would have felt a bit more under pressure.” Considering they opened a cellar door the same month they ran their first vintage through the facility, “it all went pretty
well”, she adds.

The design of the tasting area and restaurant was inspired by the industrial and artisanal Howard Smith Wharves in Brisbane, as well as various ‘enoteca’ style offerings overseas. The team researched menus from wine bars in France, Melbourne and London. “We had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted,” Libby says of the chef-free offering. “We always wanted it to be ingredient-led food that could stand on its own… We kind of had a policy that we would only serve things that we thought were excellent and didn’t require a heap of preparation.”

The concept was embraced by Charlie Nott from Nott Architects in Christchurch. Having previously designed iconic New Zealand restaurants like Al Brown’s Depot and Charley Noble in Wellington, they brought serious hospitality experience to the project. “We wanted to strike a balance between a working winery space – a cool industrial feel, but also feeling cosy and elegant like a wine bar,” Arabella says. “And in my opinion, I think it’s been nailed.”

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Marlborough's Small Town Winery

Marlborough’s 2024 vintage was “a return to form for Marlborough summers”, says Astrolabe General Manager Libby Levett.