In rhythm with land and season – letting go in Marlborough

 In Guest articles, Slàinte, Wine

As new year approaches I know what I’m having with my steak pie, the latest vintage of Mike Paterson’s Ben Morven Pinot Noir. As I contemplated this I remembered an article that Mike had done for me last year for a different site and thought would share with you here. 

In rhythm with land and season – letting go in Marlborough.

Firstly, and most importantly – my role as a winemaker I have come to accept as insignificant in context with that which is ultimately driving the momentum of the Marlborough winegrowing story; our landscape and the people who farm it.

I left my job in commerce as I wanted to re-connect with the land, something I had grown up with and knew would give me back balance and happiness.  As it played out wine would be the way back for me , it offered something tangible and pure that tasted of the earth and the season in which it was grown. A real connection.

Looking back twelve years later I feel like it was only yesterday I found my way to Marlborough and the chance winemaking role that would enlighten and lead me along a path to where I stand today.  Now holding (hopefully!) a more informed and balanced appreciation of where winegrowing in Marlborough has come from and is headed I feel comfortable sharing a few thoughts.


Never to be taken for granted – our reason for being

First and foremost it needs to be said, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has delivered to the wine world something undeniably unique and pure; a ‘wine style’ that without doubt has built and shaped the future for New Zealand wine internationally. It is the ultimate gift of the land, something that cannot be replicated anywhere else, so primary and pure in flavour; you can taste the translation in the glass as if you were tasting the fruit in the vineyard. Pouring a glass of Marlborough Sauvignon for someone who has not experienced it before can be electric – you almost see a light turn on – an instant connection.  For myself and many other New Zealand winemakers it is now time to use this powerful connection that our precious Sauvignon has provided and begin to tell a broader story of our vinous landscape and the excitement and potential it holds for new varietal stars.

Branching out – diversity and new dimensions – Marlborough’s next string

We really are just so damn lucky here in Marlborough as geographically and climatically it’s cool climate winegrowing nirvana! All the key ingredients such as low rainfall, high sunshine hours, low humidity, large diurnal fluctuation (the difference between day and night temperatures) combined with an extended growing season into the autumn give our region a grape growing canvas second to none.

We are now starting to see more diversity in plantings on the valley floor as growers and winemakers step back and realise the same ingredients that have made Sauvignon Blanc such a success here have the ability to support with equal potential other cool climate aromatics. Gruner Veltliner, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurtztraminer are all showing enormous potential albeit on a small scale. New clones of Chardonnay also have been experimented with and committed to, revealing wines with incredible fruit purity, definition and energy.



Rather than look to the Old World examples for reference points and benchmarking there is an increasing  confidence and trust that our landscape and climate will define these wines rather than a pre-determined winemaking philosophy. In a young region that has developed so quickly there has been an understandable tendency to be prescriptive, and with that a third dimension is sometimes sacrificed.  I believe we have now arrived at a point where we feel confident enough to be 100 percent ourselves, stand behind our wines and say ‘this is us, you’ve seen our Sauvignon now try this….’with a full understanding and appreciation of not only where we have come from but what the potential is here in Marlborough if we open our eyes fully and embrace the diversity and beauty of our landscape.

Our next hero – Pinot Noir 

Wine for me means special places, stories, memories and most importantly lifelong friends. Let’s be real, we aren’t saving lives here, wine fits in for most a fair way down the pecking order, however the way in which it connects people is magical and, like many, I’ve shared moments connected to wine that I will always cherish for the memories and emotion attached. Many of these moments have involved Pinot Noir, a variety for me that encompasses all that I seek in a wine; transparency and truth. If married to the right soil and climate Pinot Noir sings of the place like no other, it is liquid geography.

As anyone that has a close relationship with this variety will know , it is notoriously fickle in many regards. It likes to live and thrive on the edge, not too warm, certainly cooler climate, but there is a tipping point here also! The climate and landscapes it normally thrives in are low humidity, low rainfall and are on the edge of viability as far as ripening goes, areas like Burgundy, South Island New Zealand and Tasmania. Pinot Noir in these environments is often at its most compelling; but like everything that grows in these climates is at extreme risk of viability season to season.




Oh so lucky

Marlborough’s climate in the context of other New Zealand growing regions is extremely reliable for a cool climate region. A large part of the success of Sauvignon has been based on the long growing season and dry weather over the harvest and into the autumn. Pinot Noir until recently had predominantly been planted on the river beds and terraces alongside the variety of choice, Sauvignon Blanc. These alluvial soils tended to promote pretty strawberry fruited Pinot Noir with fresh acidity and light in structure. Philosophically Pinot Noir was being farmed with a Sauvignon Blanc mentality and the wines reflected that. To be taken seriously and push the potential of Pinot Noir in Marlborough a drastic change in thinking was needed. This was to involve a push into the clay bound southern hills and valleys of the region.

Marlborough’s Southern valleys and hillsides had long been ignored by many with the development of this landscape largely down to a few pioneering Pinot focused producers. They saw early on the potential that lay before them in the north and east facing clay hills and valleys. Not only was the soil perfectly suited but being further south the diurnal effect was even greater as these sub regions were further away from the moderating effect of the Pacific Ocean. New clones were imported and before long the southern hills had come alive as farmers and winemakers awoke to the potential of Pinot Noir, accepting the different approach it would take to coax the best from this exciting new variety.

If married to the right soil and climate Pinot Noir sings of the place like no other, it is liquid geography.

That was ten years ago. Marlborough now has in Pinot Noir a variety that is beginning to showcase the same potential internationally as its famed Sauvignon Blanc. Winemakers and farmers are working closer together than ever before with a huge focus on crafting the sub regional and site specific wines that a closer association with the landscape allows. Pinot Noir has allowed us a deeper connection with our land over and above the varietal intensity and seasonal variation that Sauvignon provides. As our southern Pinot sites have matured we have begun to witness a change in dimension of the fruit harvested with site expression and tannin ripeness beginning to play a significant part alongside pure fruit character. The clays lend a succulence, density and savoury casing that previously wasn’t apparent in Marlborough Pinot alongside an ability to gain physiological ripeness without excessive sugar ripeness as the below ground growth balances with the vegetative cycle of the vines.



The evolution of the guiding hand

As with all young wine regions the learning curve is often steep and so it has been with the development of our Pinot Noir winemaking. From the pilgrimages to Burgundy for harvest through to the cultural cringe of trying to emulate the wines made in Pinot Noir’s fabled home we have now arrived at a point where we are mostly comfortable in our own skin; we have infact gone back to our future. As winemakers we have opened our eyes to our inspiration, our landscape and our relationship with it. There has been a conscious effort to focus more on the growing and less on the making as this is where we now know the extra dimension lies. In our vineyards. If we can continue to nurture our connection to our land and vineyards we will reap the rewards in the winery. Optimising vineyard health and expression allows us to adopt a more natural path to bottle, trusting our land to deliver and then guiding and capturing its seasonal expression through the winery. Hand harvesting and sorting, gravity feeding to tank, natural (indigenous) yeast fermentations, natural malolactics in the spring and bottling without fining or filtration are all part of many top producers game plan with Pinot Noir today as our vineyards begin to demand centre stage. Mustering the courage to step back as a winemaker is often the key to unlocking the magic of a vineyard and the season, it also lends transparency and an authentic energy to our endeavour.

As our Pinot Noir vineyards continue to mature and our winemaking becomes more intuitive and informed through having a closer relationship with our land, the Marlborough Pinot Noir story will continue to evolve. As winemakers we need to step back every now and then and look at what is happening not only in front of us but around us. The greater environment in which our vineyards exist, and the biodiversity within that environment are also essential to a sustainable future for our land and winegrowing. The future is indeed bright if we spend more time on our land as caretakers rather than owners, nurturing its health in turn promoting its individual voice. I count myself as an extremely lucky and fortunate person to have a small hand in what is largely a gift from the earth. As winegrowers we do with time realise our place in the pecking order and in turn I think as a result our wines become more truthful and energised. Wine should express where it is from both physically and culturally, and for me that is my sole ambition for the wines I am responsible for.

mike-paterson-headline-300x150Mike Paterson used to be the Head Winemaker at one of New Zealand’s finest, most prestigious Sauvignon Blanc wineries but he also loved the idea of fulfilling his life-long dream of going it alone. With funding from Naked Wines he has now done this making single vineyard wines under the Lay of the Land label.


Bio photo courtesy of Naked Wines

Article first published in The Imbiber, July 2013

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