Wednesday, 28 August 2013

A Star Showing from Astrolabe

In the 1980s, New Zealand made a style of Sauvignon Blanc that won consumers over with its vivacious gooseberry and freshly cut grass flavours. Some even found the aromatic descriptor of “cat’s pee” to be an accurate, if unattractive, label for the wines. The best examples of NZ Sauvignon Blanc come from Marlborough, with Cloudy Bay being the most well-known producer there. In fact, many of the people who worked at Cloudy Bay went on to establish wineries of their own, such as Kevin Judd of Greywacke and Ivan Sutherland and James Healy at Dog Point Vineyards.

Astrolabe CEO Jason Yank
Astrolabe, another Marlborough winery, may not be as famous as Cloudy Bay, but CEO Jason Yank is on a mission to change that. The winery is targeting top-end restaurants and bars, which form around 80% of its market. Jason lists KU DÉ TA, Boomerang and Level 33 as some of the places where Astrolabe can be found. The wine is also sold in independent fine wine retailers such as Drinks & Co., which was the venue for an Astrolabe wine tasting on the 15th of August.

Astrolabe was started in 1996 by winemaker Simon Waghorn together with his wife and a couple of close friends. The winery was named after a navigational device used to determine latitude based on the position of the stars, and even the winery’s logo is based on a motif of the instrument. The name also appealed to Simon for its connotations of exploration and discovery. 

Jason explains that Astrolabe strives to focus on sub-regionality, which is reflected in the “Valleys” range. These wines show the characteristics of individual sites, and when blended together form the base for the “Province” wines, Astrolabe’s classic range which exemplify typical Marlborough flavours. Offbeat wines are to be found in the “Vineyards” range, which serve as a creative outlet for Simon’s winemaking skills. The range of wines is an example of how the local wine market has developed, and just having one plain Sauvignon Blanc won’t cut it anymore. “Compared to other countries, Singapore has matured much faster due in part to the large expatriate community,” says Jason. “There was high demand for our other wines such as the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling.” Jason credits Singapore for making Astrolabe a hugely successful brand, although he notes that competition here is high.

If the wines of Astrolabe are anything to go by, they indicate a continuing evolution of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Less vegetal, riper fruit characters and more complex flavours herald a new level of quality. This is especially crucial as the success of this category has led to the inevitable supermarket discounting to push sales. Jason is adamant on protecting Astrolabe’s image as a premium label. “I’m not looking for a big box chain discounter,” he says. “Brand equity is the most important thing for us.” 

Tasting notes:

Astrolabe Province Marlborough Pinot Gris 2012 – Intense and floral nose with notes of rose petals, pear and longans, dry and light bodied with medium acidity and length. Jason describes this as “a good food wine, and a good quaffing wine as well.” 

Astrolabe Kekerengu Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2010 – Astrolabe is the only winery to source grapes from the Kekerengu Coast sub-region of Marlborough, which has limestone soils and a longer growing season due to cooling ocean breezes. A pungent and vegetal nose of ripe guava, mushy peas and butterhead lettuce, with the palate displaying further gooseberry notes. Considering that Sauvignon Blanc is usually released and drunk quickly this wine, having had three years to develop, represents an oddity. Might not be for all but is quite pleasantly exotic.

Astrolabe Awatare Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2012 – Primary aromas of blackcurrant pastilles, fresh curry leaf and passionfruit. Clean and well-defined on the palate with cleansing acidity and a long, juicy finish showing herbal notes. Very vibrant and graceful. 

Astrolabe Province Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012 – This wine is the biggest seller for Astrolabe. Bell pepper on the nose, given lift by blackcurrant leaf and lime notes. Well balanced acidity with a taut, focused fruitiness. A solid and eminently enjoyable wine.

Astrolabe Taihoa Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 – It’s always dicey when winemakers take an aromatic variety such as Sauvignon Blanc and introduce it to oak. This wine though, rewards those who seek the intrigue of something not quite mainstream. It is still first and foremost a Sauvignon Blanc, with intense blackcurrant pastille and passionfruit on the nose with a slight vanilla richness. Lees stirring has added some flesh to the bony structure of the wine along with a silky texture.

Astrolabe Province Marlborough Pinot Noir 2010 – A pale ruby-red hue with light notes of cherry and rosemary. Nicely integrated oak with soft tannins and medium length. Drinking well now.

Astrolabe is currently distributed in Singapore by Brand Connect Pte Ltd.

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