Sunday, 28 August 2016

Sub-regionality in Marlborough – Exploring the Southern Valleys with Auntsfield Estate

Producer: Auntsfield Estate

The feeling of déjà vu was strong at a recent tasting with Auntsfield Estate. Sub-regional characteristics in Marlborough – where had I heard that before? It was not until I examined the wine label that realisation dawned on me. The ‘A’ logo of Auntsfield Estate bears an uncanny resemblance to Astrolabe Wines, a winery also producing a range showcasing sub-regions within Marlborough. When I mention this to Auntsfield viticulturist Ben Cowley, he laughed that “Jason [the Managing Director of Astrolabe] stole it from us!”

Who was first to the finish is a moot point; both wineries started in the 1990s, part of the new wave of New Zealand wineries hawking their star product – Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Auntsfield calls dibs on owning the oldest commercial vineyard though. The land that Graeme and Linda Cowley (Ben’s parents) bought used to be owned by winemaking pioneer David Herd, who planted vines back in 1873. If you pass by Blenheim airport, look out for the bronze statue of him at the entrance. Ben’s brother Luc takes care of the winemaking, making this a truly family-run estate.

When the land was first bought, there was little evidence that it had once produced highly regarded wines. In the intervening years it had been put to other uses such as sheep farming. The Cowley family had their work cut out for them re-establishing the vineyard, and in the process learned about the unique terroir that makes up their slice of Marlborough. “There are very, very old clay soils here that are only found in a few parts of the world and mainly in Europe. This soil really does change the wine and it gives the wine a lot of minerality and structure. That’s something a little bit typically different than what you get in New Zealand, where what you get is that purity and vibrancy but you’re not getting that European minerality and structural strength to the wines, so this site is able to combine both of those.”

Marlborough has three sub-regions – Wairau Valley, Awatere Valley and Southern Valleys as shown in the map below. The Southern Valley sits somewhere in the middle not just in terms of location but also climatically, being a little cooler and drier than the Wairau Valley but not as cool or dry as the Awatare Valley. The clay component in the soil makes this area particularly suitable for Pinot Noir – in fact I really enjoyed the crispness and lovely aromatics of the Auntsfield Single Vineyard Pinot Noir. Says Ben, “We planted over half of the vineyard with Pinot Noir thinking that this was going to be a variety that’s going to work very well here – so we’ve got a bit of a head start with some very old vines.”

Auntsfield Estate is distributed in Singapore by Top Wines. It was by a fluke that its founder Flora Loh chanced across an Auntsfield wine while having lunch during a holiday in Australia. When she came back to Singapore, she wasted no time in tracking down the winery and asked them if they would be interested in exporting to our sunny hazy island. The rest, as with David Herd and his first plantings, is history.

Tasting notes:

Auntsfield Southern Valleys “Single Vineyard” Sauvignon Blanc 2015 – Cool fermented with cultured yeast in stainless steel tanks. A portion of the fruit was whole bunch pressed and fermented in seasoned oak barrels, although there is no trace of oak flavour here. Very much in the Marlborough mould, with intense fruit and zingy acidity carrying the lemony and passionfruit flavours. There’s a little extra spark here which sets this wine a cut above.

Auntsfield Southern Valleys “South Oaks” Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2012 – This wine comes from a small area of the vineyard where the hillside has collapsed and formed a plot of crushed Greywacke rock. This changes the way the grape ripens, meaning that it holds its acidity at a much higher sugar level and produces a riper style that veers into the stone fruit spectrum. There’s a vivid note of green pea and vanilla bean in this wine, lifted by a streak of acidity. The flavours could be more seamless though.

Auntsfield Southern Valleys “Single Vineyard” Chardonnay 2013 – Hand harvested and whole-bunch pressed. There is lovely fruit here, very clean and clear-cut and allowed to take centre stage through a light application of oak. Feels very cool-climate with zesty freshness and minerality.

Auntsfield Southern Valleys “Single Vineyard” Pinot Noir 2013 – Fruit was carefully handled through harvesting and sorting by hand. It shows in the vibrant, classic Pinot Noir aromas of cranberry, spice and cherry, with a floral hint of rose petals. Soft and velvety on the palate yet with focused definition, this is a labour of love.

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