The Marlborough, well-known as home to one particular style of wine, where drinking it is, “like having sex for the first time“, that is, awkward, fumbling, constricting, and intoxicating, with a laughter track courtesy of a Seinfeld episode playing loudly on a TV in the next room. Oh yes, and that faint whiff of cat’s pee.
Now I can’t speak for George M. Taber, but if that’s what his experiences with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc are like, and he enjoys it, then bully for him. I, on the other hand, have always found it to be particularly delicious, loaded with sweetened streaks of ripe tropical fruit… even when it does, sometimes, lack a little thrust.
One winery from the Marlborough region is attempting to change that perception of sauvignon blanc by setting out specific stylistic objectives – “of complexity in both aroma and flavour” – which, they believe, best expresses the natural purity of fruit they are getting from the Rock Ferry vineyards.
“We want our wines to age”, says Allan McWilliams (no relation), winemaker at Rock Ferry, in Blenheim, Marlborough, “The one thing about Marlborough sauvignon blanc is that they’re very expressive when they’re young, but they don’t tend to age well. So we take a different approach…”
Rock Ferry was established in the early 2000’s by Tom Hutchinson, who worked his way from bottle shop assistant, to winery owner, by working vintages in Australia and Napa, then France, before enrolling in a viticulture course at UC-Davis. It was whilst working in France, that Tom was exposed to the universal truth that ‘fine wine begins with the vine’.
“We realised we have a wonderful natural resource, here in Marlborough, with the purity of fruit and the kind of expression you can get out of it”, says Allan.
The Rock Ferry vineyard is spread over two distinct regions of New Zealand’s south island, with the two Marlborough vineyards of Corners and Orchard, comprising of sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, pinot gris and pinot blanc, chardonnay, riesling, and gruner veltliner. While further down south, at 350 meters elevation, in the Bendigo sub-region of Central Otago, sits the Trig Hill Vineyard site, which is home to pinot noir (obviously), more pinot gris, and riesling, as well as viognier, tempranillo and nebbiolo rounding out the more experimental varieties of the bunch. All vineyard sites are managed biodynamically, with organic certification by New Zealand certifier BioGro.
Rock Ferry was one of the first certified organic winegrowers in the region, and Allan and Tom not only share a great friendship, they also believe that the organic and biodynamic ways of farming the land allow them to get closer to the true nature of the place.
“Tom was an early adopter of organics, because he had worked for some of the top producers in Europe, and really enjoyed their wines”, says Allan, “so I think that’s why he decided to employ organic (and then biodynamic) processes in the vineyard… to show the true characteristics of the fruit we grow in the vineyard”.
The vineyards in the Marlborough sit on a combination of alluvial, and silty loam soils, close to the river which runs from east to west, with the vineyard(s) being planted north to south, to create an alternating soil profile pattern throughout the rows. Doing it this way “makes for quite a lot of variation in vigor and canopy density, and therefore, ripeness throughout the growing season”, says Allan.
Combine this with warmer temperatures than many of their Marlborough peers, and also slightly wetter conditions, and you “get quite a lot of variation and flavour throughout the block”, explains Allan, “which is very helpful in terms of crafting the style of wine we’re looking for… one with those complex layers of flavour and aroma coming directly from the fruit”.
Since moving from organics to biodynamics, and introducing cattle onto the property, in an attempt to move away from a monoculture approach, Allan says the vineyard is looking and feeling more integrated as a farming system. “It’s nice to get out of the winery, which is full of stainless steel, and wooden barrels. I’ve gotten a lot more involved in the vineyard because you feel like going in there, walking through the vine rows, with the really lush grass and flowers, and the beneficial insects buzzing around”.
Becoming more involved with the vineyard has meant Allan is now more in tune with the fruit he is making into wine, “I think that’s essential as a winemaker, to be very closely aligned with the vineyard, because it increases the awareness of where the vineyard is at in that season, so that you become more in tune with the style of wine that’s going to be produced, earlier on in the season… to work in this environment is really enjoyable”.
Back in the winery, and tuned into the flavours of the fruit he is soon to make into wine, Allan has the freedom to be able to let the wine express itself during the winemaking process, while keeping an ever watchful eye over the whole process at the same time.
“It’s minimal interventionist”, says Allan, “the more you do in the winery, the less chance the vineyard has to shine through, but to enable (the wine) to do that you need to be clear with regards to the stylistic approach you want to take. We use the natural yeasts out in the vineyard, and in the winery, to push the ferment, but you need to have your wits about you, to make sure you avoid any disasters, in terms of VA, or stuck ferments, for example”.
Allan uses 70% oak to ferment the Rock Ferry sauvignon blanc, leaving it for an extended time on lees, which harks back to the early days of New Zealand sav blanc, and allows Allan to enhance that age-ability characteristic he and Tom are looking for in their wines. Sulphur additions are held off until as late as possible, usually just prior to bottling.
Rock Ferry is a part of the Marlborough natural winegrowers group, MANA, which is a collective group of like minded winegrowers who promote the application of organic viticulture management in their respective vineyards, the use and investment into having your own winery attached to the vineyards, in order to maintain full control over the winegrowing process, and promoting each other and the region they call home. Members include Te Whare Ra, Seresin, and Hans Herzog, amongst others.
“Having open eyes, listening, thinking”, says Allan, about what drives him to grow and make the types of wines Rock Ferry does, “and being aware of what’s happening around us, in the vineyard, and in the winery… and allowing the influences (that are) around us to be a part of what we do”.
D// – The Wine Idealist