It’s been said, “Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future”. So to learn more about the future of wine in New Zealand, traversing the past was essential.
Journeying through the most iconic annals of Marlborough wine in celebration of Wither Hills 25th birthday provided just the opportunity.
The day started auspiciously with a tohu—a hawk circling high above Marlborough’s Wairau Valley.
It ended with a knowing of what it really takes to craft world class wine—true grit, graft, passion, pluck, determination and vision backed by camaraderie.
Putting together the ultimate lineup of Wither Hills’ best for the vertical and horizontal tasting would’ve been no mean feat. All contenders were tasted twice and I suspect, absolutely agonised over.
The back catalogue that made the final cut captured not only the magic of Wither Hills’ terroir—it preserved a slice of irreplaceable wine history that has captured the evolution of a wine company, a region and an industry.
From cork to screw cap, changes in bottle shape from Bordeaux to Marlborough style, the adoption of biodynamic and sustainable practices, tweaks to canopy management through to using less lactic fermentation. During the course of the day we tasted the legacy of those decisions.
“We’ve played around with everything,” says operational manager, Geoff Matthews—the longest serving employee.
In over a quarter of a century Wither Hills has grown up from an apple field conversion to the mature aggregation of vineyards in the award-winning international operation it is today.
As specific years were poured, out came all the Wither Hills memories to match.
Because Marlborough expanded so fast, head winemaker, Matt Large admits, they’ve never had enough put aside to showcase in a wine library. “Choose your favourite wine and think where you were,” he says.
Geoff then remembered his first job interview with the founders of Wither Hills.
Although the father and son duo were later bought out, the family values and ethos continue. It’s clear that the Wither Hills DNA carries deeply held memories of the land, the seasons, the vintages and the lessons.
“We were driving in his old Nissan Bluebird through paddocks of grazing cattle in an area that hadn’t even been planted out,” Geoff says.
Those were the early days of “breaking new ground and carting water” to 200,000 vines for two years before the first water resource consent was even granted.
“The regeneration project for our wetland was set up from day dot—now it’s twice the size from when we first took over.”
The natural wetland sits within the vineyard called ‘Rarangi’—named after a beach 600 metres away. It’s Wither Hills largest, a 160-hectare, single release vineyard planted predominantly in sauvignon blanc.
It’s hard to believe during one season here the water table rose so high that Klaus Pol the Rarangi, vineyard manager of 23 years, “resorted to pruning vines in a boat”.
The 2010 vintage was the pick. “It is incredibly youthful—you’d never know it was years old,” says Matt. He confessed to having it at home. “Buy half a dozen wines you like—taste them and when you get one you like—drink it all.”
As for the 2018 “there’s no reason why this won’t age well in 25 years either,” he says.
A chopper ride offers a bird’s eye view over the valley right out to sea before touching down at Ben Moven vineyard that’s tucked into the foothills of the Wither Hills range.
All 10 hectares is 100 percent clay country dedicated to chardonnay with one block of pinot noir.
“There is a lot more struggle here, chardonnay in heavy clay has an intensity. The clay content gives a lot more weight to wine whereas alluvial soil gives a lighter taste,” Matt points out.
Farmed organically since 2009, Ben Moven uses minimal additives and steers clear of synthetic chemical sprays in favour of biological sprays in targeted areas and strategic planting to attract bugs.
“From a growing perspective, chardonnay is really hard to grow. Every year you have something to battle—bees or bugs—sometimes it’s a real struggle,” says Ben Burridge, the vineyard manager.
Yet perseverance pays dividends. The tight bunches of berries on the vine taste as intense as they look. “It’s the best fruit we’ve seen in a long time,” he says.
In 2007 the company made a call about its chardonnay. Buttery was out—citrusy was in. The head winemaker predicts it’s now the “renaissance” of the chardonnay.
“Marlborough has had to wait its turn—it’s chardonnay time now.” His favourite year is 2017 for cellaring. “My bet, it will be the pick due to the acid line,” he says.
After talk of the long hot summer of 2003 we turn to the tough and testing weather of the last two years.
“Two cyclones have set us up for fairly challenging conditions, but that’s what makes this industry exciting—the challenges and the anticipation. You spend all year growing the grapes the best you can then making the best wine you can with the raw ingredients,” says Matt.
More resilient words couldn’t be spoken—it’s like the character of the vines and the winemakers mirror each other.
The last leg of the tasting focuses on pinot noir in the working barrel hall that’s tucked into the earth bank of the Taylor River vineyard.
Under the sparkle of crystal chandeliers, dining on mountain river venison, we learn that every barrel is etched with a story linked to a vintage, a vineyard and a winemaker.
“A lot of times we catch ourselves talking about what happened three years ago as we trial different things. Why imitate? We don’t need to follow every other wine style. We follow our own,” Matt says.
Geoff was there when the first crop of pinot was picked in 2003. “It was a hot vintage from memory—the first one,” he says.
Forward to 2019. Even though this year’s picking window has jumped forward two weeks, the team is totally on track. It could even be shaping up to be another “winemakers’ year” like 2007 or 2010, they believe.
“It’s the most beautiful fruit picked—the best year I’ve seen the pinot look since I’ve been here,” says head viticulturist, Samantha Scarratt.
Already in the last quarter Wither Hills has earned a gold for its 2018 sauvignon blanc in the Royal Easter Show Wine Awards and its 2016 Rarangi sauvignon blanc currently holds five stars from Cuisine magazine.
It’s evident that the past 25 years have served Wither Hills very well. They do say with age comes wisdom.