Marlborough: The Fear of France?

Johanneshof Cellars in Marlbororugh

If you like Sauvignon Blanc, you’ll love Marlborough in New Zealand. Of its 22,903 hectares of vineyards, 19,639 of them are planted with it. Undoubtedly this feels like an awful lot of eggs in one basket for local winemakers, so no wonder some are experimenting to see what else Marlborough can do. Could its future lie in sparkling wines? No, not fizzy Sauvignon – a style with all the depth and likeability of a gameshow host on cocaine – but proper bottle-fermented Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

A group of ten Marlborough estates that make this style of wine came together in 2013 to create the Méthode Marlborough collective. One of the members wryly touted ‘The Fear of France’ as a potential strapline for the group – a claim so wonderfully ballsy I decided to blind taste the lot with a couple of big-name Champagnes thrown in to see how they stacked up.

The Méthode Marlborough group is open to any wine producer who promises to adhere to the following four criteria for their sparkling wines:

1. Wines are 100% grown and made in Marlborough.
2. Wines are made by traditional method production.
3. Wines are 100% made up of the three traditional varieties (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier) either individually or as a blend.
4. Wines are aged for a minimum of 18 months on the lees.

Very similar to Champagne, in other words. That Marlborough winemakers are experimenting with sparkling wines is no big surprise – sparkling wine production and Sauvignon both prefer cooler climates. Marlborough is cool but sunny with warm days and cold nights that help the grapes retain their all-important natural acidity.

The soils also play a part. Clive Jones, winemaker at Nautilus Estate, explains “Most of the plantings are on the stony-silt loams of the Wairau Valley floor (the old flood plain of the Wairau River)… I think the more ‘mineral’ character you get from these free draining soils is particularly good for sparkling.” So what can you expect from Marlborough fizz? And are they any good?

The tasting

I tasted the wines blind in a random order along with two mystery Champagnes to act as a frame of reference. The overall quality was good, and reasonably consistent. Stylistically there was a lot of variation from straight, lean versions that could pass for Champagne to richer, fruitier examples. Though there were no pure Pinots, there were varied blends of the three permitted grapes and a few pure Chardonnays.

If there is one thing the wines had in common, it was their strength of varietal character. The pure Chardonnays were unmistakably Blanc de Blancs, and the Marlborough Pinot Noir really makes its presence felt; the three wines in which it made up more than 50% of the blend had marked red berry flavours and a real sense of vinosity. Inus van der Westhuizen, winemaker at Hunter’s Wines says that the “pure fruit intensity and strong fruit varietal expression” is what makes Marlborough sparkling wines unique, and this was borne out by the tasting.

In the best wines, this character was coupled with a balancing beam of acidity, fine bubbles and a sense of freshness and finesse. It could however contribute to an overly generous fruit character that made some of the less impressive wines feel a little simple or obvious. Some wines lacked much in the way of autolysis; those with lees ageing above the 18 month minimum did tend to benefit in terms of complexity and overall pleasure.

OK so one of the Champagnes came top. Not entirely surprising; though an arch underperformer in recent years, Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label is much better these days thanks to a number of improvements succinctly pointed out by Tom Stevenson in this article. But the three that followed it were all very good quality wines and are available for less than half the price. Only one scored lower than Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial NV, which showed particularly poorly in this tasting.

So what is the potential for Marlborough sparkling wine? Jones at Nautilus says “Arguably it is unlimited – we just need the commitment to go for it. Probably the financial commitment is the biggest hurdle – if we start to hold back prestige cuvees with extended time on lees etc. it can be quite a financial burden – and will we get the required return?” On the back of this tasting, I’m hoping he takes the plunge.

This is early days for sparkling wines from Marlborough, and although I don’t think the Champenois will be pulling up their vines just yet there are already some impressive wines being produced. So overall perhaps the members of Méthode Marlborough were wise to drop ‘The Fear of France’ as their strapline, at least for now. But along with the quality of some of its still Pinot Noirs, they are proving that Marlborough has more to offer than just Sauvignon Blanc.

The wines

Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut NV (Champagne, France; 12.0%)
55% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Meunier. Time on lees unknown.
£36.99, Tesco
Noticeable autolysis on the nose, savoury, hint of Marmite. Deep and vinous on the palate, very rich and autolytic. Good acidity, all harmonious and balanced. Real class, elegance and complexity. Pretty serious stuff, balanced and long. 92 points.

Cloudy Bay Pelorus NV (Marlborough, New Zealand, 12.5%)
60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir. 24 months on lees.
Clean, fresh, blossomy nose. Touch of white bread autolysis. Fine bubbles and bright acidity. This is very well put together, it has real balance, finesse and elegance. Attractive autolytic dimension on the palate too. Dry and straight with length of flavour. 91 points.

Nautilus Cuvée Marlborough NV (Marlborough, New Zealand, 12.0%)
70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay. 36 months on lees.
Rich, red berry Pinot aromatics. Intensely flavoured and concentrated and shot through with piercing acidity. Red apple, raspberry, wild strawberry on the palate. Lots to enjoy here, energetic and balanced with a long finish. 91 points.

Hunter’s MiruMiru NV (Marlborough, New Zealand, 12.5%)
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier. 18 months on lees. £14.95, The Wine Society
Clean, fresh, floral aromas. Balanced and harmonious with good line and balance. Citrussy style with a lovely texture and fizz. A good middle-weight example, could be Champagne but the ripeness of the fruit flavours suggests a slightly warmer climate. 90 points.

No. 1 Family Estate Cuvée No. 1 NV (Marlborough, New Zealand, 12.0%)
100% Chardonnay. 24 months on lees.
£23.99, Hard to Fine Wines
Subtle, slightly floral nose. Full and rounded in the mouth, relatively full-bodied. Long, with rich, concentrated flavours of orchard fruits and soft, caressing bubbles. Just about dry. An enjoyably luxurious style. 90 points.

Spy Valley Echelon 2010 (Marlborough, New Zealand, 12.5%)
52% Pinot Noir, 48% Chardonnay. 30 months on lees.
Not currently available UK
Fairly straightforward fruity nose, then lovely red berry fruits on the palate, really vinous. Not terribly long, but the fruit is appealing – young vines on good terroir perhaps? Tangy red fruit and a dry, savoury finish. 89 points.

Tohu Rewa Blanc de Blancs 2011 (Marlborough, New Zealand, 12.0%)
100% Chardonnay. 20 months on lees.
Not currently available UK
Pure, clean aromatics; some autolysis gives complexity, but it comes across as a very youthful wine. Not hugely complex but well made. Harmonious and balanced. Very dry, with an attractive little ripe fruit kick on the finish. Fizz fades a bit faster than you’d like, but this is a well-crafted wine with fine bubbles. 88 points.

Johanneshof Cellars Emmi Brut 2007 (Marlborough, New Zealand, 12.5%)
99% Pinot Noir, 1% Chardonnay. 84 months on lees.
Not currently available UK
Tiny hint of copper to the colouring. Stewed apples, slightly honeyed; suggests a warmer climate. Plenty of red berry flavour, raspberry and redcurrant, with some hints of candied peel and lemongrass. Strong Pinot character, and mature Pinot at that, some almost vegetal hints on the nose give complexity. Plenty of acidity, essentially balanced, even if not terribly long. The bubbles lack a bit of finesse but this has real character and interest. 87 points.

Daniel le Brun Brut NV (Marlborough, New Zealand, 12.5%)
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir. Time on lees unknown.
Not currently available UK
Brie rind on the nose, a little bit funky. Soft, round, full, ripe, clearly from a warmer climate. A bit rich, and the acidity jars a little. Some interest and concentration here, a little rustic, but enjoyable. Finish could be drier. 86 points

Summerhouse Blanc de Blancs 2010 (Marlborough, New Zealand, 12.5%)
100% Chardonnay. 30 months on lees.
Not currently available UK
Floral, sherbet, slightly tropical undertones. Good acidity, but relatively short and simple. Not the driest. Well made, but the fizz doesn’t last terribly long and it wouldn’t hold your interest for much more than a glass. 86 points.

Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial NV (Champagne, France; 12.0%)
Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay. Time on lees unknown.
£32.99, Tesco
Not the most attractive nose, smells a little bit rustic. Rich fruit; the sweetness seems slightly out of balance. Lots of flavour and some enjoyable autolytic touches, but it lacks charm. 86 points.

Allan Scott Family Winemakers Cecilia Brut NV (Marlborough, New Zealand, 12.5%)
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir. 18 months on lees.
Fruity nose – apple, pear and quince. A bit too big, fruity and friendly. Well made enough, but it’s a little two dimensional and the flavours lack persistence. 85 points.

Photo of Johanneshof Cellars in Marlbororugh © Edel Everling.

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