I recently caught up with Yealands chief winemaker, Natalie Christensen, to quiz her on the contemporary issues and practices that are all the component parts in the production of a diverse range of fine wines.
On issues such as climate change and sustainability, Natalie was able to champion Yealands credentials as a wine business that has built this value set into its DNA, whilst also exploring the potential of winemaking and the terroir to offer wines that provide a strong sense of their own identity.
We opened the discussion around the real-world aspects of Yealands sustainability programme that led to them becoming the world’s first winery to be certified carbon zero from inception.
When I asked Natalie what this entails she answered:
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Natalie Christensen (NC): We have wind turbines on-site that help generate power for us. We also have the largest solar installation in New Zealand giving us around 440 kilowatts and we do bale burning where we bale up our pruning’s and then burn them to heat our water, meaning we don’t have to use LPG for our heating.
Nick Breeze (NB): Does this also translate into biodiversity in the vineyard?
NC: Yes, definitely. We also have a number of wetlands that have been developed around the vineyard and a lot of native plantings have been put in to attract native birds.
We have also got an area of the vineyard known as butterfly gully where we have put in a lot of swamp plants and we have hundreds of monarch butterflies. So biodiversity is a major thing we are into.
NB: What are the climate challenges that you face in Marlborough, or in New Zealand more generally?
NC: It has been really interesting. I have noticed over the last ten years how we are starting to get the tail end of some of the tropical cyclones now. Luckily in 2019 we didn’t experience that but definitely, in the previous few harvests, we have had significant periods of rain and so it something we have to be mindful of in our production.
We are set up to process fruit really quickly so it is all about having the right equipment and if you are in one of those situations you can get your fruit in and safe without too much disaster.
We are seeing a lot more extremes, definitely, things are changing!
NB: Do you have any mitigative or adaptive policies that you are putting in place?
NC: Yeah, it is more around the equipment. We have a couple of new presses that we can press fruit quite quickly. We also have continuous floatation as one of our tools that we use so that we can separate the solids from the juice very quickly, so if there is any disease pressure, we can get those funky characters out of the wine. Or any of those dirty solids away from the juice so we can still have really clean crisp Sauvignon Blanc.
Talking Sauvignon Blanc
NB: When you are talking about Sauvignon Blanc, what are the processes that you are using to create your own identity with the wine?
NC: Sauvignon Blanc is one of those wines that is incredibly awesome for showing terroir and sense of place because there is not necessarily a lot of winemaker influence. Whereas with some other varieties, like Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, you can do lots of things.
But we have been using concrete eggs for about 5 years and with the State Of Flux range, it is the first time we have released a singular wine from those concrete eggs.
NB: What do you feel that had added to the wine?
NC: Well, with Sauvignon Blanc we don’t want people to get bored, and we ourselves don’t want to get bored of it, so we were trying different techniques and different methods of seeing what we can do with this grape variety.
The wine we have got here has spent 11 months on its lees and the fermentation dynamics and the convection currents from the heat during fermentation cause the lees to be constantly in motion.
This builds really nice structure and texture. The extended time on lees, I think, has changed the acid structure slightly so it is still very mineral and pure but the acids are slightly softer around the edges of the mouth.
"..excited about Pinot Noir..."
NB: On the Pinot Noir side, what has been happening there? How have you been establishing your own identity?
NC: I am very passionate about Pinot Noir. When I started working in the industry I was working at St Clair in Marlborough and I was working mostly with the Pinot Noirs there. I am also on the Pinot 2021 committee which is a big celebration of Pinot in New Zealand and one of the major wine events that we have.
I guess there is a lot of workshops and winemakers talking and workshopping their wines constantly. So we are sharing ideas and there is a national Pinot meeting that we have every year and then in Marlborough, we have Pinot Bootcamp.
NB: With the Pinot here, what is the thing that excites you about how it is made and what the outcome has been flavour wise?
NC: I am really excited about Pinot Noir in the Awatere Valley. The Awatere Valley is quite diverse. So Seaview Vineyard is very coastal (obviously with a name like Seaview Vineyard) and it quite undulating and there are quite a few aspects and microclimates within that.
We have a got a really nice sheltered warm valley where we get really plush soft fruited wines and then a really exposed hillside from which we get really high toned raspberry and cherry.
Then deeper up the valley we have got a vineyard called our midway vineyard which is 26 kilometres inland and we get massive diurnal shifts, so it will be 40ºC during the day and the vineyard manager will be on frost watch that night.
The fruit we get up there is so intense, broody, muscular and very structural.
These three wines all exude different styles of the Pinot Noir variety that are connected directly to their place and climate. The wines are not blended but each produced to preserve that identity.
NB: You have worked in another region that is a favourite of mine, Rias Baixas. Is there anything that you have taken from there back to New Zealand
NC: I sure have! Albarino, yeah, an incredible variety. A few producers in Marlborough are working with it and we planted some about 6 months ago. Yeah, I am excited to see how Seaview performs with that variety. I am not saying that Seaview is exactly like the Salnes Valley but just being so coastal and salty, saline-y.
NB: So it will be your expression of it. It will transform you back to the Rias Baixas?
NB: Looking forward over the next 5-10 years, what is the most exciting for you as a winemaker?
NC: I guess it is looking at different styles of making Sauvignon Blanc in different ways. We did a carbonic maceration this year on a Sauvignon and it is looking very interesting.
I think New Zealand producers have decided to become a bit more experimental and I think we have been a bit behind in that domain. There is a lot of Australian producers making different and interesting wines. There are pockets of them. I think that movement is really starting to kick off in New Zealand too.
So it is just doing different things with the fruit, getting people excited. Making fun, interesting and approachable wines and ever-evolving and not just sitting back and hanging out with our Sauvignon and… [laughs]
Single block l5 sauvignon blanc
Ripe passion fruit, crushed shell, creamier, fuller texture. The impression of fruit is really pleasing and long, clean. A special wine that slots right into the memory lexicon of taste. The purity of fruit combined with the mineral texture provides all kinds of gastronomic opportunities. A fascinating wine to taste.
State Of Flux Sauvignon Blanc 2018Crushed, de-stemmed, pressed, 11 m on lees in concrete egg. Elegant pure fruit with attractive leesy flavour. Gritty mineral character on the palate and the fruit flavours cover the sides of the mouth. The texture is fuller, long, very attractive.
State Of Flux Carbonic Pinot Noir 2019
Cranberry juicy aromas jumping out of the glass. Really nice balance of bursting cherry, berry fruit, tannin. Light in weight, attractive now. Amazing youth and drinkability - hints all the exciting, fun and approachable notes that Natalie talks about!