The sky is blue and clean. The sun, warm. The rows of vines perfectly spaced. It is a picture of an imaginary land, and then the plane lands and it’s real. Marlborough. Home of the country’s most famous wine, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, which is exactly what I’m here to celebrate at Sauvignon 2016, an inaugural international SB “celebration”. It’s not a conference if you call it a celebration apparently, but a party with lectures.
Mike from Huia Vineyards picks us up at the airport. Mike and Claire Allan own and run Huia together. It’s an organic, bio-dynamic vineyard, famed for its Gewurtztraminer, its Methode Traditionelle Brut. They also make Sauvignon Blanc, naturally, because they’re in Marlborough and why wouldn’t you. They have chickens.
Our first stop is the winery, a barn-like structure, framed by vines covered with tiny grapes growing quickly. There are also olive trees, although they don’t make oil every year. They intersperse the rows of vines with plantings of psyllium and buckwheat, which has something to do with biodynamics, planting bug friendly plants near the vines to distract them. They have beehives. The place is its own beautiful little ecosystem and the winery looks a picture of health and wholesomeness. Mike laughs and tells me it looks like an organic vineyard, which means an ongoing battle with weeds when pesticides aren’t an option. “Nothing works like a pair of hands and a shovel,” says Mike. They have been working like mad to trim the leaves to give the fruit some direct access to sunlight. It’s been a cold few days and suddenly it’s warm and the vines are growing almost before our eyes.
Inside the cellar there are two giant oak vats, rows of stainless steel tanks and a boat that Mike built himself. Mike and Claire’s daughter, Sophie, makes us a plunger of coffee and we talk about normal things, unrelated to wine. I am not scared.
We go to visit the chickens and they scare me a little. They think my camera lens is edible and walk toward it purposefully. I take a few steps backward, no one notices. They are very healthy chooks. They roam the yard, often even visiting the cellar door. This is not the fancy wine world I often imagine – all multi-million dollar buildings that make for expensive wedding venues. This is where the magic happens, where grapes are turned into wine by hardworking hands and gumboot-wearing feet. I feel a sudden urge for a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. It’s 10.30am.
At the Conference Centre, I meet winemakers left, right and centre. All lovely. All wearing plaid shirts or shorts. This is an event for showing visitors a good time, they say, it shouldn’t be too stuffy or technical. Perfect for me, the plebian. The wineries have invited wine writers from the US and Australia, restaurateurs, sommeliers, distributors, and me, Courteney from Gather & Hunt. When introduced without explanation (“Auckland-based media company”), it kind of sounds like the name of an obscure vineyard in some out-of-the-way place.
Wine-writer turned winemaker Robert Joseph kicks things off by saying Hilton Hotels are scared of AirBnB. The word of the day is disruption, one of those buzzwords I hear all the time in my industry. It fills me with fatigue. We like to make up new words for “trying something new.” The word “new” only sticks if it’s paired with “success”. In the world of Sauvignon Blanc, where the people’s thirst for wines with strong grassy characters that sommeliers describe as reminiscent of “cat pee” and “sweat” is waning a little, disruption comes in the form of new oak, wild fermentation, fizz. Despite this, Robert Joseph concludes that we shouldn’t change a thing, keep making the wine that people know and understand, even if it kills you inside, because what you winemakers/wine snobs want is irrelevant if you don’t have a market for it.
It’s a fair comment, and it starts a fascinating conversation about the gap between the industry and their consumers. “People think about wine the way they think about pizza,” Joseph says, “they want the same old margarita all over the world.” I write, “condescending??” in my notebook. When I’m in another country I like to order the style of “pizza” that the area is known for, but then I do really like margarita.
Joseph sits down. Oz Clarke stands up. He is a writer too, such a good writer that each of his sentences are like discrete little poems. I love everything he says. The first Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc he ever tasted (Montana, 1983) “crackled and spat flavours at you from the glass.” It came from “a somewhere no one knew,” it was “classless, irreverent.” It is the wine variety that wine snobs hate. I love all of this. It makes me want to drink Sauvignon Blanc forever. It makes me feel as if, as a New Zealander, I own some measure of the success of Marlborough SB.
Win me over with words, not the aroma of cat piss, I think, that’s the way to my heart, that’s the value of a brilliant wine writer. Who’s with me? Who also wants wine that “doesn’t have to be expensive, that doesn’t have to be made in an intellectually exhausting way, that isn’t difficult to understand?” I do. At least on Mondays. It’s a Monday. Everyone else I know is at Laneway but this is way better than seeing Grimes live from a sweaty mosh pit, even if it smells the same.
Oz Clarke introduces a panel of winemakers from all over the world. They make wines from Sauvignon Blanc grapes and they’re all different. This is the tale of terroir: soil, climate, vintage, heart, soul, history, and law. They are here from the Napa Valley, from Austria, Italy, France, South Africa, Chile and Australia. All of the speakers are entertaining in their own unique way. Michael Scholz from St Supery in Napa reminds me of an auctioneer. Jean-Christophe Bourgeois from Sancerre says, “we grew up with Sauvignon Blanc, and I think we will die with it.”
We break for afternoon tea, after which we get to taste all of the international wines we’ve heard about, guided by Jane Skilton (Master of Wine). I’m nervous. I’m sandwiched between Cameron Douglas, New Zealand’s only Master Sommelier (if you’ve seen Somm, you’ll know why this is terrifying and impressive), and Morven McAuley of Huia, who knows everyone and tells me in a comforting manner that I should write notes for myself and no one else. I am nervous about spitting into my cardboard cup, but even more nervous about drinking too much wine and saying something stupid. Across from us, four very serious gentlemen swirl their wine very seriously.
MY NOTES interspersed with observations:
Casa Marin Cipreses Vineyard, SB 2014, Chile
Tropical! I spit too loudly, I feel the whole table look at me sideways. I am reminded of a time I tried to spit while running down Tamaki Drive and ended up with a trail of it down my top. I am no good at spitting. Some qualified member of the tasting panel suggest the wine has notes of ripe green fig and wet stones. I get honey.
Bay of Fires, SB 2015
Apricot? More tart. More burny. Like fire. Like the name. Were they that obvious? I don’t know what I’m doing. Cameron Douglas MS spits so delicately. Bananas! I’m too scared to spit. I decide it’s all right to properly drink just a little bit. It’s concerning how often I smell bananas in a wine glass – not just any bananas either, lolly bananas, the kind you get in a party mix.
Spier 21 Gables SB 2015
It smells like vetiver bergamot, as in, the fragrance by Ingrid Starnes. I have the hand soap. Much greener. Still not spitting.
Brancott Estate Terroir Series Marlborough Awatere 2015
It smells like the hotpools at Lake Rotoiti (BOP not Nelson). Are my gulps too big? I get the cat pee thing. It’s really full on isn’t it? I struggle to find sweat [the smell]. I’ve never wanted so badly to smell sweat before. One of the wine writers on the panel describes the wine with these words: citrus, pepper, mint, with a whiplash finish. He loves it. So many of the speakers have used the word ‘gatekeeper’ to describe key people in the wine industry. I don’t understand why they want a gate at all, let alone a keeper? Is it to keep out the riff-raff? The consumer? Me? Still not spitting.
St Supery Napa Valley SB 2015
Morven tells me the aroma of this wine reminds her of her first pair of jeans, they had a picture of Miss Piggy on them, allegedly. For me, it’s floral. Gooseberry? Something I don’t like. I don’t know what it is. The winemaker reveals it’s over-ripeness. I spit passably. I’ve learned something.
Tement Berghausener SB 2014
Citrus, lemon, strong. Morven doesn’t agree. I have no idea what it smells like? Lots of rain, discreet on the nose. My nose is no longer useful. I think it’s blocked.
Vie Di Romans Piere SB 2015
It smells strongly like acid, maybe cat pee again? It’s literally on the tip of my tongue but I can’t say what it is. Morven leans over, “smell it again, I bet you can smell a bloke’s armpit.” I disagree, that will never happen to me. I inhale. I SMELLED A BLOKE’S ARMPIT. Not literally, figuratively, in the glass of wine. Also, passionfruit.
Henri Bourgeois Sancerre: La Cote des Monts Damnes 2014
Sharp! It is an under-ripe apricot in the fruit bowl at the bach. So, minerals then? Am I getting better? That’s all I’ve got, my palate is done. At least I’ve learned to spit.
After the tasting, we go to a garden party on the most beautiful estate I’ve ever seen, Timara Lodge. It has a man-made lake and there is beautiful food and every kind of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc imaginable. I ask for Huia, because Huia is home. It is familiar and comforting and the reason I’m here in this splendid place with these splendid people. Thank you Claire and Mike.
Morven introduces me to many very nice people. She explains that Huia brought me down to offer a “consumer’s insight” into the world of wine. We chat to Kevin Judd from Greywacke about the advantages of instagram. I talk to Sven Neilsen from Molten about the greatness of wine bars. I eat a blini with Ora King Salmon and some kind of truffle mayo crack by Chef Nick Honeyman.
I walk down the driveway to the bus and it’s lined with candles in paper bags. They look like lanterns. They aren’t at risk of burning because the candles are fake. There’s a fire ban in Marlborough right now.
Tomorrow I’m going on a train and learning about thiols. Come back.