The best way to wine taste when visiting Marlborough, New Zealand? Hit the Marlborough Sounds in a boat with a winemaker.
Founder and owner of Mahi Wines Brian Bicknell generously took time on a stormy Saturday morning to motor us out across the water in his 100 year-old launch to lunch at the charmingly rustic Lochmara Lodge. As if straight out of a movie set, a tender made its way from the pier to retrieve us from Bicknell’s boat and deliver us to a few plates of fish and chips, the region’s famous green lipped mussels, and a couple of glasses of crisp Mahi Chardonnay.
We took a post-lunch stroll through the densely wooded hills behind the property while Bicknell pointed out the indigenous flora and fauna the region’s locals have been working hard to restore. Fortunately, the brooding sky that had greeted us in the morning cleared into a sunny Marlborough Day. Bicknell took a spin in a hammock; I had a turn at steering the boat (foot on the wheel, head out the hatch). After docking, we stopped over at the winery to conduct a proper tasting before Bicknell dropped me off at the Marlborough Wine & Food Festival that afternoon. A rare perfect day.
Signature Wines and Prices: (in NY)
- Mahi Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc USD 19.99
- Mahi Boundary Farm Sauvignon Blanc USD 27.99
- Mahi Twin Valleys Chardonnay USD 27.99
- Mahi Marlborough Pinot Noir USD 29.99
What philosophy guides your viticulture and winemaking? Hopefully I can cover both areas. At Mahi, we own or lease four vineyards and also work with five growers. The vineyards we have control over are certified organic, as we see this as perhaps being the best way of expressing a particular vineyard — by not adding too much to it nor changing the character of the site. Some growers are also organic and some are ‘sustainable’, and it is a personal choice; I am not going to force our growers to grow organically. We tend to keep the canopies open and crops lower so that we get good exposure to the sun and the wind to minimise Botrytis pressure.
In the winery, we take a relatively ‘hands-off’ approach with the goal being to make wines that are textural, subtle, and complex. Most of our wines are hand-picked, whole-cluster pressed with no additions to the juice, then run straight to French without settling. We then leave the juice and after maybe eight days the natural yeast from the vineyard starts the fermentation and we often get six different strains of yeast doing the ferment, rather than one if we inoculated.
We do not use press wine, just the free-run, which gives a more elegant wine, as the pH stays lower and the palate is a little more linear, rather than getting soapy with the press wine.
I love the concept of ‘Real Wine’, wines that have not been messed around with and hopefully show their vineyards in the purest possible way. Sounds a bit hippyish but hope you know what I am getting at?!
What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)? I think Mother Nature can obviously throw us the biggest curve balls, but I have been fortunate not to work a really bad harvest. Apparently, 1995 was like that in Marlborough, but I was at Errázuriz in Chile at that time, and we had a great one.
In many ways, if you make the right decisions through the year, you get to experience the great diversity of the weather, and it is one of my favourite things about wine, which is that it does change every year. If you crop at an appropriate level for your vineyard, and keep the canopy open, you should always be able to harvest good fruit, whereas if you over crop the fruit, it will not ripen fully and the wines will be mean and lean, and you will probably leave them hanging too long into the season, and push them into the Botrytis period.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of grape growing and winemaking in your region? Every year I want to kiss the ‘gross physical characteristics’ of Marlborough, which could get a bit tricky.
I think the benefits of making wine in Marlborough are:
- We have the Richmond Ranges to trap most of the rain coming from the west;
- The Inland and the Seaward Kaikoura Ranges, which force a lot of the cold, moist winds from the south out to sea, and that go across the end of our valley;
- The bottom of the North Island protects us from cyclonic conditions that can come down from the Pacific in February or March, two very important months for us;
- We have a low mean temperature of the warmest month, meaning the fruit retains a lot of the fruit compounds;
- A long period over 10 degrees Celsius so that the vines work longer and ripen some of the later varieties; and
- A good diurnal differentiation.
- Too far from a major city to allow for good cellar-door business;
- Too many anonymous labels made for a market that is cheapening the overall image of Sauvignon Blanc, which I think is a noble variety;
- Too many people in the industry for the wrong reasons, though this is a worldwide phenomenon; and
- Too many people who don’t truly love wine, though as above, this is a problem throughout.
What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? A greater appreciation of the range of varieties that can be produced. There is more regional differentiation and also inter-regional appreciation of sites.
I really love the Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir that is coming out of Marlborough, and loving some of the Syrah from Hawkes Bay.
How do you think Americans (or the outside world) perceive NZ wines? I do not think the US market has a very good understanding of NZ wine and that is probably an issue from our end, and also because of the three-tier system. I realize other countries cope with the three-tier system, but personally, I have found it harder to get in front of the people selling the wine as you are usually dealing with an importer, etc.
As of the end of November, the US now accounts for 25% of NZs wine sales by volume, up from 23% at the same time last year, so something is working, but I imagine a fair amount of that is Constellation and things like Cupcake. Complexity is working hard at the on-trade area of the market, so I can only assume that is helping the category in total also.
I think the people have a better understanding of NZ now than ten years ago but it is probably too strongly focused on Sauvignon Blanc. It has been good to have that as our calling card but to be considered a classic wine supplying country we need to prove we can do it with things like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in particular.
What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Least? My favourite wine region in the world is Burgundy, and probably least favourite is the Riverland area of Australia.
Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected? I think Chardonnay is respected in certain circles but the main part of the market seems to think they are being clever when they say they do not touch Chardonnay. It is a classic variety, probably the best restaurant white wine because of its subtlety, and I do not understand how anyone can say ‘I do not drink Chardonnay’. I understand ‘I do not drink shit Chardonnay’, but no one is going to turn down great white Burgundy or Blancs de Blanc Champagne??
What do you drink at home when relaxing?
After a great Gin and Tonic, using Quina Fina Tonic Water, I have found I have been drinking a few wild ferment, barrel fermented Sauvignons over the Christmas break. Great structure for lighter white meats and heavier fish dishes, and refreshing enough for the summer afternoons. Other than that, Burgundy!
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)?
We have an old launch, over 100 years old now, and I love getting out on the Marlborough Sounds in that. Spending the night on the boat with a good wine, good book, fresh fish and a good friend in a bay surrounded by native NZ bush is a pretty special event.
If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? While Italy and France are real passions, I would love to visit India now. We export to 12 countries so I travel a lot but I have never experienced India, and after learning a lot about the country over the last few years, it is somewhere that I am really intrigued by.
Give one surprising fact about yourself. Weirdly enough, one of the reasons that I am in the wine industry is that I have a Grand Trine, apparently meaning that when I was born, my three major planets were arranged in a equilateral triangle, so 120˚ angles between them all. I am not really into it, but someone interviewing me many years ago for a job at a wine store that really cemented my love of wine, was, so I got the job over a lot of other people, and the rest is history.