NZ reaping rewards of experimentation

Mud House winemaker Nadine Worley has told how an ever-improving understanding of factors such as barrel maturation and clonal selection is helping New Zealand wines to show greater complexity.

Nadine Worley, winemaker at Mud House

Nadine Worley, winemaker at Mud House

“Winemakers are definitely getting more game,” she told the drinks business, highlighting in particular the increasingly experimental approach to Sauvignon Blanc, which accounted for 68% of the country’s 2013 harvest.

One of the country’s 10 largest producers, Mud House currently has 100 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough, 200ha of primarily Pinot Gris and Riesling in Waipara and an expanding 100ha of Pinot Noir in Central Otago. “We call ourselves the South Island aromatic specialists,” Worley told db.

“We know our sites better now so we’re experimenting with time on lees and getting those layers of complexity in there and texture,” outlined Worley of the Mud House approach to Sauvignon Blanc. “You can only really do that with vines which have a bit more maturity.”

In common with many other Marlborough Sauvignon producers, Worley confirmed: “We’ve been playing with barrel fermentation.” However, she emphasised: “There’s not a lot of things to hide behind with Sauvignon Blanc – you need to get your balance right and you really need to find the right vineyard.”

Pointing to some of the challenges in achieving a good result with this variety in oak, Worley remarked: “You need a bit more texture and the right balance of flavours, but you don’t want anything too overt that looks too much like Marlborough Sauvignon. Those green flavours in Sauvignon Blanc can mix with the resin in the oak – you see it in some attempts at barrel-aged Sauvignon.”

She also warned: “Getting that sulphide character right is also an issue with barrel-aged Sauvignon Blanc – it can be a bit faulty.”

For Mud House, Worley points to a vineyard in the Ure Valley, which features “big limestone boulders and is very free draining, very coastal.” It is here that she is finding “the mineral structure and phenolics you need to work with barrels.”

Despite this widespread experimentation with oak, Worley denied that the region’s best-seller was likely to see a dramatic shift in identity. “The core of Marlborough Sauvignon is always going to be that vibrant, lifted style,” she assured.

Turning to Pinot Noir, a more recent focus for Mud House, which made its first vintage from Central Otago vineyards in 2006, Worley expressed increasing enthusiasm for this variety. “Making Central Otago Pinot Noir has been one of the highlights of the last three years,” she remarked.

As a result of the producer’s success and enthusiasm for Pinot Noir, Worley confirmed that Mud House is currently in the process of expanding its Central Otago plantings by “14ha a year for the next few years, water dependent.”

As for the stylistic and qualitative evolution of the variety in recent years, she remarked: “New Zealand Pinot Noir definitely shows a maturing of the industry. For the first 10-20 years people were planting it next to their Sauvignon Blanc, which likes heavy, flat soil; but Pinot likes harsher soils – it’s almost completely different.”

With Mud House’s own Pinot Noir vineyard now a decade old, Worley confirmed the improvements which have accompanied this maturation. “Each year we’re getting layers of complexity,” she told db. “They’ve always produced very upfront fruit, but now there’s that complexity on the palate – that’s a great strength of New Zealand: we can get vibrant fruit but also that structure.”

As vineyards age and winemakers’ understanding of individual sites improves, Worley confirmed an ever more ambitious, experimental approach to Pinot Noir.  “Like Sauvignon Blanc, in the last few years we’ve got a lot more daring in what we do,” she told db.

Pointing to Mud House’s own collection of 14 Pinot Noir clones spread across 30 different blocks,” she explained: “at first we kept them separate so we knew how they were forming, but now we do some co-fermentation. Again, it’s about knowing your vineyards.”

As the producer’s understanding of how to get the best from Pinot Noir in its vineyards evolves, Worley confirms that she is steadily narrowing down the number of clones, although she adds: “They keep introducing new ones so we have to plant a few more experimental rows!”

While many of these clones are sourced from Dijon or the US, Worley also pointed to “some old Swiss clones we’re playing with for a lighter style.” For all the impressive results with Burgundian clones in other parts of the world, she noted: “some of those were selected for early ripening, but that’s not so important in a warmer climate.”

For a more detailed look at the evolution of New Zealand Pinot Noir, see September’s issue of the drinks business, or click here.

One Response to “NZ reaping rewards of experimentation”

  1. Rodger Tynan says:

    We too have experimented with barrel ferments, wild yeasts, and time on skins to produce a very complex Sauvignon Blanc grown on limestone with mineral characters

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