It’s simply not right to talk about Marlborough without mentioning its beauty. As wine regions go, it’s far from alone in being picturesque. But this is beauty as context, an in-your-face blessedness that hits you the moment you get there. Its key export, Sauvignon Blanc, seduced the world by projecting a similarly blatant, sunshiny charm. This easy appeal is often overlooked but shouldn’t be. The wine proved that some people can’t have too much of a good thing.
That’s how Mike Allan from Huia Vineyards* feels about his adopted home. He and wife Claire didn’t mean to end up here but they didn’t stand a chance. They were studying winemaking in Adelaide in 1990 and scored vintage positions there, Mike at Cloudy Bay and Claire at Corbans. “Very quickly we fell in love with it,” recalls Mike. “It was very energised. We just realised that Marlborough had an amazing climate and it just had everything that we loved doing right smack on our doorstep.”
They saw an ad in the local rag for a block of land on an old apple orchard in Rapaura that “looked to us like heaven”. They stretched themselves to the limit and bought it. That place is now Huia, and Marlborough has paid back its promise in spades.
“Within the wine community there’s a lovely joie de vivre of wine and food and that sort of thing. Malrborough’s not just great for wine, it’s great for growing anything,” says Mike. “There’s a real international flavour because everyone’s travelling. It’s very vibrant.” Then there’s the scenery; one hour up the road is the Molesworth High Country with its lakes and mountains, a second home for keen skier Claire and their daughters, Tui (22) and Sophie (18). Just 20 minutes away are the Marlborough Sounds and 1500km of coastline. The family has a launch there for Hunky Dory – the boat that shares its name with Huia’s second label – and Mike makes the most of it. He loves to cook, and the huge vegetable garden at home calls out for the local seafood. “There’s a lot of snapper and blue cod, and the Sounds are home to green-lipped mussels which are a perfect match for Sauvignon Blanc. It just doesn’t get better.”
As for the vineyards, it took four years’ toil to get the apples out and the land ready for planting. During that time, Mike deepened his relationship with the region at Cloudy Bay and Vavasour, while Claire went from Corbans to Lawson’s Dry Hills. By 1996, they had their own estate up and running. “It was the vitality of the wines we tasted when we got to Marlborough that told us we were somewhere special,” says Mike, accounting for the motivation that got the place built. And the allure of the signature grape is as strong as ever.
“Sauvignon Blanc produces so many different characters from different areas around the valley but there’s a common thread of really fine acidity and a wide range of flavours that go from tropical fruit to gooseberry-grassy,” he says. “I always find the challenge is not to try to show how much fruit you can jam in the bottle but how the different fruits can be made into something that’s really interesting and complex. I always had a problem with wines that are short-lived – it shouldn’t be a one-vintage wonder but something with the pedigree to last a few years.”
To this point, Mike and Claire opt to press rather than crush the fruit, aiming for purity over power. Though there’s no set recipe for barrel and lees work, these both play a key role in building complexity and rounding out the wine.
It’s clear that the Allans are spurred on by the friendships borne of Marlborough Natural Winegrowers. Known as MANA, this group was founded about four years ago and comprises Huia, Te Whare Ra, Hans Herzog, Seresin, Clos Henri, Fromm and Rock Ferry. These producers are either certified fully organic or on track to achieve certification by the end of 2015. It was conceived in the wake of “a perfect storm” for Marlborough: the planting frenzy of the early noughties culminated in a massive 2008 vintage that a GFC-shaken world couldn’t soak up. A lot of smaller producers struggled to survive – not least when they’d already been finding it hard to get their voices heard over the noise of the giants.
The MANA solution was to pool marketing resources, chip in for visits from international wine writers, consolidate buying power, share biodynamic preparations and trade knowhow on the fast-moving world of organics. “Our early aspirations are exactly as it’s unfolded,” says Mike. “We thought we’d be able to share and grow and learn together and that’s precisely what’s happened. There’s no inter-winery competition; it’s very collaborative and a hell of a lot of fun.”
Another thing they share is faith, firmly repaid by results, in Marlborough Pinot Noir. “I think it’s completely come into its own,” says Mike. Producers have a better understanding of the right clones, sites and crop loads. The vines now have a fair bit of age and, as he rightly declares, good Pinot Noir isn’t going to go out of fashion. “New Zealand is very strong south of Hawke’s Bay for Pinot Noir. Martinborough, Marlborough, Canterbury and Central Otago are all going to give you incredibly fine Pinot.” And the Marlborough climate once again may be its trump card, as it tends to give more reliably favourable vintages.
The sunny optimism that lured Mike and Claire here remains undimmed. Their eyes and minds are open, and they’re enjoying themselves. They’ve been invigorated by their 2015 crop of vintage winemakers, who brought fresh ideas California, Austria and Germany. Sophie and Tui, who’ve been helping with ferments since childhood, also pour their youthful energy into the mix.
“What’s lovely is that our vineyards are reaching maturity as well. We’re getting lovely consistency in our fruit quality. We’re completely estate grown. Some of those goals we set in the early days are really coming to fruition. The challenge is to keep the life and the vitality coming through.”
*A version of this article appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the distributor of Huia and Hunky Dory wines in Victoria.