The same wine in a different way… Matt Large on Marlborough savvy

Experimental wines may not make the accountants ecstatic, but they keep winemakers engaged and punters happy. Excuse the use of the word ‘punter’ but it fits, especially when used for the new Wither Hills cellar door and winery restaurant, which finally opened on 9 December last year to keep visitors to Marlborough well fed and watered.

The newly expanded cellar door and restaurant opened after  delays, due to earthquakes and complications, including a random event that nearly decimated this famous winery. But that’s another story. We’re here to talk about happy endings, which Wither Hills has plenty of these days.
Like most wineries in Marlborough, Wither Hills relies heavily on  Sauvignon Blanc. Approximately 75% of the winery’s production is made up of Sauvignon Blanc – a direct reflection of the region’s total vineyard area and production.

If this appears to be a heavy reliance on one thing, it is. But this is the story of New Zealand’s wine industry today and Marlborough’s nearest neighbours – Nelson and North Canterbury – are also now home to more Sauvignon Blanc than any other grape, with 39% of each region’s total vineyard area planted in this popular white  variety. While that makes sense, given the strong export demand for Kiwi savvy, it seems a great shame to me that Riesling and Chardonnay have both fallen from their prime spots, respectively, in these regions. Both are every bit as good in quality and have great aging potential in all South Island wine regions, in my view.
So, back to Marlborough, where it’s heartening to see and taste experimental wines at Wither Hills cellar door, thanks to winemakers Matt Large and Sally Williams, who are both big champions of their cellar release range. Wines available only at the cellar door include Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Chardonnay and a fortified Pinot Noir, among others. But since Sauvignon rules the roost here, I asked winemaker Matt Large what he would do, if he could make a wine from any grape, in any style.
His answer?
He would like to make the star attraction but in a different way.

“If I had an open slate to try anything at all, I’d like to do something with Sauvignon Blanc. Not so much a different style but a wine with a different intensity – what we do but on steroids. The intensity, the weight and the aromatic palate weight – all dialled up,” says Matt.

Every year, he and Sally make about 3000 cases (give or take a little, depending on vintage variation) of Rarangi Sauvignon Blanc, which is a single vineyard wine. This is comparatively miniscule compared to the 200,000 cases of Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc the pair produce, most of it destined for export.

Wine is now the seventh biggest export earner for New Zealand. Growth has been significant in the past couple of decades, particularly in the United Kingdom, but the focus is now on the United States, Australia, Asia and the domestic market rather than growing quantity.

Back to the future, Matt is quietly confident the winery has access to good quality Sauvignon Blanc grapes from which to make that intense Sauvignon Blanc he has in mind.

Wither Hills fact file…

  • Wither Hills was established in 1994
  • The winery was named after the southern landmark Wither Hills in the Wairau Valley, which is the source of all grapes in the winery’s production
  • It was begun by the Marris family and is now owned by Lion NZ
  • Significant vineyards include the Taylor River Vineyard at the start of the southern valleys and Rarangi, closer to the coast
  • 50-60% of grapes in Wither Hills wines comes from estate owned vineyards
  • facebook.com/WitherHills
  • witherhills.co.nz