Wither Hills Winery turned 25 this year and the winemaking team celebrated the way winemakers do best, opening older wines from a new(ish) cellar.
Winemaker Matt Large and his team took their cue from the global wine industry – wine always tastes better shared – and invited a lucky bunch of writers along for the ride. What a trip.
The day began by flying into Marlborough and driving to the 160 hectare Rarangi Vineyard, home to more Sauvignon Blanc than you can shake a proverbial stick at. This vineyard is divided into 34 different blocks, so it’s high maintenance. It’s surrounded by natural wetlands, so the water table is also naturally high.
When John and Brent Marris first planted the land in 2002, cattle were roaming through the diminishing wetlands. Gorse, old man’s beard and other non native plants have since been removed and the wetland area is now twice the size it was back then. Vines remain important but their fragmented planting means that viticulture now fits around the natural environment rather than the other way round.
We tasted older Sauvignon Blancs that had aged surprisingly well, especially since screwcaps were introduced in 2001. The 1996 and 1999 Wither Hills Sauvignon Blancs had both turned deep gold and oxidative, but wines from 2001 onwards all remained pale lemon and fresh.
Next stop, Ben Morvan Vineyard.
This one has had organic certification since 2009. No herbicides or other man made chemicals are allowed on organic vineyards so weeds are plentiful and crops of grapes are smaller than they used to be due to lack of man made inputs. This means the flavours in the grapes taste more concentrated too. A good thing. Wet weather fungal disease can be combatted with copper sulphate and Sulphur dioxide (SO2), which are allowed on organically managed land.
“We’ve learned a lot about vine growing from this organic vineyard,” says winemaker Matt Large.
Technology is the biggest thing. Gentler machine harvesters can maximize time and minimize damage when harvesting grapes. Another big change took place in 2007. The winery moved away from a single brand to making single vineyard wines, namely Ben Morvan Pinot Noir and Taylors River Pinot Noir. The latter has always been a fave, for me, and a new tasting of an old wine confirmed it yet again.
Top shelf Pinot Noir in the Wither Hills winery cellar
Marlborough is all about Sauvignon Blanc, which is understandable, given that 72% of Wither Hills wine production is Sauvignon and this reflects the focus of most wineries in the region. The entire region is focused on Sauvignon in this type of ratio and it’s a big export earner for this country, so it’s easy to forget Marlborough has more than one strong string to its wine bow.
This tasting of 25 years of Wither Hills wines reminded us all how impressive Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Marlborough can be, when thoughtfully made.
Without further ado, here are my highlights of a fascinating snapshot of Wither Hills’ first quarter century.
Top Wither Hills Pinot Noirs
2011 Wither Hills Wairau Valley Pinot Noir (magnum)
Silky, spicy, smooth and way better from magnum than from 750ml bottles; this wine was my pick of the older wines for drinking now. It’s an outstanding New Zealand Pinot Noir from the country’s biggest wine region. Sensational.
Drinks well now and can still age for 5 to 6 years, possibly longer.
2014 Wither Hills Wairau Valley Pinot Noir
Dry, full bodied and fruitier than the 2011; a bigger, more expressive wine. The vintage began well and was good for Pinot Noir, which comes through loud and clear in this lovely fruit driven wine. A great expression of Pinot from Marlborough.
2016 Wither Hills Wairau Valley Pinot Noir
The Pinot Noir spent 14 to 16 months in barrel and is dry, fresh, fruit forward and youthful. Lithe, silky and drinks well but will unfold more complexity with age.
2014 The Honourable Pinot Noir $75
This is the first vintage of The Honourable Pinot Noir, made in homage to the late Charles Bigg Wither, a local farmer in 1840s who owned thousands of hectares of land around the Wither Hills winery. He was voted into Parliament, which is where this wine is named The Honourable in his honour.
The wine is made from grapes grown on the Taylor River vineyard. Only 3000 bottles were produced and it’s drinking well now with youthful fresh flavours, which means it needs to be decanted to allow its youthful flavours to open up.
It’s not a big red but this powerful Pinot Noir derives its impressive flavours and structure from being a subtle wine. Fresh, youthful, long on the finish, drinking beautifully now and with great potential for aging.
- About 72% of Wither Hills wine production is Sauvignon Blanc with the balance evenly split between Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.