Producer profile - Big Sky, Te Muna Valley, Martinborough
Published on Sunday 18 June 2023
Welcome to Te Muna Valley.
This dramatic, windswept landscape rises above the Huangarua River just nine kilometres east of Martinborough village but it felt like a world away when Jeremy Corban and Katherine Jacobs moved here in 2005 and purchased six hectares of established vineyard land, which they now call home.
Jeremy Corban is a fourth generation New Zealand winemaker who has a degree in public policy as well as a Bachelor of Engineering while Katherine Jacobs has a BA in Public Policy and Women’s Studies as well as a viticultural diploma from the Eastern Institute of Technology. They both grew up in Auckland and have worked in New Zealand, Zimbabwe and France, using their collective education and skills to help both influence policy and people. Prior to moving to Martinborough, Jeremy worked as the New Zealand Representative for the OECD in Paris while Katherine studied winemaking while raising two young children. The couple had a long held vision to make their own wine one day and, by studying winemaking and viticulture long distance via the Eastern Institute of Technology in Hawke’s Bay, Katherine was able to add integrity to this dream. She also worked a vintage at Chateau Ceron in Bordeaux, living with the family while learning about winemaking, which helped to cement her wine knowledge and experience.
The couple now have two adult children who have been involved in the vineyard but are currently pursuing independent careers.
Jeremy and Katherine first visited Martinborough in the early 1990s with the thought that they would one day like to invest in a vineyard and make their own wine. They were so inspired by the early quality of Martinborough wine that they returned many years later to buy land and start their own vineyard. The land they settled on happens to have been the first vineyard to have been planted in Te Muna in 1989 by Ian Campbell. While it had no tar sealed road and unstable power back in the mid 2000s, Te Muna has grown significantly, both in its infrastructure and in the number of vineyard plantings there today.
“Te Muna feels to me like it has the charm of Martinborough but with all the dials turned up in terms of strong winds, frost risk and high diurnal (day and night) temperature variation. The quality of the wines from this valley has made us feel vindicated in choosing to establish our winemaking here, especially given the development of the Te Muna Valley since we started,” says Jeremy.
The most significant growth in the region has seen vineyard plantings nearly double in Te Muna in the past decade, as farms have given way to high quality vineyard land.
Hot days and cool nights are a strong feature of Martinborough in general but the climate in Te Muna is defined by cooler nights and mornings as well as stronger winds. These conditions mean that harvest typically takes place up to two weeks later than in many vineyards around Martinborough village.
Big Sky Vineyard is planted on the edge of a small wine region with a windy climate and a growing reputation for high quality wines made from one of the fussiest red grape varieties around, Pinot Noir. It is not be the easiest place on Earth to grow grapes but the warm days, cold nights and high winds are exactly what makes the wines here so special. Strong winds make for grapes with thick skins and impressive structure as a result of the conditions.
The sky does indeed seem vast as it rises above the dramatic hills that rise up from the meandering Huangarua River and the stony terraces on which vines grow.
The beginning of Big Sky
Big Sky Wines began in 2005 and production is focussed predominantly on Pinot Noir with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris also produced in smaller volumes. All of the Big Sky Vineyard is 100% certified organic with BioGro NZ. This is a key focus and strong philosophical vision for both Jeremy and Katherine, who see themselves as kaitiaki (the Maori word for guardians) of the land they live on.
“We want to leave this site in better condition for future generations and we see ourselves as guardians rather than owners of it because of that,” says Katherine.
Wairarapa Wine Region
The Wairarapa Wine Region has 1090 hectares of producing vineyard land, 340 hectares of which are now in the Te Muna Valley, which puts this sub region on an equal footing with Bannockburn in Central Otago, in terms of size.
The first grapes in the Wairarapa were planted in the late 1800s by early immigrants who planted grapes in the northern part of the region. Viticulture took a hiatus until the 1980s when four pioneers planted vineyards in and around Martinborough. Te Muna Valley’s first vines were planted in 1989 and is is a stylistically distinct area, says Jeremy, who is exploring the potential of Te Muna Valley Pinot Noir in the wines he and Katherine make.
Big Sky vineyard holdings
Te Muna Valley 6 hectares
Pinot Noir 4.2 hectares
Sauvignon Blanc 1.8 hectares
Big Sky Wines
Pinot Noir is the flagship wine at Big Sky and three distinctive styles are produced.
Big Sky Te Muna Pinot Noir
Rich bright fruit and savoury dried herb flavours sit alongside an earthy grounded style in these firmly structured Pinot Noirs. The amount of whole bunch fermentation used and the resulting style of Pinot Noir varies, depending on the nature of the vintage in this cool climate. Maturation is typically for 11 months in oak, all French, with a move towards hogsheads (300 litres) rather than barriques.
Big Sky Provenance Pinot Noir
A classic reserve style of Pinot Noir with longer ageing in oak, typically 18 months compared to 11 months for the flagship Big Sky Pinot Noir. The result here is a wine which tends to be firmer and sometimes more closed, on release. It has great ageing potential for five to six years and beyond.
Big Sky Celestia Pinot Noir
This wine has been made once, to date, from the hot, dry 2020 vintage; an excellent quality year for grapes and one in which Jeremy treated them to 100% whole bunch fermentation. This technique accentuates structure in the wine and brings a linear backbone, adding depth of flavour and body, without reliance on oak for the main structural integrity of the wine.
White, pink and orange wines
Big Sky Chardonnay – small volumes of full bodied commanding Chardonnay
Big Sky Pinot Noir Rosé – light coloured and dry style
Big Sky Ramato Pinot Gris – skin contact amber hued Pinot Gris
Big Sky Sauvignon Blanc – a portion of lees ageing builds texture