A winemaker is hooked on pinot and the land where it's grown, writes Stephanie Holmes.
Wither Hills winemaker Sally Williams recalls clearly the moment she fell in love with pinot noir.
Growing up in rural South Australia, in prime cabernet sauvignon territory, Sally had never quite got into pinot. But after moving to New Zealand to work for Wither Hills, she experienced a light-bulb moment of sorts — realising how the smallest of factors can influence the complexity of a wine — and she was hooked.
Standing between Benmorven and Taylor River, two of Wither Hills' 12 vineyards, Sally sampled two different pinot noirs, one made from Benmorven grapes; one made from Taylor River grapes.
Despite being able to see each set of vines from her vantage point — almost with a foot straddling each of the two sites — the difference in the taste of the wine was quite remarkable.
"I couldn't believe how two such different-tasting wines could be grown when the vines were so close together," she says.
It's a reflection of what an incredibly diverse wine-growing region Marlborough is.
Winemakers talk of terroir — how a particular region's climate, soils and terrain affect the taste of wine. Marlborough is blessed with more "terroir" than some other regions, with mountain ranges to the north and south, the Pacific Ocean to the east, rich alluvial soils across the plains, rising north-facing valleys, moderate temperatures, rainfall in winter and close to seven hours of sunshine a day (more on average a year than Hawke's Bay).
These factors add up to remarkably diverse growing conditions in a relatively small area of land, which Sally says is an opportunity to create wines that "showcase where you are and what's happening beneath your feet".
She's been at Wither Hills for 12 years, now as one of three senior winemakers. Her passion for her job — and the region — is palpable.
Driving out to Wither Hills' furthest vines, at the small coastal settlement of Rarangi, Sally talks enthusiastically about her life in New Zealand and her love for winemaking.
From a picturesque vantage point on the way up the Richmond Ranges, we look out to the ocean to the left, the Wither Hills and Awatere Valley in front. As the rain clears, a rainbow arches perfectly between the two. It's easy to see why she loves the area.
Back outside Wither Hills' rather grand main building, we pass a row of sample vines. These 30 lines of grapes were planted when the cellar door first opened to customers in 2005, representing the 30 different varietals grown in New Zealand at the time. Some vines are still thriving; but some, like the syrah, are just sad-looking sticks — proving that though the soil here is ideal for some varietals, others just can't be grown.
Sauvignon blanc grapes flourish of course, with Marlborough now world-renowned for this varietal. But the terroir also makes for great pinot noir, chardonnay, rosé, pinot gris ... and after a long, hot summer, can produce great "stickies" too.
Sally guides me through a tasting of the Wither Hills' range — including the relaunched Single Vineyard vintage wines, a Taylor River pinot noir, a Rarangi sauvignon blanc and a Benmorven chardonnay. Even with my limited palate, I can taste the difference between the standard Wairau Valley range and the Single Vineyard wines, proving Sally's point that terroir translates to taste.
In the subterranean cellar room, I try blending three different pinot noirs. My respect for Sally grows as I mix blend after blend, changing up percentages each time, swirling and sniffing and swilling, and all still taste like something I left open on the kitchen shelf for too long.
Content to leave it to the experts, I settle in front of the cellar door's roaring fire and sip on a Taylor River pinot noir while the rain closes in again outside.
The weather might be stalling my plans of exploring Marlborough, but it's no doubt doing wonders for the grapes.
Getting there: Air NZ flies to Blenheim up to five times a day.
Further information: Wither Hills' cellar door is open daily from 10am to 4.30pm. The restaurant will reopen in November after renovations.