Emirates embraces heritage wine, writes Shandelle Battersby

David Herd, the man who founded Marlborough's commercial wine industry, finally arrived on New Zealand shores in 1854 after a long and horrific journey from Dundee, Scotland via England and Australia.

Herd, his wife Helen and their small daughter were on board one of the first double-decker immigrant ships, the Ticonderoga, which was struck by fever early on in its journey from Liverpool, England, to Port Phillip, Victoria. More than 170 of its nearly 800 passengers, including many children, did not survive; Herd and his family were among the lucky ones.

More than 140 years later, premium wines grown on his former estate are being served to world travellers of this generation in the most comfortable environment possible at 40,000ft, on board Emirates planes flying to and from the Oceania region.

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This wine-making pioneer from the other side of the world identified Marlborough's landscape, soil and climate early on as ideal for growing grapes, eventually eschewing the traditional route for immigrants of the time to farm cattle or sheep.

Jim White from Cloudy Bay inspects the vines. Photo / Shandelle Battersby
Jim White from Cloudy Bay inspects the vines. Photo / Shandelle Battersby

After planting his first crop in 1873, Herd made wine — petit grain muscat — at the rural Blenheim site under the name Auntsfield Estate until he died in 1905. His son took over and kept the vineyard in operation until the 1930s.

These days Auntsfield — and its historical legacy — are cared for by the Cowley family — acclaimed New Zealand cinematographer Graeme (Utu, Smash Palace), his wife Linda, and their sons Ben (the viticulturist) and Luc (the winemaker).

The family bought the property in the late 90s and quickly made their own mark on Marlborough's wine history, while always acknowledging and respecting the vineyard's past.

This extends to retaining its original name, and using a couple of drops of Herd's final 1905 vintage — gifted to the Cowleys by one of his descendants — in its exclusive Heritage series.

The family also restored the original rammed earth cellar with its angular manuka log roof, and the "whare" — a charming, well-equipped but tiny hut which is one of the region's oldest buildings. Herd lived here with his wife and five children while their house was built nearby, and all the Cowleys, at one time or another, have spent nights in the cosy one-room hut.

Grapes at Cloudy Bay winery. Photo / Shandelle Battersby
Grapes at Cloudy Bay winery. Photo / Shandelle Battersby

The vineyard even has a patch on one of Herd's original sites, growing exactly the same grapes and anchored by the same manuka posts because Graeme managed to track down the winemaker's mother clone further south in Rakaia, and took cuttings. The Cowleys are attempting to make a wine as close to the original as they can.

The Emirates relationship with Auntsfield goes back about five years, and if you're lucky you might find one of the winery's vintages on board if you're travelling in the pointy end of the plane. This year the airline will serve its single-vintage sauvignon blanc and pinot noir in Business Class, and the Heritage 2012 pinot noir in First Class.

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We're visiting the Aunstfield property, 15 minutes from central Blenheim, to hear about its winemaking history, try some of their fabulous wines (most of which are difficult to find here unless you're on board one of those Emirates flights or at the mostly by-appointment cellar door) and enjoy a relaxed Kiwi barbecue. We're being hosted by winemaker Luc and his wife Kate (an American who worked a vintage in New Zealand years ago and never looked back) and the winery dogs, Samy and Tomo.

Location is everything for Auntsfield, Luc explains. "Our wines reflect the unique site," he says — the grapes are grown in clay soils in Marlborough's southern valley. This means the sauvignon blanc in particular is different to the typical style of the region.

"Sauvignon grown in the clay soils tends to be more citrus-focused and features quite ripe characters such as passionfruit and citrus peel. One thing we really try to focus on with this wine is the texture. Where sauvignon blanc is typically fresh and light, we really work on the palate weight."

Luc Cowley, the winemaker at Auntsfield winery. Photo / Shandelle Battersby
Luc Cowley, the winemaker at Auntsfield winery. Photo / Shandelle Battersby

Central Otago is recognised as New Zealand's premier pinot noir-producing region, but Marlborough actually makes more of the variety, Luc says. For Auntsfield, the effect of the clay soil also makes its pinot noir quite unique. "When you get into the clay soils, you get darker, more savoury fruit and a lot more dense tannin structure," he says.

Emirates places a huge focus on its food and wine programme for its 100 million-plus passengers a year. On any given day they have 70 carefully selected wines flying around the network — experts will consider the company's cellared wines twice a month and choose those drinking at their peak, Joost Heymeijer, senior vice president Emirates' inflight catering, tells us.

"It's a real art, making sure you release a wine at the right time," he says. "We look at wines that are ready, that drink well and that have good mouth-feel."

Part of the process depends on forging good relationships with its suppliers in the regions it flies to. With its wine list, Emirates works to assure winemakers that their product is being served in the right circumstances at the right temperature, by trained crew.

"If your product doesn't get presented right, then you've made a wine for nothing," Heymeijer explains. "We believe in those relationships. The people that we buy off have the same ethics as us when it comes to quality."

The other premium wine carried by the airline comes from another Marlborough winery, Cloudy Bay, whose sauvignon blanc Emirates has served for the past 10 years. This year its 2016 sauvignon will be served in Business Class, alongside its 2014 Marlborough pinot noir and its 2013 Central Otago Te Wahi pinot noir, which Emirates has bought the entire vintage of.

Winemaker Tim Heath and viticulturists Jim White and Matt Duggan treat us to a vineyard tour followed by a tasting, after a morning experiencing its new Sail Away experience on board Voila, a 54ft sailing yacht in beautiful Queen Charlotte Sound.

Auntsfield winery. Photo / Shandelle Battersby
Auntsfield winery. Photo / Shandelle Battersby

Sauvignon blanc is Cloudy Bay's flagship wine, made from grapes grown on a 5km-long narrow strip that runs right through the centre of the Wairau Valley on alluvial soils with lots of round stones and greywacke rocks.

Cloudy Bay's Marlborough pinot noir, like Aunstfield's, has a point of difference because it too comes from grapes grown in clay soil from its Mustang, Barracks and Delta vineyards, he says. The clay gives a richer structure, more tannins and a darker fruit flavour profile.

A much more intense wine, the Te Wahi (which means "The Place" in Maori), from the winery's Central Otago operation, is a completely different type of pinot noir, and the process to create it requires a "different mindset", Heath says.

The Emirates relationship works well for both parties. "Cloudy Bay is such an iconic wine that our passengers actually ask for it," Heymeijer says.

So next time you're enjoying a glass of Marlborough's famous sauvignon blanc, perhaps raise a glass to David Herd, a man whose name you might not have heard but whose winemaking legacy you almost certainly have sipped — and if you're really lucky, maybe you've tried it at 40,000ft.

CHECKLIST

Details:

's cellar door is open Mondays to Fridays for tastings by prior appointment only.

Cloudy Bay's cellar door is open daily, 10am-4pm.

Online: See emirates.com.