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Fairbourne Estate – Single Vineyard Inspired Sauvignon Blanc

By July 18, 2013No Comments
Sauvignon Blanc has always had a second-rate nobility about it. The wines aren’t as graceful and poised as Riesling, and they don’t reach the heights of complexity that Chardonnay manages. Yet it is deemed a classic variety and the style of wines are unique and unreplicable by other grapes, possessing the distinctive methoxypyrazine and thiol-based characters that wine aficionados find too easy to denigrate. We in New Zealand must be particularly careful not to dismiss Sauvignon Blanc as it is the basis of our industry’s viability, if not success, and thankfully, there is a growing appreciation of this fact. An increasing number of winegrowers and wine producers are making as much effort with Sauvignon Blanc as their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The paths taken to build greater quality in Sauvignon Blanc are varied. The aim is generally to have complexity through a wider range of flavours and textures employing lower yields, barrel-fermentation and aging, indigenous yeasts and lees contact. These techniques are employed widely in the world, but the style that is based on finesse and refinement, and which is more prevalent in the Upper Loire is not as actively pursued. Some of the greatest Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé wines, recognised as such for decades, are indeed extremely subtle and delicate, being based on the most pure and least managed juice. Whole bunch pressing and free-run with the least handling yields the best in phenolic expression, but it goes much further back in the process to achieve refinement.

Fairbourne Estate – Refinement is All
Russell Hooper and Sarah Inkersell are making arguably New Zealand’s most refined Sauvignon Blanc aimed at the top-end of the market. Their wine is distinctly different from others, such as Cloudy Bay ‘Te Koko’ and Dogpoint ‘Section 94’ which are the acknowledged leaders in Marlborough. Fairbourne is one of subtlety and delicate suggestions of layers of interest. The wine is ultra-refined in texture and absolutely pure. The closest wines to it are Seresin Estate ‘Reserve’ and Brancott Estate ‘Chosen Rows’, but even these show considerably more winemaker inputs. Russell and Sarah base their style on the vineyard site and management of the vines and their job is to preserve the purity and finesse that comes from the fruit. (Click here to see my review of the Fairbourne 2012 wine.)

The Fairbourne Sauvignon Blanc is a single vineyard-inspired wine. The vineyard is the 3.5 ha ‘Skyedale’ site, at the top of Benmorven Road in the hills of the Southern Valleys. It’s not a particularly favoured sub-region for those looking to make the punchy and richer styles. But Russell and Sarah have identified this site, and a number of others that will be predisposed to make the style they desire. It’s all about north-facing hillsides, the clay-gravel influenced soils, and the associated topography and microclimate of the area, and then managing the yields and preserving the inherent natural characteristics.

Russell Hooper at the hillside ‘Skyedale’ site, the Wairau Plains to the north

Managing the Skyedale Vineyard
‘Skyedale’ was planted in 2007, yielding its first meagre crop in 2009. Russell and Sarah have contracted all the fruit since the 2010 vintage as the advantages of the site and the degree of co-operation with the owner is very favourable. They sourced Sauvignon Blanc for the Fairbourne Estate label for the two previous releases from a vineyard with a similar aspect. The vines, spaced at 2.1 m between rows and 1.4 m between vines are pruned to yield an optimum of 5.3 kg per plant. The vineyard is sub-divided into a number of different blocks, the ‘Home East’, ‘Home West’, ‘The Dam’, ‘The Hill’ and a small sheltered section with east-west plantings.

The fruit Sarah designates the most suitable for making Fairbourne is hand-picked. The rest is machine harvested for the ‘Two Tails’ and other export labels. In most vintages, it is the ‘Home East’, ‘Home West’ and ‘The Dam’ blocks that end up in the top wine. The fruit is purchased on a per hectare rate rather than tonnage, to ensure quality is the aim, and the target yield from the site is around 40 tonnes.

Glen Pope is the vineyard manager for ‘Skyedale’, and Mark Allen is the viticulturist who oversees the sites Sarah and Russell source their fruit from. Russell and Sarah live only a few minutes drive from the vineyard and make regular visits to get a feel for the season and its impact on the various aspects of the site from budburst through to harvest and for pruning. This fastidiousness is carried through to the winemaking, which is Sarah’s responsibility, and Sarah virtually stands over the vinification at the ‘Indevin’ contract winemaking facility. She and Russell see the level of attention to detail a crucial part in the style and the quality of the finished wines.

Marketing Quality or Terroir
In a market that is very tight, Russell and Sarah have done remarkably well, taking their single variety wine business a long way. In 2013, they harvested around 140 tonnes of fruit for their labels to make around 11,000 cases of Sauvignon Blanc wine. The majority of it is exported, and Russell’s sales and marketing expertise, and experience has been behind the growth. The current production of ‘Fairbourne’ itself is around 1,250 cases, with a maximum of 2,000 possible, so it is a truly limited wine.

Some interesting points emerged in discussing the philosophy of Fairbourne being ‘single vineyard inspired’. The top wine is essentially a single vineyard wine with its composition always being over 90% from the one vineyard. There are no legal regulations or definitions regarding the use of the term ‘single vineyard’. But if the 15% leeway rule applied, as with varietal labelling and regional description, then the Fairbourne Sauvignon Blanc would qualify easily. However, for Russell and Sarah, it’s about making the very finest and most complete expression they can, and that often involves the blending in of a small amount of fruit from their other vineyard sites they source from. It’s a matter of integrity for them.

I posed the question: Why not make the wine a 100% single vineyard wine, and accept the vintage variations, which will be relatively minor in any case, by not including the other fruit? Then the wine will be a full expression of the site. After all, the world is increasingly hankering for terroir-driven wines. What would you do? Total quality or total terroir? www.fairbourne.co.nz

Russell Hooper and Sarah Inkersell – Fairbourne Estate
Best foot forward with refined Sauvignon Blanc

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