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Sea Level Rising in Nelson

By July 24, 2012No Comments

Forgive the play on imagery and words but knowing the increased market presence of the Sea Level brand and the siting of the Smail family vineyard in Nelson, I reckon the title of the article is quite appropriate. The Smail family of Christchurch is behind the Sea Level brand and vineyard. Taking his family to the Nelson region for regular holidays, Mike Smail noted a particular site occupied by an apple and pear orchard on the coastal highway between Tasman and Motueka at Mariri, opposite the Kina peninsula. The soils there are Moutere clay, and the proximity to the water and accompanying sea breezes seemed to make it ideal for a healthy vineyard. In 2006, the family purchased the 14 ha site and planted 8 ha of grapes in 2008, the first crop yielding in 2011.

The Sea Level brand was in existence before the wines from the ‘Home’ Nelson block came on stream. Mike’s son, Sam, the chief winemaker at the substantial Whitehaven Marlborough winery, and with the company a dozen years, used his sources to obtain Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc fruit to produce a gold medal winning wine in the 2010 vintage. You couldn’t ask for a better start than that. Whitehaven are happy to let Sam play with a small amount of fruit, up to 200 tonnes, to allow him the freedom to try his own thing. Whitehaven crushes around 4,500 tonnes, producing nearly half a million cases of wine, so Sea Level’s not exactly going to be a threat to them! Sam leases the Whitehaven facility to make his Sea Level wines from hand-picked fruit. The machine-harvested fruit (the Pinot Gris) is made at the nearer Anchorage winery to minimise any possible excess skin contact effects.

The Sea Level ‘Home’ vineyard is a beautiful one. Starting at sea level (of course), it rises into the hills away from the water’s edge. Around half of the plantings are dedicated to Pinot Gris, with smaller amounts of Gewurztraminer, clone 95 Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir. Some 0.6 ha of pears remain around the buildings near the main road at the bottom of the vineyard, and Sam has thoughts on making some pear cider. The Smails have a full-time vineyard manager, Dan Manuge, who lives on site, and the vines look very well-tended.
Tasting the Sea Level 2011 Wines
The 2011 ‘Home Block’ wines were released quietly, but they caused a stir when the Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer took golds at different wine competitions. Sam took us to the top of the ‘Sea Level’ vineyard, and with views out to Tasman Bay, we tasted the range of 2011 wines, the first from the vines in front of us. The Pinot Gris 2011 is extremely refined with stonefruit, mineral and saline flavours on a palate with seamless textures, all in an elegant proportion. The Gewurztraminer 2011, made with some skin contact is truly exotic, but exuding wonderful finesse and featuring a sleek palate flow. The Chenin Blanc 2011 indicates that Sea Level wishes to join the small band of producers dedicated to making something special out of this classic variety. James Millton, Gordon Russell, John Forrest and Strat Canning will be pleased to have Sam in their ranks. The wine combines tropical fruits with the taste of steel, all on a very fine palate. The Chardonnay 2011 has the complexity gained from barrel-fermentation. Spices, biscuits, nuts and citrus fruits, all presented with stylishness. The Pinot Noir 2011, made from clones 5, 115 and 667 possesses distinctive raspberry liqueur and lozenge fruit flavours, with spiced cherries, quite supple and elegant, as all the wines from this site are. Sam is beginning the path of understanding the site, and it’s clear he has treated the fruit sensitively, without putting too much of a winemaker’s stamp on things.

The attention Sea Level wines have garnered has increased considerably since the show results. These first wines from the Nelson ‘Home’ block are already exciting and very good. Sam sees them only getting better as the vineyard matures and he gets an even better handle on making them. During my visit to the Nelson district, all the wineries and winemakers we saw expressed their pleasure that a star winemaker (particularly one from Marlborough) had the faith in the Nelson region and the confidence to invest time and money in a good vineyard to make top quality wine. It could only strengthen and raise the reputation of Nelson. www.sealevelwines.co.nz

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