It’s always a pleasure and educational experience whenever one catches up with Stu Marfell, winemaker at Vavasour in the Awatere Valley. The Marfells are well-known Marlborough farming stock but Stu says he was attracted by the wine industry and entered it straight after school. He has been with Vavasour since 2002, and inspired by then winemaker Glenn Thomas, rapidly moved up the ranks to chief winemaker, explaining his youthful demeanour for such a senior position.
Vavasour and its associated brands was purchased by the California-based Foley Family Wines company in 2009 with plans to add to its North American-centric portfolio, quality Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Since then, Bill Foley’s company has added Te Kairanga in Martinborough, Grove Mill in Marlborough and Martinborough Vineyard to its stable. I’ve followed with great interest the changes with each of the companies and brands following ownership by Foley Family Wines. The initial reaction from within the wine industry and from wine enthusiasts is that there would be a loss of quality in the wines, and more importantly, a degradation of the identity of each of the companies. However, the opposite has proven to be the case. The considerable financial investment in vineyard and plant, as well as better management and sharing of resource has resulted in better wines and better profitability.
Vavasour Has Flourished
As Vavasour was the first winery to be purchased by Foley Family Wines, how the company is operating is an indication of where Te Kairanga, Grove Mill and Martinborough Vineyards are heading. Vavasour has retained its kudos as one of the Awatere Valley’s premium producers with an excellent and outstanding range of ‘estate’ and ‘single vineyard’ wines respectively. However its greatest success is arguably the high quality and market penetration of the secondary ‘Dashwood’ tier. Stu exudes a certain degree of pride and plenty of confidence when talking about the ‘Dashwood’ wines. www.vavasour.com
The operating efficiency of Vavasour has been carried over to the Grove Mill operation in the Waihopi Valley. A much larger winery, Grove Mill has become the base for the Foley business in Marlborough, and in fact the Martinborough wineries work their administration and bottling through this facility. Stu Marfell oversees all of the Marlborough winemaking, with Susan van der Pol and Hamish Smith focussing on Vavasour, and Steve Simpson and his team tending to the Grove Mill operations. In charge of viticulture for Marlborough overall is the very experienced Mat Duncan. Stu Marfell cites the coming on-board of Alastair Maling MW two years ago as being of real significance with his overall perspectives in many fields, as well as winemaking where his blending skills are very important.
Although much of the actual vinification occurs at the larger Grove Mill facility, there is a definite differentiation between brands. Vavasour, Dashwood and Clifford Bay are Awatere Valley focussed brands, and much of the storage and elevage for these wines remains in the Awatere Valley. The Grove Mill, Goldwater and Sanctuary brands are Wairau Valley brands, and their vinification is at Grove Mill. Considerable care is taken to preserve the regional characteristics of the fruit and ensure they are bottled that way. At present, around 6,000 tonnes of fruit are processed annually, approximately evenly divided between Awatere Valley and Wairau Valley wines. www.grovemill.co.nz
A Tasting of Some Wines
Stu’s visit to Wellington included a tasting of several wines. There were three 2017 Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs, under the Dashwood, Goldwater and Grove Mill labels. As most wine enthusiasts are aware, 2017 was a very challenging vintage, with cooler temperatures resulting in slow ripening, and the occurrence of rain events scheduled during projected picking dates. Stu showed these wines to demonstrate that producers owning vineyard could make canopy management, crop loading and harvesting decisions that suited them. Also these wines showed the degree of sensitivity that the fruit was handled, to produce wines that were sufficiently ripe, well-balanced, without undue phenolics, and demonstrative of sub-regional character. Not many Marlborough producers can claim to have achieved this, at the level as Foley Family Wines. Stu was properly proud in showing these wines, and in explaining their background, it was refreshing to see a winemaker of Sauvignon Blanc equally as thoughtful as a say a Pinot Noir or Chardonnay maker in their craft. Also poured were two aromatic wines from 2016 under the Grove Mill label, indicating the style being produced in other varieties. One variety that Stu would like see added to the Grove Mill portfolio is Albarino. I agreed with him on its potential. Here are my notes on the wines tasted:
Dashwood Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Brilliant, pale straw-yellow with green hues. This has a full, upfront and softly packed, but very accessible nose of ripe tropical fruits, in the refreshing cooler spectrum, with notes of fresh herbs and snow peas, and a little thiol passionfruit, all harmonious and quite complete in expression. Dry to taste, this is bright and lively on the palate with sweet fruit flavours, hinting luscious, with passionfruit and gooseberries, unfolding nettle and cut grass notes. The flavours are presented with lovely balance and harmony, quite up-front and totally accessible. The phenolic handling is very fine, and zesty acidity carries the flavours to a positive finish. This has it all here, and drinking well already. A blend of 60% Awatere and 40% Wairau fruit. 12.5% alc. 17.5/20 Aug 2017 RRP $15.00
Goldwater Wairau Valley Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Very pale straw colour with slight green hues, lighter on the edge. The nose is tightly bound, but shows a fine and slender, but very concentrated core with pungent passionfruit at the heart. This has firmness, but also finesse, and reveals mineral notes with aeration. Dry to taste, the palate is taut and slender in proportion, but shows richness at the core, with pungent passionfruit flavours the feature. This is vibrant, driven and shows excellent tight linearity and very fine phenolic textures. The palate is zesty through its length and finish. This has the potential to develop with classical elegance, in the passionfruity spectrum over the next 2+ years. All Wairau Valley fruit, with a high proportion of Rapaura material. 12.5% alc. 18.0-/20 Aug 2017 RRP $18.00
Grove Mill Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Brilliant pale straw colour with slight green hues. Initially very closed and tightly bound, but opening up to reveal a deep and concentrated core of pungent passionfruit melded with herb and mineral notes. Impressive density that will unfold much more. The palate features sweet and softly rich fruit flavours of passionfruit, tropical fruits and herbs. As on the nose, the palate shows great fruit depth and density, but with a fine phenolic-threaded line and fresh acidity. This will be a plush and richly packed wine. It needs a few months to open up. The potential is here for much more. All Wairau Valley fruit, from Seventeen Valley and Waihopi. 12.5% alc. 18.0/20 Aug 2017 RRP $18.00
Grove Mill Marlborough Riesling 2016
Bright straw-yellow colour with slight green hues, showing a little depth. The nose is youthfully fresh and tightly bound, with delicate aromas of lime and lemonade, with exotic florals and jasmine elements, along with minerals. Dry to taste and medium-bodied, the palate has a fine but intense core of lime and lemon fruit, along with exotic florals providing lift. The mouthfeel is very fine with subtle fruit extract and phenolic textures, and ripe, refreshingly soft acidity. This has a lowish pH feel to the wine, and should age well, remaining taut and refined. 13.0% alc., 6.5 g/L RS. 18.0/20 Aug 2017 RRP $19.80
Grove Mill Wairau Valley Marlborough Gewurztraminer 2016
Bright, light straw-yellow colour with lemony green-gold hues. The nose is harmoniously presented with rose-petal florals and Turkish Delight aromas with lifted florals. This is in the cooler spectrum with suggestions of herbs, and has freshness, along with a taut finesse. Off-dry to taste and medium-bodied, the flavours are elegant in proportion with rose-petals, Turkish Delight and lychee flavours and some spice nuances. The palate is fresh and bright, but possesses a suggestion of soapy and unctuous texture. The wine is on of positive delicacy with soft textures, the wine finishing with good length. 13.5% alc., 10 g/L RS. 17.5+/20 Aug 2017 RRP $19.80