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William Grace – Extreme Martinborough Pinot Noir

By May 26, 2013No Comments
Missing fin from the William Grace windmill

Some might see it as an extreme experiment, but others, such as Mark St Clair and Debbie Bowie see their vineyard as a return to the best principles to make special wine. The wine will be called ‘William Grace’, named after the middle names of their two children, younger son James and his older sister Emma. The whole project is a family affair and everyone is involved and loving it.
In 2009, Mark and Debbie purchased ‘Waihinga Gardens’, a 2023 square metre property on New York Street in Martinborough, as a weekend bach, and to establish a vineyard that they dreamed about. Mark has been a long-time wine enthusiast and is well known in the wine industry as a director of Hill Young Cooper, a company that operates in the field of resource management, with many wineries as his clients. Mark is absolutely fascinated by wine, especially Pinot Noir and burgundy. Last year, he organised the tasting of Clos de Beze grand cru, which I attended and reported on (click here to read). Debbie, a Central Otago lass originally, has a love of the land and “growing things”, and her interest in vines, piqued by Mark, became immersed in the dream.

What is different about the vineyard and the proposed wine is Mark and Debbie’s insistence on doing it right to make the best possible wine from their tiny plot. The size of the vineyard, just 0.1 hectare, allows them to be totally in control of every action and process. It’s still a hobby, so in an absolute sense, it’s an amateurs’ venture, but for all intents and purposes, they can do things that an economically driven business wouldn’t dare consider.

Emma, James, Debbie and Mark

The William Grace Vineyard
The site was chosen because it is on the Martinborough Terrace, regarded as prime Pinot Noir growing land. Their immediate neighbours east are Chris and Margaret Cochrane who have a similarly sized vineyard with 25 y.o. Chardonnay. Just beyond is the former Benfield & Delamare block, and to the north is the Cleland vineyard, better known as Escarpment’s ‘Kiwa’ site. Mark and Debbie planted their vineyard in November 2009, with just under 1,000 vines, 75% to the Abel clone, known to produce the most serious examples in the district, all things being equal. As legend has it, this was the clone that can trace its provenance back to cuttings from Domaine Romanee-Conti. The other 25% was planted to the successful Dijon 115 clone; all the plants on vigour debilitating Riparia Gloria rootstock. Pete Wilkins, then viticulturist, and Paul Mason, winemaker of Martinborough Vineyard gave valuable advice, no doubt partly as they saw what Mark and Debbie were doing was so unusual and idealist.

What’s also very different is the close-planting, the vines 0.9 metres, and rows 1.1 metres apart. This equates to a density of 10,000 vines per hectare The theory is that the intervine competition drives the root mass down, eventuating in plants that are well-established, balanced with the soils and environment and resilient to variable growing conditions, thus producing quality fruit with great consistency. A vineyard planted this way must essentially be hand-tended, and require specialised (smaller) equipment. Edward Leung’s ‘Ma Maison’ vineyard south of the Martinborough village is planted to a similar density. The ‘Kupe’ vineyard of Larry McKenna is at 1.0 m x 1.6 m, resulting in 6,700 vines per hectare. Craggy Range and Karl Johner’s vines are at 5,000 per hectare. Further afield, some high aspiration growers, such as Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley and TerraVin are employing close planting, so Mark St Clair and Debbie Bowie’s ‘William Grace’ is in good company, if not more extreme.

The accepted mantra is that low yields result in greater concentration in the wine. And to the purpose, they have one bunch per shoot. Irrigation was used for the first two years to help establish the plants, but has not been used since, the stress keeping the cropping down. As can be expected, the vineyard is tended to organic and biodynamic regimes, with only sulphur and seaweed sprayed. Respect for the environment and soils led to the use of expensive eucalypt hardwood as posts, these being untreated, so they will not leach out any chemicals. The first crop was in 2012, and just one barrel of wine was made. 2013 also yielded one barrel. Eventually, Mark and Debbie see two barrels a year being made, as the vines come into full production.

A mower to fit between 1.1 metre rows

The Wine
Mark St Clair has participated in several vintages at Martinborough Vineyard, so there was no argument that Paul Mason was asked to make the William Grace wine with him. Following picking by family and friends, the grapes were fully destemmed and open top fermented by indigenous yeasts, with plunging twice a day. The fermentation was kept under 30°C, and the wine spent over three weeks on skins. It was then pressed of to a 1 y.o. Francois Freres barrique. At the time of writing, the wine had been in barrel a year, and is due to be bottled, without any fining or filtering.

Mark and Debbie see this first wine, from 2012 as a start. It wasn’t the ideal vintage, being a cooler, wetter one. But having said that, they’re happy with what they have. Mark talks about the wine as being a classical “young vine” expression. I had the opportunity of tasting it quickly when Paul Mason took me through a range of Pinot Noirs in barrel, mid-January this year (click here to see the report). It did have the “young vine” feel about it, with the cooler fruit notes and the acidity showing. But it possessed volume and structure. I felt there was potential. I can’t wait to see the finished wine after it has been bottled and rested.

While the 2013 vintage is being lauded around the country and in the Wairarapa, Mark and Debbie are a little more circumspect. In their vineyard site, the vines experienced stress from no irrigation and wind had an impact. They know the 2013 wine is a step up again, but are cautious in their expectations. Their intimate and first-hand experience tending the wines possibly makes them a bit too close to the subject. And also, I suspect it’s their reasoned perspectives and knowledge that they’re only at the start of their journey

I’ll add further articles on this most interesting venture in Martinborough as developments come to hand.

Autumn – The last leaves from a Pinot Noir vine


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