Following our exploration of southern-hemisphere sauvignon blanc in the December/January edition of the magazine, we sought out Yealands winemaker Jeff Fyfe for his unique insight into what makes a superior summer white wine.
Jeff Fyfe, chief winemaker at Yealands Estate in Marlborough, should be enjoying some well-earned rest after scooping a record haul of awards at the recent Sydney International Wine Experience, but he seemingly cannot refrain from waxing lyrical about his postcard-perfect workplace and the many sides to New Zealand sauvignon blanc in modern winemaking.
“Marlborough sauvignon blanc has evolved a lot over the past 10 years as a result of producers refining subregional styles, and our Seaview Vineyard in the Awatere Valley happens to be a very special place to grow the variety,” he says. “Whereas most New Zealand sauvignon blanc is grown on flat river plains, our property is quite rolling and wind affected, and that means we get small thick-skinned berries of very concentrated juice and diverse flavour profiles from the 120 differently oriented blocks,” he adds.
This diversity may be what enabled the winery to score four spots in the top 100 (or top five per cent) with sauvignon blanc wines, plus the varietal trophy, at the competition in Sydney in November. Jeff (pictured right) says: “Trophies and medals are wonderful but for the winery and viticulture teams at Yealands the real reward is knowing we’ve done what we need for a wine lover to refill their glass without hesitation.” He continues: “I’m really happy with the vibrancy of our latest releases, and that just makes for a greater challenge to do better next year.”
One of the wines lauded by competition judges, and beloved by drinkers on both sides of the Tasman for its balance of ripe stone fruit flavour and herbal edge, is the 2017 Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. Jeff explains: “We’ve worked out that the ideal fruit for our single-vineyard label comes from two blocks; one close to the sea that provides the backbone of mineral acidity, and the other planted with old vines that deliver lovely blackcurrant leaf characters.” With a bowl of mussels or a goat’s cheese salad, Jeff says, this is a textural white wine to keep near at hand over summer.
For those seeking an aromatic, everyday drop, the 2017 Peter Yealands Sauvignon Blanc is an obvious choice (described by Singaporean judge Ying-Hsien Tan MW as an elegant wine with apple and floral notes). The zesty 2016 Yealands Estate Land Made Sauvignon Blanc, meanwhile, is a safe bet for those who prefer a drier style.
The latest wine to top the summer drinks list in the Fyfe household, explains Jeff, is the maiden vintage of the Babydoll Rosé. This trophy-winning wine, which is named after the breed of miniature sheep that help mow the vineyard, has been roundly praised for its lifted floral and red fruit flavours.
Reliance on babydoll sheep rather than diesel-guzzling machines is one of many ways in which Yealands continues to set standards in sustainable winemaking. While finding more environmentally sensitive and socially responsible ways to produce wine is not always straightforward, Jeff says the carboNZeroCertTM credentials of the winery are a big motivator for the entire Yealands team. In recent years this focus has led to the elimination of animal-derived products from the fining process and New Zealand’s largest installation of social panels.
Jeff says this innovation mindset also paves the way for fresh takes on classic varietal wines. He explains: “We’re constantly experimenting in the winery, including trialling different fermentation vessels such as concrete eggs and spheres to build depth into wines like the 2016 Yealands Estate Winemaker’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc.” He continues: “We recently had a stainless-steel egg specially made to see if you get similar convection currents to the insulative concrete during fermentation, and based on the early trials I expect we’ll release a small run of steel egg-fermented sauvignon blanc within the next couple of years.”
Marlborough is not all about sauvignon blanc of course, with similarly high praise heaped on the latest vintages of the Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Pinot Noir and Yealands Estate Winemaker’s Reserve Central Otago Pinot Noir. Jeff explains: “The pinot fruit we source from Central Otago enables us to make a bold, savoury wine that acts as a wonderful counterpoint to our lighter, fruit-forward Marlborough pinot noir.”
In 2016 Yealands launched a smartphone app charting photogenic spots and viticultural innovations around the 2000-hectare vineyard. Aside from visiting Lookout Point for the view across the Cook Strait, Jeff says the most beautiful time to wander among the vines is autumn. “As the leaves in each block change to orange and red at slightly different times you get this incredible patchwork of colour, which makes the hard work of vintage seem like a distant memory,” he adds.
Find out more about Yealands’ award-winning wines and cellar door at yealands.co.nz/au.