Simon Waghorn, owner and winemaker at New Zealand’s Astrolabe Wines is familiar with Ireland as he visits the country at least once a year since the late nineties, initially as part of renowned winery Whiteheaven, and since 2004, representing his own brand, Astrolabe Wines.
His family-run, small scale operation focuses on producing high quality wines from his 120 hectares planted across nine different sites located within different sub-regions of New Zealand’s most famous wine valley, Marlborough.
We met him recently as he was in town for a wine masterclass hosted by O’Briens Wine and he shared his story as well as his thoughts on where New Zealand wine is going.
While Simon points out that in recent months there has been progress in the definition of the country’s wine sub-regions (last July, 18 regions were granted protection by the New Zealand Geographical Indications Registration Act), he acknowledges that “we’re a long way behind when it comes to geographic indications.”
This matters to him particularly, as he has dedicated his work to showcase the distinctiveness of vineyards where microclimates and terroir offer characteristics that distinguish them from the wider Marlborough region.
Talking about a few areas in particular, Simon points out the Wairau Valley, which he describes as a warmer area, where Sauvignon Blanc tends to develop more tropical aromas. It’s “sort of Alpine, limey soil,” he adds, adding that his vineyards are planted further South. Let’s remember than in the Southern Hemisphere, it gets warmer as you go north so New Zealand’s most austral regions will actually be the coldest.
Marlborough’s Hidden Oasis for Pinot Noir
The southern valleys in which Simon grows his grapes are ideal for Pinot Noir, although he also grows Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay. “Pinot Noir from southern Marlborough is one of the best kept secrets of New Zealand. It has lovely red fruit, bright cherry flavours, raspberries, it’s very fragrant.”
While oenophiles around the world are no strangers to the wonders of kiwi Pinot Noir, most of the critical acclaim and recognition has gone to Central Otago, however, the trendy region doesn’t have the monopoly on fine bottles of this finicky grape variety.
“There’s room for all regions”, he says, and while he praises the “fantastic” Pinot Noirs coming from Central Otago, he is confident in the quality achievable in the right parts of Marlborough.
“Our Pinot Noir is very fruit-driven, with lots of red fruit and a very vibrant feel to it”, he says, explaining that even though it’s still cold weather, the late flowering allows the grapes to take their sweet time to develop flavours and aromas undisturbed.
Marlborough, an Odd Case in the Wine World
For Simon Waghorn, “New Zealand’s Marlborough is an unusual occurrence in the wine world” as even though it’s New World, people have become accustomed to associate it with a very specific type of wine, much as it happens with European appellations where rules ensure certain grapes and winemaking decisions.
“Perhaps the only other example would be Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina”, he says. And while this is not necessarily a bad thing, he notes how it makes people assume Marlborough wines can be generic. “The problem is that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is so recognisable that people think it’s all the same.”
Deviating from this narrative, he aims to makes wines that not just showcase a different side of this variety, but that offer a taste of what other grapes can become in the region.
Regarding the wines he produces at Astrolabe, Simon says they all have different personalities. For example, his Marlborough Blend is “complex, multilayered, restrained and elegant”; while his Awatere Sauv Blanc is “fresh and forceful.” The variety becomes “a bit more enigmatic and floral in nature” at Kekerengu Coast, and it turns “confident, self-assured and larger than life” in Taihoa Vineyard.
When asked which version he identifies himself with the best, he takes time before pointing out the first one (the blend), although “it depends, they’re like my children” and while he loves all of them and feels close to all of his wines, he admits that just like with family, “some are easier to get on with that others.”
New Zealand Then, New Zealand Now
When he started in the industry, very few people in New Zealand had college qualifications in winemaking or related fields. With a Science degree, a background in botanic and studies in economics and philosophy, Simon found in wine an industry where it all came together.
He points out that the industry has evolved rapidly and that “wine is not a novelty in New Zealand anymore.” This also means that there are more producers making better wines so competition has intensified. He also mentions that New Zealand wines are not seeing as newcomers in the wine world.
But as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and for Simon, “wine is still about attention to detail, you can’t make it just by numbers.” For him, “wine is not a commodity” and great winemakers are still “the sort of people who get out of their offices and go to their vineyards and micromanage.”
Being a good communicator and getting your message out there is also very important, especially coming from an area as New Zealand, which is remote in relation to the bigger markets like Europe or the UK because at the end of the day, “wine is all about relationships; people buy wine from people they like and drink it with people they like.”
Astrolabe Sauvignon Blanc 2016
€19.95 – Available at O’Briens Wine
Fresh, citrusy and with a sharpness that keeps it tense and exciting.
Aromas of zesty limes and grapefruit converge in this benchmark example of Kiwi Sauv Blanc complemented by a mild note of grassy greenness.
A refreshing and mouth-watering white that will go nicely with fish and pultry or grilled vegetables.
Astrolabe Awatere Sauvignon Blanc 2015
€22.45 – Available at O’Briens Wine
Awatere Valley is a smaller region within Marlborough, characterised by stronger winds, greater temperature fluctuations and a later ripening season. This translates in a Sauvignon Blanc with a more intense punch, very aromatic and going towards riper limes, fresh pineapple and elderflowers.
High acidity and a vibrant freshness on the palate are complemented by a mineral, almost savoury note.
rAstrolabe Pinot Noir 2015
€25.45 – Available at O’Briens Wine
A delightfully juicy explosion of cherries and strawberries. Fresh, lively and unapologetically fruity, this is a perfumed Pinot Noir of light elegance.
Silky, low tannins and a high acidity make for a fresh red that regales you with an assortment of red fruit. A subtle touch of oak adds depth and a delicate pinch of sweet spices.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.