A true vocation
- Monday 1 April 2002
Arable farmers John and Jennifer Joslin sailed around the world before buying a New Zealand vineyard. ROSE Murray BROWN MW meets the adventurous couple
In August 1986, John Joslin was a disillusioned arable farmer in Essex. His pea canning and grain businesses were successful, but were just adding to the EU surplus. He had always dreamed of selling up and buying a boat. Within six months, he sold everything he owned and headed off for a peaceful retirement in the Med in his new yacht, 'Dancing Wave', with his wife Jennifer. Little did they realise that 15 years on, they would be back working the soil – this time at the other side of the world, with a burgeoning wine company selling 35,000 cases to eight countries and scooping the prestigious IWSC Trophy for the world's top Sauvignon Blanc.
'It all happened by accident,' says Joslin, at his pretty homestead amid his vineyard in Marlborough, New Zealand. Tiring of the Med, they crossed the Atlantic, heading for South America, where they lived like teenagers in dugout canoes, sleeping in hammocks and hunting alligators. For six years they drifted the oceans, eventually heading south to New Zealand to shelter during one cyclone season and pick up new crew members. By chance, two applied from Picton, near Marlborough.
'I remember sitting in Le Brun's winery down in Rapaura Road in Marlborough, Easter Monday 1992,' says Joslin. 'Of all the places we had visited, Marlborough impressed us most.' By 5pm that day, they had bought an eight-hectare plot on Conders Bend Road in the Wairau valley. They had no contract to plant grapes – and no intention to do so. Within a week, they were off drifting on the waves again, without a care in the world. 'Six months later, the agent rang offering to double the price we had paid for the land,' says Joslin. On a spur-of-the-moment decision, they decided to drop anchor and make a go of it themselves.
'We knew nothing about grapes,' he says. Taking advice from neighbours, they planted Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, while still living on their yacht at Picton. It wasn't all plain sailing for these amateurs. 'We made plenty of mistakes,' he laughs. They now regret planting east/west (rather than preferred north/south) with vines spaced too wide. 'Our first row was planted upside down', says John; and Marlborough's fateful wet 1995 vintage was disheartening. In 1996, they made 300 cases of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay at a neighbouring winery, assisted by winemaking consultant Matt Thomson.
They still had no house, no name for the wine and no winery. 'We labelled the wine Le Grys, Jennifer's maiden name,' says Joslin; a French Norman name seemed apt for wine. They sold the yacht – 'a big wrench', says Jennifer – and built an unusual mud-block house. The winery, a joint venture with three other producers, Marlborough Vintners, was completed two years later. To sell their first vintage they headed back to Essex to John's old wine merchant, Lay & Wheeler, who saw Le Grys' potential and snapped it up immediately. When another UK agent pestered them for wine, they created a second label, Mud House.
From a standing start in 1996, it has been a meteoric rise for two retired amateurs. They plan to make 50,000 cases annually by 2005. No surprise that more than 80% of their production for both ranges is Sauvignon Blanc. Their two Sauvignons are made in different styles, but both from a blend of fruit from different vineyards on silt, loam and gravel soils. 'It's crucial to get a mix of fruit components with Sauvignon,' says Thomson. 'That is why Marlborough had success early on, with its variations in flavours,' he says.
Sitting on their pretty Mud House terrace overlooking vines, the Joslins pour Le Grys Sauvignon Blanc 2000 into my glass. Partly fermented in oak, with full malolactic, it has a full, broad style, richer in texture and with more mineral notes than many New Zealand Sauvignons I have tasted. 'It comes from a blend of two Renwick vineyards with stone/silt soils, another Blenheim vineyard which gives herbaceous strong varietal character and the remaining 50% is from cooler Awatere fruit, which gives a mineral complexity,' explains Thomson.
Mud House Sauvignon Blanc 2000, which scooped the IWSC trophy this year, is a more conventional tank-fermented and fruitier style, with no malolactic or oak, made from 100% Wairau fruit. Paler than Le Grys, it has light green fruits, a fresh, vibrant palate with good fruit intensity, fresh, zingy, beautifully pure and balanced. Clear evidence of Thomson's style: 'I want to let the fruit express itself, with little winemaking intervention.' John Joslin's tone changes as he pours his two Chardonnays. Both Le Grys 2000 and Mud House 2000 are well made. The first is more balanced, subtler, with generous texture, the latter less successful in its oak integration, but both lack the style and class of their Sauvignons. Joslin then admits they are topgrafting their Chardonnay to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir as fast as they can to meet demand for the other grapes.
While other Marlborough wineries are moving away from Bordeaux varietals, Merlot is still firmly in the Joslin's portfolio. 'Merlot is underrated in Marlborough,' believes Thomson, who has worked in Bordeaux, Veneto and Hawkes Bay. 'Everyone is now looking to Hawkes Bay; it needs a warm site here, or else it will not set evenly,', says Thomson. They buy Merlot from the Adams estate near Cloudy Bay. Quantities are small, but their Mud House Black Swan Merlot Reserve 1999, with its rich plums and cherry aroma, fleshy, soft, ripe tannins and light spice notes from 60% new oak ageing for 12 months, is proof that in warm vintages it works well in warm, sheltered South Island sites.
'In the right years, Merlot can be good, but Pinot Noir is awesome,' raves Thomson. John Joslin shares his passion for this fickle grape. He has an unusual strategy for his Pinot compared with other New Zealand wineries. He wants to make single-vineyard Pinots, rather than blends. He is willing to pay above average rates for older vines, but it seems a logistical nightmare with the current scramble for Pinot in the Wairau. 'It is an expensive marketing nightmare,' says Jennifer, clearly the stabilising influence trying to control her husband's almost teenage enthusiasm for the new Pinot craze.
The key to progression with Marlborough Pinot lies in the right clonal balance and vine age. Their own vines are only eight-year-old, all-Pommard clones. They are scouring sites in Brancott and Omaka valleys planted with a mix of 115, 116 and 10x5 clones. '10x5 Pinot clones can taste like green tomatoes in cool years here,' says Thomson. Le Grys Adams Estate 2000 barrel sample had black cherry scents, and was well textured with reasonable depth, while Mud House Black Swan Reserve 1999 from the Renwick vineyard is a little closed on the nose, but with breadth and suppleness on palate and promising structure. Thomson has high hopes for Pinot Noir in 2001, made from lower yields in a warmer vintage. Within the next four years, they aim to increase Pinot production to 5,000 cases.
To ensure future control over planting and grape sourcing, the Joslins have launched a vineyard investment company, Mud House Vineyards Limited. This group of private US investors will buy up vineyards or bare land in Wairau and Awatere. Water is still the limiting factor in future expansion in both valleys, but they hope that this situation can be resolved. To ensure future quality of their products, the Joslins confirm that they will join the Stelvin screwcap following in Marlborough next year for wines sold in UK, Australia and New Zealand markets; but bottlings for the US market will remain under cork.
For a couple who planned a peaceful retirement on the ocean waves, they now live a hectic life. They jumped out of farming and have found a new passion and lifestyle by accident. 'As an ex-farmer, it's exciting to see my wines listed in top restaurants and in Harrods,' says Joslin. 'I might be working the soil again, but I can't make enough Sauvignon or Pinot Noir to supply demand, so at least I'm not adding to a surplus this time.'
Le Grys Sauvignon Blanc 2001 £7.95; L&W
Le Grys Chardonnay 1999 £8.45; L&W
Mud House Sauvignon Blanc 2001 £8.69-£8.99; Bal, Har, Nsn, P&S, Sel, Wmb, You
Mud House Chardonnay 1999 £9; Hba
Mud House Black Swan Merlot Reserve 1999 £11; Hba
Mud House Black Swan Pinot Noir Reserve 1999 £16; Hba
Rose Murray Brown MW is a freelance wine writer.