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NZ winemakers still have much to learn, says Ara’s Jeff Clarke

Winemakers in New Zealand's Marlborough region still have a long way to go to understand the potential of the land beneath their feet, according to Ara winemaker Jeff Clarke.

Ara vineyards in Wairau Valley. Image Credit: Ara

Marlborough has come far in a short space of time, Clarke told decanter.com at the annual New Zealand wines tasting in London. Yet, while the learning curve has been steep, there are many unanswered questions.

‘One of the things we need to understand about Sauvignon Blanc is that most of our wines are made from vines planted less than 20 years ago,’ said Clarke, who took over at Ara three years ago following 17 years with Pernod Ricard-owned Brancott Estate – formerly Montana.

‘The oldest vines in Marlborough are hopeless,’ Clarke said, because the early clones were too prone to disease and were often not planted in the best places.

There is already a stronger focus on sub-regions within Marlborough, but taking care to age vines for longer could add new dimensions to the region’s classic Sauvignon Blanc style, he said.

Clarke’s interest is partially driven by commercial realities. ‘We’re five to 10 years away from being fully planted in Marlborough, and at that point we will have to try to add more value to existing vines,’ he said.

Late last year, the chief winemaker at Brancott Estate, Patrick Materman, told decanter.com that there was just over 23,000ha of land under vine in Marlborough and that this could expand to 26,000ha, at a stretch.

At Ara specifically, Clarke said he is harnessing the group’s strategy of releasing individual ‘select block’ wines – all from individual parcels on its vineyard in Wairau Valley – to work out how they might be mixed to create improved single varietal wines.

Wine from ‘select blocks’ going into Ara’s flagship Resolute range are being monitored in the cellar. ‘Ultimately, this might tell us that we’re wasting our time with one of these [blocks],’ Clarke said.

‘Or, if we want a Pinot to age for a length of time, we might have to change the cepage, or maybe one of the blocks has ended up over-oaked. Vice versa, we might see that some of the wines are maturing better or contributing more.’ It could take a decade to know for sure.

Several wineries in Marlborough are ‘trying to explore greater complexity and ageability’, Clarke added.

Commenting on the prospects for the 2014 vintage, Clarke said weather conditions have generally been good during the growing season, with warm temperatures and good moisture levels.

Harvesting may begin two weeks earlier than normal, but, barring significant change, ‘there should be some pretty smart wines’, he said.

Written by Chris Mercer

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