For Jamie Marfell, wine making was an inevitable career choice as he grew up on a farm overlooking a valley of grapevines in Marlborough, New Zealand. His holiday employment was usually spent planting or pruning vines, depending on the season.
“As a university student I used to go around all the wineries and have a few drinks (it was free) and I got this taste for wine; Stoneleigh was one of the wineries we used to call on. The wines were pretty good back then, but they are better now,” recalled Jamie.
After completing a degree in agricultural science and a postgraduate diploma in viticulture and oenology at Lincoln University, New Zealand, Jamie began his career as a trainee winemaker with Pernod Ricard in 1990.
Jamie spent the first two years of his career in his hometown of Blenheim before moving to Auckland to work on the company’s acclaimed sparkling wine range.
This was interspersed with vintages in Gisborne, Marlborough and several vintages in Germany’s Mosel and Rhinehessen wine regions.
In 2002 he returned to Stoneleigh, Blenheim, to concentrate on crafting distinctive Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.
“Marlborough is the undisputed home of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and I’m thrilled to be focusing on the Stoneleigh range of wines. It is exciting to be continually developing and differentiating styles, while at the same time building sustainability of the varietal for the long term,” said Jamie.
“I have been making wine since 1990 – my twenty-fifth vintage – 25 years I have been making wines in Marlborough, and we have really only had one bad year, 2005. In those 25 years, it’s been consistent from year to year.”
In Marlborough, grapes were planted in 1973 with the first production line occurring in 1975. The growers learnt quickly which variety of grapes worked and which didn’t, they pulled out the ones that didn’t work the way they wanted, or expected, and focused on those that worked well.
“Things like Sauvignon Blanc, every year, is good, Chardonnay is good, and white wine is about 90 per cent of our production.”
Jamie admits that the making of a good wine is more about the environment than the wine maker, and the environment in the Rapaura, Marlborough, New Zealand is unique. The ground of the Stoneleigh vineyard was once the bed of an ancient river. It is studded with precious stones that reflect sunshine back up into the vines and grapes so that they are bathed with warmth from above and below that intensifies the rich flavour of the grape.
Due to the rocky land, the vines are starved of soil and moisture, and struggle to grow, thus concentrating their efforts into producing fewer but better grapes.
“If you are growing on clay you get a richness and heavier style, but because we are on gravels, you get a flintiness and lovely acidity, so it tends to be fresher on the palate, it remains fresh on the palate and doesn’t get too heavy.”
Temperature is also extremely important in producing the perfect grape. Marlborough has cold nights, which you need for the grapes to retain acidity. The micro climate in the Rapaura region is about one degree warmer at night; this produces a taste that has a pink grapefruit, lemony and passionfruit zing.
Australia is Stoneleigh’s largest market, closely followed by Sweden, New Zealand and Canada; their award winning wines are in high demand because the company has insisted on really good viticulture to take them to the next level.
Over the years, different wine makers have left their mark on the quality and taste of the wine, with styles changing over the years. So while the quality of a wine is mainly about the quality of the grape, a winemaker can make a difference.
“We did a tasting of Rieslings, from 1988 to what we are producing now, and you could actually see where the different winemakers had made a footprint on the wine. So, the wine styles changed, and had quite a major change in wine quality.”
Jamie has also left his own footprint on the wine quality and style saying, “Sometimes you do something from year-to-year without making proper changes and not think about what you are doing. I’ve changed it. I realised that we had gone off-track (so) I grabbed it and took it back to what it used to be like.”
With New Zealand wines being so highly sought after in Australia, they tend to get lumped into one camp, but there are quite a few different styles.
Jamie recommends that if you find a particular wine you like, stick to it. “Year to year, (wine producers) source the fruit from the same vineyards and will produce a consistency in the product.
“All of our wines are quite distinctive. Love them or hate them, there is definitely a different type of wine coming from Stoneleigh.”
Everyone has different tastes, so how do you determine what is a good wine to buy? Jamie gives us his three tips for wine buyers.
- Find a brand you like, because in New Zealand, wines tend to be consistent. Find a style you like and stick to it.
- There is no general rule for drinking temperatures of wine – it’s environmental. If it’s a hot day, icy cold wine is great. Don’t listen to the ‘experts’ – drink it at a temperature you like.
- Price doesn’t always reflect quality.