Winery interview: Astrolabe Wines on New Zealand winemaking, Sauvignon Blanc and the Web 2.0 wine world

Winery interview: Astrolabe Wines on New Zealand winemaking, Sauvignon Blanc and the Web 2.0 wine world

A little while ago a friend opened a New Zealand fruit explosion for me, a bottle of Astrolabe Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. This was quite unusual as my friend has been a self declared beer drinking proletarian for a long time, so I was curious to taste the wine that got him so excited.

Posting the wine review here on the Wine Rambler led to something else that was unusual: Jason Yank, the general manager of Astrolabe Wines, contacted us – but not so much to applaud or critique the review, but to comment on a detail: my friend had mentioned to me that he saw helicopters used in winemaking in NZ to press down warm air in order to control the ripening of the grapes. However, this was not entirely correct: 'The use of choppers in NZ is purely to help bring down the inversion layer of air', Jason explained, 'during, what would otherwise be, quite catastrophic frost events. Nothing to do with ripening....' Jason also foolishly offered to provide more information, should the Wine Rambler be interested – which of course we are!

Astrolabe Wines were founded in 1996, 'by a group of friends', as the website tells us, around the winemaker Simon Waghorn.

Simon Waghorn and his wife and partner Jane Forrest
Simon Waghorn and his wife and partner Jane Forrest

Simon is a trained winemaker, with a diploma from Roseworthy Agricultural College, now part of the University of Adelaide in Australia. I just had a look at the website of the Wine Science and Business group of Adelaide University and it seems that there is a lot exciting research going on now, including areas such as microbiology and biotechnology.

The Astrolabe fruit supply come from across the Marlborough district - 16 separate sites to be precise. Its winery is based just south of the Blenheim township (at Riverlands) in the north eastern corner of the South Island, separated from Wellington by about 50 km of sea. Astrolabe Wines have their own vineyard development in the Waihopai Valley, but they also source grapes from other vineyards in the region. About 80% of the Astrolabe wine is the New Zealand trademark Sauvignon Blanc.

Where does the name come from? An astrolabe is an astronomical instrument used by classical astronomers, navigators and astrologers. With my background in maritime history it immediately brings up images of early modern navigators and explorers, and this apparently also was what the Astrolabe folks had in mind: 'Simon chose the name "Astrolabe" because he liked the historic connection with Marlborough and the connotations of exploration and adventure. L’Astrolabe was the mighty ship sailed by French explorer Dumont D’Urville through the Marlborough Sounds in the early 19th century.'

Wine Rambler: Let’s start with the topic that got us into this discussion: helicopters and winemaking. When the use of choppers in winemaking was mentioned to me I was a little confused at first; it did sound a little bit like a strange 'new world' method to me. Can you explain a little more about how this is used and whether this is something specific to the Marlborough region - and why?

Astrolabe Wines: The use of helicopters in NZ viticulture is limited to frost events or sometimes as a cover spray for foliar applications and in pre-development or dormancy period for weed control. It is not Marlborough specific; you will see choppers in all our wine regions of Central Otago, Waipara (Canterbury) Marlborough, Martinborough, and Hawkes Bay. Choppers will be found as well as the fixed windmills you see protecting crops from frost. See:

Wine Rambler: Your company carries the exploration theme in its very name. Does that also apply to your style of winemaking or are you taking a more conservative approach?

Astrolabe Wines: Our styles reflect the fruit on the whole. Our wine making philosophy is one that picks the fruit at its prime from the vineyard, handled carefully through the process, minimum winemaking intervention and allows the wine to express the fruit profile, characteristics and flavours of the Marlborough region.

Wine Rambler: What are these specific characteristics and flavours that you are after?

Astrolabe Wines: With the white wines we look for ‘brightness’ of flavour, and a purity of varietal expression. With Sauvignon our target aromas and flavours are clustered around currant leaf, lime, gooseberry and passionfruit. Pinot Gris we look for poached pear, and light stone fruit, whereas Riesling is more lemon zest and flowers, and some juicy lime. Chardonnay flavour targets are ripe citrus, with some apricot and a little pineapple. The Pinot Noir core aromas and flavours are red and black cherries, with a little plum accepted at the top end, and some strawberry at the lower end.

Wine Rambler: In your statement on winemaking you say that your 'philosophy is to honour and respect the fruit from the vineyards' and that your methods are dictated by being 'true to region and even individual sites as well as the variety’s personality'. This sounds very much like the French concept of terroir. Do you see yourself in a European tradition of winemaking or is there something distinctively 'new world' to your approach, beyond the choppers? Do you think that the distinction between 'new' and 'old' world does actually still make sense?

Astrolabe Wines: We are hugely interested in the sub-regionality of the Marlborough area, and like to champion the Awatere and Kekerengu sub-regions in particular. Terroir is a difficult concept, but there are certainly soil and meso-climate variations that profoundly influence the wines. We see ourselves in the traditions of world winemaking, which is really a continuum – there are as many people in Europe at the vanguard of modern technology as there are in the US and Australasia, just as many ‘new world’ winemakers love the low-tech methods. We love to preserve the vibrant vitality of the Marlborough region in our wines, but are happy to build in added character from a mixture of the old and new techniques that are available.

Wine Rambler: While Europe still has many smallish family owned estates, people do often think about new world estates as fairly young, quite large and more commercially oriented. There is obviously some cliché involved here, but I would be curious to hear more about the estates in the Marlborough region. Does it have a particular, comparable for instance to California of the early 1970s, with lots of new people starting out, exploring and sharing new ideas?

Astrolabe Wines: Marlborough has a mix of small and large wineries, but doesn’t have too many over-capitalised ‘Disneyland’ showpiece buildings. A great deal of the production has been in functional facilities, with more emphasis on the winemaking than the wine tourist. This is partly because there is no large population at the doorstep of the region, such as Napa has with San Francisco. Many of the wineries have developed out of a shoe-string budget through the efforts of committed winemakers and enthusiasts. As yet we haven’t seen an influx of wealthy foreigners ploughing their money into Marlborough to build grand wineries, although this happens occasionally elsewhere in New Zealand. The free and frank exchange of ideas within the technical community of winemakers and viticulturists is probably unmatched outside of New Zealand. There is no sense of anyone tightly holding on to any special ‘proprietorial’ knowledge to maintain an edge over their competitor.

Wine Rambler: In Europe I see a certain trend towards 'natural' wines: indigenous yeasts, unfiltered wine, biodynamic production (including the cow-horn-magic) and other 'slow', hand-made techniques. Do you use any of those? Do you see the choice of winemaking techniques more as a matter of personal style, quality or as a purely ideological issue?

Astrolabe Wines: While we applaud and are interested in the above biodynamic methods, we confine our activities more to the mainstream of Kiwi winemaking. Wild yeast is used in much of our Pinot Gris and Chardonnay wines, and virtually all of our Pinot Noir. We practise sustainable winegrowing through the SWNZ programme, and look forward to producing some unfiltered Pinot Noir in the next release. Currently we are more interested in these techniques from a style point of view, as our over-arching aim is to produce the best possible wines.

Wine Rambler: Can you tell us a little more about the SWNZ programme and how it relates to sustainable winegrowing? I would also like to hear more about how you define the ‘best possible wines’. Two outstanding estates sharing parts of the same excellent vineyard and using a very careful approach to winemaking could still produce quite different wines, depending on how they define what makes a really good wine. How do you define that?

Astrolabe Wines: Unlike most similar programmes throughout other primary industries - whereby groups are forced or regulated to conform - the New Zealand Viticulture industry initiated the basis for what is now known as Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ) some 14 years ago. A big part of this was to provide substance to our claim of being "clean and green".
It works on a scorecard as the framework for growers and since 2002 wineries, ‘to continually improve all aspects of their performance in terms of environmental, social and economic sustainability’. It is governed by the National winegrowers institute and independently audited to provide integrity.
With regard "best possible wines" a lot of wine regions throughout the world lay claim to being "cool climate viticulture". Compared to most Marlborough is in an ice age. We are in a marginal area climatically for producing wine grapes with little margin for error. As stated below we have a high cost of production to ensure we obtain the desired maturity in any given season and the seasons vary dramatically. The best possible wines result from capturing the desired flavour profile at its maximum intensity from each individual parcel of fruit.

Wine Rambler: Now to a new world question. In terms of quantity the UK imports more wine from Australia than New Zealand; kiwi wines, however, sell at higher average prices. Would you say that New Zealand wineries focus more on expensive quality wines for export, or how would you explain that?

Astrolabe Wines: New Zealand does what it does in terms of wine making and in the most allows the wine to reflect the terroir of New Zealand as a whole, the sub-region and even micro-sites. Our costs of production are fairly high and we are some distance from the majority of our major markets (with the obvious exception of domestic and Australia).Through this process the wine we produce is of a high calibre and people have an association with ‘premium’ & New Zealand, plus the markets are prepared to pay for this product. We will continue to produce the best wine we can from one vintage to the next to maintain the premium and not to overproduce, thus driving the supply higher than that of the demand.

Wine Rambler: Your wine is being drunk all over the world and in the UK I see it in the 'premier wine' sections of the more expensive supermarkets and also specialised wine shops. It seems like Astrolabe Wines is a true success story. However, what I find most interesting about these stories is learning where something went not as smooth on the way. Did you encounter any serious problems, produced wines you were not happy with or made some decisions you would change, looking back?

Astrolabe Wines: On the whole, Astrolabe wines have enjoyed some exponential growth since the early 2000’s. The planned growth has been achieved and in the last couple of vintages has exceeded the growth we had in mind. The New Zealand segment globally has seen dramatic growth and remains a growth segment in most places around the world in both on-trade and off trade environments. The way in which the growth is managed without damage or hindrance to the brand equity is what we concentrate on, championing the people within our circle who have been instrumental in the protection and growth of our brand. My role as the General Manager is to protect the ongoing brand equity, integrity and expansion, whilst keeping that growth – until our nature production state – sustainable and profitable.

Wine Rambler: Does that mean that even your very early wines did already turn out in the way you hoped they would, or did you have to introduce some changes or maybe even stop some experiments that did not quite go where you wanted them to? Related to that, do you sometimes still try some of your older, first generation wines, and how do you feel they are ageing?

Astrolabe Wines: As a winemaker, nothing is ever 100% perfect, and you always see some way of improving upon a just-completed wine. If you don’t think like this, you’re in the wrong profession. Early on you are concerned with being amongst the very best within the prevailing predominant regional style, whereas as your reputation and confidence grows you become committed to driving a ‘house-style’ that may, or may not, diverge from the commercial mainstream. The longer you have worked with the vineyards and the fruit, the more you understand the winemaking paths to follow – so you don’t feel the need to bend them ‘against their nature’ into the wine styles that may be considered benchmarks of the region. Experimentation is on-going, and even wines which appear to be straightforward are tweaked each year. Sadly a company like ours has grown so fast on such a tight budget, that no extensive ‘library’ of early wines remains. The odd bottle from the first years we do have is usually affected by the corks we had then. Since screw-caps, we have been pleased by the concentration and power of our aged Sauvignon Blancs, but we believe the later incarnations show an upward mobility in terms of style and sophistication.

Wine Rambler: As you discovered our blog I assume you are taking at least a cursory interest in the wine blogging sphere. Some wineries are sceptical about laymen reviewing their wines online or just generally not sure about the Web 2.0 world and wine. How do you feel about this? Do you believe wine blogging will lead to a democratisation of the wine world or are you rather more critical?

Astrolabe Wines: This is a great question: lets’ look at this carefully. Oz Clarke, Bob Campbell, Jancis Robinson, Michael Cooper all have major impacts on what wines people buy. Their reviews have been the cornerstone of the industry – much like Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear in the UK is for the motor world! But recently, people have other avenues: Gary Vaynerchuck on the, TheWineWanker, Besotted Ramblings, Decanter Blog, Tales of a Sommelier, Wine Anorak, Wine Splodge, Wine Whore, numerous bloggers and review sites that are available to everyone instantaneously on Blackberry and iPhones wherever and whenever. The availability and access of information enables people to make a choice from a wider reviewer list on an ever expanding list of wines that may well not have crossed the lips of the names publishing reviews each year.
The embracing of these media channels and your confidence to allow the comments to go unfiltered globally, really does depend on the people involved. We have embraced these new media times and are encouraging them in our own world with our Durvillea brand – blogging, facebook and twitter are all now on our back label! I feel that you have to be ‘in it to win it!!

Wine Rambler: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to us!

All images kindly provided by

The interviewees are:
Simon Waghorn - Winemaker
Jeremy Hyland - Viticulture Manager
Jason Yank - General Manager

Submitted by Steven Saturday, 05/12/2009

Thanks very much for this article; I am usually more interested in European wines, but Astrolabe could be worth a look, esp. as they do Riesling too!

Submitted by Julian Tuesday, 08/12/2009

Should we have a New Zealand vs. Germany Sauvignon Blanc tasting event some time next spring? Because I definitely feel that coming on.