Martinborough, New Zealand started its life with the supremely inglorious sounding distinction of being the sheep capital of the North Island. At that time New Zealand wasn’t a country, it was either a budding colony or an ancient tribal homeland, depending upon who you talked to and what color skin they had. In either case, it was the site of the nation’s first sheep station — a place where ranchers came to shear, sell, and otherwise transact for their livelihood.
In 1879, the station, which by that time had been joined by many more throughout the islands, was purchased by an Irish immigrant named John Martin. How he made his fortune I do not know, but he had enough to buy the sizeable chunk of land, and to have carried him around the world as a traveler as the original street names of the town can attest. ‘Venice,’ ‘Panama,” “Suez,” and “New York” streets are proudly laid out around a central square in the formation of a Union Jack flag. Whether for his national pride, the enduring quaint beauty of the town that bears his name, or some other feat unknown to me, it seems that John Martin ended his life as a “Sir” courtesy of the Crown.
Victoria was kind to John Martin, just as the Victorian farming community of 1400 souls that still occupies that old sheep station is kind to the wine lovers and winemakers that continue to “discover” it. I don’t know that I’ve been someplace more idyllic when it comes to satisfying a wine tasting weekend holiday. The picturesque little town is completely flat, and with dozens of wineries within ten blocks of the main square, makes for a leisurely strolling (or bike riding) day of wine tasting.
Should you ever find yourself wandering down the well manicured back streets that give way to vineyards and farm houses almost immediately after leaving the main square, you will likely come across a pretty little clapboard farmhouse with a bright red “S” emblazoned underneath the crown of the pointed roof. And if you’re someone who loves wine, you’d be making a mistake not to duck in the front door and try some of the wines produced by Schubert.
Kai Schubert and his partner Marion Deimling represent one of a constantly growing stream of winemakers who are making their way to Martinborough and the larger Wairarapa wine region in which it sits. They are attracted first for its Burgundy-like climate and gravelly soil structures, though they’d have to be robots to not be charmed by the slow pace of life in this little town, only forty minutes but a world away from nearby Wellington.
When Schubert and Deimling decided to leave Germany (where Schubert graduated from the Geisenheim Viticulture and Oenology University) in search of the best place to start a Pinot Noir focused winery, they considered France, Oregon, California, and Australia before settling on Martinborough. In 1998 they purchased approximately 90 acres of bare land just outside of Martinborough, and a two-acre vineyard plot four blocks off the town square, where they promptly set up the Schubert shop. They haven’t been there very long, but Schubert and Deimling seem to be settling right in. More than 25 acres of their initial purchase are under vine, and the first plantings are now on their 4th vintage along with the small vineyard that sits behind their home and the little tasting room in town.
Schubert and Deimling came to New Zealand to make Pinot Noir, but they brought their own vision of what kind of wine they wanted to make, along with a bit of their German wine background to liven up the mix. In addition to the requisite Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, plus Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, Schubert decided to plant Müller-Thurgau from which he makes a white blend and a very nice dessert wine.
In the tradition of a family-run operation, all grapes are harvested by hand with help from friends, and go through several rounds of sorting before the winemaking process begins. All the grapes are pressed in whole clusters except for the Pinot Noir which combines whole clusters with destemmed berries. Natural yeasts are used when possible in fermentation, and the red wine goes through an extended, slow maceration process, and remains in contact with the skins for up to six weeks before being carefully drained off. The whites mature on their lees for several months, while the reds age in French oak for 14 to 24 months.
The winery’s first commercial vintage was 2001 (released in 2003), so they are still settling into their groove, but if my tasting there in December was any judge, they’re in for a good time of it.
2006 Schubert Sauvignon Blanc, Martinborough
Pale gold in the glass this wine has a delicate nose of passionfruit and light citrus aromas. In the mouth it has good acid balance and a nice mineral crispness and, what to me, is the unmistakable flavor of unripe (red) blackberries. A strange flavor for a Sauvignon Blanc, to be sure, but far from uninteresting. Tart, juicy and refreshing make this a very nice bottle no matter what you think it tastes like. 9
2005 Schubert “Tribianco” White Blend, Martinborough
Light gold in color, this wine has a strong nose of grapey, sultanas aromas that made me initially guess this wine had Semillon in it. But I was wrong. This blend of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Müller-Thurgau has a lovely, weighty body and presence on the palate with spicy flavors of pears and sultanas accentuated with good acidity. A moderate, clean finish rounds out a delightful and quite unique (for New Zealand) white wine experience. 9
2004 Schubert Pinot Noir, Martinborough
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a lovely nose of cedar, cranberry and raspberry aromas with hints of spices. In the mouth it has great texture, sliding satin-like across the palate with flavors of sour plum, cranberry and raspberry fruit that have a glassy clarity to them. This is a polished wine, something that can be artificial when it lacks any soul to back it up, but in this case just makes for a wine that has a gemlike quality. Excellent. 9/9.5
2003 Schubert Cabernet / Merlot, Martinborough
Medium ruby in the glass this wine has a thick nose of prunes, figs, and other cooked fruit aromas. In the mouth it carries a similar character with flavors of cooked cherries, stewed prunes, and raisins, with light tannins. These cooked fruit characteristics were unfortunately not balanced by anything else in the wine, leaving it quite unbalanced and unlikable. 7.5/8
2006 Schubert “Dolce” Müller-Thurgau, Martinborough
Light yellow-gold in color, this wine has a honeyed nose of ripe white grapes and sultanas. In the mouth it is thick and silky while maintaining excellent acidity as it offers flavors of fresh honey, baked apples, super-ripe peaches, and the unmistakable spiciness of Müller-Thurgau. A nice finish tops off a surprisingly excellent wine, and one of the better dessert wines I’ve had from New Zealand. 9/9.5
Schubert is imported to the US by New Zealand Wine Imports in Chicago, (847) 864-1612.