What do you get when two guys who helped to build one of New Zealand’s most iconic and successful brands decide they’re tired of being administrators and want to get their hands dirty again?
You can find it down a little dirt road a ways outside of Blenheim. Drive slow. You might miss the sign.
Once through this unassuming gate, you’ll likely be attacked. But don’t worry, dog slobber won’t kill you.
After you’ve met the welcoming committee (Stella, Charlie, Case, Dixon, and/or Monty) you’ll find your way to the unassuming sheds and tanks that make up Dog Point Vineyard, and if you’re feeling parched, you can sit down to some of the most refreshing wines being made in New Zealand’s Marlborough region.
Dog Point Vineyard is the not-ready-for-retirement project of Ivan Sutherland and James Healy and their wives. Having helped grow Cloudy Bay Vineyards from relative obscurity to massive global success story for nearly 20 years, the two men — Sutherland a viticulturalist, Healy an enologist — decided to downsize their careers.
The two unmoored themselves from the juggernaut that was Cloudy Bay (giving two years’ notice to be polite), and decided to tie up to a unique piece of land that Sutherland knew intimately. It was one of the first privately planted vineyards in the Marlborough region, and Sutherland knew it well because he planted it in 1979 and still owned it.
The Dog Point vineyard spans a hillside above the winery, and extends across a floodplain below it, interrupted only by a section of olive trees that were planted in soil deemed unsuitable for grapes.
Like much of the old Awatere valley, this old river plain offers a mix of silty gravel that seems to do wonders with Sauvignon Blanc, and some hillside clay loam that Sutherland planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay back when people still thought no one could get grapes ripe in Marlborough.
“It’s the old dogma,” chuckles Healy as we stand on the crest of the hill, with grapes as far as the eye could see. “but it turns out we have the perfect place to ripen cool-climate grapes.”
When two industry veterans like Sutherland and Healy decide to start their own project, they make it look easy. From their first serious vintage in 2004 (they puttered in the garage in 2002 and 2003) they’ve quickly built a solid brand that makes 28,000 cases of wine that are sold in 30 countries around the world.
“We’ve been at this game a long time,” admits Healy. “We’ve worked overseas in the US, in Australia. It’s been a trip getting it going. We started our distribution with friends, and we’ve just kept things simple, and let things grow organically. We buy good equipment, and we do everything ourselves. We do our own marketing. We’ve had to bring in some administrative help so that Ivan and I can focus on the wines, but other than that, the biggest challenge is the fact that the vintage is different every year. That and the exchange rate.”
With the help of some consultants, Sutherland has recently converted all 308 acres of vineyard to certified organic status, and is quite pleased with the results, suggests Healy.
Healy and Sutherland hand pick all their fruit with the help of their families and some hired help every year, and all the white wines (somewhat unusually for Marlborough, especially Sauvignon Blanc) are whole bunch pressed.
“We press it, settle it, rack it, ferment it warm, and then lock it down,” describes Healy, who prefers to use ambient yeasts for all fermentations except for about 75% of his Sauvignon Blanc fruit. “It wouldn’t taste like Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc if we did it all native,” he admits.
The majority of the label’s production (at least 60%) is their straight Sauvignon Blanc, which is fermented and aged in steel tank. But they also produce a small production Sauvignon Blanc named “Section 94” after the royal surveyor’s original label for their particular parcel of land. This wine is pressed directly into old oak barrels where it sits until bottling on the lees, with no sulfur additions, and is kept cold enough that it does not go through a secondary Malolactic fermentation.
Their Chardonnay is pressed straight to barrel and left alone for 18 months, with no sulfur additions until bottling, and with exposure to only 15% new oak.
When I ask about his somewhat minimal approach to making Chardonnay, Healy shrugs and says “I’ve got lots of experience making Chardonnay, and I’ve made plenty of horrible stuff in the past.”
The red wines are made in a similar vein. “With our Pinot, there’s a lot more work in the vineyard,” notes Healy. “We strive for a very diverse mixture of clones that we try to get evenly ripe. We farm one bunch per shoot, pick it into tiny bins, hand sort it on the table to get rid of anything that isn’t perfect, and then it goes into the fermenter. We punch down twice a day until we get a soft cap and then its into the barrel.”
The wines finish themselves in 40% new oak barrels and then they’re racked, settled, and bottled with no fining or filtration.
I’m sure that I’m projecting slightly when I suggest that the Dog Point Wines have a self-assuredness about them that is quite charming. There’s certainly no denying that Healy and Sutherland, as well as their wives, clearly know exactly what they’re trying to achieve and how to go about it. Few wineries can manage to make 28,000 cases of wine at the level of quality that Dog Point manages, let alone scale to that production level in less than a decade. Of course, at those production levels, Dog Point is still a tiny operation compared to the rest of their neighbors.
Dog Points wines are charming, not only for what they deliver in the glass, but for what they represent. Namely, wine made precisely how two incredibly accomplished wine industry veterans want to make it. And examining their choices says a lot. Few Marlborough producers dare to rely on indigenous yeast fermentations for their wines. Fewer still are willing to risk very low sulfur usage in the process.
After spending many years making Cloudy Bay, Healy and Sutherland have retreated to their own little alcove of fairly old-school winemaking. I guess that’s why I’m not entirely surprised when I notice that Dog Point still closes their bottles with cork. When I suggest as much to Healy, he practically reddens and throws up his hands.
“Don’t ask me about the cork,” he exclaims in mock exasperation. “There’s nothing wrong with screwcaps. I don’t have an answer for why we use cork, except that we’re old fashioned.”
Which nicely sums up the guiding philosophy of Dog Point Vineyards, which I might paraphrase cheekily as “we do it that way because, dammit, that’s the way we want to do it.” After 40 years in the business, Healy and Sutherland have earned the right to be curmudgeonly, and as long as they keep it up, those of us who drink their efforts stand to greatly benefit.
Pictured from left to right: Wendy Healy, James Healy, Margaret Sutherland. (Ivan wasn’t able to join us the day I visited.)
2012 Dog Point Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Wairau Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of gooseberries and wet stones and lime juice. In the mouth bright lime juice, wet chalkboard and passion fruit flavors have a nice chalky quality to them that is quite pretty. Classically styled but somehow more mineral than some Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs. Wonderful acidity and balance. Nice lemony note on the finish 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5 . Cost: $19. The 2012 isn’t yet in the USA. click to buy the 2011.
2011 Dog Point Vineyard “Section 94” Sauvignon Blanc, Southern Valleys, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of struck match and white flowers with a hint of lemon curd. In the mouth bright lemon curd and lemon juice flavors mix with stony deep minerality and an almost tannic quality. Wonderfully long finish.14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5 . Cost: $32. The 2011 isn’t in the market yet (damned exchange rate) but you can click to buy earlier vintages.
2011 Dog Point Vineyard Chardonnay, Southern Valleys, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and a hint of white flowers with lemon curd backing that up. The tiniest hint of toastiness comes through as well. In the mouth pink grapefruit and lemon juice mix with lemon curd and a deep wet granite character that is quite compelling. Lean and bright without any signature of new oak (the wine is made with 15% new barrels). Fantastic acidity and great balance. One of the best Chardonnays I’ve ever had from New Zealand. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $32. click to buy.
2011 Dog Point Vineyard Pinot Noir, Southern Valleys, Marlborough, New Zealand
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of forest berries and forest floor. In the mouth gorgeously smooth forest berry flavors mix with a wonderful earthiness . Excellent acidity keeps the wine bright and fresh, and the powdery tannins that grip the palate are smooth and supple and allow the generous, stony fruit to shine. 14% alcohol. Score: Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35 (the 2011 has not reached the states yet).
2010 Dog Point Vineyard Pinot Noir Southern Valleys, Marlborough, New Zealand
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of slightly sweet cherry and cranberry. In the mouth cranberry and a wet stony character are dusted with nearly imperceptible tannins. Good acidity keeps the wine bright. Moderate finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.