Al Soper of Highfield
"I used to think that winemakers had the most control over wine," said Al Soper, the winemaker at Highfield, "but not anymore. Now it's the vineyard, where the fruit is grown." Working a total of four vineyards in both the Wairau and Southern Valleys of Marlborough, Highfield has two certified organic vineyards (one with estate Pinot Noir and another with Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc that's sourced), a third (PN and SB) that will be certified come 2014, and a fourth (77 ha of SB), which was just planted in 2006-2008 and so will be allowed to establish root maturity before undergoing the transformation. And while only the best fruit from these parcels (15-20% of what's harvested) is allotted to Highfield's wines, Al selects only the free-run juice to vinify.
Using only free-run juice, which is uncommon for Sauvignon Blanc, Al said "we wanted to do as little to it as possible." From one-ton of Sauvignon Blanc fruit, Highfield extracts 750 liters of juice, with 600-625 liters being free-run, while the Pinot Noir yields 700 liters per ton, with 650 liters as free-run. And because he believes that "winemaking is all about increments, about he accumulation of little things," Al also allows for five months of lees contact with his Sauvignon Blanc.
"Three to five years ago, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was in high demand," said Al, which led to a practice coined "Crush and Rush". Following a fast fermentation that ceased by the end of April, most wines were then bottled by May. And though this practice might have yielded aromatic wines, there was no follow-through. "The wines fell over very quickly," he said, with a short shelf life of six months. "Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is easy to recognize; it has a distinctive smell and drinkers tend to lump it together," with its notes of cut grass, green pepper and asparagus. But, "when aged," he added, "it becomes a canned version of these vegetables. We've never made this style," but have rather aimed for notes of tropical fruits.
By giving his wines lees contact, Al offered, the winemaking process is lengthened and the wines are not released until September/October, but they last longer. The 2007 Highfield Sauvignon Blanc that he'd recently tasted on a panel in Florida was well received. "Now," he said, "the Sauvignon Blanc wines that still have a market presence are [all] later released."
And while the lees contact allows for greater richness and weight, he said, "Most wineries leave 4-6 grams of residual sugar [in their wines] for the U.S. market, to take the edge off of the acidity. Instead of sugar," he added, "we're trying to give more weight on the palate."