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Wednesday 4 April 2018

Isabel Estate: Proving there's more to Marlborough than just sauvignon blanc

There were three of us in the basement of the original Dan Murphy's store in Melbourne. Grizzled old wine writing veterans in myself and Ralph Kyte-Powell and Isabel Estate winemaker Jeremy McKenzie.

Now Isabel Estate is what the industry calls a "private label product". It is owned by, and its wines are mainly made for, Woolworths outlets.

Private label products do not always have the best reputation but Isabel Estate proves a very worthy exception. It is very rare for a winery to put seven wines in front of critics and for each and every one of those wines to look good.

Mr Kyte-Powell and I exchanged knowing glances. Isabel Estate, part of Pinnacle Drinks, is the real deal.

Jeremy McKenzie, a Kiwi action man who hunts, fishes, dives for crayfish and runs ironman triathlons (he probably also wrestles wild bears), took over as winemaker at Isabel Estate in Marlborough when Pinnacle purchased the winery in 2014. 

He and his small team have enjoyed almost immediate success, winning the Air New Zealand Champion Wine of Show last year for, not a sauvignon blanc, but the 2016 Isabel Chardonnay.

"That was a career highlight," former Allan Scott and Villa Maria winemaker McKenzie says. "Isabel's been part of the fabric in Marlborough for a long time and the award shows that we are kicking a few goals again." 

Isabel Estate is one of Marlborough's original vineyards, established in 1980 near Renwick in the Wairau Valley, and all its wines are estate grown, made and bottled. There are 45 hectares of close-planted vines.   

Among the wines we tasted were the 2017 Isabel Sauvignon Blanc ($29), fresh, zippy and zingy without overt herbaceousness, and the complex, oaked Isabel Wild Barrique 2015 Sauvignon Blanc ($40). So far, so standard.

There was a nicely balanced 2017 Pinot Gris, not ultra ripe and midway between gris and grigio in style, and the award-winning chardonnay ($35) is a ripper; flinty, poised and getting its impressive act together. 

More textural is the 2016 Wild Barrique Chardonnay ($40), sleek and medium bodied. 

I also very much liked the 2017 Isabel Pinot Noir Rosé ($29), seriously brisk and stylish (and also named best in NZ), and the Isabel 2015 Pinot Noir ($35), chewy/sinewy and savoury with oak sitting comfortably in the background.

"It's been a terrific project - a lot of fun - and I have a lot of autonomy, much more autonomy than you'd expect from a big company, when it comes to winemaking and styles," says McKenzie. 

While Isabel Estate is exclusive to Dan Murphy's and BWS in Australia, it is also sold in Japan and by Berry Brothers and Rudd in the UK. There is a lot of value here.      

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