When Daniel Le Brun first visited Marlborough, lured by a Kiwi girlfriend, he just knew that this was the perfect region for growing Champagne grapes. The weather conditions do provide some challenges but it gives him and his winery No.1 Family Estate what Champenois would die for – a vintage every year. Anne Krebiehl MW visits Le Brun and gets the full story about the estate – New Zealand’s only winery dedicated to producing sparkling wine. Anne tastes the full range and has to watch Le Brun do the ‘sabre thang’. Without taking a finger off.
We all know Marlborough for Sauvignon Blanc, and increasingly for Pinot Noir, but here’s a hitherto overlooked but exciting side of this cool region: world class fizz.
He handles the sabre with a sure hand. One swift move and the bottle is open. The boyish smirk on his face belies his 73 years. He helped write Marlborough history and today produces some of New Zealand’s finest traditional method fizz. Meet Daniel Le Brun of No.1 Family Estate, New Zealand’s only winery dedicated solely to the production of traditional method sparkling wine.
Le Brun’s wines have an uncommon elegance and show a masterly touch. Above all they have the acidic thrill that is the lifeblood of every good sparkling wine. The climate of Marlborough and Le Brun’s experience and expertise in farming and vinification make it possible.
“When I came here in summer 1978, I was immediately convinced that this was the place to be,” Le Brun says, his accent still French after 40 years in the country.
Close encounter of the Marlborough kind
Born into a family of winemakers and raised in Champagne, it was a Kiwi girlfriend that prompted Le Brun’s move to New Zealand and his first encounter with Marlborough.
“I was here for six weeks and to me that was a discovery, I had never been outside Europe before. I thought that this was such an easy country: the people were friendly, the climate was great and I felt well, it’s a nice country with total freedom; no regulations whatsoever, especially at the time. Anyone could do whatever they liked and there was nothing to stop you,” he reminisces.
Le Brun’s gut instinct was right: despite being able to ripen citrus fruit with its ample hours of sunshine, Marlborough falls into Winkler Zone I in terms of heat summation, the same as Champagne and Tasmania.
“Coming from Champagne, if I was going to be growing grapes one day, I knew I would plant Champagne grapes. After I came to look at the district in 1978 I returned to the North Island [of NZ] where I lived at the time, I started to collect cuttings to do my own propagation. There were no commercial nurseries, so I grew my own cuttings of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier in a little plot of land I had leased. They were hard to find as there was so little grown.”
Le Brun got these cuttings from blocks planted by Montana (now Pernod Ricard) south of Auckland. In 1980 he planted his first vineyard on 30 acres just outside the village of Renwick in the Wairau Valley. At the time, the only vine plantings in Marlborough were Montana’s Müller-Thurgau vineyards, Le Brun explains: “That’s all they knew – and some Pinotage,” he chuckles. “Viticulture was in its infancy in New Zealand.”
Perfect conditions for growing Champagne grapes
What might have seemed outlandish to the Kiwis at the time was a matter of course for Le Brun.
“The fact is that this country has the perfect conditions Champagne growers would love. It basically is a vintage year every year: free-draining soils, great climate, dry summers, cool autumns, cold winters – that really is what a grower looks for.”
“But you have to adapt to the local conditions. The wind in this district, usually a north-wester, can be an asset and a menace. It’s always windy: in 38 years I have never had to spray against downy mildew. It doesn’t happen here. That is an asset. But it also gets so windy that you have to put in extra wires, extra trellis, just to hold things together. But we cope with that and the vines seem accommodating.”
“The fact is that it’s dry and you have to have irrigation, especially for young vines. This is an alluvial valley from the last glaciation: you have gravel, sand, silt so that means if you get 50mm of rain, two hours later you can walk through the vineyard without dirt sticking to your boots. It’s very dry, so irrigation is a must. But we have a very reliable water table and it’s easy to pump when we need it.”
“Here we always harvest when the grapes are ready, not when the weather is going to turn. We always harvest at 10.5% potential alcohol and we can do that year after year because the weather is still stable when we harvest. It only turns at the end of April by which time my grapes are in the cellar, doing their thing.”
Harvesting at the right point also gives him the most important structural element of his wine.
“The acidity comes from the fact that we have warm sunny days and cold nights: that retains the crisp acidity. Most of the time we need to have the malo-lactic fermentation.”
On 5 November 1985, five years after planting, Le Brun released his very first sparkling wine which had spent two years on the lees.
“I never had any intention or desire to make anything other than sparkling wine. It’s the only wine I knew how to make,” Le Brun says, noting that his first release was well received. So well, in fact, says Le Brun that “some years later we became a benchmark for sparkling wine.”
But success also meant investment, business partners and legal wrangling.
“In 1996 we were bought out by a major shareholder and we had to get out,” Le Brun remembers. “I basically lost the brand, lost my name.” Another company today makes wine under the LeBrun name. But Le Brun has fizz in his blood and acted quickly despite an anti-competition clause. He bought grapes and made wine at a friend’s facility. In 1997 he bought another property and started converting a sheep farm and shed into a vineyard and winery with his wife Adèle.
“One day after the expiry of the restricted trade, out came No. 1 Family Estate’s first wine. It was extremely well received and it’s just been onwards and upwards since that.”
Successively he released a Blanc de Blanc (in 1998) and longer-aged premium cuvées that set a new standard for Kiwi fizz. Today he and his family own 4ha of vineyards and buy fruit from a further four hectares which they also farm.
No.1 Family Estate is a member of Méthode Marlborough, a group of local wineries founded in 2013 to promote their premium sparkling wines. They all produce traditional method wines exclusively from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, aged for a minimum of 18 months on the lees.
So what do the No.1 Family Estate wines taste like?
No.1 Family Estate Assemblé Brut NV, 12.5% ABV, 65% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 5% Pinot Meunier, based mainly on the 2015 vintage with approximately 20% of a reserve perpetuelle. This is light, slender, taut and fresh, still vivid with green apple and Mirabelle plum. Ideal aperitif style.
No.1 Family Estate No. 1 Cuvée Blanc de Blancs Brut NV, 12% ABV, 100% Chardonnay, based mainly on the 2014 vintage with approximately 20% of a reserve perpetuelle. A touch of smoke and shortbread on the nose. On the palate a lovely lightness pervaded by gentle sponge-cake aromas of autolysis, very fine mousse and long finish.
No.1 Family Estate No. 1 Rosé Extra Brut NV, 12%, 100% Pinot Noir. A pale pink wine with a shy nose of peppery hints. The palate is super-slender, citrusy and comes with absolute freshness and a super-clean, long, dry finish.
No.1 Family Estate No. 1 Blanc de Blanc Reserve Brut, 12% ABV, 100% Chardonnay. With more than seven years on the lees this is a gorgeously creamy wine in a classic, elegant vein. Despite its super-clean and pervasive autolytic notes which ring long and deliciously with haunting umami notes, this is incredibly fresh, taut, slender. Wow.
No.1 Family Estate Cuvée Virginie 2009 Extra Brut, 12% ABV, 80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir. Named after Le Brun’s daughter, this has spent four years on the lees, followed by further bottle ageing. The nose is evolved, the wine is golden, a touch of honey makes the slender body richer and amplifies notes of hay. Very fine mousse and a lovely lemon oil finish.
No.1 Family Estate Cuvée Adèle 2009 Extra Brut, 12% ABV, 80% Chardonnay , 20% Pinot Noir. Named after Le Brun’s wife. An incredibly inviting, aromatic nose of Golden Pearmain apples. The palate has finest mousse, brims with freshness and a mouth-filling resonance of flavour. A paradigm of elegance. Exquisite. Lovely now but will develop even further.
No.1 Family Wines are represented by Amathus Wines in the UK.