The last time I met Brent Marris—the man behind Marlborough’s The Ned, The Kings series, and a whole lot more—was almost exactly 20 years ago. He was part of a New Zealand trade mission that came to Vancouver. At the time, Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc was in the early stages of its remarkable ascent and the group in attendance was suitably impressed—not only by the “Savvy” but also by quite a few other drops.
Fast forward 20 years and I again find myself sitting across the table from Brent, tucked away in a corner of Nuba, in the cosy basement of Vancouver’s historic Dominion Building.
Our conversation recalls that original meeting before it shifts to Brent’s early days (just post university) when he dropped by for a chat with John Simes, who was then chief winemaker at Montana.
Just having finished his first vintage (in Australia’s Coonawarra) Marris valued Simes’ words of wisdom on what it took to be a winemaker for a large corporate entity. It was advice that no doubt served him well in his career as chief winemaker for Delegats and Oyster Bay—but more so, he says, in the latter years at Wither Hills, which he founded, grew and later sold.
“It’s all about governance and process, words you tend not to use in a small winery,” says Marris.
I love these world wide wine connections that bridge time and distance in the blink of an eye.
Some years after their talk, in 1992 Simes landed in the Okanagan and made—literally on arrival—the Mission Hill Grand Reserve Chardonnay that later won the coveted Avery’s Trophy. In 1994, when chosen by the London IWSC judges (who re-tasted because they couldn’t believe a Canadian wine could be picked as the Best Chardonnay in the World), it turned out to be a defining moment for BC’s still neophyte wine region.
Marris and Simes have yet to reconnect but I’m sure they will eventually. Besides, Brent’s headed back this way for the annual Kiwi showcase: New Zealand in a Glass and Dish ‘n Dazzle, May 1.
Marris fulfills his dream
Marris’s vision, which he’s brought to fruition with Marisco Vineyards, and will realise even more with the Leefield project (see below), was to produce “single site” wines (particularly Sauvignon Blancs) that are emblematic of everything that makes the Kiwi interpretation so appealing.
As we tasted through the wines, I was struck by their artful balance of approachable sophistication, all delivered with value pricing.
Here’s some of what you can find in BC:
• The Ned Sauvignon Blanc 2013. Tropical and lime notes on top follow through to a juicy, mineral toned palate with a luscious, viscose feel, and dry finish. Fuller on the palate than before: a product of slower ripening, says Marris. Classic Kiwi Sauv. Blanc value; 90 pts BCLS $15.99.
• The King’s Favour Sauvignon Blanc 2011. The next step up (from the terraces) yields passionfruit and mineral notes before an intense but focused palate of citrus and tropical notes, with appealing mineral core. Worth the step up: 91 pts private stores $20-$23
• The Ned Pinot Gris 2013. Pretty Salmon colour with floral and stone fruit aromas, followed by juicy pear and peach notes wrapped in juicy acidity. This newest addition to The Ned line-up is a perfect spring into summer sipper—and a great match for lightly spiced dishes. 89 pts. $16-$18 PWS
• The Ned Pinot Noir 2013. Medium bodied with fresh, fruit forward style, cherry and raspberry with some earthy and mineral notes wrapped in juicy acidity, plus a touch of spice. Currently on shelves, 2013. This vintage available soon, BCLS $20.99 90 pts.
And here’s my column in the North Shore News
Meeting with Brent Marris is a little bit like trying to lasso a small cyclone, albeit it a pretty friendly one! You may not recognise the name but Marris is one of New Zealand’s modern day, powerhouse winemakers—who grew up in the wine business. His father, John Marris was one of Marlborough’s first contract grape growers. You could say Brent began his training in the vineyard at an early age.
He went on to become Marlborough’s first locally born and raised, qualified winemaker, who helped put some major Kiwi producers on the path to success and eventually built his own world-beating Wither Hills brand (which he sold in 2002).
Home to most of New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc plantings, Marlborough has seen a few ups and downs in recent years, although things are definitely on the upswing these days. And Marisco Vineyards (which Marris runs with his wife Rosemary) has a fair bit to do with it.
Since 2006 Marris has been busy putting his latest project—The Ned—on the world wine map. The wine is named after one of the region’s tallest peaks, where Marris used to hike, hunt and ride horses. The idea behind the The Ned was to recreate the lively and vibrant, fruit driven style of Sauvignon Blanc (and other wines) that propelled New Zealand to international prominence, explains Marris.
Marris’ hallmark has been to maintain close quality control, growing all the fruit for The Ned (and for the next tier “Kings Series”) on a single 268 ha. parcel on ancient glacial terraced deposits on the Waihopai River.
In more evolved markets, such as the UK, The Ned has taken on a life of its own, where, jokes the winemaker, it’s talked about “almost like 50 Shades of Grey!”
Considering it sells over half a million bottles in the UK, you could say it’s pretty popular…
As Marris explains his and Rosemary’s latest project, his mood takes on a more serious tone. Realising the demand was outstripping their ability to supply, the couple purchased Leefield Station—a historic, high country, 2000 ha. sheep and cattle ranch. They’re in the process of planting about 600 ha. to vines. But the balance will be left in a natural state (with native plants reintroduced) to allow for running Aberdeen Angus cattle and Romney sheep.
“This company will never be sold,” insists Marris, who says these days it’s very much about legacy. The couple have four daughters, the eldest of whom is in the process of completing her winemaking studies (also at Roseworthy). The youngest, at 13 years, has already announced her intention of running the company!