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Matt Thomson: 50 vintages and counting...

20 June 2017

Matt Thomson: 50 vintages and counting...

As one of the most successful ‘flying’ consultant winemakers, Matt has worked the vintage in both the northern and southern hemispheres for over 25 years. The 2016 harvest in Europe marked his 50th vintage! He has been working with Liberty Wines since 1999, though the first vintage he worked with David Gleave was in 1994. During a recent visit, Matt took part in a Q&A session about winemaking and the future of New Zealand wines…

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing makers of premium wine in New Zealand over the next 5-10 years?

There is so much choice for wine drinkers now, that justifying your wines in the market is definitely a big challenge. We have to get out there and put our wines in front of consumers to show them what sets us apart. The lack of regulation in New Zealand allows us the freedom to make the best wine we can, but it also means that there are fewer guarantees for the consumer. Keeping quality levels high as the market develops will be really important in Marlborough especially.


What are the main things to consider in winemaking to ensure balance in a wine?

I see the structure of wine – the sugar, acidity, ph, alcohol, tannin – as being the bones of it, with the flavour adding flesh to those bones. Finding balance is about making sure that everything is there but that no one element stands out too far and dominates the wine. You can have big bones, as long as the flesh is there to cover them!


Is Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc invincible and what’s next for the region?

No single variety or region is invincible, but you only need to taste wines from the different sub-regions of Marlborough to see what diversity there is in the region. The next step for us has to be mapping the distinct sub-regions so we can start to build awareness of their individual characteristics. There is a tendency for the trade always to be looking for the next big thing to replace Marlborough Sauvignon, but when consumers are happy with the quality, style and consistency of our wines why would they look elsewhere? There is so much to explore within the region, you can’t tell me it’s boring!


What do you think are the pros and cons of using wild yeasts?

Depending on the style you are going for, wild yeasts can add some real complexity to a wine. We love this additional element in our Chardonnay and our red wines, so we always ferment them with wild yeasts found naturally in the winery. They are however, much less predictable and there is always a risk that you will end up with some off-flavours or undesirable elements. Where you are aiming for a pure, fresh style, as with Sauvignon Blanc, we would always inoculate in order to guarantee that the wine shows the classic characteristics of the fruit. 

There are some really good examples of Sauvignons made with wild yeasts, such as Greywacke and Section 94, but it is quite a niche style and needs to be clearly signalled to the consumer.


What are the biggest mistakes that a winemaker can make in the cellar?

Winemaking for me is all about expressing a sense of the place the wine is from. You have to make the wine from the fruit you have, not the fruit you would like. If you have some light, elegant Pinot Noir from a cool-climate region, don’t try to make a big fruit-bomb of a wine. When you first start making wine, taste everything you can from that region. See what works and what the common pitfalls are.  Taste the grapes and understand the vineyards. Once you’ve done that, you should have a good idea of what your goal is when you set about making the wine and you’ll be more likely to make a wine that truly expresses its origins.


What do you see as the most ground-breaking development in winemaking that has yet to happen?

The technology used in winemaking is already pretty advanced, and probably goes far enough already. I would like to see more development in sustainable practices, both in vineyards and in the winery. It would be great to see less rigid regulation and a more open-minded approach to improve the way we manage things like sprays and water management.


What are the strongest selling points of New Zealand wines in your opinion?

Freshness, intensity of fruit, pure expression of varieties, vibrancy, and most of all, an unmistakeable sense of place in the wines. This is especially true of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir thanks to the pretty unique conditions that New Zealand is blessed with that means botrytis isn’t such an issue – helpful as both varieties are particularly susceptible to it. We also don’t get downy mildew in Marlborough which is a big advantage for our largest producing region. This means we don’t need to use copper treatments, something which is known to affect the thiols (aroma compounds) in Sauvignon, and allows the wines to really speak of the place they are from.


During his visit, Matt also hosted a masterclass for the team on some of his wines from New Zealand and Italy. Below are some of his notes on the wines served and what makes then special.


Blank Canvas Marlborough Riesling 2013 –

“This Riesling is modelled on a Mosel Kabinett, for the spectrum of flavour & sugar/ph/alcohol balance. It is incredibly drinkable!”


Blank Canvas Marlborough Grüner Veltliner 2013 –

“There are only around 30 hectares of Grüner in New Zealand, but it is such an interesting variety. I love the ripe fruit/struck match/white pepper character of this wine. It is a great food wine.”


Delta Hatters Hill Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2014 –

“Salinity in the coastal soils where the fruit is grown give a briny edge to the zestiness – making it perfect with oysters. It also gives it great weight and texture. Two years might seem old for NZ SB, but some really do develop well given time. We need to be more open-minded to that.”


Blank Canvas Marlborough Pinot Noir 2014 –

“The key with this Pinot is low-toast oak & whole bunch fermentation. I wanted finesse, aromatic elegance & a savoury character.”


Blank Canvas Hawkes Bay Syrah 2014 –

“Cool-climate Syrah is all about aromatics. We use 60% whole bunch & co-ferment with Grüner skins which adds these great graphite/pepper notes.”


Alpha Zeta `A` Amarone della Valpolicella 2013 –

“Amarone is one of the most technically difficult wines to make – there are so many challenges along the way! You can't speed up drying the grapes for Amarone as crucial metabolism of malic acid takes place during the process. It wouldn't happen otherwise and the wine would be out of balance.”


The first vintage of Blank Canvas Chardonnay will be available from mid-July. Please get in touch with your usual contact or email [email protected] if you would like more information on any of these wines.