A Thornbury Winery Profile

New Zealand Region by Region
by Sara d’Amato

Is your New Zealand wine experience limited to Marlborough sauvignon blanc, or perhaps the odd pinot noir? The immense popularity of Marlborough sauvignon has had a twofold result. The distinctively exuberant style rapidly put New Zealand on the map as a unique, world class wine producing region. Not as favourably was the creation of a global clamour for the wine which hampered export of wines from the multitude of fascinating regions and varietals within the country. The export market makes up a significant part of the country’s regional production due, in large part, to the New Zealand government’s decision to de-regulate most of the internal import regulations on foreign wines in 1990. Since 1900, New Zealand Wine reports that exports went from an 18 million ($NZ) industry to one that is projected to rise to $2 billion in 2020. The majority of that is still sauvignon blanc with pinot noir on the upswing. This is pretty exceptional for a country that holds the highest average price per bottle globally with limited bulk wine production.

Originally Thornbury was an export focused winery, but after it was purchased by Villa Maria in 2005, Sir George Fistonich, founder of Villa Maria, saw that the brand had great potential in New Zealand and wanted to focus on domestic sales. Now, Thornbury is only exported to a few markets with Canada being one of the biggest. Most of Thornbury wines are sold in New Zealand, it’s a popular local wine but rare to see it in the rest of the world. The winery produces only seven wines, one from each major region showcasing a single varietal style that is the flagship of that area. Under the winemaking direction of Simon Fell, the winery’s success has flourished without wavering from the brand’s core values.

Simon Fell, winemaker

Simon Fell, winemaker

I reached Simon Fell this week en route to blend pinot gris, this after days of assemblage work on sauvignon blanc. It had been an aromatic week. Blending the wines from the individual sites within the region is perhaps the most important work in the winery. The goal is to achieve a style that is consistent with the regional paradigm. Sometimes, that involves using grapes from several different sub-regions to accomplish that result as is the case with Thornbury’s Marlborough sauvignon blanc. The majority of the wine in the blend is sourced from the Wairau Valley. Warmer, the wines tend to be more pronounced, slightly riper and more tropical in style as opposed to the more austere wines of Marlborough’s Awatere Valley.

Although we tend to think that Marlborough has one distinctive style of wine, i.e. sauvignon blanc that is lifted with high acid and unoaked with tropical notes and zesty citrus flavours, there is actually quite a range of stylistic tendencies. This relatively new trend to break away from the mold makes it somewhat challenging to find what we consider “classic” examples nowadays. Some producers are harvesting later resulting in less “greenness” and enhanced roundness, some are working with lees to add mouthfeel and others are experimenting with delicate oak treatment. I was curious for Fell’s take on these changes and what that meant for this “classic” style of Marlborough sauvignon blanc that he attempts to achieve. Fell replies that he tries to reflect on what the region does best. In Marlborough, for example, he tries to represent different microclimates and sites which requires using multiple vineyards over several sub-regions. Historically, Marlborough sauvignon blanc exhibits passion fruit and grapefruit notes. The idea is to represent those characteristics while also thinking about drinkability. He therefore insists on a degree of roundness and ripeness to make the wine more widely accessible.

Marlborough, NZ

Thornbury’s wines consistently do well in show and most importantly at New Zealand’s most prestigious wine awards, the New Zealand Air Wine Awards. As a result, you will often find Thornbury wines served aboard the airline as part of a careful selection of winning examples. Those selections are based on a series of factors of which include: drinkability, regional expression and how well they will show at 35,000 feet. That last curious factor makes Thornbury wines an outstanding candidate to show on flights. Fell admits that “wines taste quite different when flying”, for example, “acidity and tannin are accentuated in the air” and he is mindful of that differentiation. Thus, Fell’s tendency to use lees contact to build up mouthfeel and texture, to “back off on oak’ and to showcase softer acids makes the wines very well suited to sipping in the air.

For over 10 years, Fell has been trying to highlight grape varieties very special to particular regions across the country. He is surprised that no other wineries in New Zealand are taking a similar, national approach. This strategy remains the company’s hallmark today. When asked about adding other grape varieties and other regions to the portfolio, Fell is not opposed to the idea but would try not to double up on multiple varietals in the same region. The aim is to provide clear examples to consumers. These wines therefore make an enlightening introduction to anyone with a burgeoning interest in the wines of New Zealand. Fell would like to work one day with syrah as it is quickly garnering high repute on the global stage even if production is fairly limited. The small region of Waheke Island is also of interest although no project is yet in the pipeline.

Thornbury Vista

Thornbury Vista

Thornbury works primarily with trusted contract growers throughout the regions represented in their portfolio: Marlborough (for sauvignon blanc), Waipara (for pinot gris), Waipara (for riesling), Gisborne (for chardonnay), Central Otago (for pinot noir) and Hawkes Bay (for merlot). Now as part of the Villa Maria family, Fell has been able to expand his reach for quality fruit to some of Villa Maria’s estate sites and grower partners. Regional discovery is key to the Thornbury project and we have noted those distinct characteristics in the wines the WineAlign team has reviewed here.

Thornbury Pinot Gris 2017, Waipara ($18.90, available online at the LCBO)

Thornbury Pinot Gris 2017

Thornbury Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($18.95, June 9 VINTAGES Release)

Thornbury Sauvignon Blanc 2017

Thornbury Chardonnay, Gisborne ($18.90, available online at the LCBO)

Thornbury Chardonnay 2016

Thornbury Pinot Noir, Bannockburn, Central Otago ($27.90, available online at the LCBO)

Thornbury Pinot Noir 2016

Thornbury Merlot, Hawkes Bay ($18.90, available online at the LCBO)

Thornbury Merlot 2016

Buy Now At The LCBO

Fell eventually had to get back to the spoils of the harvest but not before offering a preview of the vintage to come. The 2018 vintage proved most challenging but those wineries who paid particular attention to vineyard management will have a great deal to show for it. In fact, it may very well turn out to be one of the better vintages in the past half-decade. Despite rainy conditions in some areas, an early start to the season, cyclones and plenty of heat, you can expect wines that show great richness and concentration. In whites such as sauvignon blanc, aromatic intensity should be high with good weight and mouthfeel. Central Otago saw one of the warmest vintages in a decade and those who dealt with it carefully should produce top notch pinot noirs. Fell is particularly excited about his own results.

Thornbury has always been an export focused winery and is now 35,000 cases large (which is pretty tiny, especially compared to the mother company of Villa Maria). Canada has since become the largest market for the winery and we should expect to see continued exposure for the brand. In fact, all of these wines are now all available online in Ontario which means you can purchase them by the bottle and have them delivered. If in-store shopping is more your style, you can watch for the Thornbury sauvignon blanc as part of last weekend’s VINTAGES release. Otherwise, visit the New Zealand Products of the World store at 1838 Avenue Road (north of Lawrence) for a wide selection.

Kia ora!

Sara d’Amato

This feature was commissioned by Thornbury. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery. Our critics independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted to WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the winery profile. Wineries pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign. Below is more information provided by the winery.

About Thornbury: 

Here at Thornbury we make wines that are first and foremost enjoyable to drink; wines that go well with food and wines that simply celebrate life.

We created a range of premium and easy drinking wines by simply matching New Zealand’s favourite grape varieties with our iconic wine regions. The image of the dancing piper which adorns our bottles is Dionysus, the Greek God of Wine; he represents the fun and expressive character that epitomizes our wine.