Highfield Estate winery sits atop a small hill overlooking the Wairau Valley about a kilometer outside the western Marlborough town of Renwick. The Marlborough region has become widely recognized in the U.S. as a source of high-quality, affordable Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. The deeper truth is that Marlborough is in fact a huge growing region composed of multiple valleys with diverse terroir. Highfield’s estate terroir in the Omaka Valley area is ideal for Pinot Noir, with a cooler and drier climate and clay soils. Their fruit grown lower in the Wairau Valley, like Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot, is suited for the warmer days and stony soils found there.
The property that Highfield Estate occupies was originally a farm owned by Irish immigrants who named it after an area near Galway. Their son, Bill Walsh, eventually took over operation of the farm and shifted to wine production soon after the introduction of wine grapes to Marlborough in the mid 1970s. Upon that first planting of German varietal Muller Thurgau, the Walsh family grew the operation for nearly 20 years until bringing in partners Shin Yokoi and Tom Tenuwera. Following Bill’s retirement, Tom helped lead Highfield into the 21st century until his untimely passing in 2012. The loss was as difficult as it was unexpected. He was called the lifeblood of the winery - the tasting room is still adorned with his photos and the staff rattle off fond stories about Tom.
In August 2015, Highfield started the next chapter of their history by merging with TerraVin under the ownership of the two respective winemakers, Alistair Soper and Gordon Ritchie, along with general manager Pete Coldwell. They maintain the two separate brands, but operate as one entity and make all the wines at Highfield Estate’s on-site production facility. Both Soper and Ritchie pride themselves in their natural winemaking techniques. This shared minimal intervention philosophy includes using free run juice, hand-plunged maceration, and bottling wines unfined and unfiltered. Authenticity to traditional methods results in consistently terrific vintages distinct from the mass-produced Marlborough wines most Americans know.
As soon as you drive up to Highfield’s property, the architecture and landscape invokes an Italian summer. Modeled after a Tuscan villa complete with terra cotta roof and repeating arches, the key feature of the property is a three-story Medievalesque tower. A quick climb up the stairs offers sumptuous panoramic views of thriving vineyards and grand mountains, accurately self-proclaimed as the “best view in Marlborough”.
After reveling in the vista, a trip back downstairs to the tasting room brings you to the real reason you visited - for the wine. We wove our way through a full guided tasting of Highfield and TerraVin’s lineups. Highfield’s heavyweights are the crisp, award-winning Elstree Cuvee Brut, semi-sweet Riesling, and classic Pinot Noir. The Riesling was a delight, with the perfect balance of dryness and sweetness, a crisp acidity, and peach flavors with a long finish. The multiple Rieslings we purchased on site paired wonderfully with our charcuterie lunch and a spicy Thai dinner a few nights later, as well as a few to send home.
The zenith of the tasting was TerraVin’s 2011 “J”. A Bordeaux blend, primarily of Merlot rounded-out with Malbec and Cabernet, this wine is perfectly balanced, rich in dark berry flavor, and silky smooth on the finish. Awarded 92 points by Wine Advocate in 2010, the “J” sets the benchmark for a claret, especially as a very unexpected Bordeaux style from Marlborough.
The wine experience of Highfield is accentuated by the offerings of their on-site café, the Highfield TerraVin Vineyard Restaurant. On a perfect warm and breezy Marlborough day, we sipped on Riesling while sauntering through a diverse spread of charcuterie on the sun-soaked patio. Blue-lipped mussels, pork rillette, white bean and chorizo cassoulet, fois gros mousse, and more delightfully gourmet tapas spilled over our table. Scarcely crumbs remained in the aftermath. Small and large plates comprise the menu crafted by chef Stephanie Armstrong - perfect options no matter your level of hunger.
A visit to Marlborough is a search for the lifeblood of New Zealand. Highfield Estate and TerraVin Winery exemplify the possibilities of Marlborough wine made in an Old World method. The authenticity of their style is without question. The beauty of their locale is breathtaking. The experience is one you shouldn’t pass up.
Visit them online at www.highfield.co.nz and www.terravin.co.nz.