Interview with Natalie Christensen

Natalie Christensen is the Chief Winemaker at Yealands Wine Group in Marlborough, New Zealand. Natalie was named by The Drinks Business as one of the World’s Most Influential Women in Wine in 2018. I was thrilled when Natalie agreed to be interviewed as she is passionate about sustainable wine making on quite a huge scale. Read on to hear what Natalie is up to at Yealands and how deep those sustainable roots go…

natalie-christensen-wine

Could you give us a brief history of Yealands winery and what direction you’re taking it in? 

Yealands opened on the 08.08.08 so we are just 11 years young! From the beginning Yealands has had the ambition to be one of the most sustainable wineries in the world. We were the first winery in the world to be certified carboNZeroCertTM from inception and we are currently the only winery in New Zealand to hold this certification. I’ve been working in the winemaking team since 2015 and became Chief Winemaker in January this year.  I am keen to continue to produce top Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from our coastal vineyard in the Awatere Valley. In fact, we’ve just released the 2019 Yealands Sauvignon Blanc and it’s a stunner! I’m also keen to continue the innovation that has always been part of what we do here. This vintage we experimented with quite a few new wine styles. We made a carbonic Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc for the first time and also a skin fermented Sauvignon Blanc that we left on skins for 127 days! My interests are in sustainability, organics and producing wines that are a true reflection of the site and the season. 

My sister is currently living in Marlborough. Before she left England she was into red wine but NZ has completely changed her opinion of Pinot Noir. Are you keeping all the good stuff to yourselves? I’m just kidding. But seriously, I think the New Zealand Pinot Noir scene over here has a lot to learn.  What are your thoughts on this? 

New Zealand is making some incredible Pinot Noir and there are some very skilled and devoted producers who love working with this variety. Some New Zealand producers are well known on the world stage now for Pinot Noir, but large quantities aren’t available, especially from some of the smaller producers. At Yealands we are working on several different Pinot Noirs and experimenting with different techniques too. I’m also pretty proud of our ever-popular Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Awatere Valley Pinot Noir – which is available in the UK from Great Western Wine: https://www.greatwesternwine.co.uk/producers/yealands/yealands-estate-black-label-pinot-noir

Aside from the winemaking science of it all, do you get stuck in on the vineyard? What’s your day-to-day like, I’m sure every day is different!

Every day is quite different. I spend most of my time in the vineyard during harvest – assessing the fruit, tasting for flavour development and figuring out the optimal time to pick. When I’m in the winery I am working with the team (there are five of us in winemaking), working out blends and creating new wines. In the summer months it is a bit quieter in the winery and I generally head offshore to promote our wines. 

You have a wealth of experience and qualifications under your belt. Where did you learn the most and what have been your most valuable lessons? 

That is a hard one, because I feel that everywhere I have been I’ve learnt something valuable along the way. Some of the golden things I have learnt over time are;Always be kind – you never know what someone else is going through.Only worry about what you do have control over. Put your energy into what you can influence.Be honest and authentic. 

I see you spent a bit of time over in Spain, do you apply any Spanish winemaking techniques to what you’re doing now? How did they do things differently? 

I lived in Cambados, Rias Baxias, Galicia Spain on and off for about 18 months making Albarino. We have actually just planted some Albarino here at our Seaview Vineyard. I’m really interested to see how this variety works here. We are extremely coastal and so were most of the vineyards I was working with in Galicia. There are a few techniques that I learnt over there for this variety that I am keen to try on our fruit when it matures. 

What’s your everyday mantra and how are you approaching sustainability at Yealands winery… I know you’re a world leader in sustainable growing, so how do you go about this? 

I am constantly thinking on what my impact is and ways I can minimise it. I avoid products that don’t have recyclable packaging, all my cleaning products are made from plant based/natural ingredients. All my skincare and hair care come in bar form and are packaged in paper only. Even my loo paper is from a really cool company called smartass (www.smartass.co.nz) they make toilet paper from bamboo, which is really fast growing. Way better than using trees! At Yealands we have a Sustainability Manager, Tara Smith, a Sustainability and Innovation team and an Environmental Team. We have so many sustainability projects on the go throughout the business and we are constantly looking for ways to improve and have every aspect of our operation under the sustainability microscope. All staff at Yealands are encouraged to submit any ideas they have about sustainability to the committee and good ideas are taken on. It’s a team effort and everyone at Yealands has the ability to make a difference. 

How does your approach differ to say, other winemakers in the Marlborough area? 

My focus is making wines that really showcase our Seaview Vineyard. We are one of the most coastal vineyards in New Zealand and that makes the styles of our wines quite unique. Our coastal aspect also helps with our sustainability focus as we do not get affected by frost, so we don’t need to use diesel to run wind machines or get helicopters in to help fight frost. Most New Zealand wineries belong to SWNZ (Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand), but I would say our approach differs as sustainability was our primary goal from the outset and it is at the forefront of any decisions that we make. We have the largest solar panel installation in NZ and we’re the only winery in NZ to bale and burn our vine prunings in specially designed bale burners to heat our water. 

What challenges do you face in your job? It’s fantastic you have been recognised as one of the world’s most influential women in wine. Has being a woman ever felt like it’s held you back? Or do you think the industry is pretty balanced now? 

I’ve never really felt that being a female winemaker was unusual. I started in the industry in 2006 and there were a lot of great female role models around in New Zealand back then. I think New Zealand is a fairly progressive country. We were the first to get females the vote and I feel in my lifetime being a female has never held me back from anything. However, I did volunteer last year as a Women in Wine Mentor to support up and coming women in the industry, which was really rewarding and a great way to pass on my own experiences and knowledge.

Do you still get time to indulge in other hobbies such as your passion for music? 

Yes! I’ve just joined a band.  I play the double bass and I have teamed up with a guitarist and a drummer.  Walk on the Wild Side (Lou Reed) and Psycho Killer by Talking Heads are a couple of our jams.

And finally, please can you share a memory of a wonderful bottle of wine you’ve had, who you were with and why it was so special. 

I think I am very lucky as I get to share wonderful bottles with lovely people in awesome places relatively frequently! There are too many to remember. I think the key ingredient is the people you are sharing it with. Wine brings people together and it is one of the reasons I love working in wine. 

Yealands Sauvignon Blanc, 2019 (!) vintage, Marlborough

You can now buy the 2019 vintage from quite a few British supermarkets including Sainsbury’s for around £8 in most cases. It’s intense on the nose, aromas of freshly cut grass, nettles and gooseberry. A really well balanced acidity, very crisp in the mouth, refreshing grapefruit and more gooseberry. Everything you’d want from a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and great value for money.

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