We caught up with Sophie and Mark McGill, who after gathering extensive experience in the world of hospitality and wine, have returned to their native New Zealand to set up their own winemaking project. Meet Abel, the newest addition to the Indigo portfolio.
Sophie and Mark say they were destined to make their own wine. They both grew up in the heart of the New Zealand wine industry – Sophie’s parents, James and Wendy Healy worked with Cloudy Bay before setting up Dog Point Vineyard in Marlborough; Mark’s father Linton worked as a viticulturist throughout New Zealand before establishing his own vineyard in the Wairarapa. In 2015 they set up Abel in Nelson. They take inspiration from the wines of Chablis, choosing to move away from oak rich styles in favour of Chardonnay with texture, energy, and brightness.
But why Nelson? Given Sophie and Mark’s connection to Marlborough and its growing reputation for Chardonnay, we were particularly curious to learn more about the Nelson-Tasman region and how it makes Abel Chardonnay unique.
Sophie and Mark were drawn to Nelson for its strong agricultural potential.
In addition to its family-friendly ‘hippie’ vibes, Sophie and Mark were drawn to Nelson for its strong agricultural potential. Perched on the north-western tip of New Zealand’s southern island, the region enjoys long sunshine hours, and a moderating maritime climate, making it one of the best areas in New Zealand for Chardonnay production. Apples, hops, and other fruits also thrive in these distinctly seasonal conditions and can be found growing in valley flats below the sloping vineyards.
Unlike more established neighbour Marlborough, Nelson’s wine industry is less commercial. The focus is on smaller sites, with more hands-on production and a push towards organic viticulture, all of which align with Abel’s ethos. However, this presents challenges too; many sites are what Sophie alludes to as ‘lifestyle’ vineyards, where the emphasis isn’t always on quality farming practices. As a result, Mark and Sophie are highly selective about the fruit they use for Abel. They only work with carefully chosen, sustainable sites in the Upper Moutere, where Chardonnay thrives in rich orange clay and gravel soils. They are directly involved in the viticulture wherever possible, often pruning and harvesting themselves to ensure low yields and high fruit quality.
In Spring 2019 they planted their own vineyard and orchard in the Moutere Valley. They wanted a place of their own – in part to secure fruit for the future, but more importantly, to personally manage what they grow and make. Their new vineyard, planted on 5 hectares of crumbly Moutere clay, is a mix of three Chardonnay clones. The intention is to convert to organic viticulture once the vineyard is better established; according to Mark, this is more viable than starting organically, as the fertile volcanic soils result in ferocious weeds that compete with the young vines.
Compared to their focused efforts in the vineyard, Mark and Sophie’s approach in winery is hands-off: handpicked fruit ferments in 3000 litre barrels at high temperatures (often 35ºC+ with no cooling), which avoids stuck ferments and helps stabilise flavour as the wine ages. The wine undergoes full malolactic fermentation over winter along with some gentle lees work and is bottled with minimal sulphur, unfined and only coarsely filtered.
Nelson vs. Malborough. When asked how Nelson Chardonnays compare stylistically with those from Marlborough, Mark and Sophie say the difference is rooted in the soil. The two regions share similar climates, though Nelson gets around a third more rainfall each year. Marlborough broadly features two main soils types; loamy clay on the hills, which produces leaner, more citrusy wines; and free-draining alluvial soils on the plains that give distinct flavours of apple and nectarine. In contrast, Nelson Chardonnays are stylistically defined by greater breadth of character and a pronounced flavour profile of fragrant white peach and bright grapefruit, which Sophie’s father James attributes to the region’s unique Moutere clay (Moutere is not French as I originally presumed – it’s a Maori word, pronounced MOH-TEH-REH and means ‘island’).
Ultimately, Mark and Sophie aren’t aiming to produce a specific style. Their vision for Abel is to create wines with purity and drinkability; that speak to the place they are made; and complement the food they’re being enjoyed with.
Mark says: For us, it’s about showcasing the fruit, that’s the key ingredient after all and I think that’s quite evident in both our cider and our Chardonnay.
The Tasman Chardonnay 2018 is zesty with intense aromas of peach, citrus and flinty minerality; time on lees gives the wine a gentle nuttiness and a beautiful textural quality that rounds out its naturally bright acidity. Click here for more details on the Tasman Chardonnay. Drop us a line of you’d like to try it.