We talk to New Zealand’s Natalie Christensen, who was named last year by The Drinks Business as one of the ‘World’s Most Influential Women in Wine’.
Luxurious Magazine: New Zealand is well known for producing wine. Tell us, what sets Yealands apart from other vineyards?
Natalie Christensen: Yealands is situated right on the coast in the Awatere Valley in Marlborough. We have one of the most coastal vineyards in New Zealand and also the largest single vineyard site. This unique location has a dramatic effect on the styles of wines that we make.
Our Sauvignon Blancs are deeply concentrated, with lively acidity and a pure mineral finish. Yealands opened 11 years ago on 08.08.08, with a vision to be one of the most sustainable wineries in the world.
We were the first winery in the world to be carbon neutral from inception and we are currently the only winery in New Zealand to hold a carboNZero certification.
LM: Tell us exactly what is the role of a chief winemaker?
Natalie Christensen: It is extremely varied, which is awesome. I head up a team of five winemakers. I feel like my general role within the team is to set the ambience. I like to have a fun and relaxed environment where people enjoy coming to work. My day-to-day role varies greatly depending on the time of year.
During harvest, I spend a lot of time in the vineyard, tasting fruit and figuring out the best time to pick. After harvest is over, we are very busy with grading our wines and blending. In the springtime, I generally travel promoting our wines.
LM: In an industry where men seem to dominate the wine market, what is it like to be a female chief winemaker?
Natalie Christensen: There have been females in senior winemaking roles in New Zealand since I started in the industry back in 2006. I think New Zealand is progressive in that sense. The industry in New Zealand is fairly balanced, and I’ve never felt unusual or any different as a female winemaker.
LM: Lots of food and drink companies are moving on to sustainable production methods. What steps is Yealands taking to do their bit?
Natalie Christensen: Sustainability, along with producing great wine, have been the two main areas of focus since Yealands started. We have the largest solar panel installation in New Zealand on the roof of our winery, we have wind turbines and we also have specially designed bale burners that we use to burn our vine prunings to heat our water.
In addition, we have developed wetlands around the vineyard and planted a lot of native trees on the property to help offset carbon. We also use the lightest grade bottle available for the majority of our wines.
LM: Statistics show that we are all becoming a lot more conscious of our drinking habits. The sober movement amongst the young is especially strong. What does this mean for Yealands and the quality of wines we are drinking?
Natalie Christensen: The younger generation are drinking less, and when they are drinking, they are a lot more conscious of where and how wines are made. I think that, with our focus on sustainability and the fact that we are carboNZero, we will be seen as a positive choice.
We have also been making a lighter in alcohol Sauvignon Blanc in our range for the past five years, and this is proving popular with the more health-conscious consumer. The other movement we’re seeing is that people are choosing quality over quantity when it comes to drinking wine, and Yealands has a strong focus on premium wine production.
LM: Drinking wine is becoming much more about the experience – wine tasting, staying in vineyards, learning about wine. Does Yealands do any of this?
Natalie Christensen: We have a cellar door that the public can come and visit, and we also have what we call our ‘White Road Tour’ which is a self-guided drive around our vineyard where you can see some of our sustainability initiatives in action and also experience our incredibly scenic coastal vineyard.
LM: Yealands has won some incredible awards. Can you talk us through some of the notable ones to date?
Natalie Christensen: We’ve been very fortunate over the years to receive a number of really prestigious awards, both for sustainability and for the quality of our wines. In 2014, we were named Green Company of the Year at the UK International Drinks Business Green Awards. We also received the Supreme World Champion title at the 2014 International Green Apple Environment Awards in London, and were the overall Large Business Winner at the 2014 NZ Fairfax Sustainable 60 Awards.
The same year, we were also named New Zealand Wine Producer of the Year at the 2014 International Wine & Spirit Competition in London. More recently, in 2016, we were awarded the Runner-Up Renewable Energy Implementation Award at The Drinks Business Green Awards (UK) for our solar panel installation, then in 2017, we won the Platinum Medal for International Award of Excellence in Sustainable Winegrowing at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT). In just eleven years, we’ve received over 1,700 medals and 28 trophies for our wines.
LM: Natalie, your background is rather diverse having studied psychology, acquiring a music degree and even dabbled with firefighting. How has your experience come in useful as a chief winemaker?
Natalie Christensen: Well my experience as a volunteer firefighter set me up nicely to feel completely at home in steel-capped gumboots and working with pumps and hoses around the winery. I think there are a lot of parallels in music and wine. I was really fascinated by the aesthetics of music, how it created a feeling and atmosphere, and how it could take you to another place and change your general mood instantly.
I was also really interested in the connectivity of music, but also the individual experiences that people would have. You could all be sitting in the same room watching a performance and everyone would be having a slightly different experience, based on their own previous experiences and individual differences. I think this all directly translates to wine. A group could be sharing a bottle of wine, everyone is drinking the same wine, and there will be aspects to the experience that are common for everyone, but also everyone will be having their own unique experience.
LM: Thank you for your time Natalie, and it has been a pleasure talking to you.
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