Weekly Interview: Mal McLennan

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 03-21-2014

mal mclennanEach week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Mal McLennan, the winemaker behind Maimai Creek Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand.

Mal was always a farmer, but spent the first 20 years of his career working with sheep and cattle. In 1994, he returned to his family farm and began studying viticulture and winemaking at Eastern Institute of Technology in Hawke’s Bay.

At the same time, he began developing a 37-acre parcel of Sauvignon Blanc. Over the next decade, Mal would purchase more land and start developing Riesling Merlot, Chardonnay, and Syrah. These grapes were mostly sold, but in 2004, Mal decided to launch a winery.

Check out our interview with Mal below the fold.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?

The best wines are made when the winemaking and grape-growing philosophies are in sync. You can add more value in the winery if the fruit from the vineyard is in balance and has been produced well.

The old adage that the best wines are made in the vineyard is true all over the world and certainly in New Zealand.

Having planted all of our vineyards, I have an intimate knowledge of the clonal selections and rootstocks we use and why we planted what and where. I had a vision for the style of wine we wanted to produce before we planted the vines and laid out the vineyard.

Good winemakers need to understand more than just the winemaking process — they also need to be aware of the potential and limitations that each vineyard has and how to get the wine to express a sense of place, of where it comes from.

Balancing tradition with innovation and keeping a wine’s individuality and identity is essential.

What’s open in your kitchen right now?

A bottle of Maimai rosé, as we always have some of our wine left over from samples and tastings. I also have a bottle of German Riesling and a Spanish red open. I have a tendency to buy wines from varieties or regions that are less well-known, as I’m always looking for that special something, and that’s often missing in the more common varieties. And sometimes, I find it.

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?

Peter Robertson from Brookfields in Hawkes Bay is the first winemaker I had any contact with, and he taught me a great deal about fruit quality and how important attention to detail is. He makes great wines and garners great respect in our region.

Rod McDonald is a quiet achiever and produces some great Syrah and Chardonnay from Hawkes Bay.

Outside of Hawkes Bay, I don’t have any great individual winemaking influences other than those entrepreneurs and risk takers who put their own hard-earned money behind their passion and vision to produce something different and special. It takes a lot of courage to plant a new variety in an untried or unproven region and to be a pioneer. Planting Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough in the mid 1970’s was one of those moments in time when someone took a risk and backed himself.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?

The young winemakers I get to meet generally all have good, if underdeveloped, palates. But they also have passion and a thirst for making great wine and experiencing the places where great wines come from.

Kiwis have a travel gene that switches on about a day after graduation, so they tend to roam the world for a few years before they settle down. So the better ones are probably somewhere in Europe right now. I am excited about the Syrah style that Hawkes Bay is developing and gaining world acclaim for.

We are also developing some consistency that comes as the vineyards mature. These are very approachable but elegant reds, full-flavored with character and finesse that consumers are really going to enjoy.

How do you spend your days off?

Sporting wise, I play golf which I know sounds boring but I am too old to risk life and limb with the adventure stuff and too smart to pretend I still can. Watching the All Blacks in winter is always a good evening, if a little tense at times. Both my sons are good at sports and I try to encourage them. And now that my wife and I have grandchildren, there’s time spent with them.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?

So many wines and so short a memory! And that’s probably due to so many wines. It is a vicious circle! The most memorable was a 1984 Chateau Montrose which I had at a blind tasting just down the road — I think I still taste it now and again.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?

I think the red would be a left bank Bordeaux from one of the Medoc communes and the white would probably be a Riesling from the Mosel. I could name a producer or two, but I am not a big note taker when it comes to wine labels.

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?

As a winemaker who owns the business I also need to have an eye on the market and know who my customer is. Great wines don’t always sell well, so you need to be sure you get the right balance — the customer needs to get something that offers value for money and is also better than they expect.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world — other than your own?

I haven’t done the flying winemaker thing and travelled the world gaining these experiences, but I do fancy I would find a niche for myself in the northern Rhone. The wines are great and nothing too pretentious and the region is one that I would like to explore.

Is beer ever better than wine?

Flavor and texture wise, I always get more satisfaction from wine. But as a thirst quencher, I would go a beer any time — or water! In fact, I rarely drink beer now as I find it lacks any interest for me.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

That I can shear sheep and rode a horse most days when I was younger! People who see me now would also be surprised to know that I a skinny kid and built for speed when I was young. Sometime between 35 and 45 I went from not being able to put on weight to not being able to lose it!

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?

Working less and playing more. Doing the things I could have done when I was younger but choose not to pursue as a career. I would certainly be playing more golf, but also travelling and smelling the coffee as I go.

How do you define success?

Ah, the success question. Well that changes as you get older and success becomes a bit more tangible.

I am a pragmatist and see that achieving shorter term goals rather than the big grandiose dreams as closer to where I am. I guess success is doing the best with what you have.

In our industry, we cannot all have Old World traditions and huge markets at our back door or 100 year old grapes to make iconic wines from. As a New World producer you have to make your own success stories as you go. No one has done it before from my region, so being a pioneer and surviving is success.

Comments (1)

  1. The Mai Mai Merlot/Malbec is a perfect example of the approachability and elegance you mention in your interview. I am certainly looking forward to trying more of your delicious wines.