Dog Point was started by Ivan and Margaret Sutherland and James and Wendy Healy, who previously worked together at Cloudy Bay. The basis for these wines is the substantial vineyard that the Sutherlands own, which is on the border of the Omaka and Brancott Valleys (two of the Southern Valleys of Marlborough), near where vines were first planted in the region. Unusually for Marlborough the grapes are all hand harvested and viticulture is organic. Pre-pandemic, I caught up with Ivan and James to hear their story. [This interview is followed by notes on the new releases from Dog Point.]
James Healy arrived in Marlborough in 1990, with his wife Wendy and four children, moving from Auckland. ‘It was a bit of an adjustment,’ he recalls, ‘but in retrospect was the best thing we could have done.’ Then, the vineyard area was a seventh of what it is now. ‘In those days you could visit any number of orchards and pick berry fruit, pears, apples, peaches and the best nectarines,’ he says. ‘Today it’s impossible to find an orchard. In 1990 wine was still locally looked at as being a bit “out there”, but not now. I view it as a true success story where a great locally identifiable flavour has been made available to anyone who is interested and I think that is a great achievement.’
‘My background was that I studied biochemistry in Otago’, says James. ‘I fell in love with wine when I was down there. One of my biochemistry lecturers was a wine buff: he used to throw wine tasting parties for undergraduates and I got into it. When I finished there I just went out and looked for the first job I could find, which was at Corbans in Auckland. My first vintage was 1979. There I met Kevin [Judd] when he moved to New Zealand in 1982. He got a job at Selaks wines in Auckland and he was making the best Sauvignon Blanc from grapes grown in West Auckland of all places. [David] Hohnen asked him to make wine at Cloudy Bay. We were handling fruit from down here [Marlborough] from the early 1980s. The fruit quality was just so much better. I didn’t know anything about wine but the fruit quality we were getting was light years ahead of what we were getting in Auckland. As Cloudy Bay was expanding, I went to see Kevin, and luckily hit at the right time and got a job at Cloudy Bay in 1990. My first vintage at Cloudy Bay was 1991.
Ivan Sutherland grew up in Marlborough, and studied agriculture at Lincoln University from 1970-72. ‘I was always keen on wine, and I watched with interest what Montana were doing here,’ he says. ‘I got involved in some of the first plantings in 1979.’ Ivan’s family didn’t have land in Marlborough, but he took a punt with his cousin. ‘He had more money than I did, so that’s why I involved him. I had – I wouldn’t call it expertise – but the learning. It all went from there. I was doing consultancy work for viticulture and that is how I got involved with David Hohnen. I had a practice, and Hohnen made me an offer to work for him full time provided I didn’t do any work for anyone else. He made it really attractive.’
Ivan’s own vineyards were also contracted to Cloudy Bay. ‘It went from there. It was enjoyable, but once you get more into it, I thought I’d quite like to make wine. I kept putting it on the back burner because it was enjoyable working for Cloudy Bay, but when James came along, we took over running the vintage between us. Kevin was looking after visitors and things. He was still involved: the three of us worked together. But when it came to day to day, it was basically the two of us, and also some very good people.’
When did they hatch a plan to do Dog Point? ‘Probably 2000/2001,’ says James. ‘The first vintage was 2002.’ [The company was registered in November 2001 and the two shareholders are Ivan and Margaret Sutherland.]
‘I told Hohnen in 1998,’ says Ivan. ‘I gave Cloudy Bay four years notice. He said, you go, and I told him then that James was coming with me. He said, you can make the wine over there, but we didn’t want to do that. We had to make a break, but I stayed on as a director for another two years.’
‘And I stayed on as a consultant,’ says James.
‘That was working with Tony Jordan, says Ivan. ‘He was alright.’
What was Marlborough like before wine? ‘I often look back and think they should have given Frank and Mate Yukich knighthoods,’ says Ivan. ‘Because [without them] what we would have here now is dairy cows.’ The dairy industry has caused a lot of environmental degradation in New Zealand: irrigation and fertilization to create dairy pasture has changed a lot of the landscape for the worse. ‘Drive up through Twizel, through the McKenzie country. It used to be so beautiful,’ says James.
‘They are getting on top of it, big time. It is the industry themselves, with peer pressure,’ says Ivan. ‘But that’s what we’d have here: it would have been ideal. One of the attributes of this region is the underground aquifer, and what do you need for dairy? Water over the summer.’
‘In the mid-1990s, we thought Marlborough was probably maxed out,’ says James. There would have been 5000-6000 hectares. Driving round New Zealand, every time we saw a bit of land that didn’t have a vineyard on it, we used to joke and say that would be a good vineyard!’
‘When you look back you feel quite proud and privileged to be part of it,’ says Ivan.
I mentioned that the impression I had was that New Zealand wine was terrible in the 1970s, when Marlborough was established. ‘In the late 1970s there was one amazing wine being made here, and that was being made in Gisborne by Denis Irwin,’ says James. “At Matawhero. Matawhero Gewurztraminer was an awesome wine. No one has made a better Gewurztraminer since. And all that was, was clonal, cropping, and wild yeast. My father was on the mailing list and he used to collect them.’
‘I often thought of retiring, sitting down and writing about it, because there were some funny things,’ says Ivan. ‘There were some great stories back in those early days. You had to apply for resource consent to plant grapes. Farmers were up in arms about these grapes.’
In the early days the relationships between the growers and the wineries in the region was less than ideal. ‘The difficult companies were Penfolds Wines, Corbans and Montana,’ says Ivan. ‘Peter Hubscher was in charge of Montana. He couldn’t stand contract growers, really, but he had to have heaps of them to get the production. He screwed the price down and argued and argued all the time. So the growers got together as a collective, and had huge bargaining power. I remember a couple of years I was called in to represent them, in the early 1980s, and there was a guy from Bell Gully, a big solicitors in Auckland, and Hubscher round the table. It was an interesting experience.’ But then the Connors commission came and ruled collective bargaining as illegal because it was anti-competitive. But then Montana bought Corbans and Penfolds, and things quietened down.
‘I remember the big tanks from Corbans and Penfolds being helicoptered over to the Montana site,’ says James. ‘Big choppers picked up these 150 000 litre tanks and they had to follow railway lines in case the line broke.’
What about things now? ‘What’s going to be interesting now with our current administration is the overseas investment side,’ says Ivan. ‘It’s massive. It’s just the future associated with the land. It will be interesting how this is viewed. Most of Marlborough has been taken up anyhow. Some of them have a way round it, by having an investor buy the land and then they take a long term lease for supply.’
Their main concern is that Marlborough keeps its premium image by continuing to focus on quality, which is why Dog Point were behind the establishment of Appellation Marlborough. ‘Our biggest worry is the image of Marlborough,’ says Ivan. ‘this cowboy stuff, with these cooperatives. One or two companies allow growers to have ridiculous tonnages, ignoring quality and going for volume.’
‘My biggest concern is over-cropping,’ says James, ‘with all the downsides for wine quality. It allows bottom feeders to come in. I suppose it’s something you have to put up with.’ But he adds, ‘there are a lot of producers here whose focus is on quality.’
Organics is a big focus here. They have 280 hecatares certified organic, which is the largest organic vineyard in New Zealand. They began their journey in 2009 by switching 150 hectares to organics overnight. Nigel Sowman is in charge of viticulture here.
And the reins are now in the hands of a younger generation. Ivan and Margaret’s son Matt Sutherland is GM, while Murray Cook is the winemaker.
One of Dog Point’s most famous wine is their Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc, which is a great example of the alternative style of Sauvignon Blanc. It is named after name the vineyard has in the original 19th century survey of the region. The vineyard was planted in 1992, and like most of the region the clone is UCD1, planted on deep alluvial silty loam. James explains the vinification. ‘It’s hand picked, whole bunch pressed to a maximum of about 1.1 bar,’ he says. This gives a juice recovery of about 600 litres/ton, as opposed to around 780 litres for machine-picked Sauvignon. ‘It’s pressed to tank and chilled, but there’s no settling: it’s mixed and goes straight to used barrels,’ says Healey. ‘There’s no yeast addition; we use an indigenous fermention. It stays on lees for about 18 months, with very little stirring and no malolactic fermentation. Then it is pulled out of barrel, chilled a bit to get rid of crystals, pad filtered (non-sterile) and bottled.
Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2022 Marlborough, New Zealand
13% alcohol. Lovely aromatics: bright lime and passionfruit with some smoky, spicy, reductive hints. Lovely palate showing ripe citrus and pear fruit, with subtle green hints and also amazing mineral qualities. Such a wine. 93/100
Dog Point Vineyard Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc 2020 Marlborough, New Zealand
14% alcohol. This is a single organic vineyard and is vinified in older French oak. Lively, mineral and stony with powerful citrus fruit and some spicy hints. This has really nice vibrancy and is still very primary, with a zesty edge to it. 94/100
Dog Point Vineyard Chardonnay 2020 Marlborough, New Zealand
13.5% alcohol. This has a wonderful smoky, mineral nose with some matchstick and a bit of toast. The palate is fruity and lively, with mandarin, lime and pear as well as a hint of apricot, but also a lovely acid line, with a crystalline quality and some fine mineral notes. So expressive and delicious, this wine is back to its top form. 95/100
Dog Point Pinot Noir 2020 Marlborough, New Zealand
13.5% alcohol. Brooding and smoky and spicy on the nose, with some savoury gravelliness. There’s density on the palate with grainy, spicy detail and some nice grip. Still youthful and tightwound, although there’s lovely sweet fruit here waiting to be released. Really interesting with lots of dimensions and layers. Quite grunty, in a good way. 94/100
Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2021 Marlborough, New Zealand
13.5% alcohol. This is really aromatic and focused with powerful citrus and passionfruit. It’s zesty and expressive with great concentration. There’s some grapefruit and some fine green hints. A brilliant Sauvignon that’s a beautiful expression of Marlborough. 93/100
Dog Point Chardonnay 2019 Marlborough, New Zealand
13.5% alcohol. Very bright and keen with good acidity. Very mineral with a smoky, matchstick edge to the zippy lemony fruit. It’s juicy and quite taut, and very bright and expressive. 92/100
Dog Point Vineyard Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc 2019 Marlborough, New Zealand
14% alcohol. Aged and fermented in old oak. This has a lovely textural quality: there’s some matchstick and spice on the nose, which adds a mineral note. There’s ripe pear and citrus fruit, a touch of almond and wax, some smokiness, and then there’s a twist of melon, too. This is ageworthy, but it’s also delicious now. A really distinctive expression of Marlborough Sauvignon. 93/100
Dog Point Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019 Marlborough, New Zealand
13.5% alcohol. Hand-picked, low-cropped estate vines farmed organically. This shows a good concentration of dark fruits (black cherry and blackberry) with some grunty spicy notes, a touch of tar, and some grippy tannins. It has plenty of presence, and is a touch reductive, but in a nice way that should set the wine up for a long life. Brooding, structural and nicely savoury, this is a lovely expression of Marlborough Pinot, but it does need some time to shed its brittle reductive shell. Tastes beautiful on day 3, with a silky texture! 93/100
Dog Point Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
12.5% alcohol. This is intense and lively with keen acidity and pronounced lemon and grapefruit characters, together with a hint of green pepper and cut grass. It shows a racy, lean character, but there’s a bit of pear, citrus and apple fruit sweetness there on the mid-palate binding all the zippy notes together. There’s a lovely presence and harmony to this wine. Grown up Sauvignon Blanc. 92/100
Dog Point Vineyard Section 94 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
Cork sealed. This is so distinctive: bold chalky, green pepper and pear notes with some citrus and fine herb character. Really linear with some grapefruit on the finish. Powerful, edgy and potentially age worthy. 92/100
Dog Point Vineyard Section 94 2007 Marlborough, New Zealand
Cork sealed. 13.5% alcohol. Now aged 10, this is a Sauvignon built for ageing. Natural cork. Deep yellow colour. This is superb stuff, with some nectarine and canteloup melon, as well as a twist of fig and some toast character. There’s some quince, too. Multidimensional and delicious with lovely weight and richness, and still lots of freshness. Finishes fine and spicy, with a hint of cabbage. Lovely wine. 94/100
Dog Point Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
Cork sealed. 13.5% alcohol. Such precision here. There’s some matchstick minerality on the nose, which blends beautifully with the sweet but taut citrus fruit. Intense and direct on the palate with a fine crystalline acid and mineral spine, fleshed out with some yellow plum and white peach fruit. Incredible precision and concentration here, with real finesse and massive potential for development. World class. 95/100
Dog Point Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
Cork sealed. This has a really nice density to it. Concentrated with a savoury, slightly cedary edge to the sweet cherry and raspberry fruit, with nice focus and structure. A bit grippy in its youth but showing nice texture and potential to develop medium-term in bottle. Very appealing and with some seriousness, possessing non fruit complexity. 93/100
MARLBOROUGH AT 50