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John Belsham of Foxes Island

We hosted John Belsham for New Zealand’s Foxes Island, where he takes premium Marlborough Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc in a different direction, and you’ll want to follow him. View the range here.

John Belsham and Kelly Brown

‘That gives us a texture in the wines that is structured yet elegant. What we’re looking for is the concentration and depth from the fruit without any influence from other materials. Machine harvesters are very good these days, however, there is always some phenolic material–leaves and stems–in the harvest.’

That was John Belsham, taking our Brokers through his latest vintage releases. Within a short space of time, it was clear that John isn’t a man who goes in for ‘almost’, ‘good enough’ or ‘that’ll do.’ 

Sur Lie Aged Sauvignon Blanc

At that point, he was talking about his Sur Lie Aged Sauvignon Blanc. Released after five years, the wine (which sees a little French oak) tastes nothing like a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc–which it technically is. Instead, it is a complex, almost confounding, sophisticated wine. It’s way underpriced. So much so, that unless John kicks off this own lees-aged ‘sauvilanche’ it will probably be underpriced for a while. Sorry, John.

‘It’s a little secret weapon...’

On the nose, it’s all wine show gold with struck match, nutty lees notes and pop of lemon zest. Does this sound like a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to you? On the palate, the lees show again with a textural, biscuity entree that gives way to peach notes and a slatey minerality. There’s a touch of salinity there, too. Recognise any MSB characters? Nope. It’s a little secret weapon—when you pour it your guests won’t guess it. You’ll probably get ‘is it French?’ And that should tell you something.

The Tasting Room - Auckland

Foxes Island La Lapine Awatere Valley
After the Sur Lie Aged SB, we moved on to the La Lapine—French for the rabbit. In true John Belsham hierarchical style, this wine is a step up. It’s like everything written above but in capital letters. Or, rather, where you taste lemons with the Sur Lie Aged SB, the La Lapine shows Positano lemons. It’s that kind of wine. Released a little later, the Lapine will go for a lot longer and develop in the bottle. It also sports a black label, a sure sign of sophistication.

The red line-up was three bottles of Pinot Noir—Fox by JB (the Foxes Island entry-level range), the Estate, from John’s own Belsham Awatere Estate and the Le Renard, the flagship wine and, like the La Lapine, also sporting a schmick black label. 

Fox by JB Pinot Noir Awatere Valley
The Fox by JB Pinot Noir is a bit more than you might expect from an entry-level Pinot, particularly at this price. Unsurprisingly, it’s very popular with Langton’s customers. Fruity, spicy, good acid, length and balance; approachable in every sense—a straight up and down ‘drink now’ wine with a very good pedigree. What’s not to like?

The Tasting Room - Bottles on Display

Foxes Island Estate Pinot Noir Awatere Valley
The Belsham Awatere Estate Pinot raises the stakes somewhat. John isn’t too keen to let his little vinous chicks fly the coop as soon as the ferment is done. ‘Most people just don’t cellar wine these days,’ he says with a what-can-you-do shrug, ‘so we do it for them.’ The estate Pinot is released around seven years after vintage. The fruit is sourced from close-planted, low yielding vines. First destemmed, the fruit sees lengthy cold maceration prior to open-topped oak and stainless steel fermentation. Ten months on French oak barriques for 10 months. After this, it sees the inside of the Foxes Island cellar for six years.

‘Like La Lapine, it is more in every way.’

Foxes Island Le Renard Pinot Noir Awatere Valley
Taking another step up, there’s the Le Renard—the French for ‘the fox.’ Like La Lapine, it is more in every way. Structured so that it requires good age and late released so you don’t have to, the Le Renard looks, smells and tastes every bit a serious wine. 30% whole bunch adds extra tannin and lightens the intensity of the colour as age gives it a ruddy complexion. There’s herbs, spice, cherry and a hint of oak and the bottle age also adds a little note of fungi.

On the selection of wood, John discussed terroir of oak—American, French and European. ‘It’s incredibly important, and not very well understood. I’ve worked with the same French cooper for 35 years.’ They make their barrels from single forest selections. Recently, they introduced a barrel made of a blend of all five of their forests, their flagship offering—essentially, it’s a complex oak barrel. One which imbues the wine with further nuanced layers of complexity. Unsurprisingly, these are the barrels that John uses.

Good enough is never good enough for John Belsham which means the wines of Foxes Island will just keep on getting better.

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