September 19, 2021

Q&A with Squawking Magpie's Winemaker Jenny Dobson

Q&A with Jenny Dobson 

(video transcript)

I'm Caroline Herrick, part of the New Zealand Wine Navigator Tasting Panel and I'm so excited I'm actually having a bit of a fangirl moment here today as I get to chat to Jenny Dobson who is the winemaker for Squawking Magpie Wines – otherwise known as the Red Queen. As you can see from a nickname like that, clearly Jenny is wine making royalty. Not only is she one of New Zealand's leading wine makers but she was the first ever female Cellar Master in Bordeaux, France. So she has absolutely pioneered winemaking for women, paving the way for women winemakers all over the world. Plus she makes some of the most fabulous red wine i have ever tasted.

Jenny, hello how are you?

I'm very well, nice to be here.

Thank you so much for making time. Before we get into things i have to say i am such a fan of Squawking Magpie. I did manage to get my hands on a few bottles of the 2013 SQM Syrah and also the Merlot Malbec blend that surfaced on the market a couple of months ago, and I have to say I'm still saving a few bottles for a special occasion and believe it or not New Zealand Wine Navigator still has a very limited stock of the 2013 Big Red available to US customers.

Well that 2013 Cabernet SQM (called Big Red in the US) it's just such a glorious wine it really stands head and shoulders above a lot of wines but it's so enjoyable, it's so approachable. It has a completeness about it and yet there's nothing heavy or overwhelming. It's still got what I love – fingers of flavor in the mouth, it sort of dances on the palette. It's a glorious wine. I still have a couple of bottles myself and I know it'll keep going so I'm looking forward to enjoying those in a few years time. 

And that was the vintage of the SQM Cabernet Sauvignon that was awarded the top honours at the San Francisco International Wine Festival

That was. It's a glorious wine. 

2013 was a pretty magic growing season I believe? 

As far as Merlot is concerned it was the best Merlot vintage that I'd ever seen in 40 years. So it was pretty outstanding but every great variety performed so well, it was a dream it was an absolute Cinderella. Everything was there in the perfect proportions. We had the right amount of sun but not too much. We had the right amount of rain but at the right times. The growing season was magnificent and it felt even better because 2012 was so challenging. We went from probably my most difficult vintage to an absolutely glorious vintage from 2012. So the wines in 2013 just made you smile. They were perfect they were balanced from day one.

I've heard critics say the 2013 SQM was the best bottlings of that label they've ever tasted.  Has there been a better vintage since then?

Ones that approach but in terms of exquisite balance, it's still the benchmark. That's why winemakers always want another vintage because it might be better or it might be as good!

Let's get into your winemaking philosophy and style. What is it that you think gives you the Midas touch? 

You know winemaking is… you have to think about everything. Everything matters and some of the time you don't even know what you should be looking for, what is important. Years of experience I think just gives you that attention to detail. It is a passion. It is an art. It's a science. It's such a combination of in some ways opposites. We think of art and science as being opposites and they come together in wine. I just make wine with love.

So tell me a little bit more about this this artistic side. What do you mean when you say you it's a combination of art and science?

If you think about how we describe wines, you could put the same language into music into other forms of art and food and sculpture, painting. It it appeals to the senses. A lot of the decisions that are made in winemaking are based not on analysis or scientific figures, they're actually based on sensory appreciation. The the decisions are made through taste and I guess taste is an art. It's subjective, as a winemaker you've always got to keep an objective side to it. So the best tool that you have in the laboratory is actually your palette.

We've talked about taste. What about smell and aromas?

I think smell is what brought me into wine making. I've always been fascinated by aromas. I still am. My earliest memories are linked to smells. I can remember the house we lived in when I was three years old because there was a rosemary bush at the gate. My memory is linked with smells and I'm fascinated by the mechanisms – how we smell, why things smell differently. Wine is just such a glorious avenue for people who enjoy smelling things. I love the sequence and the development of aromatics in a glass of wine when you first pick it up, when you swirl it. The wealth of aromas that come out of a glass of wine, for me, that is what good wine is all about. Not one-dimensional wines, not wines that just have a single smell. I love the layers and the complexity and the way that the second time you smell it that little hint of something has become more defined.

I know exactly what you mean. I think I discovered the power of aromas in my very first wine tasting experience, and I wish I could remember the vineyard. It was a place in Nelson and it was a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc of course, and before we tasted it they said “smell the glass”, and they described it as green tomatoes and tomato plants. I took a sniff and it just took me back to my grandfather's greenhouse when I was six or seven years old.

This is it! Smells just evoke memories and it's amazing. Your nose can also get very adapted to a smell and becomes a little bit overwhelmed and dumb. One of the easiest ways to refocus your sense of smell is to actually smell coffee beans. So I always have a little jar of coffee beans with me and if I think my sense of smell is getting a little bit dull I just open the lid on my jar of coffee beans, have a quick smell and it refocuses my sense of smell. Likewise with your palette, if i'm tasting rather than drinking wines, I'm generally tasting young red wines, needing to make decisions on them and tannins again coat the mouth and you become less sensitive to the texture of wine, to the the feel of the tannins. And therefore I have to think, am i tasting this correctly, or is it the accumulation of tannin on my palate and I'm not making the right decisions and the right calls. So I found that just very lightly toasted pine nuts, eating a couple of those brings my palate back to neutral. So you get to know your own palette what works and also at what point you say I'm no longer making correct decisions I need to have a break.

So let's talk about you and your career. I'm really fascinated in your experience in France. I mean you know it's a no-brainer right? France is synonymous with great wine and there's no other place in the world, particularly at that time, the budding winemaker would want to craft their skills. But was that your intention? Did you specifically go to France as a young woman to learn how to make wine?

I did. Yeah I did. I studied chemistry at university in New Zealand there were no wine schools there was Lincoln hadn't started a wine degree, Australia Charles Sturt was just starting, Davis in California, and I thought, like most New Zealanders, I want to do an OE (Overseas Experience), why not go to France and learn about wine making in France. It was to me the holy grail of wine and I was lucky enough to find a job in France and basically learnt on the job. 

The industry at the time I imagine was very male dominated.

In France it was really male dominated. This was 1979 and there were signs outside cellars in French wineries that said “Forbidden for women to enter”. I asked why and I was told that women had funny acids in their body that would turn the wine to vinegar. Now this is only 1979. I know it seems a long time ago but it wasn't actually. I guess at the time I thought this was a bit ridiculous and I just carried on. I was deaf to all the criticism and you know in the end it's a work ethic, it's a passion and people do appreciate that. So yes, although I am sure it limited a lot of things I could do, I could still make wine. I stayed in France for 16 years. 

You were the first female Cellar Master in Bordeaux. How did that happen?

That's correct. I was employed by an American. His family had owned the Chateau for five generations. But he had been born in America. I guess in some ways he gave me a break. He probably thought “this will shock my neighbors” and so I was fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time and in the end the wines spoke for themselves. And in fact I think the neighbors were actually quite proud that there was a woman looking after the vineyards making the wine. And look, the wine's good and the vineyards look good. You know we're a wee bit special because we've got a woman and a foreigner making wine in our village. I think at that time in France that was the ceiling. That probably at that time I couldn't have gone any further. Nowadays women are everywhere in wine in France so it was a start. In fact i remember going back to France in 2003 and I met a woman, she was a winemaking consultant and she said my grandmother used to drive me past the Chateau where you worked and I said to her “I want to be like that lady one day”. So I broke the mold and women could carry on afterwards.

What a great pioneer for women winemakers. So on that, what would you say to a young Jenny today who was thinking about starting her wine making career

It's a lot of hard work. It's a lot of dirty work. You spend a lot of time cleaning, you spend a lot of time with cold wet hands and wet feet. You've got to have a passion for what you're doing. You've got to taste widely, be very attentive, write tasting notes because your palette is so important. It's still not an easy road for women in New Zealand and I would say probably in France as well but then again it's not that easy for men. I think a great advantage that young women have today is that there are so many women in the wine industry. They'll be working on the cellar floor with men and men will be working with women. When I was starting out in a cellar there were no other women so when those jobs were offered up the chain it tended to be men who were employing and they employed men because they’d only worked with men. Now we're getting to the point where women are moving to the higher levels in winemaking companies and men respect them because they've actually worked with them on the cellar floor and seen that they were equally as good. I think that's the big change that's coming in New Zealand at the moment – women are moving into higher levels in organizations and it's accepted because they've started on the ground floor and moved up which was not the case when I was starting. There were no women in those upper echelons.

So rumor has it that your nickname, the Red Queen, you were given that during your time in France

I probably was working with red wine more than white wine and I was very passionate about what I did. So yeah that and blending was such an important part of what I did. In France in Bordeaux the wines are blends and blending it is an art because you're using your palette. Two percent, two drops in a 100ml cylinder can make a big, big difference and until you actually see that you probably don't believe it. I think one of the things that really surprised me when I first came back to Australia and New Zealand was that the art of blending was not really thought about. It was more, we've got a rubbishy wine, how can we hide it? How can we blend it away?

Instead, I'd always come from the philosophy of two and two make five – you make a better wine by blending. By taking two good wines and making an even better wine. Because otherwise, why would you blend if you can't make a better wine? You might as well stay with a single grape variety.

So talking about Australia, that's a good segue. You left France and headed to Australia next? 

Western Australia yes. Making wine in Western Australia, I think the biggest difference coming from France was seeing grapes with more sugar in them at picking time than i'd ever seen in France but the flavors were still green. So there's a difference in the ripening in the grapes in Western Australia to what I’d been used to in France. In France, sugar seemed to come up slowly and the flavors were there. In Western Australia i was seeing sugars up and flavors down so I was picking grapes at a higher sugar level to get the same maturity in the flavors and tannins. So that was a big change coming back to New Zealand (and these are for red wines)

I found it was more similar to France. We had a slower rise in sugar so we often have more moderate alcohol levels for the same level of ripeness of flavors which is a little bit more akin to Bordeaux, so I felt very at home coming back to New Zealand. 

What drives those differences? Is that the sunshine hours?

The temperature, sunshine, heat, rainfall, soils – all those sorts of things. And of course we manipulate, shall we say, our canopies to give us the maximum ripening but still we're at the mercy of nature. Nature is way more powerful than man. We work with nature to give us the best grapes so we can make the best wine, but nature is still more powerful. There isn't a word for winemaker in France because they don't believe a person makes the wine you can be a wine grower. The wine grower is working with nature and it's nature that's making the wine and you're just part of the whole process. So I think I still carry that belief into my wine making. And balance is the most important thing that I'm looking for and it's a balance of the sweeter elements of the wine – the sugar and the alcohol, the fruit sweetness along with the tannins and the acid, all wrapped up in flavor. 

Back in New Zealand did you go straight to Hawke's Bay?

I did. I did look at all different regions in New Zealand but I did think Hawke's Bay was the logical choice for me because of the Bordeaux red varieties but that being said I was very thorough in my due diligence and visited Central Otago, Marlborough, Martinborough, north of Auckland, but yes, Hawke's Bay is where we settled.

How long have you been working with Squawking Magpie? 

Since 2008. 

What keeps you interested? Is it the idea of ‘what's in that next vintage’?

Very much so. Every wine is different and I'm trying to make the best possible wine. Authentic, that reflects the grapes it's made from, the growing season, the vineyard... And every growing season is different so there are challenges all the time. I come across different flavors, different textures, different challenges every year. It is a very holistic business to be in. You’re in the vineyard but you must never lose focus of the fact you are making wine for people to enjoy. So you've got to understand and be aware of the market and it's changing all the time. We're not static in the way we live. The way we eat, the way we drink is changing therefore the way we enjoy wines and the wines we enjoy change. We're on a flying carpet, you have to be very adaptable and I enjoy the challenges. 

How long have you been making wine? 

Since 1979. Gee it's a long time. You know one of the really sad things about being at this stage in my winemaking is going “some of those wines might outlive me”. I might not be around to enjoy them and that's a very sad thought. So that's why you have to think about balance because a wine that's balanced can be actually enjoyed at all times in its life. It might reach harmony when it's just at this exquisite point at some later stage but if it's balanced you can actually enjoy it anytime.

So what's next, is there anything on your winemaking resume left to tick off?

To tick off, no. But to keep going, yes! There's, look we're in spring, we're just getting some bud bursts on Chardonnay – it's an exciting time. It's another vintage! But also I've got 2020/21 wines which are just babies. I'm really developing my knowledge of them. They're beginning to show their character. I've got 2020 wines that I'm getting ready for bottle and I want to make sure that I've really captured their full potential – it's exciting, it's exciting I think.

I have this little thing that I'd like to do and I've been saying it for a few years and I still haven't done it. I'd actually quite like to make Vermouth. That's an aperitif wine. It's infused with herbs and spices and again it's aromatics and it's the blending of those aromatics. So yeah, I might just have to hand try my hand at Vermouth.