If you want to start your own cider and winemaking business it wouldn’t hurt at all if you have a decent wine production pedigree, and that is the case with Mark and Sophie McGill from Abel in Flaxmore Road.
In fact it would be difficult to find a family background more impressive, Sophie’s parents James & Wendy Healy have been in the wine industry for over 40 years. Working with the iconic Cloudy Bay and then going on to co-establish Dog Point Vineyard in Marlborough. Mark’s dad, Linton, has been a viticulturist for just as long, working throughout New Zealand and then planting a vineyard in the Wairarapa in the early 90’s.
While it’s no surprise this young couple ended up in the winemaking industry they have set their own direction after gaining qualifications and hands-on experience. As Sophie said “we are lucky to have our parents to give us guidance but they have also made sure this is our business and they are there for advice when we need it.”
Mark is a winemaker by qualification and as well as working in a few wineries he spent 18 years in the winemaking supply sector, selling barrels and other equipment while Sophie’s a winemakers daughter with a science degree majoring in neuropsychology and physics. When she was studying in Dunedin she worked part time at a wine store.
When I sat down with Mark, Sophie and James at their vineyard and orchard last week James said he is really pleased one of their kids is interested in the sector, “for a while Sophie didn’t really show a lot of interest and she chose her own field of study, but as happens she found she enjoyed working in the wine industry rather than everything just happening around her like it did when she was growing up.”
Sophie ended up in Melbourne working for a winemaking supply company too “it just sort of happened, but it was a great way to learn about winemaking without being a winemaker. We sold everything from harvesting equipment to presses and everything else producers need to make wine so I had to know what each piece of equipment was for to be able to make great recommendations to our clients, big and small.”
Mark has always been involved in the wine industry with his father’s viticulture background “working in the vineyard, winemaking, and then selling barrels. Dad planted a vineyard in the Wairarapa when I was at school, that’s when I got the bug and went on to study winemaking at Uni. My first vintage post university was in the Hunter Valley, my second as winemaker in the Wairarapa. I got an SOS call from an old family friend so I made his wines for a two vintages then I did a couple more vintages overseas before getting involved in the supplies sector,”
It was in Melbourne they first met, “at a wine show where we were representing our different companies, we just hit it off straightaway” say Sophie. As it happened their jobs also took them to all parts of the world, but particularly Europe, visiting cooperages and winemaking equipment manufacturers, as well as plenty of overseas wine producers so they gained a huge amount of industry knowledge.
When they started a family they decided that living in an apartment with two girls that were born in Melbourne wasn’t going to work long term so had to decide between moving into something bigger in Melbourne or moving back to New Zealand.
New Zealand won and because Mark had been playing around with cider in the back yard and they had tried all sorts of ciders that were tasteless and sweet they saw an opportunity to make a cider that is made like a wine as a starting point before eventually making wine as well.
Nelson was the preferred location because it was close to their parents in Marlborough and there was a great supply of various heritage apples to use for cider making.
While they established the Abel label Mark, Sophie and the girls lived with James and Wendy in Marlborough, James says “we were really happy to come over to Nelson to help out and we eventually retired here too. Wendy’s folks had a holiday home here for decades and her mother moved here before she died so as a family we have strong links to the region.”
Mark’s dad moved here too so it’s a big family affair which Sophie says is a huge help with child care arrangements as well as having free labour and advice in the vineyard and winery.
So what about the wine? “Living with mum and dad it was going to be chardonnay, James says “the Finns proved over many years how good the Moutere Clay soils are for producing chardonnay so we knew what we wanted”, but it took three years to find the perfect site.
James told me “one of the really brilliant things was finding this block, we simply couldn’t get better in the region and while this is Mark and Sophie’s business we are very willing workers, I’m really loving it, it’s like going back to grass roots and after 25 years working in the cellar door at Cloudy Bay Wendy is loving being in the vineyard. Having the little ones close is also fantastic for us.”
When it comes to the Abel Cider they mill the apples and ferment the whole pulped fruit rather than just the juice, “we get more flavour and structure” says Mark
Sophie told me that because they have approached it from a winemaking perspective “we do things a little differently, we mill into open top fermenters and then have bottle fermentation too, just like making Champagne but with apples.”
The Abel label is an exciting new addition to the winemaking scene in the Nelson and with the expertise and huge experience they have on-tap within the family I expect outstanding things from this fledgling business in the years to come, watch this space. www.abelwine.com