MARISCO’S STEPS TO SECURE AND CONTROL THEIR DESTINY
"The immediate success of these wines exceeded even Brent’s expectations and it was soon clear they needed more fruit."
EMMA JENKINS MW
BRENT Marris has never been one to do things by halves. The man who once answered an interview question about his state of mind being, “energised, excited, buoyant and upbeat” seldom seems to have a different setting. From his early years as the son of one of Marlborough’s earliest contract grapegrowers, via a winemaking qualification at Roseworthy Agricultural College, Brent first became known in the industry for developing the Oyster Bay brand whilst Chief Winemaker at Delegat’s, and then as the driving force behind Wither Hills, which eventually sold to Lion Nathan in 2002 for NZ$52 million. At this point, early retirement would have tempted many, but instead Brent threw himself into developing another winery and brand from scratch – Marisco. Named for the Marris family’s de Marisco ancestors, it is very much a family-focused undertaking. Brent and his wife Rosemary, who is chair of the board, view Marisco as a way of cementing the Marris winegrowing heritage for their four daughters, the eldest of whom, Emma, is winemaker at Marisco running the Leefield Station winery (another daughter Georgia is part of the marketing team whilst the younger two are still studying at university). Brent says, “It is about controlling our destiny”.
In 2003, they purchased a 260ha vineyard in Marlborough’s Waihopai Valley, planting three-quarters in sauvignon blanc plus pinot gris and a few small pockets of chardonnay and viognier. A stylish river hut was then nestled alongside the Waihopai River, allowing Marisco to host guests in an idyllic setting. This vineyard and its onsite winery supply The Ned and The King’s Series brands, launched in 2006. The immediate success of these wines exceeded even Brent’s expectations and it was soon clear they needed more fruit. Suitable bare land is now rare in Marlborough and Brent was open to buying an existing vineyard but when a 2200ha sheep and beef farm, Leefield Station, came on the market, he moved fast. Brent saw the farm as “a prime viticultural site because of its position within a glacial valley filled with mineral rich soil and beautiful rolling foothills,” and conveniently it was just a bit further up the Waihopai Valley road from the existing vineyard and winery. Leefield Station is a beautiful piece of land in its own right and its purchase allowed Brent, Rosemary and their daughters considerable scope to ramp up the Marisco vision.
Around 100ha of vines have been planted so far, with the eventual goal of 650ha in production, and the Leefield Station and The Craft Series brands developed. A new winery received its first fruit in the 2020 harvest and the farm’s original 150-year-old woolshed underwent a careful restoration, serving as an atmospheric space for dinners and events. The past two years have seen the development of ‘The Village’, a collection of communal buildings reminiscent of a traditional farm hub, including a dining hall and village green. Leefield Station remains a working farm, registered as an Angus cattle breeder, running Romney and Hampshire sheep and undertaking a new project with Berkshire pigs. Brent has worked with the farm manager to improve water and feed supplies, fencing and shelter plantings and they have established a huge dam landscaped as a lake. When finished, there will be some 200ha of parkland and streams, 1000ha of stocked hillsides and 300ha of native bush – not only a sophisticated and sustainable farm ecosystem but also a unique wine tourism experience.
Marisco exports around 80% of its production and the intent is to give international guests a New Zealand farm as well as vineyard experience. “Our guests will taste what is grown on the property – Angus, Romney, walnuts, honey and the game, such as deer and goats. We will take them to our river hut or the woolshed, or up to the lake, and cook for them with food that is grown on the property, over a fire under 120-year-old gum trees. They will take Leefield-branded woollen clothing home with them.” And of course, enjoy plenty of Marisco wines alongside it all.
Siobhan Wilson, Marisco GM for Sales and Marketing, explains that the four Marisco brands are carefully differentiated. The Ned (distributed in Australia exclusively through Coles), provides a quintessential expression of Marlborough fruit. “The Ned has been a powerhouse,” she says, surpassing all projections and to their surprise, they now sell more pinot gris and rosé on the domestic market than sauvignon blanc. In the Australian market the rosé has been particularly popular, and demand continues to increase. The King’s Series is about “celebrating the Marisco ancestry, with winemakers drawing fruit from across the vineyards to achieve a style that is complex and works with food”. The Leefield Station range is focused on the on-premise market, and the wines highlight their variety’s relationship with a particular vineyard’s soil and microclimate, whilst the more recently released Craft Series is the beginning of the winemaking team identifying particular pockets of fruit to keep separate and showcase.
Just released is Marisco’s first sparkling wine, a vintage methode traditionnelle named ‘Diamond Heart’, made in tribute to Rosemary Marris. Wilson comments that the approach behind all of Marisco’s wines is to “work with a boutique philosophy, but at scale,” adding, “If Brent does something, he likes to do it well”. That’s no understatement – Marisco started out with 2,000 cases in 2006 and is now running closer to 1 million cases per annum. Brent says, “Controlling the land and the winemaking gives us the point of difference. If we need to grow the brand we won’t be buying bulk wine or dialling up growers. We will be buying more land.” Driven by Brent’s boundless energy and ambition, the Marris family destiny looks to be shaping up well.