Matt and Sophie Thomson create cutting-edge New Zealand wines in Marlborough under the name Blank Canvas Wines, using exceptional varieties and unprecedented techniques.
With over 20 years of experience in the global wine industry and 50 vintages under their belt, Blank Canvas represents Sophie and Matt’s passion for fine wines. The fruit for their wine range is sourced from exceptional single vineyards in Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay.
We caught-up with co-founder & MW student Sophie Parker-Thomson to find out more about their boutique enterprise that encompasses the “new era of creative winemaking”.
Hi Sophie, thank’s a lot for your time…
Who started Blank Canvas Wine and when?
The idea for Blank Canvas has been around a lot longer than its tangible form. It is 100% owned and operated by Matt and I. We’ve been working together for the last six years and the thought of doing something together has been hovering throughout that time. It has taken a while to get the right name, the right fruit and vineyards.
We have Sophie Dooley who has recently joined our team (so two Sophie’s in the mix!) – she is taking care of sales and marketing with a wine marketing degree from EIT Hawkes Bay to complement her BA Hons English qualification.
We have just officially launched the wines in New Zealand last month with our distributor, MacVine International, and we launched in UK/Ireland with our distributor there, Liberty Wines, a few months ago.
Our first vintage was in 2013, with our Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, followed by our two reds, Syrah and Pinot Noir, which joined the stable in 2014 – so we did do things a bit backward but we felt the whites needed holding back prior to release.
Luckily because we are small volume we can afford to do that! It is not unlike many European wineries that hold their whites back before release (e.g. some Austrian Grüner producers’ current release is 2008!) but this is assisted by the fact that Europe has such low-interest rates relative to New Zealand.
What’s the story behind the brand name?
Matt has been an international winemaking consultant (i.e. ‘flying’ and driving, training, taxiing winemaker) for the last 20+ years… in fact we realised the other day he is coming up to his 50th vintage, having worked vintage the last 25 years in both hemispheres. It is quite an amazing achievement to have not missed one yet – I don’t think many can say they have done that!
We both travel to Europe every vintage, based primarily in Verona in Northern Italy but we consult to a number of wineries through our consultancy business, Kiwi-Oeno Limited. Kiwi-Oeno employs four winemakers and two support staff – these guys are truly brilliant at what they do and offer a forum and sounding board that are second to none.
So with that background in mind, the name represents what we want to achieve with the wines – being a consultant means you are always making wine to a brief or specification for what the client wants. These wines, or rather the fruit, we can approach as a “blank canvas”. We also maintain that science and respect of it is fundamental in winemaking – knowing the boundaries of the ‘canvas’ or what science will allow means you can be confident and paint right to the edges of the canvas – you can be as creative as you like with the wine if you know just how hard you can push. We are having fun with the winemaking and the concept. The wines we have produced are ones we like to drink ourselves and we take inspiration from the wines we love around the world.
We are both truly mad on wine and our lives revolve around it. I am currently studying for my MW in the ‘Stage 2’ phase at the moment so researching and tasting wine has become a daily habit for us which does assist with a worldly view for Blank Canvas. My background is in law, but I grew up in a family of wine professionals… Matt on the other hand is surrounded by lawyers in his family and was a renegade for being hell-bent on becoming a winemaker from barely legal drinking age! ;)
What sets you apart from other wineries in the region?
Because of Matt’s international winemaking background I think we can honestly say that our wines have a definite European / Old World influence to them, utilising the expression and power of fruit from Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay.
We are trying some unprecedented things and truly pushing the boundaries – for example, our Syrah from Hawke’s Bay we co-ferment with Grüner Veltliner skins, obviously we draw influence from the Northern Rhône and in particular the Côte-Rôtie appellation which co-ferments traditionally with Viognier. We asked, why Viognier? Is there something better?
We think Grüner is a great fit for its aromatic alignment with Syrah (that is, white pepper from Grüner, and black pepper and juniper from the Syrah without the apricot jamminess that can come from Viognier).
We are small, we don’t own our own vineyards (we can’t afford to!), but we can source some amazing fruit from growers that are committed to the long-term. We love crafting single-vineyard expressions as you get more focus and site expression, it tells a more interesting story. This also allows us to spend more on winemaking and means we’re not under pressure to get the wines out on the market and sold – we can hold them back until we think they are ready.
Our wines are …
All single vineyard expressions!
We have Riesling – inspired by the Kabinett style of the Mosel Valley in Germany, Grüner Veltliner – which has a touch of influence from 500L puncheons, Pinot Noir – seriously savoury with 50% whole bunch fermentation. These are all from Marlborough vineyards, and a Hawke’s Bay Syrah – as mentioned earlier co-fermented with GV and 60% whole bunch fermentation.
To be released soon we have a classic expression of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from Dillons Point, an alternative wild-fermented Sauvignon, and a puncheon-fermented, wild ferment Chardonnay. We are very excited!
What’s your signature wine?
We don’t really have a signature wine – we consider all of them to be signatures. We only make and release them if they are good enough and if they are interesting enough to carry the Blank Canvas name.
Most memorable winemaking moment to date?
It was definitely pouring buckets of Grüner Veltliner skins from a trailer into our precious two tanks of fermenting Syrah from Hawke’s Bay at 3am in the morning in 2014… at the time it was a very nervous moment as we had really no guarantee that it would work out! It’s a world first and we’re pleased to say it’s been a big success – enough so that we’ve done it again for 2015 and beyond.
Funniest customer tasting story?
Matt always recalls the time when he was asked at what point he added the passionfruit and blackcurrants to his Sauvignon Blanc….
Top 3 things to do in your area?
- Exploring the Marlborough Sounds – winter is an especially good time to do it in because you get stable, calm days with warm sunshine but this is when all the marine life is very active so it’s great for spotting dolphins and orcas that come into the sounds.
- Sawcut Gorge walk – this is an amazing limestone gorge in the Ure Valley south of Blenheim. In spring there are spectacular displays of native broom that are exclusive to that valley, and Marlborough rock daisies covering the steep rock faces.
- Visiting the seal pups at Ohau stream near Kekerengu – a really neat waterfall track leads you to a pool just boiling with seal pups. It is amazing to see them in the wild and this close just happily playing in this waterfall pool.