Change It Up: In the third of our of series about food innovators Kieran Clarkin meets Simon and Lauren Sharpe of Thousand Gods – lo-fi, small-scale, winemakers in the heart of mega-sauvignon blanc country. Change It Up is brought to you by Everybird Coffee.
Winemaking in New Zealand has traditionally been the preserve of large companies or hobbyists retiring from their successful neurosurgery careers. It’s only in the last decade that garagiste winemakers (those without their own vineyards or facilities – aka the punks, the misfits and the visionaries) have broken onto the scene. Simon and Lauren Sharpe established their A Thousand Gods wine label after a decade immersed in the mature French natural scene. The lo-fi, small scale producers emerging here recently have typically centred around Hawkes Bay and other smaller wine regions. A Thousand Gods are bringing low intervention methods and uncommon traditional wine styles to Marlborough wine and the monolithic Sauvignon Blanc.
Lauren and Simon met in the Clare Valley in 2011 as they were both completing their studies and embarking on winemaking careers. Seeking variety, they each worked vintages in a range of countries before settling in Cahors in the South of France. “I was eager to flip the switch, do the one-eighty and head to the other side of the world and unlearn everything I’d been taught.” explains Lauren. Simon describes the Cahors wine region as ‘underrated, downtrodden, commercially not that successful’ but undergoing a renaissance. In order to be noticed, and sell Cahors wine, vignerons needed to excel. A big part of that was eschewing technological innovations and embracing farming-based traditional methods. “We learned how to make thoughtful winemaking decisions based on what the grape was showing you, and to not push the wine too hard in a particular way where you would need to use additives.” says Simon.
A Thousand Gods released their first vintage in 2019, a single wine made from 100% Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Marlborough is the flagship and powerhouse of New Zealand wine, producing three-quarters of New Zealand’s wine in volume most years. The distinctive character of this drop is sought after globally, and each year the challenge is to produce a consistent product, and good quantity, to satisfy the world’s drinkers. Simon has a uniquely specific experience of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, where part of his Master’s study involved chemically quantifying the flavour molecules that make the regional style so distinct from the rest of New Zealand.
The Sharpes acknowledge that producing brand-driven, stylistically consistent wines is something outside their wheel-house. “We’re not trying to rebel against the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc Industry. We appreciate what that has done for New Zealand wine, you can say those wines are distinctive, terroir wines.” Regarding that task however – “a job like that, Simon and I would be the worst winemakers in the room.” Lauren says, noting they haven’t kept up with the changes in technology. It also doesn’t quite gel with their French-influenced methods. “We’re trying to get away from recipe-like, industrialised winemaking. Which means you head in with a strong idea, before the fruit has even been harvested, of what you’re going to make and what kind of style its going to be.”
Assessing the grapes from each vintage is the primary driver of what wines are ultimately made. “What fruit do we have, what can we do with it, what can’t we do with it. There’s a respect for the fruit which dictates what is possible.” says Lauren. They are aided in this endeavour by their sole supplier, Churton vineyards. Organic and conscientiously farmed vines on a prime site mean expanded horizons for the pair; “We realised we could make not just a good wine but a serious wine.” says Simon.
We’re trying to get away from recipe-like, industrialised winemaking. Which means you head in with a strong idea, before the fruit has even been harvested, of what you’re going to make and what kind of style its going to be.”
Initially influenced by late-picked Loire styles, Simon found the circumstances offered alternatives. “We’re influenced by a style but it’s a lot more flexible and needs to be 100% grapes. For example, rather than add acid, we will pick a block early and use that in the blend; it has to come from the grapes. So we attack each vintage with an open plan.” In 2020 the plan was to make a red with Pinot Noir, but Covid restrictions prevented them from being in the winery at crucial points. This led to the creation of their Love Letters rosé which required less monitoring than a classic red wine.
This approach has resulted in a number of interesting styles that are seldom seen in the region. In addition to the Blanc and rosé, their range includes French picnic staples like Pet-Nat and Piquette, as well as a skin-contact, amphora fermented Sauvignon Blanc called Giara. About 60% of their production is now exported to five countries, representing a different aspect of New Zealand’s most famous wine region.
It’s a welcome alternative which hopefully broadens people’s ideas about what Marlborough can be – both consumers and winemakers alike. Although a far cry from the reactionary punks of the 1980s French garagiste scene, Lauren and Simon are setting a precedent in the region for low-intervention, additive-free serious wines. Or as Lauren simply puts it: “We’re making wines the way we’ve learnt and styles we’ve been exposed to.” And always with 100% grapes.