Natalie Christensen, Chief Winemaker for Yealands, at Zuma Restaurant in Manhattan, New York
Fresh off the plane, Natalie realized that her attempts to cram the Spanish language into her head by taking lessons back in her native home of New Zealand was practically useless in the Galicia region of Spain as they have their own dialect. There she became the winemaker for an Albariño producer that, to her surprise, not only had just finished building a new winery facility but they were expecting the fruit to be harvested within a week of Natalie’s arrival. After her first day of realizing that she had to quickly setup the winery as she glanced over its messy state, she went back to her accommodation which was on the third floor of a bar and she wrapped herself in a big, thick blanket while saying to herself, ‘Oh my god, what have I done?!’. In the end, it ended up being a great harvest that year and she was given an interpreter to help communicate with the workers. During this overwhelming experience, Natalie grew in amazing ways as a person and winemaker that eventually led her to becoming the chief winemaker at Yealands Wines in Marlborough, New Zealand, but if it wasn’t for Natalie being able to get past the mental panics that naturally accompany such a situation she would have never been able to empower herself with each challenge rather than being diminished by them.
Natalie Christensen had an interesting path before ending up as the head winemaker at Yealands, that was initially started with a quarter-life crisis. In her homeland of New Zealand, she had a bachelor’s degree in classical music and a master’s degree in psychology as playing the double bass and examining the human mind were both passions. She found herself working in HR and although she was a people person, the job had very little to do with connecting with people. One day Natalie thought about how she had spent all her higher education on beautiful, creative things that explored the mind, heart and soul of the human experience and there she was completely removed from a fulfilling life. So at the age of 25 she took a sharp turn by quitting her job to see what life had to offer beyond a cubicle and where her talents would be best suited.
Aerial View of Yealands Seaview Vineyard
“My brother was living in Marlborough at the time and he said I should do a harvest” Natalie explained how she ended up interning at her first winery. Everything immediately clicked at the winery for her since she was a volunteer firefighter when she was completing her master’s degree and the pumps and hoses made her feel right at home. Natalie noted with a relaxed smile, “I slept really well at night, looked forward to going to the winery everyday and I just couldn’t believe it was a job. It was something I never really considered.” She would go on to get a degree in Oenology and participate in harvests around the world in such places as Bordeaux and Oregon eventually working herself up to winemaker at a New Zealand winery.
One day she was having a drink at the local bar with a couple of friends who worked at other wineries and she simply asked what they were doing during their downtime between New Zealand vintages and they said they were doing harvest in Spain (Southern Hemisphere’s growing season happens at different times than Northern Hemisphere). That faithful night her friends mentioned that a winery in Galicia was looking for a white wine maker and Natalie thought it would be interesting and so she passed on her number out of curiosity. Within a couple of days, including the time talking to a contact at the winery and sending her resume, she was given the job. “I had a house, a boyfriend, a cat and I couldn’t speak Spanish and I was like, ‘I’m going to do this’” and one month later she was off to Spain.
Seaview Vineyard Blocks Near the Coast
Natalie’s full-throttle experience of learning to make Albariño in Galicia was filled with many “highs and lows” yet it was an “amazing” one that led to an opportunity to be part of the sixth largest winery in New Zealand, Yealands Wine Group, focusing on their smaller production, premium line of Yealands wines that would express not only the Awatere Valley in Marlborough, cooler and drier than the main valley in Marlborough (Wairau Valley), but also selections of special plots within their Seaview Vineyard. Natalie joined the Yealands winemaking team in 2015 and she took over as chief winemaker in January of 2019. “I have been working at Yealands for five years now and every morning when I drive up, over the rise, and the vineyards are out in front of me, my tummy still drops” Natalie said with a twinkle in her eyes. Her further description of the land being along the baby blue colored coast where mountains accent the seemingly never-ending vineyards was enchanting to say the least.
Babydoll Sheep in Yealands Seaview Vineyard
Besides being given a wide range of fruit to use to assist Natalie’s blending endeavors she is given complete freedom with her Winemaker’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc to play with varying winemaking techniques and vessels, different sizes of French oak and concrete eggs for example, to blend a multilayered wine. Yet there is further exciting challenges that Yealands offers her with their recent commitment to reducing emissions by 80% once they reach the year 2045 with almost 20% being already achieved; this new lofty goal was established once they recently joined the International Wineries for Climate Action. The winery has already been using solar panels and wind turbines to create energy for their winery. Natalie noted that the idea of sustainability is “very much a part of everything that we do.” She even pointed out that they burn the prunings from their vines to create heat for their hot water instead of using gas.
Fulfillment Tied To Reached Potential
The idea of finding fulfillment in life can be a complicated one that is initially filtered through expectations of one’s upbringing and societal pressures. Many times those achievements that many hold dear to their heart very early on become a heavy chain that trap people in a sleepwalk of dealing with the mind-numbing tasks that many jobs become overtime. But is it really a trap? Is there a way out? And some may, deep-down inside, know that the answer is ‘yes’ but they are paralyzed by fear.
When it came to Natalie talking about her hobbies she said that her long-lived fascination with the mind led her to taking mediation classes that had her staying at an ashram for two and a half weeks last year. “I think of the things I learned when I was doing my degree in psychology and the idea of the placebo effect illustrating the human potential of the mind” Natalie stated with an electric energy of curiosity in her voice. So much of one’s potential will never be known as the mind’s complexity is still a mystery to even the leading experts in the field yet even taking on a slight challenge here and there can unlock a tinier part of its potential. Natalie opened herself to opportunities and as the situation became quickly overwhelming she found the mental strength each morning to pick herself up and take on what needed to be handled despite those feelings of doubts flooding her mind at the end of the night. That quality is what makes her a great leader for a winemaking team that is constantly setting forth grand goals each year; the quality that she can do it because it has to be done.
2018 Yealands Estate Winemaker’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc
A few other points about Yealands commitment to sustainable and holistic practices: Babydoll sheep graze in between the vines, chickens are used for insect control and solar powered classical music is played in the vineyards with the vibrations contributing to positive effects among the vines.
2019 Yealands, Sauvignon Blanc: 100% Sauvignon Blanc. Natalie noted that the hallmark of their wines is a sense of minerality that can be expressed by a salty richness as well as having a texture component that gives the wine energy and drive. This is their flagship wine and a blend of vineyards from two different areas. Predominantly from their Seaview Vineyard in the cooler and drier Awatere Valley but a little bit from the Wairau Valley is blended to “build in some fleshiness”. Peach skin with a hint of dried thyme and a long, flavorful finish for this warmer 2019 vintage – impressive for a wine at this price point. Suggested retail price: $14.99.
2019 Yealands Estate, Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc: 100% Sauvignon Blanc. A single vineyard that comes from two blocks within their Seaview Vineyard that express the extreme conditions of lots of sunshine and wind, cool nights and low rainfall, which produces a smaller, thicker skinned berry with intense fruit flavors. Rich nectarine with hints of juicy mango that was bright with a stony finish. Suggested retail price: $23.99.
2019 Yealands Estate, Single Block S1 Sauvignon Blanc: 100% Sauvignon Blanc. This vineyard is 525 feet above sea level and an inland block sheltered from the wind and so it is one of the first to harvest since it ripens sooner. A deliciously soft, fruity quality with layers of lush stone fruit yet balanced with citrus zest. Suggested retail price: $29.99.
2019 Yealands Estate, Single Block L5 Sauvignon Blanc: 100% Sauvignon Blanc. The L5 Block is situated in a very exposed area right on the coastline of their Seaview Vineyard. It is the coolest, most extreme site on the property and it is one of the last blocks to be harvested. Natalie said this 2019 Single Block L5 gave her “goosebumps” when she first tried it. Lots of fleshy weight with a evident textural component that made it multidimensional. The saline minerality was predominant with a superbly long-lasting complex finish. Suggested retail price: $29.99.
2018 Yealands Estate, Winemaker’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc: 100% Sauvignon Blanc. This is the wine that Natalie is given free range with selected grapes from the Seaview Vineyard. Various sections of the fruit was fermented in an array of vessels, including a concrete egg, French oak oval and a selection of older 500L and 225L French oak barrels including some natural ferments; all of the oak was used as to create texture avoiding adding oak flavor. A multi-layered wine with a tactile mouthfeel that was creamy on the mid-palate and framed with a fine structure with honeysuckle and chalky mineral notes that had savory spices on the aromatically charged finish. Suggested retail price: $54.99.
2018 Yealands, Pinot Noir: 100% Pinot Noir. Yealands is experimenting with dry farming with some of their Pinot Noir “as it is a variety that quite likes to struggle; it doesn’t mind harsh growing conditions. It makes the fruit more intense as Pinot Noir vines like to work hard as it will create stronger fruit” Natalie explained. 2018 was a cooler vintage and this Pinot Noir is lighter in style than the 2019; notes of baking spice and earth with restrained fruit. This is a blend of vineyards from the Awatere Valley and the Wairau Valley. Suggested retail price: $18.99.
2019 Yealands Estate, Single Vineyard Pinot Noir: 100% Pinot Noir. This 2019 Single Vineyard Pinot Noir was only recently bottled when tasted. Natalie noted that 2019 was an incredible year for Pinot Noir; really low crops, intense fruit, lots of ripeness and lush texture. This wine predominantly comes from two blocks within the Seaview Vineyard; one block gives “lush, fleshy, soft style of Pinot Noir” and the other block “high-toned, bright raspberry, cherry, spicy notes of the grape”. Aged in a mixture of French oak sizes with only 15% new oak. An explosion of black cherry with a plush cassis flavor on the palate with hint of cocoa powder and smoldering earth with a well-structured, flavorful finish with lingering pretty lavender notes. Suggested retail price: $30.99.