Chief Winemaker Natalie Christensen’s unique style has seen Yealands achieve global recognition for its outstanding wines, from Pinot Noir to its internationally noted Sauvignon Blanc. Accolades include 12 medals and a trophy at the 2023 International Wine Challenge – where Natalie herself has become the first New Zealander in 15 years to win White Winemaker of the Year, a huge testament to her ability.
Growing up in Ōtautahi Christchurch’s seaside Moncks Bay, the classically-trained double bass player had her heart set on a career in music – a composer for films, or later, a music therapist. But music didn’t offer the stability and career advancement opportunities she was after.
A Master of Science in industrial organisational psychology followed. However, to use Natalie’s own words, “I worked in Human Resources for eight months. And it really wasn’t for me.” She wanted to create something. But if not music, then what?
It seems the God of Wine was on prayer duty that day. Natalie’s brother, then living in Blenheim, suggested she come up for a harvest at St Clair Family Estate. From day one, Natalie’s response was, “They pay you to do this?!”
During her time at Saint Clair, Natalie travelled the world to harvests at Bordeaux and Oregon, before joining Wairarapa's Matahiwi Estate, then La Cana in Spain, each time bringing more nuance, maturity and flavour to her experience.
Then in 2015, she joined the team at Yealands, and found home.
“This vineyard produces the most flavourful, elegant yet powerful wines I’ve ever tasted,” Natalie says. “Where we’re situated in the Awatere Valley is amazing. When you drive up in the morning, you’ve got the sun coming up over the Cook Strait, it’s just so special,” she says.
Her passion is palpable. During the busy vintage season, she's used to spending 12 hours a day, checking fermentation and problem-solving, getting hands on. That doesn’t mean music, psychology and travel have been entirely left behind.
As Yealands’ Chief Winemaker since 2019, Natalie has introduced new innovations, including some inspired by a trip to an ashram in India. “When I was there, I learned about mantra and chanting. It got me asking whether there was something I could do with musical vibration to enhance the flavour of the wine,” she explains.
The Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2021 was put to the test. Half of the vintage was aged in barrels in a hall where mantras were played throughout, the other half being the “control”. When each batch was tasted, the one from the mantra hall was fruitier, purer and “beautiful”, Natalie says. It was recently awarded best pinot noir at the 2023 London Wine Competition.
Sustainability is another passion, and one of Yealands’ founding principles. Natalie is looking forward to playing a part in the winery’s new 30-year Biodiversity Plan, which will restore wetlands and waterways to their natural state and boost biodiversity at the site, with a goal to become carbon-positive by 2050. She’s a firm believer that sustainability and commercial success are perfectly achievable together. “Sustainability isn’t just important to wine-making, but every business. And it actually makes decision-making easier. If there’s a more sustainable way of doing things, that’s the way to go.”
Further innovation with new flavours is also on the cards. During her time in northern Spain, Natalie fell in love with the local albariño grapes, and is already planning to experiment further with her new favourites. “When you taste an Albariño from Galicia, there’s a subtle saltiness in the palate, and that’s something we also have here at our Seaview vineyard.” Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Albariño 2022 has already won several medals this year.
You get the sense that, despite the hard work, there’s nothing more she looks forward to than another day among the vines and the barrels. “I’ve got to travel to lots of interesting places and be part of a global community of people who just love life. Being a winemaker has been an incredible journey.”