Brian Bicknell’s wine journey was written in the stars – apparently. After drinking his way around Europe in his 20s he became interested in wine and upon returning to New Zealand to study a botany degree he needed work, so he applied for a position at a wine store. The competition was fierce, so the owner took the unusual step of charting the stars of the three most likely candidates.
“Apparently when I was born my three major planets lined up in a perfect triangle, meaning I have a ‘Lucky Trine,’ and life will be good,” Bicknell explained. While he isn’t a believer, life was good in this case, and he got the job. After experiencing vintages in France, Hungary and Chile, Bicknell settled in Marlborough. The winery itself was established back in 1984 by Daniel Le Brun. After passing through several hands it ended up in Bicknell’s, who set about “Mahi-fying it” to suit the Mahi style of winemaking in 2006, and has now completed his 11th vintage at the site.
Bicknell is nothing if not passionate about wine. “I just love the sensual side of it – it involves all the senses, from smelling the wines, the juices, the ferments, watching the vines, plunging in our hands, and obviously tasting, tasting, tasting. I also like the romance of it all – the fact that we sell fun.” He describes himself as “an inherently scruffy person,” a personality trait which comes into its own at vintage time. “When you aren’t working you sleep, and when you’re awake it is all about the wine, so it is total immersion, which I love,” he said.
The aim of Mahi is to make wines that taste of their place. “As far as I can see this involves messing with them as little as possible,” admitted Bicknell. He has been using wild yeast fermentation processes since the early 90s and is a fan of the texture and complexity that they offer. “I love the idea of using the population from that particular vineyard in conjunction with the fruit from that vineyard to help make it more expressive of its site”.
The vineyards that Mahi predominantly work with are located at the cooler end of the Wairau Valley. As the vineyards get older, deeper roots and a slower, more consistent growth of the vine gives what Bicknell describes as “pretty special fruit”. Marlborough has a cool but long ripening period, and Bicknell prefers cooler sites with more complex soils as they seem to retain better acidity and structure. Mahi Wines is also passionate about sustainable projects, including programmed refrigeration and keeping water usage to a minimum. Three of the vineyards owned or leased by Mahi are certified organic. The wines sit on lees in barrels for 11 to 16 months and do not use protein fining, meaning the wines are suitable for vegans.
For Bicknell, the true satisfaction of winemaking comes from being involved at every stage of production. “You get to choose the vineyards, grow the grapes, make the wine, bottle it, age it and then go out to some of the best restaurants in the world and talk about it.” His wife, Nicola, even designed the Mahi label.
Bicknell plans to return to Sancerre in France’s Loire Valley for the vintage this year, noting that the history associated with French wine is something which sets it apart from New Zealand. “The place I work is in the courtyard of, nearly incorporated into, a house that has been in the family for generations”. Outside of wine, Bicknell enjoys sailing the Marlborough Sounds in his 107-year-old launch. “I race on Tuesday nights over spring and summer with a bunch of dodgy winery folk,” he joked. “I always have a blast”.