Jenny Dobson

Jenny Dobson

William Murdoch (Consultant Winemaker)

“Wine needs to be an expression of the place, it needs to be made with passion, it has to have an identity”

Jenny Dobson is a person of great passion and resolve. For her, winemaking is a lifestyle, not a job.

Always interested in aromas—all her childhood memories are aroma-related—Jenny decided to study science at Otago University in Dunedin after graduating from high school in Timaru on New Zealand’s South Island. (No universities in New Zealand offered studies in enology at that time.) Jenny shifted her studies to food science and chose wine-related topics for course assignments. She completed her degree in 1978 and promptly traveled to France’s Burgundy region to learn more about winemaking.

Her first experience was at Domaine Dujac, where she apprenticed with the legendary winemaker Jacques Seysses, and worked in the cellar and vineyard for two vintages. “I always have viewed this experience as the foundation of my wine-growing philosophy. In 1979, in France, wine was working with nature, as much it was a business.”

Jenny then moved to Paris and worked with the British wine expert and wine merchant, Stephen Spurrier, teaching wine-appreciation courses and further developing her palate. It was during this period, that she met Charles at a tasting, the man she later married. He is British and was a wine merchant at the time.

From there, Jenny moved in1983 to accept a cellar master or Maître de Chais position at Chateau Sénéjac in the Haut Médoc, the first woman to hold such a position in the Bordeaux. Jenny noted that “. . . there were no women in the cellar, and I was so busy doing [wine production] that I found little prejudice.” She was highly successful during her ten years there, and her red wines became renowned. “The Red Queen” a phrase often used to describe Jenny likely had its origin here.

A return, first to Australia and then to New Zealand was prompted by Jenny’s experiencing the proverbial glass ceiling and by she and Charles wanting to rear their three children in an English-speaking country. Hawke’s Bay was a good fit with her Bordeaux experience and also offered the possibility of excellent viticulture. She held consultant positions at Sacred Hill, Te Awa, and a few other wineries, and in 1998 accepted the Chief Winemaker position at Te Awa, a position she held until 2008. Since then, Jenny has continued to work as a consultant winemaker.

Words of Advice. Jenny sees cellar work as crucial. In addition, she emphasized that she could not do what she does without the support of her husband. He fully participated in the rearing of their three children, now all young adults, and equally shares in managing their home life.

The Wines. Jenny’s wines have received numerous awards, and the wineries for which she consults have produced some of New Zealand’s finest red wines. We met Jenny at William Murdoch Winery, where she is the consultant winemaker. Jenny also makes wines for Sacred Hill, Unison Vineyard, and Squawking Magpie.

Experiencing Jenny as the consummate teacher of wine tasting and wine appreciation was one of many highlights of our time together. She surprised us with the opportunity to taste four excellent 2014 Syrahs she had crafted. The vineyards producing these Syrahs are located in different parts of the Gimblett Gravels wine-growing district. Thus, the winemaker was the “constant” across the four wines, and the terroir was the “variable.”

After learning more about the terroir from Jenny, our task was to identify how terroir made a difference in what we tasted. A major factor in this is a vineyard’s location relative to Roys Hill, a promontory in the area that diverts chilly westerly winds. William Murdoch, for example, has the coolest of the four vineyards, and this produces the intense flavor and concentration of its Syrah. We returned home with a bottle of the 2010 William Murdoch Syrah, a gift from Jenny.

Jenny explained that in crafting wines, both architecture and crescendo are needed.

“Wine has to have an attack—to say something immediately but also has to keep talking to you, move to the mid-palette for flavors to develop, and then finish. Wine needs to do gymnastics on your palette.”

And her luscious Syrahs did exactly that.

Jenny is also creating her own label, Jenny Dobson Wines. One wine currently in small production is crafted from the relatively unknown white Italian wine grape, Fiano. We were allowed to have a taste, and its apple, honeysuckle and citric aromas were wonderful.