August 17, 2021|In Winery Spotlight

Foxes Island: Regionally Distinctive & Exquisitely Crafted

The quest for the best.

“Every vintage is this drive to make an even better wine than last year. And to make the best possible wine that I’ve ever made in my life” – John Belsham, Owner/Winemaker


You could be forgiven for thinking that Foxes island wines has been named after the “silver fox” himself, winemaker extraordinaire, John Belsham. Although he has leading man good looks, he is more importantly a man of many talents. First and foremost, of course, he is the founder of the prestigious Foxes Island winery in Marlborough.

The first wine he produced was a Chardonnay, back in 1992, and since then he has secured and planted plots of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and of course Pinot Noir in the Wairau Plains and Awatere Valley of Marlborough. His wines are some of the best in New Zealand, and testament to what can be produced given a conscientious and gentle approach. His decades of experience have honed his focus to exquisitely craft regionally expressive wines.


Foxes Island was recently named by Wine & Spirits Magazine in the United States as producing the ‘Year’s Best, New World Sauvignon Blanc’ whilst all of the wines have earned 90+ points by significant international critics.

Foxes Island owner/winemaker, John Belsham

About the Leading Man:

John Belsham’s talents are many and varied. An international winemaker, wine business consultant, wine judge and critic, Belsham’s long wine industry experience has also been instrumental in shaping and guiding many of the most successful wine companies in NZ today. And this vast experience obviously counts for a great deal in the making of fine wine for his own company Foxes Island.

It was as a young fella doing his O.E that he first got a yen to delve into the world of wine. He ended up at Château de Saturnin in Bordeaux in 1977 and stayed there for five years – enough time to become fluent in French and learn a few Old World ‘tricks’ of the wine trade. On returning to New Zealand Belsham worked for Nobilo’s and Matua Valley wines. After which he moved on to become the head winemaker at Marlborough’s pioneering Hunter’s Wines.

In 1988 he planted his own Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at a 4.5-hectare vineyard in the Rapaura Road area in Marlborough. To complement this, he purchased 20 hectares in the Awatere in 2000, and now also draws on grapes from two further vineyards in the Wairau Valley.

Belsham founded Marlborough Oak Imports in 1990, and today exclusively supplies the French oak wine barrels of Dargaud & Jaegle and Vallaurine to New Zealand wine companies.

Busy boy Belsham was instrumental in developing Rapaura Vintners, the first commercial and large-scale contract winemaking facility in the Marlborough region. By 1994, Belsham started Wine Focus, a consulting practice focused in areas of business strategy, technical winemaking expertise, sensory evaluation, and winery design. He holds a number of board positions and advisory roles.

In his spare time, (just kidding), Belsham also led the New Zealand Screw Cap Initiative, which shifted 95% of the NZ wine industry from cork to cap closures within an 18-month period between 2000 and 2001. Belsham continues as chair of the NZSCI.

Throughout all this time, John’s palate was honed by his roles as lead wine panel chair for Cuisine magazine tastings for 16 years, the Air New Zealand Wine Awards and Royal Easter Show judging. Further, he was wine consultant to Air NZ for 20 years. Undoubtedly, he is one of Australasia’s most experienced and respected wine judges and critics. Few people in New Zealand’s wine industry can match such diverse experience and track record!


“Give them a snapshot of that vineyard in that glass of wine” – John Belsham, Owner/Winemaker

The Theatre – The Terroir of Foxes Island:

Initially Belsham made the wines for Foxes Island from his Rapaura vineyard on the Wairau Plains and produced the very first Foxes Island wine: Chardonnay, in the 1992 vintage. His refined winemaking touch assured almost-instant success. This was the genesis for the electrifying and polished wines that were to come.

In search of a suitable Pinot Noir site, Belsham identified a neglected 20-hectare Awatere property in 1998 and set about creating the Foxes Island Awatere Estate. Flanked by Black Birch and the Kaikoura Ranges, the Awatere Valley is the most geographically distinct subregion and stretches a long way south to the edge of Marlborough’s Geographical Indication (G.I). This is Marlborough’s driest, coolest, and windiest subregion dominated by its river and flood plains. It may be tougher to grow grapes here, but this is probably lending the Awatere’s wines some of their characteristic intensity, often exhibiting a flinty minerality and rapier-like acidity.

Taming this unruly, overgrown site required a sensitive approach to preserve the natural terracing and diverse soil profiles. It is an area with its own geological significance. There are seven distinct terraces carved out during the glacial period and with exceptional soils that are approximately 40,000 years old. The top three metres of soil are a silty clay loam that sits on a bed of old river rock and papa limestone. Absolutely perfect for Pinot Noir. So, after two years of careful planning and minimal soil disturbance, John Belsham planted the first vines in 2000. Sustainably farmed from the start, the Awatere Estate vineyard has high density plantings principally of Pinot Noir, also with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. This unique terroir influences the profiles of the elegant Foxes Island wines produced, making them highly regarded and quite distinctive.


“We taste with texture and emotion” – John Belsham, Owner/Winemaker

Bottle of wine lying among flowers

Belsham’s Beauties - The Wines:

As an international wine judge, John Belsham has spent years and years evaluating other people’s wines, deconstructing them, looking at what makes them great. So, when he’s back in the winery, he’s referencing this background of international knowledge in his own quest for the best.

And part of the pursuit for excellence, has seen Foxes Island embrace the importance of cellar ageing their wines before release. It is the only winery in NZ to do this – “instant cellaring” without excessive pricing. What’s not to love about this philosophy? We’re the winners!

Being one of the first people to craft single vineyard wines in New Zealand, Foxes Island Chardonnay and Pinot Noir represent a generation of care, commitment, and refinement. Right from the first vintages of Foxes Island Chardonnay, it was said to be the loveliest of NZ’s leading ladies of chardonnay. And with the current release 2016 vintage heralding in the 24th vintage of Foxes Island Chardonnay and the 21st vintages of Foxes Island Pinot Noir – it’s time to celebrate and unscrew a few caps!

2016 Foxes Island Awatere Estate Chardonnay:

“Moderately intense chardonnay with grapefruit, white peach, green apple, caramel, and baguette crust supported by vibrant acidity.” 92/100 points, Bob Campbell MW

But let’s not forget that character actor and unashamed workhorse – Sav Blanc!

In 2019, Foxes Island was judged BEST Sauvignon Blanc in the Six Nations Wine Competition.

Sauvignon Blanc, good old savvy, gets a bad rap, even with some producers whose livelihood relies on its success, disparaging it with very colourful descriptors like “cougar juice” or “bitch diesel”. This is a real disservice to a variety that is actually able to express its terroir (sense of place) and attain finesse when treated with respect as John Belsham most certainly does.

Early on, Belsham stood out from the pack, by dedicating himself to making more complex versions of Sauvignon Blanc. Yes, he makes the fresh ‘n’ fruity, zingy versions too (FOX Le Cadet Sauvignon Blanc for example.) But John has also worked tirelessly to destroy the myth that Sauvignon Blanc has to be consumed young.

At the winery, depending on the vintages, Belsham uses wild yeast and sensitive barrel fermentation, extended lees contact and gentler extractions. The Foxes Island wines show the extra attention and love, with more concentration and complexity, as well as richer textures. And importantly, this gives them the ability to age.

So, times they are a-changin’! And it’s time to reacquaint your senses with this often-derided variety. Go on – try some exquisite Foxes Island Sur Lie Aged Sauvignon Blanc or the Icon Series La Lapine. You’ll be impressed!

2013 Foxes Island Icon Series La Lapine Sauvignon Blanc:

It has taken a team of great minds, a special vineyard, and a natural approach to produce a wine that transcends the conventional and yields something truly special. Made in a similar style to the Chardonnay, La Lapine (‘the rabbit’) is a selection of the finest Sauvignon Blanc vines within the Estate, handpicked and carefully transported in small bins to the winery. Fermented with indigenous yeasts in French oak barrels; a process that takes 10 months to complete. The wine is then bottled and allowed to age in the cellar prior to release. We cheekily suggest, this is a top-quality aged savvy for chardy drinkers.

“The bouquet is intense and mysterious with aromas of wildflowers and subtle spice, stone, peach blossom and citrus with grapefruit then red apple and mild dried tropical fruit suggestions; a waxy mild toasty layer adds further complexity. On the palate – equally intense with vibrant electric acidity, pure silk texture and seamless flavour integration; reminders of spice, fruit, and blossom form part of a lengthy finish. A wine to enjoy now but will continue to impress through 2022 – perhaps longer.” 96/100 points, Cameron Douglas, Master Sommelier

“Rich, textural Sauvignon Blanc with a mix of floral and citrus flavours together with herb, tomato leaf and chalky mineral character. A classy and sophisticated wine – still quite fresh after four years with potential to gain even greater depth and complexity with further bottle age.” 95/100 points, Bob Campbell MW

“We taste with texture and emotion” – John Belsham, Owner/Winemaker

It could be said its thanks to serious producers like Foxes Island that Marlborough Pinot Noir continues to gain momentum on the international stage.

Pinot’s knack for transparency – by revealing the characteristics of the place where it’s grown – also helps showcase regionality across New Zealand. Generally, Marlborough Pinot Noir plays second fiddle to some other regions like Central Otago, yet they are equally distinctive and delicious, however often under-appreciated by the less astute wine buyer. Foxes Island is changing that up, too! Awatere Valley Pinots offer perfumed red fruit notes like bright raspberry, cherry, and damson plums on the palate. They typically have freshness from subtle acidity that is complemented by their linear structure and even tannin backbone. Then with the signature Foxes Island cellar ageing we are tasting exquisite savoury complexity, charcuterie characters – even a ‘Gevrey-Chambertin-esque’ quality and depth.

2011 Foxes Island Icon Series Le Renard Pinot Noir:

Pinot Noir is the heart of Foxes Island and the Icon Series wines were 18 years in the making before they were totally satisfied that the wines were genuinely outstanding and worthy of the ‘Icon’ status. This is a powerful yet elegant wine with layers of flavours, complexity, and subtle textures. The best vines are hand tended and the selected fruit is naturally vinified by indigenous yeast in oak cuvees. Matured in small, French oak barrels, the best components are selected for the final blend. Although Le Renard (‘the fox’) is a collector’s wine, it can be enjoyed today or cellared for the next 15 years.

“Riesling is one of the great white wines of the world that rewards those with patience and continually challenges and inspires me as a winemaker” – John Belsham, Owner/Winemaker

2013 Foxes Island Belsham Awatere Estate Dry Riesling:

Cellared for five years prior to release, the Dry Riesling is decidedly focused and finely textured; perfectly capturing the stony vineyard in which it grows. Aromas of citrus blossom and ripe nectarine fill the glass whilst flavours of white peach, lime and wet stone flavours are accented with a slight hint of fennel. The focused length and fresh acidity make this wine extremely versatile.

“Our spirit embodies sensitive farming, a gentle hand in winemaking and Giving for Good whilst every wine delivers delight” – Kelly Brown, FOX Wines

Never Stop Evolving – FOX by John Belsham Wines – Giving for Good:

Always seeking innovative and sustainable ways to lighten their carbon footprint, John Belsham and his partner Kelly Brown decided to create a collection of award-winning, vegan FOX Wines in styles that celebrate community, inclusivity, and diversity whilst Giving for Good. These are vegan-friendly lusciously approachable everyday wines. The FOX Collection now includes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. Over-delivering quality for price, these are divine wines to share around the table with family and friends.

“We must constantly nurture the land and our communities for today and future generations,” says John. “Thus, we made Fox Wines a vehicle to do good and help combat climate change”. The model is simple, buy FOX Wines and a portion of every wine purchase is donated to support global re-forestation efforts, planting trees, improving waterways, economies, and communities. Wonderfully, a win-win initiative.

2018 FOX by John Belsham Le Petit Chardonnay:

“Light, fresh, fruit-focused chardonnay with green apple, saline, oyster-shell, and citrus-grapefruit flavour. A taut and moderately austere wine that needs to be enjoyed with food – oysters with a squeeze of lime would make a good match.” 88/100 points, Bob Campbell MW

Forty years on, Belsham’s passion for producing exceptional wines has thankfully yet to wane. These are limited in production and genuinely hand crafted to celebrate the people and the land. Foxes Island wines uniquely capture the beauty, depth and elegance that is world class and quintessentially New Zealand.