2011 Gimblett Gravels: Classically Constructed
Tuesday 3 December
Classic is an apt descriptor for the 2011 reds from Gimblett Gravels in 2011. Voluptuous they are not.
For the fourth year running, the Hawke’s Bay subregion of Gimblett Gravels has selected 12 wines “as a unique snapshot of a particular vintage” and it’s time to taste what it’s got to offer.
The 2010/ 2011 vintage started well enough: it was a lovely and warm summer until February when it all went pear-shaped, cooling down with rain through March and April to the harvest and beyond.
As a result, notes the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association, “The sugar levels in the fruit were lower than normal due to the wetter autumn but there are no signs of unripeness in the resultant wines.”
Indeed there’s no greenness in the wines but exuberant New World fruit ripeness is not a feature in this vintage. Expect restrained wines with a rather classical Old World structure in the Bordeaux blends.
Those blends with a large chunk of earlier-ripening Merlot are particularly successful, providing plenty of charming fruit on the mid-palate with the cooler growing season packing a punchy line of acidity on the finish.
Tony Bish, winemaker at Sacred Hill and current chair of the Association said: “Cabernet Sauvignon was a bit skinny so Merlot and Cabernet Franc have put some flesh on the bones. “
All the Bordeaux blends have abundant tannins and firm acidity. I’d question the concentration of fruit on a couple of examples but overall the wines show that even in a cooler vintage, the best producers can make the right picking and sorting decisions and blend judiciously.
I’ll publish all the tasting notes on my shiny new website, which I was hoping would be up several weeks ago but IT being IT has put paid to my best laid plans… In the meantime, here are my top picks to give you a flavour of what’s to come:
2011 Sacred Hill The Helmsman, Gimblett Gravels
50% cab sauv, 25% cab franc, 25% merlot. Very attractive and alluring wine. Perfumed: pure black cherry fruit, plus spice and florals. It’s certainly no blockbuster with medium body but this wine shows its class in the density of fruit, which carries the new oak well. Its pedigree is backed up by mouthcoating, structured tannins, fine line and long length. 18.5 or 93/100
2011 Newton Forrest, Stony Corner, Gimblett Gravels
50% cab sauv, 30% malbec, 20% merlot. Richly aromatic, redolent of fruitcake, spice and black cherry fruit. One of the riper styles from the vintage, managing 14% alcohol and a high level of ripe fruit concentration on the mid palate. Abundant structured tannins and firm acidity, with long length. At $30, this is either an incredible bargain or I am a cheap date. You decide! 18/20 or 90/100
2011 Squawking Magpie, Stoned Crow Syrah, Gimblett Gravels
Richly aromatic and complex nose, redolent of black and red cherry fruit, violets, and smoky bacon. Medium-bodied style, certainly not the weightiest Syrah from Squawking Magpie, but this is a reflection of the cooler growing conditions. Abundant tannins, fresh acidity and long length. Very attractive. 17.5+ or 89/100
2011 Sacred Hill Brokenstone, Gimblett Gravels
82% merlot, 8% cab sauv, 7% syrah, 3% malbec. ThIs wine is a charmer: soft on the mid palate with lovely richness. There’s lifted floral characters and spicy notes on the nose combined with vanilla-like oak in the mouth. On the finish, this alluring wine then packs a punch with firm acidity driving this to a linear finish. Well balanced with the high level of fruit concentration handling the 14% alcohol and 50% new oak well. 17.5+/20 or 88/100
New Zealand Fizz: What Future?
Tuesday 12 November
New Zealand sparkling wine has great potential: vintage Pelorus, No. 1 Family Estate and older vintages of both Deutz and Daniel Le Brun show that when it’s good, it’s very, very good.
But if New Zealand is such a perfect place to make sparkling wine, why have the major Champagne wine houses not arrived? Admittedly, Moet Hennessy-owned Cloudy Bay produces Pelorus but beyond that, where are Taittinger, Roederer, Mumm and friends? They’re all in California - as are the major Cava producers.
Is it a question of our climate, soils or know-how? It’s probably the fact that New Zealand’s at the end of the earth. Next stop, penguins and polar bears. Plus, there are little more than 4 million people here, making the domestic market not half as attractive as the United States.
Nevertheless, there’s a tendency to compare New Zealand sparkling wine to Champagne. Benchmarking is only natural but let’s look at the figures: there are just over 35,000 hectares of vines across the whole of New Zealand: nearly 60% of plantings are dedicated to Sauvignon Blanc, followed by Pinot Noir mainly destined for red table wine, Chardonnay – mostly for still white wine, and pinot gris. The Champagne region has 35,000 hectares dedicated almost exclusively to producing sparkling varieties.
What’s more, there are just four producers dedicated solely to methode traditionelle sparkling wine in New Zealand. In Champagne, there are thousands of growers and hundreds of houses. Champagne is apples and New Zealand is pears – or kiwis.
If the country wants to be known for its high-quality sparkling wine, it’s going to need more than a small handful of producers focusing solely on the pursuit of beautiful bubbles. But that needs time and money, which many producers don’t have in abundance.
Nevertheless, a small group of producers in Marlborough have set up an association in a bid to take this category more seriously. Established in August, 2013, there are 11 founding members. Members of Methode Marlborough must make sparkling wine from the three Champagne varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – and the wines must spend 18 months on lees before disgorgement. It’s well intentioned and a good starting point although I would like to see the group grow to encompass other methode makers around New Zealand.
What’s more, there’s no minimum quality level. Surely, there should be an independent tasting panel of some sort to ensure that this group has the goods it needs to be taken seriously? But it’s still early days and these suggestions might already be on the cards. I wish them luck and hope that more New Zealand wine producers will fulfil the potential a small handful of Kiwi methode makers have shown.
Marlborough Chardonnay’s Route to Restraint
Tuesday 5 November
Cheerleading isn’t my forte. Having never been much of a pom-pom shaker. it appears that I may have to start practising some chants for New Zealand Chardonnay.
Beyond a small clutch of impressive Kiwi Chardonnays, there have long been too many disappointments in a cool climate that should be conducive to making fresh, linear and elegant Chardonnays.
But a weekend spent in Marlborough showed there has been a lot of progress made by quality-conscious producers that are looking to make their Chardonnays more complex.
Stylistically the wines appear a lot more restrained, interesting and structured. How so?
Starting in the vineyard, there are a number of factors at play: putting the right clones in the ground, older vines, and not treating Chardonnay vines like they’re Sauvignon Blanc. Picking decisions also play an important role, explains Villa Maria winemaker Jeremy McKenzie: “In the past there were probably riper picking decisions - maybe more 14 percent plus alcohols. These days I feel there’s a lot more between 13.5 and 14 percent, and winemakers are a lot more conscious of that.”
Heading to the winery, there are plenty of tools producers are using. This non-aromatic variety provides a canvas for the winemaker to paint their stylistic signature. Pressing the grapes and then settling the juice to within an inch of its life isn’t conducive to characterful, interesting wines and there’s growing use of solids in ferments plus spontaneous fermentations.
But Marcel Giesen of Giesen wines notes that you can lose some of the fruit this way: “Winemaking with full solids and particularly the trend towards natural yeast, that certainly can add a rich layer of complexity. But you have to do a trade of fruit for complexity.”
What’s more, fermentation and maturation is increasingly taking place in second fill barrels, wooden cuves, or larger oak formats to bring greater integration of wood and fruit.
Whatever the vessel, once the alcoholic fermentation is finished and the new wine has completed the malolactic fermentation, producers appear to be holding back on adding sulfur, which acts as an antioxidant and antimicrobial. But sulfur early and you ‘fix’ that buttery character (diacetyl) created by the malolactic fermentation.
McKenzie notes: “What you’re seeing here is not a lot of diacetyl left in these wines…People are more conscious of that these days and maybe they are delaying their sulfuring and allowing some savory character to come through.”
This will be bad news for some Chardonnay drinkers who love butter in their wine but I’m not one of them and boy, am I glad to see us moving away from the Lurpak.
One of the major Marmite debates in Kiwi Chardonnay at the moment is sulfides. Yes, love ‘em or hate ‘em, they are du jour. Some people say it smells like gunflint but quite frankly I’ve never smelled gunflint so I compare it to struck matches – when it gets bad it can smell like eggy farts.
A little is good, a lot is often deemed faulty but it appears most people’s threshold differs. Giesen says: “A quick way to minerality is via the sulfide road. I think the level of acceptability is what we need to get a handle on. But how much is too much? I have to confess I am a sucker for sulfites. But I still want to see fruit and I want to see the message that the vineyard had of telling rather than the yeast or the lack of nutrients [in the fermentation].”
So, after that technical run-down in the current Marlborough Chardonnay movement, let’s get down to the good stuff…
I’ve picked a bunch of Marlborough Chardonnays you should get your paws on, including one particularly Marmitey wine that you really need to make your own mind up on…
2010 Auntsfield Cob Cottage Chardonnay
A classy wine: smooth and alluring on the mid palate with a taut and linear finish. A tad shy on the nose and palate not showing a lot of obvious fruit; more on the citrus side of things. Good quality french oak nuttiness lingers long on the lengthy finish. 18.5/20 or 93/100
2011 Giesen The Fuder Chardonnay
A powerful richly aromatic style with sulfide-derived struck match and white flowers, adding an attractive layer of complexity. Supple and full-bodied. Plenty of quality oak toast too. Fresh acidity. 18/20 or 90/100
2009 Spy Vally Envoy Chardonnay
An interesting wine. Complex, sulfide-driven, linear style, offering floral and white talc aromas followed by mouthwatering lemony acidity. Oak and alcohol well integrated, creating a harmonious and attractive wine. Long length. 18/20 or 90/100
2012 Nautilus Estate Chardonnay
Restrained nose. Supple and full bodied with integrated nutty oak. Moderate intensity lacking perhaps a little concentration to make it top tier. Fresh linear acidity. 17/20 or 86/90
2011 Dog Point Chardonnay
Sulphides overpower the nose. Amazing intensity of fruit and great structure followed by firm acidity. What a wine! Unfortunately it’s undrinkable at the moment - I can’t get over the burnt match and egg reduction but come back to this in a few year’s time and if those sulfides have turned to toasty notes, it’ll be one hell of a wine. Really hard to mark: 15/20 for drinking now 18++/20 if those sulfides blow off at some point in the distant future.
My Top 5: 2012 Central Otago Pinot Noir
Monday 14 October
While it rained on most New Zealanders’ barbies in the summer of 2012, the sun had got his hat on in Central Otago.
“It was a lovely season,” says Nadine Cross, winemaker at Peregrine. “We were sitting quiet while the rest of the country was talking about the horrendous summer they were having…not trying to be too smug.”
There weren’t any major incidences to speak of during the season. While there were rain “events” towards the end of the season, with double the annual rainfall recorded in February (71mm) and March (84mm), the producers claim that was a welcome relief for the vines, preventing water stress.
Blair Walter, Felton Road winemaker, explained: “The rain made for very healthy canopies that relieved the stress on the vines. That’s a big factor in Central Otago, we can get a lot of stress from the very hot, dry February/March and very very low humidity, which is not great for plants. They don’t enjoy that.”
If Central Otago does get rain, it doesn’t stay wet for long either: “Even when we do get 20mm of rain and it’s been wet for half a day, you can almost guarantee it’s going to be windy and sunny and things dry out extremely quickly. The 10 days I was in France in June it was overcast and cloudy. I only saw blue sky for a couple of hours and it just reminded me the stability of continental weather systems as opposed to our island weather system,” he added.
In a blind pre-release tasting of the 2012 Pinots, some pretty impressive wines emerged. I am a big fan of the 2010 vintage but 2012 could give it a run for its money.
The best show a combination of ripe fruit, depth on the mid-palate, a fresh line of acidity and abundant mouthcoating tannin. There’s harmony in this vintage when it comes to both alcohol levels and, oak management, which is well handled in 80+ percent of cases.
In general, the 2012s are much more enjoyable than the 2011s, at this early stage. The 2011s show firm rather than fresh acidity and are looking relatively austere. They aren’t particularly joyful whereas there is plenty of appeal in the 12s already; the 12s have got the legs to age too with plenty of concentration, an abundance of tannin, plus fresh acidity.
Inevitably, quality varies across the region with the less successful examples showing a lack of concentration and relatively simple fruit profile, which may be a sign of younger vines. There were also a few disappointments from some of the most highly-regarded producers in the region, whose wines didn’t show as well as expected but perhaps that will change with time in bottle. Overall a 4 ½ out of 5 vintage.
Here are my top 5 wines of the vintage, as tasted in September 2013. All scores will be published on my new website, which should go live next month, IT depending…
My Top 5
2012 Valli Bannockburn Vineyard
I love the smell of an unfined and unfiltered wine, it’s slightly dirty yet unadulterated. This is a very elegant wine; if it were a dance it would be the American smooth. Pure fruit, still closed at the moment but showing total harmony. Great depth of fruit: it manages complexity and density with a lightness and delicacy. Fresh acidity provides dartlike precision. My wine of the vintage. 19/20 or 94/100
2012 Felton Road Block 5
Plum skin and black cherry, firm acidity, fine line, suave but expansive pinot with mouthcoating tannins, concentrated without weight. Mouthwatering. Poised
18.2/20 or 91/100
2012 Mount Difficulty
Complex nose showing plum skin, florals, slight aspirin character, sweet fruit on entry. Light bodied, delicate yet mouthfilling with fresh acidity. An attractive and feminine pinot. Fine line.18/20 or 90/100
2012 Valli Gibbston Vineyard
Vibrant purple appearance. Both struck match and toasty oak dominate the nose at the moment but the class of the wine shows through: pure, focussed and relatively delicate on the mid palate. Attractive structure and high concentration with lovely flow; plum and clove spice linger long on the palate. A great wine but it just needs to get over its reductive edge. 18/20 or 90/100
2012 Pisa Range Black Poplar Block
A tad meaty – slightly reductive at this stage and not giving up much on the nose. On the palate, it has depth and focus. Quite a mysterious little number, there’s clearly plenty of fruit lurking in the glass but it’s a tightly-coiled spring right now. Very pure and silken texture. fine mouthcoating tannins have an almost chalky grain to them. A little warm on the finish but the structure shows low yields with good concentration and long length. Like to see this again late in its life. 17.7/20 or 88/100
Making Pinot Noir the Dry River Way
Sunday 6 October
They give their vines a brazilian wax and in the winery, Dry River is no less radical.
Throw away your winemaking books when you enter their cellar.
Okay, so there’s a prefermentation cold soak, which is fairly standard practice for many Pinot Noir producers, in a bid to increase colour intensity and aromatic lift, but that’s where anything standard finishes.
Pinot tends to be in contact with skins (maceration) for 21-28 days in most wineries. Not at Dry River: it’s game over for the skins after 12-14 days. Post fermentation maceration? No, sir-ee. Ferment to dryness and press off straight away.
“We’d rather not have long fermentation on reds for the extraction of tannins from seeds and stems because those are not the phenolics that we are after. We are trying to extract real gentle phenolics that have developed in the vineyard,” explains Dutch winemaker, Wilco Lam.
Once the fermentation is done and dusted, is it time for barrel fermentation? Yes and no. First there’s malolactic fermentation in tank rather than in barrel.
Safely through malo and in barrel, most winemakers would rack their wines (transfer from one barrel to another as part of the clarification process, which also provides aeration). No thanks, no racking here. Lazy, I joke. And doesn’t the wine get a sulfide-induced stink, if there’s no exposure to oxygen through racking?
No, says Dutch winemaker Wilco Lam. “Because we allow malolactic fermentation in tank, when you transfer them to barrel, the lees content is a lot lower than pressing and going to barrel with quite heavy lees [lees are reductive]. There’s a lot less SO2 production happening there in barrel.”
But surely they get a bit smelly? “Sometimes – but we won’t find out until we take it out of barrel. Yes, we’ll follow them but we’d rather deal with it afterwards than deal with it beforehand. If they need a little copper [sulphate] going to barrel [to remove the sulphide] we will.”
Okay, I see their reasoning but why don’t you rack? It’s about bottle maturation, apparently. “We exclude oxygen at any stage for all varieties and we believe that will give us extra longevity in the bottle, avoiding any oxidation possible.”
Extra longevity? Most Kiwi Pinot is purchased and consumed before the wine is out of nappies. Luckily for Dry River, they have an almost cult (sorry I hate the c-word too) following in New Zealand. They have educated their mail-order only customers that these wines are produced for the long haul and shouldn’t be opened for at least five to 10 years. If only we could spread the ‘you don’t have to drink your wine immediately’ word further afield, drinkers would see another side to NZ Pinot.
2011 Dry River Pinot Noir
Forget sweetly-fruited pinot noir, this Kiwi pinot is all about structure. Currently closed on the nose. Delicate on the mid-palate, almost ethereal, showing density of fruit without weight. Subtle spice and clove oak spice on the long finish. 90/100
2003 Dry River Pinot Noir
Now starting to develop but it still has plenty of time on its hands. It is showing some secondary mushroom-like character, broody spice and smoked meat. High level of concentration from very low crops yet delicate in the mouth, finishing with great drive and linearity, likely due to whole bunch fermentation. Long length. 93/100
1992 Dry River Riesling
Remarkably fresh for a wine that’s celebrating its 21st birthday. Bouquet is developed but not fully mature,: expect lime and peach fruit, honeyed notes and mandarin. Beautifully balanced, linear and fresh. 92/100