Hawke’s Bay – New Zealand’s Diverse Region

Looking North East towards Napier from Te Mata Peak – photo courtesy of Te Mata Winery.

The world seems to love New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, especially from Marlborough on South Island. Wine drinkers appear to have an insatiable appetite for this lively style of wine with its crisp, green characters softened with tropical exuberance.

However the other 30% or so of New Zealand’s wines that are not made from Sauvignon Blanc and do not come from Marlborough are also well worth exploring.

My favourite region must be Hawke’s Bay on North Island. This beautiful place is defined by the great sweep of Hawke Bay itself – confusingly the region is called Hawke’s (or more normally Hawkes on wine labels) Bay, while the body of water is Hawke Bay, named by Captain Cook in honour of Sir Edward Hawke, First Lord of the Admiralty. It is a largely rural place and includes some spectacular countryside, but the urban centres offer many charms too. The city of Napier was destroyed by an earthquake in 1931 and was totally rebuilt in the, then, current Art Deco style. Nearby Hastings is the other centre and was also largely rebuilt in the Art Deco style. This time capsule of 1930s glamour makes these cities wonderfully evocative places to wander around. The Hastings suburb of Havelock North, very near Te Mata peak, with its relaxing villagey feel is a lovely place to visit too.

Wine map of Hawke’s Bay – click for a larger view.

Although it has been surpassed by Marlborough in recent decades and now only produces around 10% of New Zealand’s wine, Hawke’s Bay is still the second largest wine region in the country and the principal centre for red wine production. 

What I love here is the sense of history, the first winery was established in 1851 – 120 years or so before vines were grown in Marlborough. In fact several of the leading producers here including Mission Estate, Te Mata, Church Road, Vidal Estate and Esk Valley were all well established by the 1930s.

Of course history never flows in a straight line and although there was indeed a brief flowering of dry wine production here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the likes of Te Mata winning awards for their pre World War I “clarets”, the real demand in the days of the British Empire was for Port and Sherry substitutes, fortified wines. It was not until the 1970s that the emphasis moved to dry wines and another twenty years before Hawke’s Bay started to acquire the reputation as a wine region, especially for reds, that it enjoys today.

Being half way up North Island, Hawke’s Bay is one of the warmest areas in New Zealand and enjoys a long growing season. This enables Hawke’s Bay to specialise in grape varieties that simply cannot ripen in the cool maritime conditions further south. That being said, it is still a temperate and moderate climate. This contrasts with almost all other “New World” wine producing countries which have hotter Mediterranean climates. The temperatures in the growing season are a bit warmer than Bordeaux, but cooler than California’s Napa Valley. 

Looking south and east across the Tukituki River – photo by Quentin Sadler

Of course nothing is simple, so where the grapes grow within Hawke’s Bay is an important consideration. The coastal zone is appreciably cooler than the areas further inland. This means that the best quality white grapes tend to be grown nearer the ocean, where most of the black grapes will not ripen, and the best black grapes flourish further inland where the extra heat and shelter helps them to achieve full ripeness. These varied conditions mean that Hawke’s Bay can offer an incredible variety of wine styles.

The inland temperatures are some 7˚C or so more than the coast. This makes it possible for Hawke’s Bay to ripen some grape varieties that defeat almost every other New Zealand region, except Waiheke Island far to the north. Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and even Cabernet Sauvignon all thrive here. Of course New Zealand can almost never produce those big, rich, fruity wines like Australia and California do, there just isn’t enough heat for that. So whether you are drinking a Bordeaux style blend of Merlot and Cabernet, or a Syrah, these reds will usually be more delicate than other new world examples, but fruitier and softer than their European counterparts.

Misty hills beyond the vineyards in the Tukituki Valley – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The dominant grapes being Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah is almost serendipitous as New Zealand is famous for producing lamb. Merlot-Cabernet blends, like red Bordeaux from the same grape varieties, are a fine match with lamb. Syrah is not only great with lamb, but also partners venison really well and New Zealand is a major producer of that meat too.

As for white grapes, the real speciality is Chardonnay as these conditions, create wines with ripeness and texture as well as fine acidity – think White Burgundy with more fruit. As you might expect though, they also produce Sauvignon Blanc and these tend to be riper, more mouth filling and textured than those from Marlborough.

Looking towards Cape Kidnappers from Elephant Hill – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The soils provide little nourishment and are free draining, which helps to produce concentrated and complex wines as the vines have to work hard and dig deep for goodness while any excess water just drains away rather than making the grapes dilute. Much of the terrain has been formed by five ancient rivers – the Wairoa, Mohaka, Tutaekuri, Ngaruroro and Tukituki – moving over centuries to form valleys and terraces and leaving behind over 25 different soil types including clay loam, limestone, sand and gravel.

Gimblett Gravels soils – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Gravel is the most famous soil here with one of the most important sub-regions of Hawke’s Bay actually being called Gimblett Gravels. This warm area was formed by the Ngaruroro (pronounced Na-roo-roe-roe) River changing route after a huge flood in 1867. The deep gravel soils it left behind have almost no organic component, so give low vigour and perfect drainage. This means the area can produce world class red wines with concentration and ripeness together with the elegance and freshness that the relatively cool conditions give, even in this warm part of New Zealand.

Ever since wine growers were first aware of the Gimblett Gravels in 1981 it has been seen as primarily a red wine area. It pretty quickly became known for Bordeaux style blends of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, often with some Cabernet Franc and Malbec too. 

Vines growing in the Gimblett gravels – photo by Quentin Sadler.

In more recent years Syrah has started to challenge that dominance and although the amount of Syrah grown is quite small it has quickly earned a very high reputation for quality. Some other black grapes grow here too, with small plantings of Grenache and Tempranillo showing great promise. White grapes make up about 10% of the plantings with some superb Chardonnays and Viogniers as well as a little Arneis, Gewürztraminer and even Riesling.

The Bridge Pa Triangle is an area just a little further inland from Gimblett Gravels. It has similar gravel soils but under a deep layer of loam topsoil, which often makes the wines softer and more aromatic. 

There are other sub-zones of Hawke’s Bay too, but you are unlikely to see their names appearing on labels anytime soon.

To my mind the wines coming out of Hawke’s Bay make perfect restaurant wines. They can provide an attractive half-way house between new world fruitiness and richness and the dryness of European wines. This makes them very food friendly and versatile with food or without. What’s more they have that clean and bright New Zealand character that can be very appealing. Also like most new world wines, they usually deliver as soon as the bottle is opened, without needing to be left to breathe for a little while to show at their best.

Looking towards the Te Mata Hills from Craggy Range – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The Hawke’s Bay specialities are most certainly Chardonnay, Bordeaux-style blends of Merlot and Cabernet and Syrah, but there is so much more going on too. Reds from Malbec, Tempranillo, Grenache and even some Pinot Noir in the cooler places. As for whites there is also fine Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Sémillon, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Arneis, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and more. So, stylistically it is very hard to pin the region down, but very rewarding to try.

Here is my a brief selection of Hawke’s Bay wines & wineries for you to try – of course the other wines by these producers are very good too:

The Te Mata Winery – photo by Quentin Sadler

Te Mata:

One of the grand old names of Hawke’s Bay, Te Mata has been continuously operating since 1892 and is based in a beautiful Art Deco building right by Te Mata peak. The vineyards and winery were completely renovated in the 1980s and they have never looked back. Today they have extensive vineyard holdings in Woodthorpe and the Bridge Pa Triangle as well as the original nineteenth century vineyards at the foot of Te Mata peak itself. Made under the guidance of Peter Cowley, one of the funniest winemakers I have ever met, the range is wonderfully creative and includes a fine oaked Sauvignon and delicious single vineyard Gamay.

Peter Cowley, the witty, engaging and passionate Technical Director at Te Mata. One of those winemakers that I could listen to for days – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Try: Te Mata Coleraine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Aged for 18 months in barrel it is widely considered one of the very best red wines from New Zealand. I consistently like the restrained, elegant style and the freshness that keeps it irresistibly drinkable.

Available in the UK for £56.99 per bottle from The New Zealand House of Wine.

Trinity Hill:

Warren Gibson, long serving chief winemaker at Trinity Hill – photo courtesy of New Zealand Winegrowers.

This winery only dates back to 1993, but that makes them almost pioneers as far as New Zealand wine is concerned and they have certainly made their mark. Initially it was a joint venture between famed Australian winemaker John Hancock and Robert and Robyn Wilson, owners of London’s The Bleeding Heart restaurant. Chief winemaker Warren Gibson has been there since 1997 and he produces a range of beautiful wines that perfectly illustrate how diverse Hawke’s Bay can be – they even make a rich and aromatic blend of Marsanne and Viognier and a suave Pinot Noir.

Try: Trinity Hills Gimblett Gravels Syrah – this shows perfectly why Hawke’s Bay is good for Syrah. The cooler climate really defines this wine with its lively fruit and floral aromas. The luscious palate has ripe blackberry fruit, soft spices, integrated oak and ripe, sweet tannins. There is always a sense of freshness and purity in good Hawke’s Bay Syrah that sets it apart.

Available in the UK for £20.99 per bottle from The New Zealand House of Wine.

Vidal Estate: 

Vidal Estate Winery – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Spaniard Anthony Vidal opened his eponymous winery in an old racing stable in 1905. Owned by Villa Maria since the 1976 it opened New Zealand’s first, and still very fine, winery restaurant in 1979. Hugh Crichton has been the winemaker for many years now and his deft hand seems to do no wrong. He has a particularly high reputation for his Chardonnays, but the Syrahs and Cabernet blends are mighty fine too.

Hugh Crichton (left) in the cellar – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Try: Vidal Estate Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon is a great introduction to Hawke’s Bay reds. The palate is bold and richly fruity with smooth tannins, smoky oak and a touch of spice – 5% Malbec in the blend helps with the pizzazz.

Available in the UK for £14.00 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar.

Craggy Range: 

Vineyards at Craggy Range from their fabulous restaurant – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Businessmen Terry Peabody and revered viticulturist / winemaker Steve Smith MW created Craggy Range in the 1990s and quickly established themselves as one of the great names of Hawke’s Bay. Today chief winemaker Matt Stafford crafts a superb range of wines from vineyards in the Gimblett Gravels and the cooler coastal area near Cape Kidnappers.

Matt Stafford, the chief winemaker at Craggy Range – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Try: Craggy Range Kidnappers Vineyard Chardonnay – the cool coastal conditions really define this wine with its freshness and minerality, subtle richness and restrained use of oak – think Chablis 1er Cru with a bit more soft fruit.

Available in the UK for £17.99 per bottle from Waitrose Cellar.

Elephant Hill:

The only elephant at Elephant Hill Winery – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Founded in 2003 this estate is another newcomer that has a built a huge reputation for itself very fast. It is managed by the charming Andreas Weiss whose parents created Elephant Hill after falling in love with the area while on holiday from their native Germany. The winery is surrounded by vines and sits almost on the cliff edge at Te Awanga. This is where they grow their white grapes while the reds and richer whites are grown in their Gimblett Gravels and Bridge Pa Triangle vineyards. The winery boasts incredible views and a great restaurant. As to the name, Andreas told me, “there’s no hill and there’s no elephant, but you certainly remember it”.

Andreas Weiss of Elephant Hill – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Try: Elephant Hill Sauvignon Blanc – a pure and vivacious style, but rounder and more textured than a typical New Zealand Sauvignon. It feels clean, precise and beautifully defined too, with wonderful salty minerality cutting through the ripe citrus fruit.

Available in the UK for £16.50 per bottle from Corney & Barrow.

Esk Valley:

Esk valley’s terraced vineyard, home to the Terraces, one of New Zealand’s finest reds – photo courtesy of Esk Valley.

This famous winery sits right on the coast some 10 km north of Napier and was originally a fortified wine producer that fell into disuse by the 1970s. George Fistonich of Villa Maria bought it in 1986 and it has never looked back. For the last 20 odd years it has been left in the talented hands of winemaker Gordon Russell who has happily put all the old prewar concrete fermentation vats to use for his red wines and who revels in his reputation for being something of a maverick who makes true handmade wines. 

Gordon Russell with his beloved pre-war concrete fermentation vats at Esk Valley – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Gordon crafts one of New Zealand’s most famous reds, Esk Valley The Terraces, from a one hectare block of vines on a terraced vineyard overlooking the ocean right by the winery.

Try: Esk Valley Verdelho – this grape is mainly used to make fortified Madeira,  but this is an unfortified style that has a lovey brightness to it and enticing aromatics. I love the mandarin-like acidity, the rich palate and the little touch of salinity on the fresh, lively finish. It’s wonderful with oriental food.

Available in the UK for £13.75 per bottle from The Oxford Wine Company.

Alpha–Domus:

The Ham Family of Alpha Domus – photo courtesy of the winery.

This estate is a real pioneer of the Bridge Pa Triangle. It was founded in 1990, pretty early for this sub-region, by the Ham family from the Netherlands. The first names of the five family members who founded and run the winery are; Anthonius and Leonarda together with their sons Paulus, Henrikus and Anthonius – Alpha! They produce a fine range of single vineyard, estate wines from the classic Hawke’s Bay grape varieties of Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah, as well as Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Cumulus, a Traditional Method sparkling Chardonnay.

Try: Alpha–Domus The Wingwalker Viognier – in France’s northern Rhône,  where Syrah originates, Viognier grows next door, so it makes perfect sense that we are beginning to see more of this exotic, aromatic grape grown in Hawke’s Bay and used either on its own or co-fermented in tiny amounts with Syrah.

This is a rich but fresh example with exotic ripe fruit aromas and a succulent and silky palate with ripe peach, pineapple, coconut cream and a touch of shortbread. The balance is lovely and it makes the wine seem pure, yet powerful. Great with firm fish and white meat dishes.

Available in the UK for £18.50 per bottle from Noble Green.

Villa Maria:

Sir George Fistonich, the great New Zealand wine pioneer, whose Villa Maria group also owns Vidal and Esk – photo by Quentin Sadler

Villa Maria is an extraordinary company. Created singlehandedly in 1961 by a 21 year old New Zealander with Croatian roots. That young man is now Sir George Fistonich, one of the great figures of the wine world and he still has the same drive and passion all these years later. Villa Maria have vineyards and a winery in Marlborough and Auckland as well as Hawke’s Bay including owning one of the largest parcels of the Gimblett Gravels. To my mind they never put a foot wrong and consistently produce elegant wines that people enjoy, at all price points. Their Merlots, Merlot-Cabernet blends and Syrahs are all from their Hawke’s Bay vineyards. They recently launched a super premium Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Sauvignon called Ngakirikiri which means “the gravels” in Maori. It’s a stunning wine with beautiful fruit, incredible richness, but also elegance and poise with gentle, supple tannins.

Try: Villa Maria Cellar Selection Gimblett Gravels Grenache – a surprisingly rich take on this grape that loves heat and sun. It’s richly fruity with black cherry and dried strawberry characters and lots of spice in the form of white pepper, fresh ginger and clove.

Available in the UK for £16.00 per bottle from Noble Green.

Of course this selection barely scratches the surface, there are many more fabulous wines from the producers mentioned here, let alone other wineries in Hawke’s Bay. These are all very good though, are easily available and show the quality and diversity that this exciting wine region can produce.

Wine of the Week – a great New Zealand Sauvignon

The view from the balcony at Villa Maria's Marlborough winery.

The view from the balcony at Villa Maria’s Marlborough winery.

I’ll be honest with you. I do not always enjoy drinking Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand. Too many of the basic examples are a little too sweet, for a dry wine, dilute, overly tropical and somewhat one-dimensional.

However, I have always enjoyed good examples and was very excited by some of the Sauvignon Blancs that I tasted while I was in New Zealand recently. One in particular really captured my imagination and as I have discovered that it is widely available, I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of New Zealand's wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of New Zealand’s wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

sv-graham-sauvignon-blanc-2011-copy2015 Villa Maria Single Vineyard Graham Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc
Villa Maria
Marlborough
New Zealand

I have known Villa Maria‘s wines pretty much my entire working life – I first sold them in 1988 – and they have always impressed me. At the very least they are reliable, pleasurable and never let you down. In fact Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc is probably the benchmark wine of the style. However, the good people of Villa Maria are very ambitious for their wines and constantly striving for quality and really do seek to make great wines.

Sir George Fistonich, the founder, owner and driving force behind Villa Maria. I took this photograph at the Esk Valley winery in Hawke's Bay, which is also part of the group.

Sir George Fistonich, the founder, owner and driving force behind Villa Maria. I took this photograph at the Esk Valley winery in Hawke’s Bay, which is also part of the group.

It helps I expect that the company is still privately owned by Sir George Fistonich, the guy who founded the company back in 1961 – his first vintage was 1962. Everyone I met at Villa Maria was, quite rightly, full of admiration for George and his achievements It seems that nothing stands still at Villa Maria for very long and the wines stand testimony to George’s belief in the quality that New Zealand can produce. He really is one of the giants of the wine business, a sort of New Zealand Gérard Bertrand, Robert Mondavi or Miguel Torres.

So, why did this Sauvignon capture my imagination so much? The Graham Vineyard is right by the sea near the Awatere River (pronounced Aw-wah-tree) where it empties out into Clifford Bay, south and east of Blenheim. It is a coastal vineyard, right on the seashore, and that really helps to regulate the temperature of the site, while the stony soils warm up quickly and retain that warmth to create wonderful ripeness. So you get a wonderful balance between warmth and cooling maritime conditions.

This little fella was basking on the beach just in front of Graham Vineyard.

This little fella was basking on the beach just in front of Graham Vineyard.

Because of those conditions the wine seems to have more density than many Marlborough Sauvignons, more savoury and pungent aromas and flavours and to be only subtly tropical – which suits the grape brilliantly.

Sedan Vineyard, Villa Maria's beautiful Seddon Vineyard is just down the Aware River a little way.

Seddon Vineyard, Villa Maria’s beautiful Seddon Vineyard is just inland down the Aware River a little way. This makes it more sheltered and so suits Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris more than Sauvignon Blanc, which enjoy the sea breezes at Graham.

The nose has hints of tropical fruit, but more tomato leaves, jasmine, oregano and something stony and slightly saline too. There are also the classic touches of gooseberry and citrus. The palate is quite rich and has real weight and intensity to it. The tomato leaves come back, as does the jasmine and oregano, together with nettles, a light touch of passionfruit, blackcurrant leaf, stony minerality and the refreshing acidity has a feel of orange sorbet about it, yet the wine finishes totally dry. This is wonderful stuff, complex and fine – 92/100 points.

A very versatile wine, it is a lovely aperitif, great with fish, oriental food or just about anything you can think of. If you think you know Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, think again and try this glorious wine.

Available in the UK from Majestic Wine Warehouse for £15.99 a bottle – £13.99 if you mix 6 bottles.
Fruit from Graham Vineyard is also used as part of the blend in the always excellent Villa Maria Clifford Bay Reserve Sauvignon Blanc.
Villa Maria wines are distributed in the US by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

New Zealand Spreads its Wings – 5 Wines of the Week and something rather special

Don’t only drink Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand – there is so much more to enjoy.

I don’t know what it is with me. Perhaps I have a low boredom threshold when it comes to wine, but I love variety. The very thing that makes wine exciting to me is the infinite variety available. Which seems to put me out of kilter with many wine drinkers here in the UK who would appear to only drink the same few wine styles all the time.

If that is you, please, please branch out, experiment, try something new – what’s the worst that can happen?

Which brings me to my theme – New Zealand. Please remember to click all the links.

Marlborough vineyards - photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

Marlborough vineyards – photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

I have long admired New Zealand wines and well remember my first taste of a wine from that far off country and it excited me very much. It was 1984, I had recently joined the trade and the company I worked for introduced three extraordinary sounding new wines to the range, one wine each from Australia, New Zealand and Lebanon.

NZ map QS 2011 watermark

They all seemed exotic beyond belief. You have to realise that the wine revolution had not yet happened and such things were not widely available. The Lebanese wine was Château Musar 1977, the Australian was Berri Estates South Australian Cabernet-Shiraz and the New Zealand wine was a Gewürztraminer made by an estate called Matawhero in the Gisborne region of North Island. I remember it as being really good and wish that I could still buy it over here.

I had recently fallen for the charms of the Gewürztraminer grape and drank a lot of it at the time – I hardly ever do now as the examples from Alsace seem much sweeter nowadays.

So my first taste of New Zealand wine would now be regarded as  a slightly left field offering, but I did not realise that then. Sauvignon Blanc did exist in New Zealand in those days, but it was early days. There wasn’t very much and it was far from being the most popular or dominant grape. Indeed the now ubiquitous Kiwi ‘Sav’ (why do they miss the U out when they pronounce it?) would have been the oddity then. What’s more the Marlborough region barely produced any wine at all. It is the now largest wine region in the country and produces something like 60% of New Zealand wine, while around 60% of production is made from Sauvignon Blanc.

Over the years I have seen New Zealand wines proliferate on this market and sweep all before them. Everyone now drinks New Zealand wine. Or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc anyway. That is the dominant grape and most widely produced and consumed style.

Which has bugged me for quite a long time.

I like many Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs and can see the attraction, but I want other things too and so wish that wine drinkers would experiment with all the other lovely wines that New Zealand produces. Of course it would help if the major outlets got a little more creative and actually stocked some of the other exciting wines coming out of New Zealand. However, things are getting better, it’s slow, but a wider range of New Zealand wines is beginning to be available.

To make my point I recently put on a tasting of the more unusual wines coming out of New Zealand at the moment. It wasn’t exhaustive by any means, but I managed to find some real variety and excellent wines that many people would enjoy. Collectively they are my Wines of the Week.

The White Wines

New Zealand is a cool climate wine producing country and so the production is overwhelmingly white. Although there are some warmer places and Pinot Noir of course performs well in the cool conditions of South Island, it just isn’t hot enough to ripen black grapes to make red wines in most of the country. My line up of white wines was really good, they all showed well and had that classic Kiwi clean brightness to them that  that I can only sum up as a feeling of purity.

Vineyards in Gisborne - photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

Vineyards in Gisborne – photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

image-12015 Left Field Albariño
Te Awa Collection
Gisborne

Albariño is a Spanish grape from the north western region of Galicia, where it is most famously used to make the often delicious wines of Rias Baixas. They are amongst the best Spanish white wines and are great with seafood. The grape is also grown over the border in Portugal, where it is known as Alvarinho. This is the second vintage of this wine that I have tasted and I have loved them both. Te Awa are a wonderful winery, who produce some terrific wines and created the Left Field label specifically for the less widely seen styles of wine. I am thrilled that Albariño might be breaking through as a popular and international grape variety – it certainly deserves to.

The aromas are floral and scented with delicate, but ripe peach and zesty citrus aromas. The palate is bright, fresh and lively with mandarin and nectarine characters and a twist of lime on the finish. This is a light, fresh, crisp style that is really, really good and would be gorgeous with some seared scallops or just on its own. It feels pristine, bright and pure as a mountain stream, surely anyone who likes Sauvignon Blanc would appreciate this – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £12 per bottle from The Wine Reserve – for more stockists click here.

Yealand's Seaview Vineyard - photo courtesy of Yealands estate.

Yealand’s Seaview Vineyard – photo courtesy of Yealands estate.

yealands-estate-gruner-veltliner-nv2014 Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Grüner Veltliner
Yealands Estate
Awatere Valley, Marlborough

Yealands is an impressive producer and is the brainchild of the engaging Peter Yealand who in his time has farmed mussels and deer as well as wine. Most of their production is from a large single block of vines – the largest single parcel of vines in the county – in the Awatere Valley, the cool south eastern part of Marlborough. It is right by the sea and is called the Seaview Estate as it looks out over Cook Strait.

Grüner Veltliner is the signature white grape of Austria, where it makes some tremendous wines. Much like Albariño, I get the feel that Grüner Veltliner might be on the cusp of breaking through as an international grape and again I think that is an excellent thing. 15% was fermented in second and third use French oak barrels and the wine spent 3 months on the lees with lees stirring to help the complexity and the texture.

Another wine with a lovely aromatic nose that is delightfully floral and gently spicy with a dash of white pepper. Again that purity shines through and the palate is gorgeously silky and lightly textured, being gently creamy like coconut – presumably helped by the oak. There is plenty of discrete apricot like fruit too as well as refreshing citrus acidity giving plenty of zing. Again I cannot imagine anyone that likes Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc not enjoying this, but it is deliciously different – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from Great Western Wine – for more stockists click here.

image-1-22014 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Gris
Villa Maria
Wairau Valley, Marlborough

Sauvignon Gris is thought to be either an ancestor of or a mutant clone of Sauvignon Blanc – for some reason it is not clear which came first, which reminds me of a joke – and makes fatter and less aromatic wines than its more famous relation. In France they are historically blended together to give more texture and richness than Sauvignon Blanc would have on its own. Personally I think Sauvignon Gris is potentially a very interesting grape and others clearly agree as there appears to be renewed interest with this ancient grape in Graves and parts of the Loire. Sauvignon Gris can sometimes be found blended into the finer examples of Sauvignon de Touraine and is something of a speciality grape of the tiny Touraine-Mesland sub-region. The grape has a long history in Touraine and it is often referred to there by its ancient local names of Fié or Fié Gris or even Sauvignon Rose, as the skins are pink.
This wine is from Fletcher’s Vineyard which is in the famed Golden Mile, which is a strip of stony ground close to the Wairau River land in the sub-region of Rapaura.

The nose is fresh and enticing with pear, delicately smoky peach and some mineral notes.
The palate is by turns stony and mineral, pear-like and peachy with a rippled texture of occasional fleshy succulence, nectarine lingers on the finish together with blackcurrant leaf and some tropical passionfruit and mandarin too. There is a leesy texture here too giving a gentle smokiness and a lightly ‘mealy’ quality that is very attractive.
It is dry with a freshness of acidity and little cut of citrus too, but acidity is much less dominant than in Sauvignon Blanc, indeed in many ways it is like a bigger, fatter Sauvignon Blanc. A lovely wine with real finesse and elegance that will go with almost any fish or lighter dish perfectly – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from The Pip Stop and The New Zealand House of Wine.

image-12013 Esk Valley Verdelho
Esk Valley Estate
Hawkes Bay

I am very fond of Verdelho as it is a lovely grape and I wonder why we don’t see it more often. Just to be clear, it is not the same as Verdejo or Verdicchio or any of the other similarly named varieties that people often assume are the same. It is actually the Madeira grape, but put to a very different use here. Some authorities think Verdelho might be a long lost clone of Riesling, but they say that about Albariño too.

Esk Valley is a wonderful estate that is much more famous for producing some of New Zealand’s finest red wines, but they also make some marvellous whites, including some excellent Chenin Blanc and Riesling. Selected from two vineyards in Hawke’s Bay and was mainly cold fermented in tank, with some being fermented using the natural yeast in large – 600 litre – French oak casks.

Delightfully aromatic and floral with a real zing of lime and a mineral edge together with a touch of oiliness. On the palate the texture marries beautifully with the freshness and the minerality. The oak just gives a dollop of cream and a bit of complexity, but never dominates, while some tropical fruit and citrus flavours of mandarin and lime make it utterly delicious – 89/100 points.

The 2014 vintage is available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from The Oxford Wine Company and The New Zealand House of Wine – for more stockists click here.

The Red Wines

Being a cool climate country, New Zealand is nowhere near as famous for its reds as its whites and only a small proportion of the country’s production is red. Pinot Noir is by far the most dominant grape and is the main one used in South Island – by some margin. However, other grape varieties do get a look in and, just as with the whites, the number of grape varieties used is increasing and becoming more exciting. Hawkes Bay – or Hawke’s Bay – in North Island is home to the greatest concentration of red wine production in New Zealand – apart from Pinot Noir which is mainly from South Island. It is warmer here, with well drained soils, so it can produce some good concentrated red wines. The Gimblett Gravels is the most prestigious sub-zone and home to many of the country’s finest red wines. Traditionally it’s Merlot and Cabernet country, but Syrah is quickly becoming pretty mainstream, while Mediterranean grapes like Tempranillo, Montepulciano and even Grenache are beginning to get noticed.

Vidal Estate vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels district - photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Vidal Estate vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels district – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

lf-btl-malbec-nv-d-jpg2014 Left Field Malbec
Te Awa Collection
Hawkes Bay

Malbec has been used in some of the Cabernet-Merlot blends of Hawkes Bay for quite a number of years, just as it is used in Bordeaux, but often with a higher proportion. I have only once before had a single varietal Malbec from New Zealand though and that was in the 2003 vintage (I think) when Esk Valley made one because their Merlot and Cabernet were not up to the mark and so all they had left was Malbec. This version is completely unoaked.

The colour was an extraordinary vivid, deep purple – you could paint with this. The nose gave off rich plum, blueberry and blackberry, together with rich cocoa and some pungent spice notes. The palate was fresh and juicy, with chunky rich fruit and a deep inky feel. There is liquorice and pepper together with black fruit and a dryness from the – artfully tamed – tannins that gives the wine a sappy, briar-like flavour. I love the upfront and juicy quality of this. It feels fresher and cooler than its Argentinian cousins and would go very nicely with a barbecue or a steak, I would enjoy it chilled too – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £17 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar and The New Zealand House of Wine.

trinity-hill-wine-568d7a79694b32014 Trinity Hill Tempranillo
Trinity Hill Estate
Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay

Trinity Hill is a great producer – right up there with Craggy Range – that produces some of the best Syrah in the country, as well as many other great wines. One of the best ways to taste their wines in the UK is by visiting the excellent Bleeding Heart restaurant, which is part owned by John Hancock who owns Trinity Hill. The Tempranillo was fermented in stainless steel and then aged in a mixture of tank and French and American oak barrels for a short time.

Again this youthful wine had a bright and vivid purple colour. The nose was earthy and a bit spicy with juicy plum aromas and the sweeter note of dried currants. The palate was sumptuously fruity with lots of black fruit, a touch of red fruit and a sort of sweet and sour thing going on with a touch of drying tannins. This is totally unlike the Rioja style of Tempranillo, being more fruity and less savoury in style. It might not reach the same heights of excellence as Trinity Hill’s Syrah, but is is a lovely wine with vivid, ripe, chunky fruit – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £18 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar and The New Zealand House of Wine.

1staete_landt_arie_syrah_20112010 Staete Landt Estate Arie Syrah
Staete Landt Estate
Rapaura, Marlborough

Staete Landt was the brainchild of a charming Dutch couple called Ruud and Dorien Maasdam. In Marlborough’s early wine days they bought an old apple orchard and turned it into one of the most respected wine estates in the country. The estate name is a reference to Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who discovered what we now call New Zealand in 1642 and named it ‘Staete Landt’, land for the Dutch state. I like them and I love their wines. They and their wines always have something to interesting to say. In the early days, late 1970s and early 1980s, plenty of people planted Cabernet and Merlot in Marlborough and then discovered that they just cannot ripen properly, so apart from Pinot Noir and the odd maverick, you come across very few black grapes in Marlborough. So, finding someone brave enough to make premium Syrah in the cool conditions of Marlborough is a real thrill.

Just as with the Sauvignon Gris above, the estate is in the ‘Golden Mile’ strip of stony ground close to the Wairau River land in the Marlborough sub-region of Rapaura. Ruud has conducted in-depth soil analysis on his vineyard and identified 24 different blocks which are treated as individual vineyards in effect. Since 2005 Syrah has been planted on two of them, but the 2010 comes just from the Arie block. The grapes were hand-picked and de-stemmed. They had a pre-ferment cold soak for seven days and a long post fermentation maceration as well. These techniques help colour and flavour extraction while not extracting tannin. The wine spent 20 months in French oak barrels, 40% of which were new.

The maturity and class of this wine really showed. The nose was smoky, spicy and earthy with rich cherry, blackberry (some dried, some fresh fruit) and some dark chocolate. The palate was svelte with fine, sweet tannins, some leather and herbs as well as black fruit and some mushroom and truffle from age. It had lovely freshness running all the way through it and was very stylish and fine with a long finish – 92/100 points.

The 2011 is available in the UK for around £22 per bottle from Hedonism Wines.

Which could have been a great end to the tasting, but I had dug deep into my cellar and unearthed a wonderful treasure for the finale:

Vidal Estate in the 1920s - photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Vidal Estate in the 1920s – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Soler bottle1998 Vidal Estate Joseph Soler Cabernet Sauvignon
Vidal Estate
Hawke’s Bay

I have always been fascinated by the Vidal Esate for as long as I have known about it. Founded in 1905 it is the oldest NZ winery that was just a winery and not a mixed farm as well. Spaniard José Sole, had been making wine in New Zealand since 1865 and had anglicised his name to Joseph Soler. His nephew, Anthony Vidal, arrived in New Zealand from Spain in 1888 to help his uncle at his winery in Wanganui on the West coast of North island. Eventually Vidal wanted to set up his own winery and he bought an old stables and half a hectare of land near Hastings in the southern part of Hawke’s Bay, which was warmer and drier that Wanganui and boasted well drained stony soils. Today Vidal is part of the Villa Maria group and one of their best vineyards in Hawke’s Bay is named in honour of Joseph Soler.

I am always in awe of them when I think what drive and what determination the pair of them must have had to go all that way around the world in sailing ships to an isolated place with a tiny population and an uncertain future. 

This wine was a rigorous selection from a single block of the Soler vineyard, which had only been planted in 1993, so was very young. The grapes were hand-picked and fermented in open vats with hand plunging four times a day to extract colour and flavour. It was pressed after two weeks post ferment maceration and then aged for 21 months in a mixture of French and American oak barrels. 1998 was a great vintage in Hawke’s Bay and perhaps the first to serve notice that this is a great red wine region.

The colour was quite gamey and brown, like Brown Windsor Soup, and a great deal of tannin had adhered to the inside of the bottle. The nose was vivacious and alive with currants, leather, cocoa, gamey / meaty, espresso and mint notes. The palate was very smooth with those currants again, dried blackcurrants, a savoury, meaty character, rich coffee, figs, fine milk chocolate and the merest touch of ripe, fine grain tannins. It had great complexity and concentration and was still vibrant and delicious with a wonderful decayed sweetness like rich dried fruit. I loved the wine and would like to try it with an old fashioned saddle of mutton or steak and kidney pudding, luckily I still have another bottle – 94/100 points.

This is no longer available anywhere that I am aware of, unless you want to offer me a lot of money for my last remaining bottle!

It was an excellent tasting, even though I say so myself, and gave a little snapshot of some of the new styles and interesting things coming out of this dynamic wine producing country – and not a Sauvignon Blanc in sight.

So the next time you drink something from New Zealand, try a different grape variety or style. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Red delights from New Zealand

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I promised you more on New Zealand wines, so here are some red wines that really impressed and pleased me at the tasting the other day.

I have long been keen on red wines from New Zealand and have often wondered why so many consumers are hesitant to try them and persist in regarding New Zealand as solely a white wine producing country and look to Australia for their reds. I do my best to win them round, but even at the Annual New Zealand tasting I spoke to two men who did not even want to try a Kiwi red – despite my best efforts.

Well it is their loss as New Zealand is capable of producing some sensational red wines from quite a few different grape varieties and blends.

I have a particular affection for the Merlot-Cabernet blends from the Gimblett Gravels area of Hawkes Bay, but Syrah is fast becoming a speciality grape and some other regions are making some super wines too, so experiment – there are many lovely red wines for you to try.

Continue reading

New Zealand delights

January is always a busy time in the tasting calendar and this year seems especially frantic – I went to three very different events yesterday.

The major one was the New Zealand Annual Trade Tasting at Lords and it was an excellent tasting, offering some 700 wines to try.

The standard, as you might expect, was very high with excellent wines from a wide array of grape varieties and regions. I will mention some of the more interesting over the next few weeks, so keep coming back.

However, three white wines stuck out as being especially enjoyable and delicious and I thought I would share those with you straight away. Continue reading

England – brave new world of wine

Stopham Estate, West Sussex

Recently I have been getting keen on English wine and wrote about a couple of super examples here.

The sheer quality got me thinking and led to me being lucky enough to try some more. I was thrilled to discover Stopham Estate who are based in Pulborough in Sussex. It is a new operation created by Simon Woodhead between Pulborough and Petworth in West Sussex – a part of the country I thought I knew well.

Simon Woodhead

It seems that the estate enjoys a sheltered and warm micrioclimate and this allows Simon to do something pretty unusual in England – he grows classic grape varities rather than the normal hardy crosses like Ortega and Huxelrebe, although he does have a little Bacchus. Now those can produce lovely wines in the right hands, but they hardly trip off the tongue and have very little commercial following, so specialising in Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc might well be a stroke of genius. It is early days, they only have 21,000 vines and the 8,400 Pinot Gris vines represents the bulk of their production, but only produced 4,000 bottles in 2010.

2010 Stopham Pinot Blanc
A very pale, almost silvery looking colour with a fresh, lively nose offering touches of pear with floral notes, Asian pear and apricot – leaning towards delicate peach notes at the lighter less creamy end of the Pinot Blanc spectrum.
It is lively and fresh on the palate with a little zing of acidity. Softer fruit on the mid palate – apricot and peach – then some green fruit characters on the back palate too.
A light bodied and dry wine with lots of flavour and a decent length finish. Lime and apricot acidity really refresh and balance the finish.

This is a terrific, dry – it has 4.4 g/Litre of residual sugar which balances the high natural acidity very well, and vice versa – light and delicate wine that should win many friends for the stylish pleasure it delivers. At 10.5% vol it is perfect with a light salad or DIY tapas lunch – 89/100 points.

2010 Stopham Pinot Gris
The merest hint of coppery peach skin gives a depth to the colour.
The nose is fresh and hints towards the exotic with peach and pear and a touch of sweet spice, all balanced by a citric freshness. The aroma is less heady and more delicate than examples from Alsace, but this is no bland Pinot Grigio.
The palate is slightly off dry – it has 8.8 g/Litre of residual sugar – which gives a succulence and mouth-feel, but there is a lovely cut of balancing mandarin acidity keeping it fresh, clean and lively. Apricot and spiced pear fruit dominate the flavours on the mid palate and finish.

It is very rare for me to rave about a Pinot Gris, but this is a very exciting wine with lovely aromas, balanced weight and acidity and is delicious to drink, it is 11% vol and the extra alcohol shows in the weight. I liked it very much precisely because it is a delicate take on Pinot Gris without being bland in any way. It goes splendidly with a wide range of food including spicy Asian dishes – 90/100 points. I have marked it high because it is so exciting and delivers a great deal of pleasure.

These were both lovely wines with a freshness and a purity that is not altogether unfamiliar to New Zealand wine enthusiasts, but you can taste the cooler and shorter growing season here which gives a lightness that put me more in mind of really good Vinho Verde or Galician wines. It might be the microclimate or the weather, knowhow, or the choice of grape varieties, but these are much fleshier wines than the more normal stony and mineral English offerings

If you enjoy light, fresh and thrillingly lively white wines with good fruit, then these really can hold their own against all comers and rather wonderfully at around £10 a bottle are no more expensive than their New Zealand, Spanish or Portuguese competitors.

I only have one quibble with the good people at Stopham Estate, their labels state that the wines are ‘made with precision and passion in Sussex’. Tasting them I would swear that precision and passion should be the other way round. In fact everything smacks of passion and precision, not just the taste of the wines, but the look of them too. The labels have no hint of the hobbyist Olde English about them and even more excitingly they have sealed the bottles with the top end Stelvin LUX+ screwcap which looks great and seals in all that delicate freshness.

Whichever way it is, the wines are excellent and Simon reckons the 2011s are even better – I cannot wait to try them

On this showing I am getting very excited about the future of English wine – let’s all drink a lot more of it!

New York – wines to inspire you

Canandaigua Lake

Amazingly most UK consumer’s concept of wine from the United States of America starts and stops with California. Certainly California is the most important of the wine producing states, but there are some superb wines made elsewhere in the US too.

Some consumers are aware of wines from Oregon and possibly Washington State, but usually my students are astonished when I tell them about wines from Virginia, Texas, Utah or New York state.

Wine is actually made from freshly gathered grapes in all 48 of the continental states as well as in Hawaii, only Alaska misses out by being too cold. Continue reading

Wine of the Week – a Scintillating Riesling

Some of Pfaffl’s vineyards at Stetten – photo courtesy of the winery.

I love Riesling and while I know that many of you do not, I am just going to on and on about it until you change your mind – well it worked for Bill Cash and Nigel Farage!

Riesling comes in many different guises, the delicate off-dry Mosel style is possibly my favoured option, but then the mineral and slightly bolder Alsace versions also excite me, as do the lime-drenched Australian ones and the vivacious offerings from New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, Washington State and New York. However I also have a new favourite – Austria.

I am always excited by Austrian wines. That feeling of pristine, Alpine purity in the wines speaks to me – indeed I love Swiss, Slovenian, Northern Italian and even Gallician wines for the same reason. Austrian Riesling tends to be more full in style than German examples, dry, yet somehow steelier and more vibrant than those from Alsace – certainly at lower price points anyway.

Well I recently tasted a lovely Austrian Riesling and so with the better weather I thought it would make a great Wine of the Week.

Wine map of Austria – Pfaffl are marked by a red dot a little north of Vienna.

Roman Josef Pfaffl in the Vienna vineyards – see the city in the background – photo courtesy of the winery.

2017 Riesling Neubern
Qualitätswein Trocken/dry
Pfaffl
Niederösterreich/Lower Austria
Austria

I really like Pfaffl. I visited their winery once and they make good wines that to me feel very Austrian. They are precise, they are pure and exciting too. Pfaffl are based in Stetten some 15 km or so north of Vienna. Their vineyards are spread around the village on 10 sites and they also have vineyards in Vienna.

Vienna is the only capital with proper commercial vineyards in it and it even has its own style, the Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC. These are field wines that must contain at least 3 grape varieties grown together, harvested, pressed and fermented together. The permitted grapes Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc and the wines are traditionally served in the Heurigen, seasonal taverns in Vienna that sell that years wine.

Pfaffl also make a more modern style blend from Vienna, their Pfaffl 1 which has 60% Riesling blended after fermentation with 20% each of Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Blanc. I love Pfaffl 1 but have yet to taste their field blend.

Heidi and Roman Josef Pfaffl are a brother and sister with Roman being the winemaker and Heidi the administrator. Roman crafts a largish range of wines, with many single vineyard Grüners and different Rieslings, as well as beautifully drinkable reds made from Pinot Noir and Zweigelt and a stunning sparkling Grüner Veltliner. Altogether they farm around 110 hectares and craft some superb wines from single vineyard sites as well as some bigger production blended across the estate.

My Wine of the Week is one of their bigger production numbers and it is utterly delightful. The nose is fresh and lively with lemon and lime notes, the richer input of apple and pear and some scintillating floral characters too, jasmine and orange blossom. The palate is light, lithe and refreshing with lots of flavour and a clean ethereal presence on your senses. The citrus and apple is there together with a deeper tang of apricot. All in all the wine is poised and elegant with a light touch to it. I liked it a lot, especially with a Thai meal – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK from Lidl for £8.99 per bottle.

Drink this on a warm Spring day, a Summer picnic, on its own as an aperitif, with a cold collation or with spicy and oriental cuisine.

Wine of the Week – Mature Villa Maria Chardonnay from my Cellar

The beautiful Wairau River in Marlborough, New Zealand.

Recently I had a wonderful wine experience. I was working at the Decanter Fine Wine Experience and Sir George Fistonich was there. Now George, if you do not know is one of the great figures in the world of wine.

Sir George Fistonich, the founder, owner and driving force behind Villa Maria. I took this photograph at the Esk Valley winery in Hawke’s Bay, which is also part of the group.

He founded Villa Maria, the famous New Zealand wine producer, in 1961 and owns it to this day. His achievements are amazing and from humble beginnings Villa Maria is now the largest privately owned winery in New Zealand, indeed it is the largest New Zealand owned winery in the country.

I have been involved with Villa Maria either directly or indirectly since 1987 and the wines are never less than good and frequently very good indeed. As a whole the range is very impressive and it is easy to see why it one of Drinks International’s Most Admired Wine Brands in the world. In addition George also owns the Vidal, Esk Valley and Te Awa estates in Hawke’s Bay as well as the Thornbury range, whose Central Otago Pinot Noir is one of New Zealand’s best value wines.

What I especially admire about Villa Maria is that they make wines that people really love and that have huge recognition among consumers, but are still keen to innovate and try new styles of wine and new ways of working. George led the charge on the move to screw cap seals for instance. That seems a long time ago now, but it was only 2004 in fact. Among much else they have also experimented, very successfully, with Albariño, Orange Wine and a new wine called Ngakirikiri, a super premium release is a Cabernet Sauvignon dominated blend from the Gimblett Gravels growing area in Hawkes Bay and it is a magnificent wine.

I was chatting away to George and commented that I had found an old bottle of Villa Maria wine in my cellar and asked if he was around the next day to try it with me. Well he was and so I brought the bottle in on the tube.

It was my last bottle of 1994 Villa Maria Reserve Chardonnay from Marlborough. I hadn’t kept it deliberately, but it was left over from a tasting about 20 years ago and I simply never got around to doing anything with it. The level looked pretty good, but the colour slightly worried me. It looked quite dark, although it was hard to tell through the green bottle.

Opening an old bottle of wine is always nerve wracking. How old is too old? I was certainly nervous about this one. Would it be oxidised and just too far gone to drink. Frankly at 23 years old it could well have been.

George in his early days – photo courtesy of Hatch Mansfield Agencies.

I opened it very slowly and very carefully, but even so the bottom quarter of the cork broke off and I couldn’t retrieve it, so it was rather un-stylishly bobbing about in the wine. However the rest of the cork was nice and damp and smelled clean, which made me more optimistic that all would be well.

I poured some into George’s glass before mine and together we inspected the colour and then sniffed the wine before taking a sip. First I felt a sense of relief that it was still alive after all this time, then a sense of joy that it was actually still quite fresh and bright, then feeling of exuberance because it was actually rather fabulous.

 

 

Wairau Valley vines

Map of New Zealand’s wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

1994 Villa Maria Reserve Chardonnay
Villa Maria Estate
Marlborough – the label rather elegantly states “Marlborough Region”
New Zealand

One great thing about this bottle is that the back label is wonderfully detailed, unlike the current labels. So, I actually know a great deal about how this wine was made. It is a blend of 70% Waldron Vineyard and 30% Fletcher Vineyard fruit. The two vineyards are very close to each other in the Rapaura district of the Wairau Plains, the ‘Golden Triangle’. Waldron is a warm, stony site that produces full flavoured, richly concentrated fruit that makes for vividly fruity wines. Fletcher, farmed by Colin, Chris and Michelle Fletcher, is on especially low vigour stony soils.

According to the fabulously informative back label just 17% of the wine went through malolactic fermentation, which made sense once I tasted it and noticed the high acidity. The wine was aged for just 5 months in oak barriques (225 litre barrels).

The colour was a beautiful bright yellow, light toffee, slightly orange and peach skin sort of colour. The nose was good, yes there was a slight touch of oxidation, but also real honeyed richness of peach and pineapple with something fresh, stony and mineral together with a light touch of caramel and butterscotch.

The real surprise though came with the palate. It was overwhelmingly fresh with lively acidity making it seem positively youthful and playful. Those flourishes of richness, pineapple and caramel mainly were in the background with something nutty and spicy from the oak, while the stony fresh acidity was to the fore making the wine seem pure and mineral.

23 years in bottle had not dimmed the wine in any way. I remember it as being a very good wine at the time, but now, all those years later, it has developed into something that brought all the different strands of Chardonnay together perfectly – ripe fruit richness, judicial use of oak, cleansing acidity and minerality. It had become a great wine and tasting it was a wonderful experience.

Wairau Valley vines.

So you see, Chardonnay is a great grape variety – indeed personally I think that New Zealand should enjoy a higher reputation for its Chardonnays than its Sauvignon Blancs – and Villa Maria makes wines that age brilliantly – even for a long time in the less than perfect conditions of my “cellar” – into something complex and extraordinary.

There are many things to enjoy about wine, the freshness, the fruit, the direct pleasure are all important, but sometimes the complexity of an aged wine is more beguiling and fascinating, while the shared pleasure of a rare wine can be a truly memorable experience.

 

Australia’s wine dark sea

Go into any supermarket or wine shop and browse the shelves of New World wines and you could be forgiven for thinking that there are only about 6 different grape varieties in existence.

The French role model for wine is so embedded that it is the classic grapes from that country that are most widely used and the styles of France that are emulated around the world.

It therefore comes as quite a shock to learn that most of the wine regions in countries outside Europe have climates very different from those in the classic regions of France, be it Bordeaux or Burgundy.

The harvest at d’Arenberg in the McLaren Vale, perhaps the most Mediterranean-like region of Australia.

Time after time the climates of the wine making zones in Chile, South Africa, California and Australia are described as Mediterranean, and yet most producers in these places grow Chardonnay, Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot. Traditionally only the mavericks and the odd obsessive seem to have actually grown grape varieties that originate in the Mediterranean.

Actually I am nor sure that is entirely true. Very often viticulture in these places began with a wide range of grape varieties, but in modern times the focus has been on the famous ones – which usually turns out to be the French grapes – rather than grape varieties that are associated with less well known and less admired wine types from Europe. Very often all sorts of grapes are grown, often in the most unlikely places, but they do not catch on for all sorts of reasons, be they fashion or snobbery.

Well, I detect a change.

I have experienced that change in Chile  – see here and here – as well as South Africa – see hereCalifornia and even New Zealand, but I found the change most marked in my recent trip to Australia.

I took this photograph at Tyrrell’s in the Hunter Valley. All the wines were superb here and I was thrilled to take this photo, but had to wait ages for her to look up so that I could see the joey in the pouch.

Time after time in wine shops, restaurants and wineries I found Australian wines made from an exciting array of grape varieties, quite unlike the relatively narrow range that fills the shelves of the Australian section in wine shops and supermarkets in the UK. There was a huge variety just presented as normal over there and most of the more intriguing grape varieties originated in Mediterranean countries.

As a consequence of the exciting wines that I found in Australia I have recently put on a few very well received tastings of these wines – in the main you have to seek them out, but the work is worth it.

Map of South Eastern Australia – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

White Wines

I am always saddened that so few consumers – even in the countries make them –  have caught on to the delights of the white wines from Mediterranean countries. To my mind some of the most exciting white wines around come  from Italy, Spain, Portugal and even Greece – or are made from the grapes that hail from those places. It shouldn’t surprise us really as the cuisine of the Mediterranean tends to go much better with white wine than red. However historically it was much more difficult to make good white wines in hot places until well into the twentieth century, so the white wines of that part of the world were pretty much written off as no good and that reputation has become embedded in our memory.

The Eden Valley, the cool part of Barossa.

2014 Peter Lehman H&V Verdejo
Peter Lehman
Barossa Valley
South Australia

I have long been a fan of Verdejo (Ver-deh-ho) it is a lovely grape that is native to Castilla y León and to my mind makes Spain’s most reliable white wines in the little wine region of Rueda. The grape has travelled a little bit, I have had good Verdejo from Virginia – click here –  for instance, but I was thrilled to find it producing excellent whites in Australia too. Normally Verdejo makes wines that are very much in the mould of a Sauvignon Blanc, but the vine can cope with much hotter conditions that Sauvignon, so it could be a big part of the future of white wine in Australia.

Sadly I rather get the impression that this is the only vintage ever made of this wine. If that is so, they really should rethink as I have shown this at 2 tastings now and people have absolutely loved it.

Interestingly it is quite different from a Spanish Verdejo. It is much lighter, fresher – even at 3 years old – and more zingy. The colour is very pale, while the nose gives lime and tangerine with just a touch of something salty.

The beautiful southern end of the Eden and Barossa Valleys.

The palate is pure, mineral and and light – it is 11.5% abv – with a tiny touch of petillance, clean citrus and light stone fruit. It is very refreshing and quite delicious. The style leans more towards a fine Vinho Verde or Txakoli than Rueda and while it is not like nothing else produced in Australia – except some of the fabulously taut and lean Eden Valley Rieslings – it is a real triumph in my opinion. If you can find any, try it with some garlic prawns, grilled fish or barbecued sardines – 89/100 points.

I can no longer find any stockists for this lovely wine, so contact Peter Lehman wines for information.

Many times on the trip I enjoyed some simply cooked prawns, Moreton Bay Bugs or clams with garlic and oil and lemon together with a glass of white wine made from a suitably Mediterranean grape variety – my favourite place for such delights was Sydney Fish Market or Claypots Evening Star in South Melbourne Market and my favourite grape to accompany them was Fiano which seems to be becoming very popular down under.

The busy but tiny kitchen at Clay Pots Evening Star, a great place for seafood and wine.

2016 Hancock & Hancock Home Vineyard Fiano
Hancock & Hancock
McLaren Vale
South Australia

I like Fiano. It is a fabulous white grape from Campania in southern Italy. Campania is a great region, centred on Naples it produces some of Italy’s most exciting wines, using a palate of high quality indigenous grapes including Fiano. The best examples are widely considered to be those from vineyards on the volcanic slopes around the town of Avellino. Fiano di Avellino is a DOCg and is a prestigious, fine and mineral dry white, while other examples from Campania, grown on non-volcanic soils, tend to be softer and easier to drink.

Fiano is an ancient variety that is believed to have been used to make the famous Apianum wine in Roman times. Back then the grape was known as Vitis Apiana beacuse it apparently attracted bees (apis). Of all Campania’s whites I find the best Fiano to be the most refined and most balanced in terms of fruit and acidity.

Fiano is also found in other parts of Campania, including the Sorrento peninsula, and Puglia – the heel of Italy. I was vaguely aware that a few people grew the grape else where. Jenny Dobson makes one at Bush Hawk Vineyards in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay, but it seems that Australia has really taken this, slightly exotic grape, to its heart and around 70 producers have now started making examples of Fiano – which is hardly surprising as Italian food and Mediterranean style is big down under, so Fiano would be a perfect accompaniment.

Chris Hancock.

Chris and his brother John Hancock have owned their Home Vineyard in McLaren Vale for over 10 years now. They farm some 80 year old Grenache and Shiraz, together with Cabernet and Touriga, as well as having a 2 hectare plot of Fiano that was head grafted, in situ, onto Chardonnay in 2012. Chris Hancock, who is an honourary Master of Wine, worked with Robert Oatley for many years and Chris is still involved with the Robert Oatley company which distributes his Hancock & Hancock wines.

Hancock & Hancock Home Vineyard – photo courtesy of the winery.

A part of this was fermented in neutral, old, oak barrels to give roundness and volume rather than flavour, but most was fermented in stainless steel at low temperatures.

To look at the wine has a crystalline purity about it, then on the nose it has nectarine and white peach together with some lemon zest, dry honey and herbs. On the palate there lots of fruit giving a juiciness which is then balanced by freshness and a little taut minerality in the background. The texture is succulent, ever so slightly creamy even which together with the lemon, stone fruit and touch of herbs makes it delicious and very drinkable.

It is light and crisp enough to be refreshing, yet juicy enough and succulent enough to feel interesting and more complex. In a kind of way it shows the ripeness of the place it is from and some the beguiling minerality of the grape, which gives it an inbuilt tension. Lovely with fish, chicken, Mediterranean food, or just to drink on its own – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
The Oxford Wine Company, Farnham Wine Cellar, Flagship Wines, The Wine Reserve, Drinkfinder, Amazon.co.uk, Eynsham Cellars, Luvians Bottleshop, Ann et Vin, Warren Wines & Amp Fine Wines. More stockist information is available from Hatch Mansfield, the distributor.

2016 Jim Barry Assyrtiko
Jim Barry Wines
Clare Valley
South Australia

The wonderful Assyrtiko grape is the main grape variety used on the island of Santorini in Greece. This amazing grape is responsible for producing some of the very finest dry white wines – and great dessert wines too – of the entire Mediterranean world. At their best these wines are bright, mineral and refreshing and there is nothing better with a bit of fish or some calamares. If you like crisp, dry, taut white wines, along the lines of Sancerre or Chablis, then you would certainly like a dry white Santorini.

Sue and Peter Barry in the Lodge Hill Vineyard August 2012.

Peter Barry certainly does. He is the third generation winemaker at his family’s Jim Barry winery in South Australia’s Clare Valley. In 2006 he and his wife Sue were on holiday on Santorini and they were astonished by the quality of the local wines. Their bracing acidity reminded them of the Rieslings that they made back home, but they had something extra too. That something extra was probably minerality, which is what the combination of the Assytiko grape and the volcanic soils delivers.

Peter had got the bug and returned to the island in 2008 in order to collect some cuttings of Assyrtiko from the always excellent Ktima Aryros, Argyros Estate. After a period of quarantine the vines were eventually planted at their beautiful Lodge Hill Vineyard. Peter was convinced that although the soils were very different, the other conditions would really suit Assyrtiko.

Lodge Hill Vineyard.

There is nothing fancy about the winemaking here, just perfectly ripe grapes cold fermented at low temperatures in order to retain all the freshness and delicate flavours of the grape.

The nose is lovely, floral, citric and lifted with some richer notes of apricot and pear and even a hint of sage. The palate is gorgeous, bright, fresh, pure and pristine with a lovely little touch of silky succulence balancing the high acidity. There are lime, orange, pear, apricot and nectarine flavours together with a little chalky minerality. It balances purity and freshness with fruit and texture beautifully. It’s quite a beguiling wine, but in the end delivers a wonderfully vibrant wine with crisp acidity, pure minerality and delicious fruit. It is a tad richer and softer than a Santorini, but that just adds to the sensation of trying something totally new. This is a fine white wine – 93/100 points.

This is a perfect wine to serve with some clams in white wine and garlic, seared scallops, grilled prawns, moreton bay bugs, some sea bass, sea bream, swordfish or tuna, or try it with spaghetti all vongole

By the way, they only made around 3,000 bottles, so grab it while you can!

Available in the UK for around £20 per bottle from:
Corking Wines, Noel Young Wines, The Solent Cellar, D Vine Cellars, Eagle’s Wines,Vagabond and House of Townend.

Red Wines

The reds are just as exciting and more prolific too. Everywhere I went there were delicious Mediterranean grapes on offer, even places that didn’t release one often had them to taste. The wonderful restaurant at Innocent Bystander in the Yarra Valley offered litres of Sangiovese straight from the barrel, but did not sell it to take away. It went superbly with their fabulous pizzas and local meats.

2015 La La Land Tempranillo
Wingara Wines
Murray Darling
Victoria

Tempranillo is of course famous as the main grape of Rioja. In Rioja the style of wine is as much about the ageing in wooden barrels as anything else, so the fruit is not always the most important character of the wine. Elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula you get Rioja look alikes as well as wines with brighter fruit and less obvious oak ageing. Very often in Iberia Tempranillo goes by other local names such as; Ull de Llebre (Catalunya), Cencibel (La Mancha), Tinto Fino, Tinto del Pais, Tinto del Toro (Castilla y León), Aragonez (southern Portugal) and Tinta Roriz (northern Portugal, especially the Douro).

Although there are some plantings of Tempranillo in Argentina, Chile, California, New Zealand and South Africa I have always been surprised that the grape has not yet really broken through to be a proper mainstream international grape variety. Well, there was a lot of it in the wine shops in Australia, so perhaps its time has come?

Wingara are a big company who make huge volumes of wine, they also own the Deakin Estate and the Katnook Estate in Coonawarra, and this wine comes from their vineyards in the Murray Darling Sunraysia region, which straddles the border between New South Wales and Victoria near the border with South Australia. The vineyards are in Mildura, right on the border with New South Wales. This is a huge region that is irrigated and geared up for volume. However Australia often shows that volume and quality often go hand in hand and this is a terrific wine that is aged for some 8 months in used American oak.

You have to put Rioja out of your mind with this wine. It gives aromas of plums, rich, jammy strawberries, vanilla and sweet spice. The palate soft, juicy and fleshy with sweet red fruit and sweet, ripe tannins, a twist of something darker, vanilla and a light dusting of spice.

This is unashamedly a crowd pleaser of a wine and it certainly pleased my crowds and I know from experience that it goes with almost anything, even chilled at a barbecue – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for £9.99 per bottle from:
Majestic Wine Warehouse.

2016 The Bullet Dodger Montepulciano
Delinquente Wine Company
Riverland
South Australia

Not a grape you often see in Australia, but the the guys at Delinquente – pronounced ‘dellin-qwentay’, it’s Italian for delinquent – seem to like being different. The driving force is the wonderfully named Con-Greg Grigoriou. They use Italian grapes and one of their team, Jason Ankles, draws their striking, if somewhat disturbing labels.

Riverland is not a glamorous wine region. It is one of the big irrigated regions of Australia that traditionally produces work horse wines rather than boutique wines, Berri Estates, Banrock Station and Angove’s are all nearby. However, Con-Greg loves the place. He grew up here by the Murray River and is utterly convinced that it can makes wines as good as anywhere else in the country – on this showing I would have to agree.

Con-Greg Grigoriou amongst his Riverland vines.

Montepulciano is widely grown in Italy, in fact it can be used in over 40 different DOCs or DOCgs. The most famous wine it makes though is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo on the Adriatic coast of Italy. These are usually attractively fruity, inexpensive, easy drinking wines with soft tannins, but there are more ambitious versions produced as well as some impressive examples from the Conero DOCg in the Marche region near Ancona.

The fruit is all from a single vineyard, owned by Bassham Wines in Barmera. It was originally planted with Chardonnay, but was top grafted- i.e. in situ – in 2009 with more adventurous grape varieties and it is farmed organically. It is fermented in stainless steel and sees no wood at all. The aim appears to be to capture the pure, vivid, ripe fruit and he succeeds in that. The palate is succulent, juicy, creamy and generous like a smoothie of rich plum, black cherry and blackberry together with a little spice. The tannins are very soft, so the wine has no astringency and I defy anyone not to enjoy it. This is utterly delicious and comforting in a richly hedonistic way – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from £14 per bottle from:
The Good Wine Shop, Forest Wines, Kwoff, Unwined in Tooting. More Information is available from Indigo Wines, the UK distributor.

I’m not very good at drinking red wine without food, but this could do the trick. It would also be perfect with a barbecue, or almost any meaty or rich food actually, but I enjoyed my bottle with a curry, it was a great match.

2014 Robert Oatley Signature GSM
Robert Oatley Wines
McLaren Vale
South Australia

Perhaps this is not as unusual or surprising as the other wines in the line up, but it’s really good and fits the theme perfectly. Australian GSM blends – Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvèdre have been with us for quite a while and are gaining popularity. Who knows they may well have kick started the whole Mediterranean grape wave in Australia.  Mourvèdre by the way is the same grape as  Mataro and Monastrell. Of course the blend is a nod towards the style of Côtes-du-Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The late Robert Oatley.

Bob Oatley was one of the great characters of Australian wine who founded the famous Rosemount Estate nearly 50 years ago. Rosemount was immensely successful and it grew from a tiny boutique estate into a giant winery and Robert eventually sold it in 2001. However by this time he had also bought the venerable Craigmoor Winery in Mudgee in New South Wales and set up Oatley Vineyards there. This slowly became the hub of an enterprise that makes wine right across the premium vineyard sites of Australia and has cellar doors and restaurants in the Mudgee and Margaret River regions. In the 1990’s Robert Oatley was the first person to make a wine as a ‘GSM’.

This wine is a blend of 50% Grenache, 45% Shiraz and 5% Mourvèdre from southern McLaren Vale, which has a distinctly Mediterranean climate and a gentle maritime influence. The blend is matured in French oak barrels for 9 months.

It’s a wine that always goes down well, with warm aromas of mixed red fruit, rich strawberry and cherry, spices and a touch of leather. The palate is juicy, mouth-coating and sumptuous with concentrated red fruit, liquorice, sweet spice and savoury, gamey, earthy notes and all the while it has that hallmark South Australian softness. All in all a delicious and very, very drinkable wine – 90/100 points.

Serve it with slow cooked lamb, venison, kangaroo, lamb kebabs cooked on rosemary twigs, shepherd’s pie or just about anything hearty.

Available in the UK for around £15.00 per bottle from:
The Oxford Wine Company, The Halifax Wine Company, Just in Cases, Fareham Wine Cellar, Winedrop & the Clifton Cellars. More stockist information is available from Hatch Mansfield, the distributor.

2012 Alpha Box & Dice Xola Aglianico
Alpha Box & Dice / Viottolo Vineyards
McLaren Vale
South Australia

Aglianico (Ali-ani-coe) is yet another great Italian grape variety. Like Fiano it comes from Campania in the south where it makes all sorts of red wines, and the odd rosé, but is most famous for producing Taurasi GOCg in central Campania and Aglianico del Vulture in the wild landscape of Basilicata.

I love Taurasi. At its best it can be one of the very best red wines of Italy, but the grape is very tannic and very acidic – it’s often called the Barolo of the south, although it is much more full-bodied – so it is best to drink it from a producer who really knows what they are doing. Some of the best examples that I have ever tasted are made by the wonderful Raffaele Guastaferro of Cantine Guastaferro – he uses 200 year old vines! – the wonderful Feudo di San Gregorio and the lovely Milena Pepe who makes a huge range of fabulous wines at Tenuta Cavalier Pepe.

Because it can be such a hard grape, I was very excited to find Aglianico in Australia and hoped that the longer growing season and more sun would tame the grape’s wild nature. I was not disappointed.

Alpha Box & Dice cellar door.

Alpha Box & Dice is a little like Delinquente in that they present themselves to the world in a very modern way rather like craft beer producers do. Indeed much like craft beer you will struggle to find any actual information on their labels, just striking artwork and strange mottos for life. The place is quite extraordinary with a very relaxed feel and lots of mismatched furniture at the cellar door, but the wines are breathtaking.

The farming here is all biodynamic and while the labels seem cool and amusing you get the feel that the winemaking is taken very seriously indeed – I think you have to with a grape like Aglianico.

The grape is a very late ripener and even in Australia it is not picked until the very end of the season in late April. Once the grapes have been de-stemmed, to help reduce tannin, and the fermentation has taken place the wine is aged in used oak barrels for 36 months. This allows the air to trickle in and soften the tannins in the wine.

Oh my I loved this, it looks quite earthy and garnet with an amazing nose of flowers, balsamic, umami, liquorice, dried fruit and spice with some coffee thrown in. The palate is a shock, even here in Australia it is very acidic – in a good way – with rich cherry, some blackberry, plum, dry, peppery spice, leather, coffee, meat and lovely supple, ripe tannins that just nibble at your gums. A heady wine indeed that needs chargrilled meat or some really good beef – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £20 per bottle from:
All About Wine, Vincognito, Drinkmonger and WoodWinters. More stockist information is available from Boutinot, the distributor.

2010 D’Arenberg The Cenosilicaphobic Cat Sagrantino-Cinsault
D’Arenberg
McLaren Vale
South Australia

Sagrantino is an amazing grape variety that is nowhere near as well known as it ought to be. It comes from Umbria in Italy where it is used to make the Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCg wines and the Montefalco DOC wines that blend it with at least 70% Sangiovese to soften the tannins.

I love D’Arenberg, they are quirky and inventive and never afraid to put themselves out there. The Osborn family have owned it since 1912 and d’Arenberg Osborn – d’Arry – and his son Chester have achieved great things over the last 50 years or so. They actually released the first successful table wine in South Australia as recently as 1955. This was d’Arry’s Original, then called a Red Burgundy, now labelled as Shiraz-Grenache! Their range is large and idiosyncratic, but never disappoints.

Chester & d’Arry Osborn.

This particular wine was new to me this year and I am thrilled by it. 85% Sagrantino is tamed by 15% of light, spicy Cinsault and the South Australian sun. Some of the wine is trodden by foot, it is basket pressed and aged for 2 years in old French and American oak barrels, just to let the air soften those hard ‘gritty’ tannins. Cenosilicaphobic by the way means the fear of an empty glass!

Foot treading the Sagrantino at d’Arenberg.

This is another full on wine with aromas of dried cherry, chocolate, plums, earth, mocha and something wild and floral about it – possibly from the Cinsault. The palate is full and rich with a nice combination of soft, voluptuous richness and hard edged richness. There’re rich fruit, liquorice, balsamic, spices, coffee, chocolate and while there are plenty of tannins they are not aggressive and they have been tamed. A wonderful wine to enjoy with stews and pies – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £20 per bottle from:
Quality Wines, ND John, Auswinesonline.co.uk, Drink Finder. More stockist information is available from Enotria & Coe, the distributor.

I would also add that the Wine Society has a wonderful range of own label Australian wines called Blind Spot and that too includes some wines made from some less well known grape varieties. As you can probably guess some of these excellent wines are made from grapes from the Mediterranean world. These include Garganega – a white Italian grape variety famously used to make Soave – and a Barbera – a black grape more normally associated with Piemonte, both from King Valley in north east Victoria near the border with New South Wales. Then there is a delicious Old Vine Mataro – also known as Mourvèdre and Monastrell – from McLaren Vale in South Australia. In my opinion everyone in the UK who is interested in wine should be a member of the Wine Society, as their range is superb and beautifully put together.

So you see there is a great deal of variety available from Australia, even though they might not be in every supermarket. Australia can do so much more than Cabernet, Shiraz and Chardonnay and can bring its own style to a whole raft of grape varieties more normally associated with the Mediterranean world. What’s more all these wines are absolutely delicious and really food friendly too.