In advance of the Sauvignon Blanc symposium, Mike Weersing of Pyramid Valley opened this oldie for us when we visited. Sauvignon can age! Not always, but Cotat makes Sancerre in an ageworthy style. You might find these wines a little underwhelming in their youth, but give them some time and they can be lovely.
Cotat Chavignol La Grande Côte Sancerre 1989 Loire, France
This is amazing for a 26 year old Sauvignon Blanc. Lovely texture and freshness with spice, nuts and warm, sweet pear and ripe apple fruit. There’s also some grapefruit. There are also sweet marmalade notes and a bit of apricot. Powerful yet still fresh with nice texture and real focus and complexity. There are even some cabbage hints. Utterly brilliant. 95/100
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The fourth day. By this stage, jet lag has dissipated and I’m fully into the itinerary. So I started the day with a quick run, had some poached eggs, and hit the road. The destination? The Waikari region of North Canterbury, which is home to two of New Zealand’s top producers: Pyramid Valley Vineyards and Bell Hill.
I first visited these two back in 2008, when I had a bit of spare time before flying home from Christchurch. James Millton had recommended that I check out these two new producers, and so I called, got appointments, and headed out there. Now, just over seven years later, I was returning. The atraction of Waikiri is limestone. Both Pyramid Valley and Bell Hill have limestone-based soils, but the terroirs are a little different.
We met with Mike Weersing and managing director Caine Thompson at Pyramid Valley, and started off in the vineyards. It was freezing. Mike explained the way that the special spot they had was a combination of limestone and clay, and that both were needed to make the sorts of wines he was looking for.
The four small, single vineyards that make up Pyramid Valley’s home site are planted in discrete locations, and the shape of their boundaries is determined by the soil differences. Even within a small property like this, the soil differences are significant enough to make quite different wines.
‘Wine has this magical capacity to talk about little nuances of site and place,’ says Mike. His wines show this, for sure. The Grower Series wines are all exemplary, and quite delicious. But the real interest is in the home wines, and we tried the 2013s.
There are two Chardonnays and two Pinots. The Field of Fire and Lion’s Tooth Chardonnays may be grown in blocks just 600 m apart, but the wines are quite different. Field of Fire has an amazing mid-palate intensity, while Lion’s Tooth is all bass and treble, with less of the mid-range. Both are utterly compelling. The two Pinots also show differences, and I was thrilled by both. Angel Flower is beautifully aromatic with a sapid, green edge and lovely minerality. Earth Smoke is bright, pure and fresh but with purity and structure that suggest that this could be extremely long lived. The latter comes from soils with more lime in them.
Then it was a short trip over to Bell Hill. Marcel Giesen and Sherwyn Veldhuizen have been patiently building up this property ever since they started in 1997, and now have six plots on the properties with a range of soils, but all dominated by limestone.
We spent some time walking through the vineyards and then had a lovely lunch of whitebait, salmon and venison, beautifully cooked by Marcel, coupled with a vertical of their wines.
The Chardonnay is beautifully focused, and a tasting of 2012, 2009 and 2006 was really interesting, showing the ageing potential of this wine – at almost 10 years old, the 2006 is just beginning to develop.
The Pinot Noir is quite superb. Old Weka Pass is the second label, and 2011 and 2012 were quite lovely, especially the latter. The 2012 Bell Hill Pinot is fine and expressive with some spicy depth and good structure. 2010 is sweetly fruited and shows lovely concentration, with some ripeness. 2008 is quite beautiful: its supple and has some mineral, savoury notes and has a silky elegance.
This was quite a special day.
After a morning drive up from Waitaki, we headed into Christchurch to meet up with Alan McCorkindale and his partner Mary in the city. Alan was one of the pioneers of the Waipara Valley. He was a winemaker for Corbans, and moved down to Waipara for Corban’s first harvest here in 1988. (You can read a history of wine in the Waipara valley/North Canterbury here, and also Alan’s account of his early Waipara years here.)
We had coffee at the fab C4 Coffee which is a roastery and coffee bar, and then we went to Shop Eight to taste Alan’s wines. I really like them. He makes great sparkling wine, and I really liked his Blanc de Blancs 2009, and also the same wine more recently disgorged with no sulfur dioxide and no dosage. ‘In 50 years’ time New Zealand will be very well regarded for sparkling wine,’ says Alan. ‘The issue is that it is so capital intensive compared with Sauvignon Blanc.’ We also tried the 2003 Blanc de Blancs, which is very interesting (although I preferred the focus of the 2009). I also really liked Alan’s Chardonnays: the 2011 is textural and has real finesse, and the 2014 Single Barrel Chardonnay is stunning, with nice acidity and freshness.
Another of Alan’s wines that is really interesting is his Riesling Germania. He made this first in 2010, and the 2014 we tried was the second release, and it’s a blend that includes 8% (1000 litres) of Mosel Kabinett in with Waipara fruit. It’s rich and textural with nice grapefruit and apricot flavours. It’s not cheap, but it’s lovely.
Nick Brown and Pen Naish
We then braved the Friday afternoon traffic to head to the Waipara Valley, and Black Estate, with Nick Brown and Pen Naish. In a relatively short space of time they have turned their project into one of the very top producers in the region.
They have three different properties, with the furthest 10 km apart. There’s the 12 hectare home vineyard, which was originally purchased by Nick’s family in 2007, and which has been expanded in 2011. This has sedimentary clays that are highly mineralized.
Then there’s the impressive Damsteep vineyard, which is part of the Spye farm that was established in the 1920s. The vineyards here, which are steeply sloped (hence the name), were planted in 1999, and Black Estate have 16 hectares of which 7.5 hectares is grapes: Riesling and Pinot Noir on Waipara clay.
The final vineyard is Netherwood, which was planted by Russell Black and Danny Schuster in 1986. This went into receivership in 2009, and is now being brought back into top condition. It’s unirrigated and there are 4.5 hectares of vines on the 10.5 hectare property.
The Black Estate wines are superb all across the board. Look out especially for the Home Chardonnay 2015, Netherwood Chardonnay 2015, The Damsteep Riesling 2014, Home Pinot Noir 2014, and especially the Netherwood and Damsteep Pinot Noirs in 2014, which are really serious.
David Huron, Professor of Music at Ohio State University, has written an absorbing book titled, Sweet anticipation: music and the psychology of expectation. When we listen to music, our relationship with it changes with repeated exposure. We predict what is coming, and then there is a pleasure derived when the music matches our predictions. The ‘sweet anticipation’ refers to these positive thoughts and feelings that come from predicting a future event that is then fulfilled.
It’s interesting to think about listening to music in this way. The predictions we make and the degree to which they are successful result in an emotional reward or penalty. Successful predictions result in positive emotional reward while the unsuccessful predictions result in surprise, which depending on the context may or may not itself result in a negative emotional penalty. More broadly, these emotional consequences have been shaped by evolution in order to motivate us to improve our anticipatory skills. Skills such as this help us to learn to respond correctly to our highly variable and often novel environments, and the pleasure we get from music is a by-product of this capacity.
Surprise isn’t always negative: it can be positive. If all our predictions are all fulfilled to easily, it can be boring. Think of music: a song in which you can tell exactly what’s going to happen next is so predictable you will rapidly tire of it, if indeed you liked it all in the first place. And music that we have been over-exposed to rapidly loses any appeal, and can end up being very annoying. Generally speaking though, we develop a relationship with interesting music, and this isn’t simply familiarity at play, it is because the brain is rewarding itself for its increasing ability to guess correctly what is coming next.
This applies to music. Does it also apply to wine? I think so. As we taste a wine, we bring our past experiences of this sort of wine to bear, and this knowledge and memory takes part in the construction of the flavour that we perceive. In the tasting process, we anticipate what we are to experience: we predict what is coming next, just as we do with music. Consider a red Bordeaux. You are with a friend, and they are opening a bottle of the 1996 Leoville Barton. You see the label: ah, this could be really nice. The fill level is very good, and you know the bottle has been in your friend’s cellar, which has good temperature control, so you expect the wine to be in good condition. The capsule comes off and the cork is removed: it looks sound. The wine is decanted, and it looks a full, bright colour. You know the estate’s reputation, and you’ve had quite a few 1996s recently – they’re really beginning to drink well. Before your glass is poured, you already have quite a few expectations about how the wine might taste. It’s poured at last (that’s nice, the sound of the wine pouring), and you take a sniff, followed by a first sip. Yes, this is much as you’d expected it to taste. And it’s like meeting an old friend: those reassuring flavours of a good Bordeaux just beginning to enter its drinking window.
Can we extend the analogy with music further? Some music is extremely accessible and you love it the first time you hear it. This may be genre specific, and depend on what you listen to regularly. For example, if you are familiar with a certain artist, you might get into their new music quicker than someone who isn’t. Some music requires several listen-throughs before you grow to like it. Accessible music you tire of more quickly than music that takes a while to get. Some music is just too far from our comfort zone that we will probably never grow to like it. It’s a very personal thing, as is wine preference.
Likewise some wines are easy to get. They have nice, easy flavours and they are delicious at first taste. There’s nothing wrong with wines like this, but they aren’t wines you can have an ongoing relationship with. They have poor conversations skills, and quickly you run out of things to say. If you love wine, you want a wine that surprises you a bit. That doesn’t meet all your predictions, and which grabs your attention. Often these sorts of interesting wines can be a bit off-putting on the first encounter. They have edges. They aren’t smooth and easy, but these are the sorts of wines we want to spend time with and get to know. And good wines repay a thorough cross-examination: as you question them, you find out more. Sometimes it takes others to point out their features before you recognize them. The more experience you have with various types of wine, the more you get to experience when you taste them.
After leaving Central Otago, we drove to a wine region that I’d never visited before. It’s New Zealand’s newest and probably smallest wine region, the Waitaki Valley. A few years ago, people were getting very excited about Waitaki, largely because of the promise of limestone soils and a cool climate. Some of that excitement has since dissipated: it’s not just cool, but properly cold, and only some of the soils are limestone (the rest are more alluvial). It’s so marginal that many of the first wave winegrowers have since sold up and got out of the game. But one producer seems to be doing quite well: Ostler.
Jeff Sinnot and Jim Jerram
Ostler is a joint project between Jim Jerram, an ex-medic from Dunedin, and winemaker Jeff Sinnott. They decided to start the project in 1998 and first planted vines in 2002. It took them five years to pluck up the courage, and they only began in earnest when property developers moved in to start establishing lifestyle vineyard operations in the region.
They’d spent some time modelling the climate in the area, but decided eventually to take the plunge. ‘The best indicator [of a suitable climate] is to plant the vines,’ says Sinnott. It turns out that despite their sophisticated interpolation of temperature from the available climate data, their site was 10% cooler than they had anticipated.
They have a lovely site planted on lime soils on a gentle gradient, and there are 8 hectares of vines in all. The top soil has a pH of 6.2 while the lime subsoil is at 9. They planted all five available clones of Pinot Noir and then later some Pinot Gris.
They also have some further sites on alluvial soils on the valley floor, Lakeside and Blue House. Two years in 10 you don’t get anything here because the climate is so marginal, but recently the installation of frost fans has made a huge difference, not only in terms of mitigating frost risk, but also in bringing the average temperature up slightly. This, they hope, will help make the project – which is already a good success – much more solid from a financial standpoint.
How are the wines? They’re plenty good enough to suggest that working in this marginal climate is well worth all the pain and risk. Riesling from Lakeside is very impressive and quite exotic, as is the Blue House version of this variety. Pinot Gris is also really nice, and here we get to see the difference between alluvial and limestone soils. The former is lively with spice and appealing texture, showing the benefit of new clone 457. The latter is more aromatic and very rounded with some pear and ripe apple. Pinot Gris has real potential here.
But it’s the Pinot Noirs that really excel. We tried a vertical of Caroline’s, the top Pinot, taking in 2005, 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2013. These are superb, with particular favourites being the 2005, 2011 and 2013. There’s a freshness, vitality and elegance to these wines, which show keen acidity but also some generosity. There’s a lot of potential in the Waitaki Valley in the right sites, it seems, and it is very encouraging that the wines age so well.
Day 2 of this short visit to Central Otago began with Paul Pujol at Prophets Rock. This was an amazing visit. I’ve met Paul and tasted his wines a number of times, and this – my first time in the vineyard – confirmed to me that this is one of Central Otago’s top 2 or 3 producers.
Prophets Rock changed hands a couple of years back, and there has been some rearranging of vineyard holdings, but Paul stayed on, which is a good thing, because he’s a thoughtful, talented winemaker who has had senior winemaking positions in France, and spends a lot of time in Burgundy.
Indeed, tasting with us was François Millet, of de Vogüé, who is friends with Paul. There are Two Prophet Rock vineyard sites, both in Bendigo and both quite different. There’s 7.5 hectares at the home vineyard (which has some lime), and 17 hectares at Rocky Point.
Francois and Paul
The Dry Riesling is amazing. 2012 and 2007 were both beautiful and textural, the result of a very slow whole bunch press and long ageing on gross lees in old barrels. These are profound wines. The Pinot Gris is also amazing: 2014 had lovely depth and richness, but also freshness, and 2010 showed just a bit of development. Both were quite lovely, with flavour and poise.
Paul’s Pinot Noirs are a bit different. The extraction is very light: just one hand plunge and no whole bunch, and then around 17 months in barrel with no racking. We tried 2013, 2010 and 2007, and all were quite lovely, especially the first two. These are proper wines with lovely acidity, structure and presence. Fine, textural wines that are among the best in the region.
We finished tasting and then headed off to Waitaki, in North Otago.
Two more visits on the first day in Central Otago. Burn Cottage is an interesting project. It was started by American Marquis (pronounced Marcus) Sauvage, and he hired a stellar team of Ted Lemon (consultant) and Claire Mulholland (winemaker) to oversee it. It’s a 27 hectare property with 10.2 hectares of vines, on the border of Lowburn towards Bannockburn.
Ted explained that how they’d underestimated the influence of the wind here: it’s almost always negative, and so they have spent a lot of time and money establishing shelter belts. We also met with Shane Livingstone, the vineyard manager. From the outset, this site has been managed biodynamically. ‘We were ridiculed by a lot of people in Central Otago at the time,’ says Ted. But now Burn Cottage has a great reputation for its Pinot Noir.
We tried a range of the wines that have been released so far. The 2014 Moonlight Race is a new regional blend from three different vineyards, and it’s direct and delicious. Of the Burn Cottage Pinots, 2014 had a slight edge over 2013 and 2012, both of which were very good.
There’s a new wine: the Riesling/Gruner Veltliner, first produced in 2014. This is quite an impressive textured white with some peppery notes alongside the pear fruit, and it’s lovely.
The evening visit was Two Paddocks, with general manager Jacqui Murphy. This is actor Sam Neill’s project. Rob Hay recommended a block to plant in 1993, and Sam bought it. His colleague Roger Donaldson bought one next door – hence the name Two Paddocks. Roger fell out of love with viticulture fairly quickly, but Sam’s passion grew, and in 1998 he bought the Last Chance vineyard in Alexandra, followed by the Redbank vineyard (Alexandra) in 2000. The latest acquisition has been the old Desert Heart vineyard in Bannockburn in 2014. This has been relabelled the Fusilier vineyard.
I was very impressed by the Two Paddocks Riesling 2014 from the Red Bank vineyard. Not much is made, but it’s a stylish, textural dry wine.
Of the Pinots, the trio of 2013 Last Chance, 2014 The Fusilier, and 2013 First Paddock are all exceptional. These are all lovely, expressive wines, made by Dean Shaw at the Central Otago Wine Company, the important contract winemaking operation of which Sam is a shareholder. Currently, Two Paddocks is the only Central Otago winery making wine from all three major subdistricts: Gibbston, Alexandra and Cromwell Basin.
I’m back in Central Otago, for my fourth visit. I’m slowly beginning to understand a little about this remarkable wine region, and yesterday saw a lovely set of visits to four different producers, all of whom are doing something quite special. I’ll write the day up in two batches, beginning with a morning in Wanaka.
First up, Maude, with Dan and Sarah-Kate Dineen. Dan’s an Aussie, and they were working there as winemakers before returning to Sarah-Kate’s home in Central Otago in 2006.
Just outside Wanaka, SK’s parents Dawn and Terry Wilson had planted a beautiful terraced 4 hectare vineyard that they called Mount Maude in 1994, and they returned to make the wines from this, plus added another label, simply ‘Maude’, for wines made from a wider selection of vineyards across the region.
I was really impressed by the Rieslings from the Mount Maude vineyard. The regular Mount Maude Riesling is dry and delicate, with lovely focus. 2015 is already showing beautifully. And there’s also the East Block Riesling, first made in 2010, which is an off-dry style. We tried both the 2015 and the 2012, and they are beautifully complex and weighted.
Chardonnay here is a real surprise. There isn’t a lot of it, but it’s superb, with 2014 and a cask sample of 2015 really impressing. And I also really liked the first, as yet unlabelled Maude traditional method fizz, which is made from base wines from 2004, 5, 8, 11 and 12, and shows richness and depth.
Pinot is a big focus, as you’d expect, and the Mount Maude Pinots are very fine, with a nice savoury, structural dimension as well as depth of fruit. The surprise here, though, was a new wine, which will probably be bottled separately (please!) called Love Bug. In 2015 they decided to vinify some of the Mount Maude Pinot that never made it into the main wine a bit differently. So whole bunches were fermented pretty much intact for three and a half weeks before being pressed and fermentation finished in old barrels. The result? A pale coloured Pinot with beautiful aromatics and elegance. Very pure and quite natural.
Nick and Jo Mills
Next visit was Rippon, in Wanaka. I’d been here back in 2010 on my first visit to the region, and it was lovely to see the progress that Nick and Jo Mills have made. They are, potentially, making the best wines in the region at the moment.
The 2013 releases are astonishingly good, and are beginning to open up just a little. ‘These have been compressed to undrinkable in their first year in bottle,’ says Nick, who is clearly relieved that he got it right after all.
Their biodynamically farmed, 15 hectare vineyard has some of the most famous views of any New Zealand wine estate, looking out onto the lake with the small island that provides a surprising degree of shelter from wind.
As well as making superb Pinot, they also produce lovely Riesling (a look at the developing 2009 was a nice treat) and a serious Gewurztraminer.
Plus the Gamay: from just 12 rows, the Rippon Gamay is a small production gem that captures the savoury stony brightness and black plum and cherry fruit of this variety quite wonderfully.
I was very impressed by this pink English sparkling wine. It’s a non-vintage blend made by Dermot Sugrue. It’s 50% Pinot Noir (about 12% of this is red wine for colour), 40% Pinot Meunier and 10% Chardonnay. Base wines are mostly stainless steel fermented, but there are some old barrels used, too. The base vintage is 2010.
Wiston Estate Cuvée Rosé NV England
12% alcohol. Beautifully packaged, this is a salmon pink colour in the glass. Fresh, bright, focused and fine with dominant citrus fruits and subtle notes of strawberry and rosehip syrup. Quite dry, focused and linear with keen acidity that’s well integrated into the whole. There are also some notes of ripe apple. Lovely precision. 91/100
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Brancott Estate’s Chosen Rows Sauvignon Blanc is the result of their desire to make a high-end Sauvignon. I’ve been following this since its inception. Back in 2009, then chief winemaker with Montana (which is now Brancott) Jeff Clarke came to London to present a tasting of high-end Sauvignons from around the world, and to tell us about the icon project that was underway. Then, in 2013, the first Chosen Rows wine was released. It was the 2010 vintage, and finally Brancott had produced something they felt captured their intentions. I was impressed by this first release.
So it was nice to try the new release: 2013. Alongside the 2010. I’m excited by these wines, because they are proper high-end Sauvignon without any gimmicks, and they will age beautifully, I suspect.
Brancott Estate Chosen Rows Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Marlborough, New Zealand
14.5% alcohol. Quite rich and intense, in a Cotat-like style, with powerful ripe pear and apple flavours. Concentrated and textural, but with good acidity. There are some subtle herbal characters. Primary, vivid and intense with a citrus/mineral edge to the fruit. Lively, with potential to age really nicely. 93/100
Brancott Estate Chosen Rows Sauvignon Blanc 2010 Marlborough, New Zealand
14% alcohol. Powerful and intense with mineral, chalky citrus and pear fruit with a hint of spice. Still quite youthful and grippy with lovely fruit focus and real presence. Warm and rounded with a fine spiciness and an almost sake-like quality. Some crystalline fruits. Big potential here. 93/100
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