Do biodynamic wines have an energy to them? This idea will probably really, really annoy some readers – especially the scientific ones – because in order to answer this question, you should really define energy in this context, and then demonstrate its presence in some wines and its absence in others. And I can’t do this.
But there were a number of biodynamic wines that, on my recent trip to New Zealand, certainly had an energy to them. Maybe this was suggestion, in part? A smart friend planted this idea in my head, and so when I was tasting I was thinking of it. This wine had it. It was a remarkable wine, and one of my favourites of the trip, from James Millton in Gisborne.
Millton Riverpoint Vineyard Viognier 2014 Gisborne, New Zealand
This is all about the phenolics, says James Millton. It’s made in 300 litre barrels and the high-ish pH gives a sort of salty character, with phenolics giving freshness. ‘The word umami creeps into it,’ he says. ‘One thing I like is the saliva reaction.’ Most of the wine is made by taking bunches, crushing them and letting them sit for 6 h before pressing, but 8% gets 86 days’ skin contact. Powerful, salty and savoury with some spiciness and rich pear fruit. There’s some spicy, peppery character under the rich fruit and lovely orange peel notes leading to a juicy finish. Amazing texture and depth here: this is a beautiful, energetic wine. 95/100
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Framing is a social science term which refers to a set of concepts and perspectives that then form the background that influences how we think on certain issues. In this sense, framing is part of the narrative structure with which we see the world. American academic and author George Lakoff has popularized the term in his book ‘Don’t think of an elephant,’ in which he looks at how certain words and ideas have framed political discourse in the USA. For example, the term ‘tax relief’ has a strong framing influence.
‘The word relief evokes a frame in which there is a blameless Afflicted Person who we identify with and who has some Affliction, some pain or harm that is imposed by some external Cause-of-pain,’ say Lakoff. ‘Relief is the taking away of the pain or harm, and it is brought about by some Reliever-of-pain,’ he explains. ‘The Relief frame is an instance of a more general Rescue scenario, in which there a Hero (The Reliever-of-pain), a Victim (the Afflicted), a Crime (the Affliction), A Villain (the Cause-of-affliction), and a Rescue (the Pain Relief). The Hero is inherently good, the Villain is evil, and the Victim after the Rescue owes gratitude to the Hero.’ This is just one example of how the language used in political discourse automatically frames the issue under discussion, providing context and then influencing how the issue is then seen.
How does this apply to wine? The use of words is inseparable from our experience of wine. Even the names of wines, or the grapes that they are made from, carry with them supplementary meaning – the frames – that influence our experience of these wines. For example, I have a friend who claims that she hates Gewurztraminer. For her, the very word comes loaded with meaning, and to each experience of Gewurztraminer there is a framing effect that comes from the name of the variety. If she were to taste a Gewurtrminer blind and not realize that it is made from this variety (a tough ask: after all, this is a very distinctive variety), then there would be no such frame and she would be freer to enjoy the experience.
We come to wine with words, and these words influence the interpretation of the experiences of wine itself. Once we have the word ‘Gewurztraminer’ in our minds, it’s hard not to let this influence our perception of the wine in the glass. In some cases, our words get in the way of the actual experience. This is particularly dangerous for wine experts like me, because we have template descriptions for different wine styles that we all to readily rush to when we know (or think we know) what sort of wine we are tasting. This top-down cognitive knowledge can overshadow what we are experiencing in the glass.
Indeed, some researchers think we move too quickly to words, rather than dwelling in the sensory experience. I spoke wthe Melanie McBride who is a doctoral researcher working on intersensory learning involving smell and taste at York University, Toronto. ‘In cultures where smell is a primary learning and considered a critical dimension of experience, they have more language/words for it because it is a higher priority for them,’ she explains. ‘In the west where developmental psychology theories such as Piaget’s ages and stages still dominate our thinking, we see physical knowledge as a low stage we’re to grow out of and grow “into” social knowledge.’
Her view is that in our culture we move away from the sensory experience itself and go straight to words. For wine tasting, the implications are obvious. We jump straight to winespeak, and this distorts the actual experience of tasting and smelling the wine. McBride gives the example of experiencing strawberries. ‘We had to stop smearing the strawberry on our face and mashing it into our mouths because this was considered a lower and more infantile way of relating with knowledge than using words, signs and symbols. And so when the sensory stage is pathologized as being infantile, we basically stop a process of learning that should have continued.’
What does this mean for teaching people about wine? ‘I believe we could radically redefine wine learning with far more of an emphasis on physical knowledge and tasting than language or theory,’ says McBride. ‘I think the real problem with wine training is that it’s far too focused on the theory and rote memorization of terms and sticking with the ‘grid’ than it is with actually learning how to use your tongue, mouth, nose and eyes to understand what’s in the glass and in your body.’
So next time you try a wine, pause before you allow yourself to rush to write a tasting note. Don’t analyse the wine. Stop those words forming in your mind. Take a step back and dwell in the actual experience of the tastes, textures, smells and flavours. Allow the wine time to speak to you and bypass your critical faculties. Then, and only then, reach for your words. It will be a different experience, and you may well enjoy the wine more.
So, the Sauvignon Blanc conference. Two and a half days focusing on this grape, which New Zealand has made its own. Talks and tastings; dinners and parties. And welcoming Blenheim (above), shy at first, but then opening up to receive a few hundred guests and locals. Two establishments in particular deserve mention: Ritual, for its morning eggs and coffee; and Scotch, a lovely wine bar with excellent chips, too.
One of the highlights of the conference was a speech by Oz Clarke, the well known British wine writer, who was one of my heroes when I first discovered wine in the early 1990s. He began with an amazing paean to Sauvignon. It captures beautifully the impact that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc made on the world of wine when it first arrived in the 1980s. I agree with Oz: the world of wine has never been the same again.
I know when I first discovered that Sauvignon Blanc has a sense of place. It was on February 1st 1989 at 11 in the morning. On the 17th floor of New Zealand House in London. Just inside the door on the left. Third wine along. That’s the first time I tasted a Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough in New Zealand’s South Island. That’s when Montana 1983 Sauvignon was introducing itself to the world.
My world of wine would never be the same again. There had never before been a wine that crackled and spit its flavours at you from the glass. A wine that took the whole concept of green – and expanded it, stretched it and pummelled it and gloriously re-interpreted it in a riot of gooseberry and lime zest, green apples, green pepper sliced through with an ice cold knife of steel, piles of green grass, the leaves from a blackcurrant bush, and, just in case this was all too much to take – a friendly dash of honey and the chaste kiss of a peach.
And did that taste of somewhere? It sure did. It tasted of somewhere no one knew. It tasted of a somewhere that hadn’t existed before – ever. It tasted of a whole new world of wine that was going to be full of somewhere that had never existed before. It tasted of a whole new world of wine which would no longer make you wait a generation to be taken seriously as a winemaker – a whole new world of wine that would allow you to take your very first brave efforts as a winemaker – plonk them down on the table and cry – beat that, old timers.
I, too, remember my first experience of Marlborough Sauvignon. It was a bit later – in 1992 – and it was also with Montana, although I can’t remember the vintage. I was playing back garden cricket with some chums in Wallington, and someone had brought a couple of bottles of this wine along, which we drank between overs, keeping it safe behind the stumps, on a warm summer evening. Oz describes the flavour impact much better than I ever could, but what was amazing was its intensity, its vitality, and its accessibility. This was something you could get as a novice drinker – even if you’d never read a wine publication or gone to a wine tasting. A remarkable riot of flavour that I would never forget. That’s Sauvignon for you. It’s often derided in the wine trade – an unsophisticated taste – but I love it.
Chickens at Huia
The drive from the Waipara to Blenheim is an attractive one. Alas we faced grey skies and a bit of drizzle, but it was still very interesting. There’s something special about the New Zealand landscape. Sadly, there were no baby seals at the Ohau falls near Kaikora, but this is the wrong time of year.
We dropped the hire car off at Blenheim airport. It was just after 7, and a helpful member of the airport staff was locking up (the last flight had arrived some time earlier), and gave us a lift into town. It would have been tough trying to find a taxi. I love small town kindness.
Prior to the Sauvignon Blanc symposium there was time for a few visits, and I’d picked people I hadn’t seen before. We began at Huia, with Mike Allan. Huia have been working organically since 2008, and they’ve been certified since 2012. As well as their home block in Rapaura, they have another vineyard (Winsome) near Riverland with heavier clay soils. Since they began working this block biodynamically, the soil texture has improved massively, and they get great results here, particularly with aromatics.
Huia are an underrated producer. I particularly like their sparkling wine, which is all done by hand, including the disgorgement process. Both Mike and Claire have had experience working in Champagne. The Huia Brut 2009 is delicious, and has begun to show the first stages of development.
We tried the 2015 and 2005 versions of the Sauvignon Blanc. A decade apart. The older wine was lovely, showing some maturity, but not as much a you’d expect. I really like the 2015 Sauvignon, and the Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer are all quite lovely.
Then it was off to Astrolabe. This is an interesting producer. Simon Waghorn began this winery as a hobby when he was winemaker for Whitehaven, and he’s always been determined to make wines that suit his own palate. He says he’s trying to keep the New Zealand-ness about his wines while marrying this to the elegance of the European wines that he likes to drink, and in this I reckon he has succeeded.
From 500 cases back in 1996 – a cleanskin Chardonnay – he added Riesling in 1997 and Sauvignon in 2001. The current Astrolabe operation dates to 2002. ‘There’s no family money,’ says Simon. ‘Everything has been done on a shoestring.’
The majority of the grapes come from 8 or 9 families of growers, and 60% of the fruit is from the Awatare. Astrolabe also source grapes from the Kekerengu Coast, which is south of Marlborough. The wines are all quite impressive. ‘I’m drinking a lot more Chablis and Burgundy,’ says Simon, ‘and trying to make tight wines. Wines that will age with grace; understated in their youth.’
I was particularly impressed by the Kekerengu Coast Pinot Gris 2015, and the Taihoa Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2013 and 2009 (also from the Kekerengu Coast). My favourite wine was probably the 2014 Astrolabe Chardonnay, which was stunning, but – really – all the wines here are interesting and really good.
Then in the evening, it was off to Matua, for dinner. Matua are a big producer that is owned by Treasury Wine Estates, and they are famous for their newly re-badged Sauvignon with its sky blue label (apparently the correct term for this colour is ‘teal’). Since 2000, production has grown from 600 000 cases to 2 million annually, but of late quality has risen to the point that noted Kiwi wine commentators are commenting on how they have turned things around.
There are three tiers of wines: Teal label, lands and legends, and single vineyard. It’s the latter that’s potentially of interest for wine geeks. The Single Vineyard Marlborough Chardonnay 2012 is a very serious wine, with intense, powerful, complex fruit characters.
The 2014 is also impressive, with precision and a keen acid core. I also really liked the Single Vineyard Hawkes Bay Syrah 2014, which showed amazing supple, peppery, clove and juniper tinged fruit. This is a serious wine with lovely balance, and not just intense flavour. It’s great when you find large wineries doing a great job like this.
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.