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The speed of change in New Zealand never fails to amaze me. These days Craggy Range is generally considered to be one of the leading producers of Hawke’s Bay and the sub-region of Gimblett Gravels, yet its first vintage was only in 1997.
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Smith was in London recently to substantiate his claim, which he did quite effectively. He explained that 2013 had enjoyed low cropping levels, as a repercussion of the cool 2012 vintage. A naturally low crop produces much better results than a similar crop level achieved with a green harvest. And the weather was just right, with warm but not excessively hot weather in the critical weeks after flowering, followed by a cooler period that helped retain the aromatics in the grapes. “The stars aligned!” he said.
Age of vines influence vintage quality
Another factor in the quality of the vintage is the age of the vines. Older vines give a much better expression of place. Craggy Range has Riesling vines that are 28 years old and Sauvignon vines that are 20 years old, which give quite different results than younger vines. Older vines also need less management, and they produce lower alcohol levels. This is something that is not yet fully understood but Craggy Range has observed that the grapes are ripe at a lower alcohol level, which translates into more elegant wine in the glass.
To illustrate his point, Smith started the tasting with Riesling from the Te Muna Road vineyard in Martinborough. This comes from a 2-hectare vineyard on old rocky soil, with a volcanic influence. In the past, New Zealand has planted German clones, but it now has access to Riesling clones from Alsace, which are giving even better results.
The Sauvignon, too, comes from Martinborough, and for a New Zealand Sauvignon was nicely understated, with mineral characters, firm fruit and a restrained finish.
The final white wine was a Chardonnay from Kidnapper’s Bay in Hawke’s Bay. Smith observed that if you put Chardonnay in a dramatic vineyard, it takes on the character of the place. He didn’t want this Chardonnay to be overtly fruity, but was looking for a sense of the ocean, a Chablis style. To this end he uses large oak barrels and indigenous yeast, and the wine certainly exhibited some of the oyster-shell character that you can find in good Chablis.
Next up were barrel samples, components of Craggy Range’s flagship Bordeaux blend from Gimblett Gravels. Gimblett Gravels is an 800-hectare plot of stony, gravelly soil from a riverbed that changed its course about 150 years ago. At a time when the value of agricultural land was measured by the number of sheep you could graze on it, Gimblett Gravels was deemed pretty worthless. But pioneers Alan Limner from Stonecroft and Chris Pask from C. J. Pask saw its potential for exceptional vineyard land, and planted the first crop in 1999. The drainage is excellent, which is an asset after heavy rainfall, but as Smith observed, getting enough water is the greatest challenge. The area enjoys a certain amount of humidity, thanks to the oceanic influence, and it is rare to get seriously warm days.
The various grape varieties showed their characteristics. The Merlot was rich and fleshy, with plummy fruit. The Cabernet Sauvignon was more restrained. Cabernet Franc was fresher, and Smith observed that there was a lot of clonal variation on Cabernet Franc. His Cabernet Sauvignon came from cuttings from Kim Goldwater’s estate on Waiheke Island. Petit Verdot, which accounts for 2% of the final blend, is “tricky to manage”: “It’s the oddest grape variety I have ever grown and it can look like a wild scientist!” This vat sample was rich and powerful, with acidity and tannin.
We finished with a sample of Sophia, a projected blend of the different components. Each variety would be matured separately until October, before blending and finally taken out of wood just before Christmas and bottled in February 2015. The proposed blend was rich and intense with blackcurrant fruit and some spicy oak and, despite its youth, was beautifully balanced, harmonious and complete. There was no doubt that it was more than the sum of the preceding parts, adding up to what might indeed be the vintage of a generation.
Main photo: Craggy Range’s Gimblett Gravels vineyard. Courtesy of Craggy Range
It is quite a special experience to taste every single vintage of a wine, but that is what I did the other day, when I was invited to a vertical tasting in London of AD The Aviator from Alpha Domus, one of the leading estates of Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand.
Alpha Domus was founded by the Ham family, which originally came from the Netherlands. Alpha includes the initials of the five members of the family — the parents and three sons — who established the estate, and domus means home in Latin. They bought land in Hawke’s Bay, in an area that is now recognized as a sub-region, the Bridge Pa triangle, and planted the grape varieties that do best in Hawke’s Bay: the Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. The soil is red metal, alluvial soil, on an old riverbed, over gravel, a variation on the much better known Gimblett Gravels of Hawke’s Bay. It is warm and free draining but with sufficient water holding capacity not to need irrigation.
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They made their first wine in 1996. AD The Aviator, their flagship wine, is a blend of the year’s best Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. Its proportions varying from year to year, and some years it is not even made. The unpredictable aspect is the Cabernet Sauvignon, which can sometimes be difficult to ripen in Hawke’s Bay. Merlot is easier, but it is the Cabernet Sauvignon that provides the backbone and aging potential. The producers want a long ripening period, and aim for low yields, paying great attention to canopy management. Nor do they pick too early. As Paul Ham observed, “It is a battle of nerves over the potential rain at harvest time.”
The name The Aviator is a tribute to the many pilots who played their part in New Zealand’s aviation history and trained on de Havilland Tiger Moth planes from the Bridge Pa airfield. So, appropriately, the London tasting took place in the Royal Air Force Club on Piccadilly. And the Tigermoth biplane features as a logo on most of their labels.
Over the years Alpha Domus has employed three winemakers. Grant Edmonds, who now makes the wine at Sileni, and his own wine at Redmetal Vineyards, was their first; he was followed by a Dutchman, Evert Nijink; and now Kate Galloway makes the wine, building on the work of Grant and Evert, benefiting from older vines and fine-tuning the winemaking process.
The winemaking process for AD The Aviator has become established over the years. There is an initial cold soak for the grapes, followed by some hand-plunging and pigeage during fermentation, and then a period of aging in new and used French oak barrels. Finally, the very best of the individual barrels is selected for blending, with the winemaker looking “for perfume and aroma, with soft tannins,” Paul Ham says. “And it must be food-friendly.” At its best, this is a wine that can rival Bordeaux.
We tasted from young to old, beginning with:
2010: 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Cabernet Franc, 26% Merlot, 10% Malbec
Deep young color; ripe rounded cassis nose, with some vanilla and fruit. Paul Ham explained that they want New World fruit, with Old World complexity, and that is what they have achieved in this wine. The palate was still quite firm and youthful, but with underlying elegance balancing some ripe fruit, with a rounded finish.
2009: 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 18% Malbec, 18% Cabernet Franc
Medium color. A light, rather restrained nose. Closed and understated on the palate, with a little sweet cassis and vanilla. Quite elegant fruit on the finish. And generally less expressive than 2010.
2007: 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Cabernet Franc, 23% Merlot, 13% Malbec
Medium color. An elegant smoky cedary nose. A medium weight palate, with some acidity and also some tannin. A youthful edge to the wine, with some lovely fruit. An elegant concentration of flavor, and still plenty of aging potential.
2002: Kate’s first vintage. 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec
Quite a deep color. Rounded ripe and smoky on the nose. Quite a tight palate, with a firm finish. Still youthful with some cedary minty notes. Some length.
2000: Made by Evert. 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 12% Malbec
Medium color. Elegant smoky nose. Quite a firm cedary palate. An edge of tannin with some acidity. A satisfying glass of wine, with balanced fruit and concentration, with length and elegance.
1999: 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 15% Malbec
A lighter year; they very nearly didn’t make it. Medium color, with a little age. Soft cedary vanilla nose. Quite an elegant dry palate, with some supple tannins. Elegant cedary notes. And a long finish.
1998: 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 14% Malbec.
A hot dry year, which posed difficulties for some winemakers in Hawke’s Bay. Medium color, and still quite youthful. An elegant nose, with some cedary fruit, and on the palate, quite structured, with elegant fruit, structure and depth. Nicely intense, with a hint of menthol from the Cabernet Sauvignon. Did the gum trees nearby have an impact? Satisfying length and depth.
1996: This first vintage was made by Grant Edmonds and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The Cabernet Franc and Malbec were not yet in production. Medium colour. Soft cedary notes on the nose and palate. A softer palate than the others, with some elegant cedary fruit. Maybe just beginning to slither off its plateau, or maybe not? Whatever, it was soft and sweet and still very elegant. A great note on which to finish a tasting of New Zealand’s history, with a wine that also amply illustrates Hawke’s Bay’s ability to rival Bordeaux.
Top photo: From left, Darren Chatterton, vineyard manager; Paul Ham, managing director; and Kate Galloway, winemaker. Credit: Courtesy of Alpha Domus
Once upon a time, Alsace wines were relatively simple to understand. Alsace is virtually the only French appellation that allows the mention of a grape variety on the label, and with a couple of easily identifiable exceptions, the wines tended to be dry. But things seem to have changed in recent years. Am I alone in feeling disappointed that a wine I thought would be dry from the label turns out to be rich with a sweet, even cloying, finish? And then matters are complicated further with all the grands crus names. There are 50 altogether, but I can only ever remember a handful. Happily, a recent visit to Maison Trimbach in Ribeauvillé has served to restore my faith in the region.
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Trimbach makes the full range of Alsace grape varieties, with elegantly leafy Pinot Blanc, some rounded Pinot Gris and some deliciously understated Gewürztraminer — we joked about whether a restrained Gewürztraminer really exists. But it is really with Riesling that the Trimbach style comes into its own, emphasizing the slatey minerality of the grape variety.
A full range of Riesling
Trimbach makes seven qualities of Riesling, beginning with the simple Riesling based on grapes purchased from some 30 growers, picked and pressed by hand. The vinification is very simple, usually entailing a malolactic fermentation and certainly no oak. Freshness and minerality are the key characteristics. The wine has a fresh slatey note, with very good acidity, and a firm dry finish — just as Alsace Riesling should be.
Next up the scale is the Riesling Réserve, a selection of grapes, mainly from Trimbach’s own vineyards around Ribeauvillé. The vinification is the same, but the grapes come from vineyards with a higher limestone content. The result is a wine that has citrus notes and is very mineral, with wonderful freshness and great length. There is a certain austerity on the palate, making for a very pure example of Riesling.
The cuvée of Vieilles Vignes comes from vines that are 35 to 40 years old. They first made this cuvée in 2009, from two foudres of particularly good wine. The flavors are rich and intense, but not sweet. The wine may be a little more gourmand than the Réserve, but the fruit is always balanced with steely acidity, making a wine that is dry and honeyed, with an elegant finish.
The Cuvée Frédéric Emile is one of the flagship wines of Trimbach, whose grapes are grown in marl and limestone soil. We tasted the 2007, which Anne described as a miraculous year — full of scares about the next climatic hazard, but everything turned out well in the end. The nose was rich and honeyed, very intense with an underlying austerity. On the palate, the wine was firm and slatey with very good acidity and razor-sharp clarity. I could almost describe it as the Chablis of Alsace.
The other flagship Riesling is the Clos Ste Hune, from a vineyard the Trimbachs have owned for 200 years. The soil is pure limestone, and the vines are an average of 80 years old. The wine is made the same way as Frédéric Emile, but here you taste the effect of terroir: They are quite different. The Clos Ste Hune is very slatey, very mineral, very powerful, with very good acidity and still very youthful, with wonderful length.
And then we were given a treat: 1985 Clos Ste Hune. The colour was golden, with an elegant nose that was dry and slatey, but with an underlying richness. On the palate, there were lots of nuances, with some very intriguing dry honey and some lovely notes of maturity. It was rich and elegant, but not heavy or sweet, with a lingering finish. A fabulous glass of wine that demonstrated just how beautifully Alsace Riesling ages.
The Vendanges Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles, traditionally sweeter and richer, are only made in the very best years. The 2002 Vendange Tardive Riesling was light golden in color, and on the nose, rich with a maturing nutty nose. On the palate it was very elegant, with very good acidity — there was a little noble rot in 2002, but that is not essential. The palate was beautifully balanced with rich honeyed fruit, combining fresh acidity with some sweetness. It was subtle and nuanced.
Our tasting finished with 2001 Sélection de Grains Nobles Frédéric Emile. The grapes were picked in mid-November, with some noble rot. The color was golden and the nose maturing beautifully, as only fine Riesling can. On the palate there were nuances of dry but honeyed, nutty fruit, with some slatey characteristics and a touch of minerality, with a smooth rich finish. It was a powerful example of the heights that Riesling can achieve.
Top photo: Trimbach vineyards in Alsace. Credit: Courtesy of Maison Trimbach
Who would have thought, 30 years ago, that New Zealand would be producing Pinot Noir with an international reputation? It has all happened in an incredibly short time, so that several of the original pioneering winemakers are still involved in the industry. And a recent tasting in London and New York demonstrated just how successful Pinot Noir is in New Zealand.
This was a tasting that I could not possible miss: three decades of Rippon Vineyards Pinot Noir, beginning with the 1990 vintage, which I tasted as a vat sample the very first time that I went to New Zealand. Rippon Vineyards in Central Otago was one of the first New Zealand vineyards that I visited. It is the most fabulously beautiful spot, with breathtaking views over Lake Wanaka toward the Southern Alps. Central Otago lies on the 45th parallel, which makes its vineyards some of the southernmost in the world — there is not much land between Otago and Antarctica. Whereas most New Zealand vineyards are on the country’s east coast, Central Otago enjoys a continental climate, with harsh winters and warm summers. Schist is the dominant soil at Rippon.
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These days, Nick Mills makes the wine at Rippon, but it was his father, Rolfe, who was the true pioneer. Rolfe’s grandfather bought the land in 1912, and Rolfe began planting vines in 1975.
“It was all very much a learning curve, experimenting with many different grape varieties,” Nick said. “Pinot Noir was just one of several. And nothing was known about different clones. You got cuttings from other growers, and there was a strong element of self-sufficiency and indeed isolation.”
The first commercial wines of Rippon were made in 1989, and in 1990 a talented Austrian winemaker, Rudi Bauer, took over for a few years. (He now has his own estate, Quartz Reef.) Back in 1990 there were just six wineries in Central Otago; nowadays there are 120 wine growers, though not all with their own winemaking facilities.
New Zealand Pinot Noir has regional variations blossom
At the time that Rippon was getting started, Chard Farm and Gibbston Valley were also experimenting with Pinot Noir, among other grape varieties, in Central Otago. And at the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island, Larry McKenna, who had arrived in Martinborough in 1986, was busy putting Martinborough Vineyards on the map for Pinot Noir, alongside his neighbours at Ata Rangi and Dry River.
Elsewhere on the South Island, there were pockets of Pinot Noir in Nelson, Waipara and Marlborough. Today, Pinot Noir is the most widely planted red variety in the country, and the regional variations are becoming more apparent. I generally find that wines from Central Otago are riper and richer, from enjoying long hours of summer daylight, while those from Martinborough are more savory and maybe more structured.
But back to Rippon. Carrying on the family tradition, Nick studied winemaking, including a course on biodynamics, in Beaune and worked with winegrowers in the Côte d’Or. Sadly, Rolfe died in 2000, and in 2003, Nick’s mother suggested that it was time for Nick to come back to Rippon and take over responsibility for the winemaking.
He talked of how his winemaking has developed. “There are so many things to consider. Whole bunches? Do you add the stems? Are they ripe? You need to understand your fruit.” He certainly shows that he does with this range of wines, which tell the story of the family land.
Top photo: Rippon Vineyards. Credit: Briar Hardy-Hesson
These are notes from a tasting that spanned three decades of Rippon Vineyards Pinot Noir.
1990 — This was the second commercial vintage of Pinot Noir, made from vines planted in 1982. A very warm vintage, with an early harvest. Medium colour, with an evolved rim. Quite a soft vegetal red fruit nose. A silky palate, with ripe red fruit, depth and texture with a good balance. A touch of fruitcake on the finish and a dry finish. Extraordinarily lively for a wine that is 30 years old, proving that New Zealand Pinot Noir can age.
1991 — A slightly cooler vintage. Medium colour. Some velvety vegetal notes on the nose. A very perfumed palate, ripe and rounded; mature and silky. A lovely glass of wine.
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1992 — Again, a slightly cooler vintage. Quite a deep young colour. Intense ripe red fruit on both nose and palate. A firm streak of fine tannin to balance the fruit, and still quite youthful.
1993 — Another cooler year. Quite a deep colour, ageing slightly on the rim. Quite a firm dry nose with red fruit, and on the palate some depth, with a vegetal note balancing some red fruit. Quite a dry finish.
1995 — The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1994 had a serious impact on subsequent vintages. A very cool year, but the wine does not taste unripe. Quite a light colour. Very vegetal nose, with some silky red fruit. Elegant fruit on the palate, silky and ripe, with a balancing streak of tannin.
1998 — Quite a light colour. A firm dry note on the nose, with a streak of hay. Ripe fruit on the palate, quite rounded and ripe, with more depth and texture that the nose would indicate.
A new decade at Rippon vineyards
2000 — From now on vine age starts to have an impact. Quite a deep colour. A smooth silky nose. A touch raisiny on the palate, but with some soft tannins. A warm finish.
2003 — Nick’s first vintage. He compared it to 2001 in Burgundy, neither a warm nor a cool vintage. Medium colour, beginning to evolve. Quite an elegant dry raspberry nose. And on the palate, some fresh vegetal and raspberry fruit, with some texture. Medium weight, with a fresh finish.
2005 — A small yield thanks to a cool, windy December during flowering. Medium colour, evolving a little. Quite a firm dry nose, and also on the palate. Firm raspberry fruit, with a note of acidity as well as tannin. Quite tight knit, with a fresh finish.
2006 — This was a warm year. Medium colour, with a dry vegetal note on the nose. The palate was quite rounded, with some texture and dry raspberry notes. Quite fleshy, and still very youthful, with good length and depth.
2007 — The smallest yield in the last decade thanks to spring frosts and a windy December, but an excellent ripening season. Quite a deep colour. A firm nose, with fresh dry raspberry fruit. Good acidity. Some elegant texture and a refreshing finish. Very classic. One of my favourite wines in the tasting.
2008 Mature Vines — A hot summer giving a good yield and healthy grapes. The first vintage of this cuvée, from the original vines. Medium colour. Quite a firm dry raspberry fruit on the nose. The palate is still very youthful, with fresh tannins, and dry raspberry fruit. Firm and textured, with ageing potential.
2009 Mature Vine — Medium colour. Quite fresh and ripe, and again on the palate fresh, ripe fruit with some balancing acidity and tannin. A warm note on the finish. Good depth.
2009 Emma’s Block — Medium colour. Elegantly perfumed nose. Medium weight, with rounded ripe fruit. Elegant and fragrant.
2009 Tinker’s Field — Quite fresh intense fruit on the nose and palate. Rounded raspberries; elegant with depth. Lovely texture and concentration, with a long firm finish.
2010 Mature Vine — A warm summer. Good colour. Rounded concentrated nose, and on the palate, lovely texture with concentration, ripe fruit and structure. Smooth tannins and great length. A broader wine than either Emma’s Block or Tinker’s Field.
2010 Emma’s Block — Quite deep colour. Rounded nose, and on the palate great texture with ripe fruit and balancing tannins. Ripe, concentrated and youthful with a tight knit finish.
2010 Tinker’s Field — Deep colour. Ripe perfumed fruit and on the palate, more structured, with firm tight knit red fruit. A youthful concentrated finish. And a great finale to a historic tasting, which amply demonstrates how suitable Central Otago is for the production of that most temperamental of grape varieties, Pinot Noir. Rolfe Mills had the vision to realise the potential of grape growing in countryside that had been dedicated to sheep farming, and his son Nick has the passion to continue to stretch the boundaries of Pinot Noir.
Top photo: Rippon Vineyards. Credit: Briar Hardy-Hesson
The Greek island of Santorini is one of the world’s mysteries. Maybe it was the Atlantis of ancient civilizations; maybe it had an impact on the demise of the Minoan civilization. But there is no doubt about its breathtaking beauty. A dramatic volcanic eruption in about 1530 B.C. blew a great big hole in the middle of the island, forming a sea-filled crater, or caldera. On our first evening, we dined at the Santorini cooperative, Santo, and looked out on the sun setting over the caldera. Words could not do justice to the view.
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The next morning we saw our first vineyards, which are quite unlike any vineyards I have seen anywhere else in the world. The viticulture is so extreme that it has to be seen to be believed. The vines need protection from fierce wind and harsh sunshine, and so they are pruned in the shape of protective baskets in a small hollow. The soil is volcanic ash, with some pumice and other stones, but there is no organic matter, and it is astonishing that anything grows at all. There is no irrigation — the vines depend on sea mist for moisture and can also tap some water retained by the pumice stones after occasional rains. Inevitably, yields are tiny. The island is immune to the destructive insect phylloxera, for if there is no clay, there can be no phylloxera. Actual replanting is rare. When a vine needs replacing, it is “decapitated” and will regenerate from the existing deep root system. This can be done about every 80 years. When it is finally dying, after about 400 years, growers practice the system of provinage, taking a shoot and placing it in the ground so that it will grow roots.
There are very few conventional vineyards. The key exception is Sigalas, where the winemakers argue the case for more traditional viticulture, giving each vine a pole to help it withstand the wind. More leaves also help shade the grapes from the intense sunlight. In the 1980s, many vines were pulled up in favor of building accommodations for tourists, who provide the island’s main source of revenue. But in recent years, although the vineyard area has not changed, the average age of the winegrowers has decreased significantly, so the future of Santorini wine is more secure.
Assyrtiko elevates on Santorini
The principal white grape variety of Santorini is Assyrtiko, which is also found in northern Greece, but on the island it takes on a fabulously original mineral character.
We tasted the wines of the eight main makers, including the cooperative that accounts for two-thirds of the production. The most typical were the mineral flavors of Assyrtiko, from producers such as Gaia, Hatzidakis and Argyros, with a wonderful depth of flavor. But there are also other grape varieties, white Athiri and Aidani, which can be blended with Assyrtiko and make for riper flavors, and gutsy red Mavrotragano, with some peppery fruit.
Santorini also produces dessert wine, vinsanto, a naturally sweet wine from dried grapes. Drying in the sun would be too brutal, so they are dried under cover and then the juice is put in a barrel and ignored for 10 years or so. Rediscovered, the result is something absolutely delicious, rich and concentrated with the flavors of dates and figs.
Top photo: Island of Santorini. Credit: Wikimedia Commons