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Geoff Kelly Wine Reviews
independent
analytical
non-commercial
Independent reviews of some local and imported wines available in New Zealand, including earlier vintages.

HAWKES BAY WINEMAKERS' 2004 VINTAGE REVIEW


This is a narrative account summarising first tastes of wine achievements in the 2004 vintage in Hawkes Bay. The notes originate in Hawkes Bay Winemakers' presentation of their 2004 Hawkes Bay Vintage Review, held in Hastings on 13 October. First impressions of the vintage in Hawkes Bay are of a year not quite as warm and ripe as 2002, but with a splendid autumn. There are thus enhanced aromatics, but in some cases less body. There should be outstanding gewurztraminers, chardonnays and syrahs, and, where full ripeness was achieved, some exciting and flavoursome wines in the emerging Hawkes Bay Blends class. The latter are modelled on Bordeaux Blends from cabernet sauvignon, merlot and friends, since the Hawkes Bay climate so closely matches Bordeaux, but they seek a point of difference by permitting syrah, if the winemaker desires.


Merlot, Cabernet & the Hawkes Bay Blends

The evolving Hawkes Bay Blend group of reds are commanding great interest. They have the potential to become a class of wines as valid as Bordeaux Blends, or Super-Tuscans. Their claim to future fame may well rest on the judicious use of syrah in the blend, as the Bordelais did in the 1800s, and (sad to say) the Italians are tip-toeing into now.

Nowhere is it more important than in this grouping to say these comments are impressions only, based on barrel samples, based on works not only in progress, but not even half way through. For example, a number of the samples are reductive, as one would expect at this stage, but one tries to see through that. So anything can happen, between now and the final fined and settled-down blend as bottled. Further, some wineries with wines very relevant to this class did not participate in the exhibition (Mills Reef, Craggy Range, to name two glaringly obvious ones), or did not show their top wine (Te Mata Coleraine, Alpha Domus Aviator).

Of those shown, I was very taken with a velvety, rich and dense Church Road Merlot / Cabernet Reserve (14%), which had far more interest than any Tom to date (a sign of things to come ?), a more aromatic and cassisy Church Road Cabernet / Merlot Cuvee Series (and freakily, the sensory profiles of these two wines do seem to match the contrasting cepages), and a weighty (and reductive at this stage) Corbans Cottage Block Cabernet Franc (13.2%). I hope the latter won't end up too oaky, and will conserve the subtlety of the variety. Thus, at this moment my top three wines all spring from the Montana stable not a firm hitherto noted for its 'claret' styles..

Next were a potentially very fragrant and reasonably rich Pask Merlot Reserve (13%), an almost peppery (+ve) and complex Corbans Private Bin Merlot / Cabernet (13.5%), and an aromatic cassis and pennyroyal Pask Cabernet / Merlot / Malbec (13.5%).

Looking to be at least silver medal contenders were another aromatic and pennyroyal wine, Te Mata Awatea (13.5%), a plummy but at this stage nearly astringent Te Awa Boundary, a flavoursome and fragrant Trinity Hills Merlot Gimblett Gravels (13.5%), an aromatic and plummy Clearview Old Olive Block (13.5%), and an intriguing Crab Farm Merlot (14%) tinged with smoked mussels.

Not quite so ripe and hence more in the middle of the field at this stage are an understated but agreeable-on-palate Alpha Domus Navigator (13.5%), a clearly varietal Ngatarawa Merlot (13.5%), an oaky and cassisy Vidal Cabernet Barrel Selection (13%), and a fragrant and cassisy Trinity Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Gimblett Gravels (13.5%).

More uncertain offerings included a Matariki Merlot, a disorganised Clearview Enigma (13.5%), an (?) out of condition Gunn Estate Merlot Woodshed (14%) which was hard to assess, a US-oaky Mission Cabernet / Merlot Jewelstone (13.9%), and a leafy Crab Farm Cabernet Franc (14.5%). A Sileni Estates Merlot Selection (c.14%) was light and fragrant, but much too stalky.

Two wines were so out of condition, they could not be assessed meaningfully: Sacred Hill Merlot Brokenstone (14%) and Sacred Hill Cabernet / Merlot Helmsman (14%). The colours and textures look promising, however. Their poor form was disappointing, for the '02 Brokenstone may well turn out to be the champion red from that vintage in Hawkes Bay, and '02 Helmsman is not far behind, so interest in their 04s is acute.

Where wines from the same winery have ended up in the same bracket, it is worth saying this arose from subsequent blind tasting, which gives one some faith in the effort involved in doing it.


Syrah (& Zinfandel)

Like the Hawkes Bay Blends, the syrahs are equally an exciting and potentially dramatic (and world-class) group of wines emerging in Hawkes Bay. The top wines in 2004 appear to display the enhanced aromatics which characterise the vintage, compared with 2002. There is little doubt now that the best syrahs from Hawkes Bay will capture complex varietal smells and flavours which can only be compared with the wines of Hermitage and Cote Rotie e.g. the 2002 Trinity Hill Syrah Homage. One can only eagerly await the planting of true hillside sites, as opposed to slopes.

Again I must emphasise that the following notes are based on barrel samples, and anything is possible between now and bottling. For syrah in particular, the principal hazards are over-oaking, and reductive tendencies. Many of the wines already seem fully-oaked, if varietal expression is to be optimised. There is absolutely no point in us slavishly following the Australian / American obsession with heavily over-oaked shiraz / syrahs. Our climate permits us to create something of far greater beauty and subtlety. One can only wish that our syrah winemakers would make more creative use of immaculately clean but old oak more than five vintages.

As a result of blind tasting, top wines for me included: a beautifully floral and aromatic Te Mata Woodthorpe Syrah / Viognier (13.5%), a reductive-at-the-moment but rich Vidal Barrel Selection (13.5%), an impressive Church Road Cuvee Series (13.5%), a sweetly-fruited, very rich, but oaky C J Pask (13%), and the leaner but clearly varietal Mission Jewelstone (14.2%). Any of these could be gold medal wines, noting the earlier caveats.

Down a notch then to a crisply aromatic Moana Park Tribute, the very reductive (now) but concentrated Matariki wine, and the peppery but fragrant Stonecroft Zinfandel (14%), clearly blueberry varietal.

At the next level is a slightly exotic Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels (14%) reminding of the Montes Syrah from Chile, and an intensely star anise Stonecroft (14%).

Others include a slightly stalky and Crozes-Hermitage-styled Bilancia Syrah / Viognier (14%), a raspberry jam tart Sacred Hill (14%, which may have been out of condition), an estery, acid and stalky Kemblefield Zinfandel (14.5%), and an out-of condition Ngatarawa Syrah (13.5%), which shouldn't have been shown.

Pursuing zin in Hawkes Bay is a triumph of romance over reality. Even in the very centre of the hottest part of the Gimblett Gravels, it develops desirable varietal characters in very few vintages out of ten.


Chardonnay

More great New Zealand chardonnays have come out of Hawkes Bay over the years, than any other district. Gisborne feels it is the Chardonnay capital of New Zealand, and by area this is correct (by the slimmest margin), but the upcoming wines of Marlborough, and the thus-far overlooked but infinitely exciting Otago chardonnays will provide great competition. Any or all of these districts would be happy to tumble Hawkes Bay from its chardonnay perch, so the pressure is on with this grape.

The 2004 vintage in Hawkes Bay looks to be superb for chardonnay. The best wines may show enhanced varietal character over the somewhat fatter 02s, and be even better wines. But, as with the reds, because most of these wines include barrel-aged material, these notes are merely interim impressions of wines midway through the winemaking process. The finished cleaned-up wines will almost certainly be different, and usually better. Many '04 chardonnays are being rushed onto the market early, however, because of the shortfall in the frost-affected 2003 chardonnay harvest.

Top wine for me at this stage included a beautifully proportioned Mission Jewelstone (14%), a sweetly-fruited Gunn Estate Skeetfield (14%), and a potentially delicious Sacred Hill Riflemans Terraces (14%). Provided they do not end up over-oaked, they could become classic Hawkes Bay chardonnays in an understated style, comparable with some of France's better white burgundies.

In the next tier were several that might be just as good, for there is a lot to happen yet in the evolution of these wines. These include a rich, peachy and crisp Te Awa, a still-reductive Corbans Cottage Block (13.5%), a more assertive Matariki with MLF and a trace of sweetness still showing, another rich, oaky, and characteristically boisterous Clearview (14.5%) with golden-queen peachy fruit going on mandarin, and an understated crisp Ngatarawa (13.5%).

Wines which were harder to assess due to carried-over fermentation complexities included a hessian and slightly acid Pask (13.5%), a still-lactic and spirity but sweetly fruited Askerne (14.5%), a peachy and rich Sileni Estates Cellar Selection (13.2%), a reductive and oaky Sacred Hill Barrel-Fermented (14%), and the more reductive Corbans Private Bin (13.8%) and Church Road Reserve (14%), no doubt to be transformed when cleaned up.

Other wines even harder to penetrate at this stage included a rather ersatz, tropical and still sweet Vidal Barrel Selection (13.5%) from 100% new oak, a very reductive Church Road Cuvee (14%) and Crab Farm Reserve (13.5%, not quite dry), and an oxidised Kemblefield Distinction (14.5%).

I tasted only two unoaked chardonnays: a pure and attractive but slightly sweet Vidal Unwooded (14.3%) in the top half of the field, and a volatile Kim Crawford (12.6%), lower down.

In this class particularly, but also elsewhere, it is a mystery to me why wineries do not clean up their reductive half a dozen bottles needed for this exhibition. The time requirement is not great.


Viognier (& Verdelho)

Viognier is undoubtedly an exciting variety in New Zealand at the moment, though whether such an exotic and demanding variety can take over from a safely-bland variety such as fashionable pinot gris seems dubious. In our relatively unsophisticated market, some of the viogniers thus far commercialised in New Zealand have lacked much varietal character. On the plus side, virtually all the good ones so far have come from Hawkes Bay. As with chardonnay, many of the viogniers are barrel samples, so the comments are provisional.

The rich Vidal Barrel Selection (14%), lighter Alpha Domus (14%), flavoursome Trinity Hill (14.5%) and oaky at this stage Te Mata Woodthorpe (14.5%) all captured the exact orange blossom and canned apricots qualities of the variety beautifully, though the first three being not quite bone dry are a bit more juicy (and popular in style) at this stage. These wines showed thoughtful handling (sometimes including barrel-ferment) in older oak, and any of them could end up as the champion viognier of the vintage.

The Church Road Cuve Series (14.9%) sample at this stage was very reductive, making comparison difficult. It is rich, though. Against the charms of viognier, the Esk Verdelho Black Label (14.5%) is related in style, pure, but modest (and acid). It is a pretty charmless variety in Australia, too, though some of their winemakers talk it up.

Our best viogniers as seen so far from Te Mata confirm that in good years we can ripen the grape to full physiological maturity, but in a more vibrant and fresher style than most Australian examples. Our wines are therefore better compared with those of Condrieu. In terms of physiological ripening relative to Australia, viognier thus mimics syrah exactly, in Hawkes Bay. In a marketing sense, our greatest viognier competition stylewise will come not from the weightier wines of Australia, or from the more exclusive and expensive wines of Condrieu, but from the burgeoning modern wineries of the Languedoc, as the splendidly affordable 2003 Lurton Viognier already demonstrates.


Pinot Gris

By far the most interesting wine in this group was the Mission Pinot Gris (12.6%), which has beautiful floral and varietal smells and flavours, at the lowest alcohol, and on a totally dry finish. It reminds clearly of the Alsatian prototype, and should be a gold medal wine. Mission has more experience with this variety than any other winery in New Zealand, having produced fine examples in the late 70s / early 80s. Those grapes provided planting stock for New Zealand's most acclaimed pinot gris today, the Dry River.

In comparison with the Mission, the spirity Esk Valley Black Label (14%) wine is more the standard bland New Zealand pear-flesh wine, quite rich, some sweetness. The Morton Kinross Pinot Gris (13%) is interesting as a fuller-bodied totally dry white, though at this stage it is more chardonnay-like on the oak, than varietal. This could have potential, if already bottled. Their White Label (14%) did not show so happily, smelling organic and tasting acid, for the moment. It too is dryer than the commercial average, and should settle down once in bottle.


Gewurztraminer

2004 looks to be an exceptional vintage for aromatic varieties in Hawkes Bay, nowhere moreso than in gewurz. The exciting pair of Mills Reef '04s have already been put on the market, and were not in this exhibition. The Clearview Gewurz (13%) is a lighter, more floral, yet 'dry' example of the grape, very pretty. In contrast, the spirity Morton Estate White Label (15%)was the most varietal wine shown in this batch, but the rough dry finish won't please everybody. The Stonecroft (13.5%) wine is a bit congested on bouquet, but there is good fruit on palate, helped by some residual sweetness marginal for the dry class. Kemblefield's Gewurztraminer Distinction (13%) has lots of character and is 'dry', but the sur lie component is hard and reductive at this stage, and probably too much for ultimate beauty, if this wine is already bottled. The Crab Farm (14%) is fresher, lighter, dry, and though tending phenolic, it is mild in flavour. Good gewurztraminer was never meant to be easy.