ARCHIVE ARTICLE – 1985
A TASTING OF 1903 LANSDOWNE 'CLARET', WAIRARAPA, NEW ZEALAND
Background and Acknowledgements: In March 1985, John Comerford and I were able to taste early 1900s wines made in the pre-Prohibition era of the Wairarapa's grape and wine industry. This tasting was arranged by Wyatt Creech with Ed Beetham, both descendants of the original owners and makers. The wines have been in a family-owned cellar since that time.
I wrote the tasting up in National Business Review, for which I was then wine correspondent. The text below reproduces the original text without change or amendment, apart from combining some sentences into more reasonable paragraph lengths than narrow-column journalism requires, and correcting typos. The grape hermitage is an earlier synonym for syrah = shiraz, named after the village where the greatest Rhone examples of the grape have long been made.
April 15, 1985
National Business Review Vol.16 (13): 37
Lansdowne's rosy flush lasts 82 years
by Geoff Kelly
It is not often a fairy tale comes true, but one did for me recently. In 1964 Dick Scott (of Parihaka fame) published a marvellous book called Winemakers of New Zealand. In it he recalls the 1895 visit of the Government consultant viticulturist, Romeo Bragato, to the Lansdowne vineyard in Masterton.
Lansdowne was the dream turned into reality of William Beetham, who was of the very reasonable view that a vineyard was an essential adjunct to civilised farming life. After experiments in the eastern Wairarapa hill country and in central Wairarapa he decided that among his extensive lands, Masterton offered the best prospects for quality winemaking.
In the 1880s he returned to Europe, and gathered to himself a French wife, presumably many grape cuttings, an Englishman qualified in winemaking, and all the equipment necessary to establish a winery and vineyard. This vineyard he called Lansdowne. It was on the northeast side of Masterton, where the suburb of the same name is today.
The wines were reputedly excellent, both by folklore, and the evidence of Bragato. The Lansdowne red, said Bragato, was of prime quality and held promise for the Wairarapa to become a great winemaking region.
Lansdowne was not to fulfil that destiny, however. The vineyard came to an abrupt end in 1908, under the combined bigotry of Prohibition and an over-zealous judiciary.
By the time of Scott's publication, I had already decided that the Wairarapa had promise for wine, though my observations had taken me to Martinborough as the most promising spot. Scott's account of Lansdowne was therefore a great inspiration: could any of those pre-1908 wines survive ? In many ways, chances were remote in a district that had been "dry" for many years, and in a country without a wine tradition. Yet there were old-established homesteads, maybe even some with cellars – it was possible.
What a thrill, therefore, to recently be approached by a descendant of the Lansdowne vineyard owners, to ask would I be interested in tasting an old Wairarapa wine, from Masterton, yes indeed – unbelievably, the Lansdowne claret, 1903 vintage.
Mike Cooper, in his Wine and Vineyards of New Zealand published last year, asked of the late 1800s: " ... what style of wine had been made ... in the colonial era ? What, if any, were its virtues ?"
I can now answer Cooper and my own daydreams of 20 years. Some of the wines must have been excellent and the best technically perfect. The 1903 Lansdowne claret is alive and well in 1985. The colour is a rosy flush in a copper-garnet hue, and the bouquet has good vinosity and fruit / oak complexity, in a faded floral / peach / sultana way.
The flavour is clearly old burgundy in style, with the oak standing firm, yet amazing fruit, body, and freshness for the age. The finish is superb, long and lingering. The wine is still satisfying, though very, very dry. It must have had excellent extract and balance and flavour when young, to have lasted so long. There seemed little doubt it was made from the Pinot Noir and Hermitage recorded for the vineyard; it was burgundian.
The name claret presumably refers to the style intended. Perhaps, for example, it was crisp and firm as a young wine. That would be likely with the Hermitage grape, in this district. On a technical point, it is important to note that a wine can be of high extract, without being alcoholic or heavy. Indeed the best of cooler climate wines may be quite light, yet by virtue of good acid, flavour and tannin be able to last longer than heavy wines from hotter climates.
It is instructive to learn from this 1903 wine that, in optimal viticultural parts of New Zealand, classical European methods of 80 years ago produced wines with plenty of extract. Two bottles of the red were opened. One was perfect, the other oxidised with varnishy overtones, but still drinkable.
More miraculous still, of two whites in punted half-bottles, one was still alive. It was amber in colour and rather like an old, oaky Spanish white in flavour. It too still had fruit-feel and extract in the mouth.
So there we are: a sketchy outline of my most memorable tasting for many years, and a direct view back to those great days when New Zealand was poised on the brink of a classical wine industry based on vinifera varieties. Yet in a few short years, all was to be lost to Prohibition, to be followed by the many years in the wilderness of the hybrid plonk industry.
During the later 1960s and 1970s the New Zealand wine industry has climbed again on to the springboard to quality it had achieved in the 1890s. The 1980s look exciting indeed. For the Wairarapa, the 1903 Lansdowne claret stands as a beacon. Viticultural prospects look outstanding.
In the difficult 1984 vintage, recent comparative tastings suggest Martinborough's Dry River Vineyard made one of the best dry Sauvignon Blancs in the country. Experimental Pinot Noirs have achieved excellent technical characteristics, awaiting fine-tuning as to oak and other details, before a Lansdowne-style red is made again.