Geoff Kelly Wine Reviews
Independent reviews of some local and imported wines available in New Zealand, including earlier vintages.
From 1989:  New Zealand's Top Red:  three National Business Review articles

Geoff Kelly,  MSc Hons

2021 background to the 1989 National Business Review articles:
The three articles reproduced below focus on the 1987 red wine vintage in New Zealand.  At the time,  that essentially meant cabernet sauvignon:  merlot had been planted by only a perceptive few in the late 1970s,  so there were still very few cabernet / merlots and similar blends.  Pinot noir had not yet made an impression in New Zealand,  even though modest examples had been made since the later 1970s,  and better ones from 1982.  Pinotage had failed to capture the public imagination,  and syrah was yet to arrive.  The articles are republished to provide background material for my June 2021 Library Tasting,  to be offered in Wellington,  the theme of which is:  Does 1987 mark a turning point in the evolution of red wines in New Zealand ?

Thanks to Colin James,  from 1984 to 1989 I had the good fortune to write a monthly wine column for National Business Review.  It was an unusual column even then,  quite often the articles being 1,000 to sometimes 2,000 words long,  and on special occasions,  even longer.  The column was the first in New Zealand to introduce a simple scoring system for rating wines.

Now that wine is absolutely an everyday accompaniment to life in New Zealand,  like tea or coffee,  it is hard to recall just how much interest and excitement attached then to our fledgling wine industry,  and to wine columns.  At that time,  Australian reds ruled the shelves:  it was our whites that formed the vanguard of the New Zealand wine revolution.  But it was the reds people chased.

Back then,  the highlight of the wine year was undoubtedly the National Wine Competition,  established in 1957 and mentored by the Department of Industries and Commerce,  until it graduated into the Air New Zealand Wine Awards in 1987.  The interest in the results was phenomenal:  at judging time in November the more switched-on newspapers ran daily summaries of wines that had done well,  and then at the conclusion of judging,  a comprehensive summary schedule would be published.

Wine shops were absolutely besieged by customers all clutching their newspaper cuttings,  and wanting to secure a precious bottle or two of this or that gold medal wine.  The interest then cannot be imagined now.  Bottles were rationed.  Some wines virtually never reached the shelves ... the volume made of some was tiny,  and you had to write cap-in-hand to the winemaker,  to secure an allocation.

But all was not rosey in the New Zealand wine industry.  We still had import licensing.  European wines and thus benchmark,  reference and study wines were scarce.  The winemaking regulations had only recently been tightened up,  so that water addition was outlawed.  And critically,  very few winemakers and their elected representatives had an understanding of the better wines of the world.  Thus parochialism flourished,  and our winestyles were at times idiosyncratic,  even incongruous.  Wine-writers of the era turned a blind eye to such matters,  no doubt being influenced by the approach a number of wineries then actively pursued to suppress any critical assessment of their wines,  no matter how well-informed.  Or the wine-writers were simply unaware.  

In particular,  cropping rates were higher than in fine wine countries overseas,  far too many wines lacked dry extract,  body,  physiological maturity of flavour,  and ripeness generally in the fruit,  and acids were often high.  To a degree these factors were exacerbated by the world being cooler then.  

Yet winemakers enthusiastically imposed new oak on these often skinny red wines,  having noted (or heard) that some French reference wines often had new oak.  They did not at the same time take note of the care with which oak and particularly new oak is used in France,  or were unaware of the French concern with the body / dry extract / matière of the wine relative to its oaking,  instead figuring that if a little oak was good,  then more oak and new oak would be even better.  Sadly,  customers in an unsophisticated / new wine market rather like new oak (it is obvious,  and you can taste it) ... and the unsubtle use of oak,  and liking of oak,  is still all too common,  both in New Zealand wine-making,  and in New Zealand wine appreciation circles generally.

The three columns reproduced below are word for word as they appeared,  including inconsistencies of mine,  and National Business Review formatting preferences of the time.  The exception is that the one and two-sentence paragraphs of narrow-column newspaper-format journalism have in places been run together into paragraphs more suited to my full-page line lengths.  Five labels were reproduced in the originals,  but they are not to hand now.  Also,  the wine names are now in bold,  for ease of reference.

Reading the assessments through now,  some are tending naive,  others the comparisons seem premature.  But yet,  they were written over thirty years ago.  Wine knowledge ideally reflects a life-long learning process,  so it is perhaps excusable that some of the comments now seems a little too enthusiastic.  Only one wine judgment and commentary seems to me glaringly wrong (when I open a bottle today):  the 1987 Matua Valley Merlot,  where I mistook the fragrance of under-ripe grapes in sweet new oak for ripeness.  Even today,  in some years we still see this failing in New Zealand cabernet / merlots from parts of the country where it is hard to achieve full physiological maturity in the phenolics / tannins of red grapes:  Northland,  Gisborne,  the Wairarapa,  and Marlborough / Nelson spring to mind.  And rather many contemporary wine commentators and wine judges are still accepting of relative under-ripeness,  in both New Zealand reds ... and whites,  for that matter.

Note the wines in these three articles below cannot be retrieved via the site Search.  The only access is via on-the-page Search. 


NBR Weekend Review,  Friday August 18, 1989,  p. 22:

Outstanding reds are a joy to savour

INTEREST in New Zealand's top cabernet reds is high, to judge from the response to the two-part review published in NBR, May 19 and June 16.

   Further premium reds have been released by the Villa/Vidal group, with marketing chief Ian Clark commenting with an evil twinkle that my ranking would have been different if the 1987 Vidal Reserve Cabernet/Merlot had been included. Corbans produced a remarkable 1987 merlot-dominant blend, due for release later this year. It looks to be the finest claret style red ever made in Marlborough.

   Meanwhile a note came from Jancis Robinson, in London, to say that the challenge laid down by the NBR ranking of our top reds was too intriguing to resist. Aided and abetted by Aucklander Bob Campbell, who was visiting at the time, she secured the top three and assessed them blind. Her ranking was the same, with Jancis commenting on the character and complexity of the Stonyridge Larose, versus the strong cassis of the very respectable but more conventional Villa Maria Cabernet/Merlot.  She was excited to see two such different but very successful cabernet styles coming out of New Zealand.

   Thus an invitation to essentially repeat the evaluation of the 1987 reds, with some new contenders as well, was irresistible. It came from the Waiheke winemakers, who again invited me to join them for the annual Goldwater checkout of competing reds from the mainland. Setting up such a comprehensive tasting follows the example of some leading Californian winemakers, who regularly evaluate their peers for both price and quality reasons.

   Last year, the Waiheke review of the 1986 vintage was essentially for local people. It provided the Goldwaters, the Whites of Stonyridge, and the Hamiltons of newly-planted Peninsula Estate, with an unparalleled opportunity to first blind taste and rate, and later discuss and dissect, our best wines. This year, with Waiheke Island having leapt into prominence due to the remarkable quality of its 1987 wines, they invited some of our leading mainland winemakers to also share in the evaluation. Naturally enough, Kym Milne from Villa/Vidal was one of them, for he is the man behind the leading challengers to the 1987 Waiheke reds. Mike Brajkovich from San Marino, and John Belsham from Hunters in Marlborough, have both worked vintages in Bordeaux. Discussion of wines and styles was therefore lively.

   All told, 27 reds were assessed, in a double blind format. Larded amongst them were reference wines from Bordeaux, the Napa Valley of California, and West Australia.

   The results were clearcut. Stonyridge Larose is New Zealand's top red in the 1987 vintage. It joins a shortlist of all-time great New Zealand cabernet styles, such as 1965 McWilliams Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 1982 and 1983 Te Mata reds. Unlike the earlier wines, which because they were solitary, were somewhat under-estimated at first release, the Larose is surrounded by a bevy of outstanding reds. Prominent among them are the Villa Maria Reserve Cabernet/Merlot discussed in May, and now the newly released Vidal Reserve Cabernet/Merlot.

   The notes that follow discuss 1987 reds of interest, and are additional to those covered in the May and June reviews.
***** 1987 Vidal Reserve Cabernet/Merlot ($22). Colour is superb carmine ruby, fractionally lighter than the equivalent Villa wine. Bouquet and flavour show excellent fruit ripeness, with attractive floral, berry and plummy qualities. As with the Villa Reserve, fragrant aromatic oak is at a maximum. The Vidal is richer wine however, and covers the oak easily. Only the Larose is richer. This is great New Zealand cabernet/merlot, amongst the best ever made. Whether it is the equal of, or better than, the more floral Villa reserve blend, will be a tantalising question to pursue for a decade to come. The Vidal Reserve Cabernet/Merlot has been distributed throughout the country. There is not a lot, but it should be easier to find than the Villa one. Winemaker is Kate Marris. To be making wine of this quality in her first sole-charge vintage, and while still in her twenties, presents a formidable challenge to other wineries.

***** 1987 Matua Valley Merlot ($20). Here it is, the first great varietal merlot in New Zealand. In colour, bouquet and velvety richness of texture, it confirms to perfection my long-stated assertion that in much of New Zealand, merlot will be a better dominant grape in our claret styles than cabernet. Alongside its sister 1987 Cabernet, the Matua Merlot shows better hue, much finer and more elegant bouquet and flavour lacking any jammy notes, and subtler oak. This is benchmark wine. In hailing it as the first great merlot in New Zealand, I do not wish to detract from the 1983 Matawhero and 1983 San Marino wines. They were important stepping stones. The Matua however is truly international.  It is available from the vineyard, Box 100, Kumeu, and may be sparingly available from occasional merchants elsewhere in the country who specialise in Matua Valley wines.

**** 1987 Vidal Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($22). Though deeper in colour than the reserve blend, this wine is also slightly simpler. It has ripe curranty characters which illustrate cabernet to perfection, and a long flavour in which berry, acid and oak are assertive, yet balanced. It is not quite as rich as the blend, but will be a great cellar wine. With this quality in the reserve wines, little wonder the 1987 Vidal PB Cabernet/Merlot ($15) is about the best commercial New Zealand red offering at the moment. Every time I see it, it looks better.

**** 1987 Limeburners Bay Cabernet Sauvignon ($18-$25). This interesting red is from Allan Laurenson's vineyards at Hobsonville. This little patch has produced some of Northwest Auckland's best cabernet. Colour is good ruby. Bouquet is abundant, with both strong curranty fruit, and plentiful new oak. Flavour is in truth too oaky, but the total wine is good. Compared with the other top wines, it shows the overt curranty characters of less flavour-ripe cabernet. Leaving aside the freak flavour ripeness of the Lambie cabernet in 1987, however, it is hard to get it much better on the Auckland mainland. It is still available at the vineyard, 112 Hobsonville Road, and sparingly from keen wine merchants.

**** 1987 Corban PB Merlot/Cabernet to be released in November. This remarkable wine from Marlborough sits happily in a selection of top Hawkes Bay and Waiheke reds. It may ultimately reach five star rating.   Colour is not quite so deep as some, but fruit ripeness on bouquet is excellent. At this young stage, toasty new oak is prominent, but fruit ripeness is so good this will marry in after a couple of years. If further proof were needed for the role of merlot in our claret style reds, this wine from a cooler viticultural area provides it. Merlot is predominant in the blend, and the ripeness of flavour, and the mouthfeel, do not even hint at South Island. 1987 Corbans PB Merlot/Cabernet is the finest Bordeaux-styled red so far made in Marlborough. There are no canned peas in this one. Well worth waiting for.

*** 1987 Cloudy Bay Cabernet Sauvignon ($22-$25). Lighter ruby in colour. Unlike the Corbans wine above, this Marlborough red does show its cool-climate affiliation. Bouquet and flavour combine mulberry with some greenish curranty characters. It is reminiscent of some of the awkward Coonawarra reds, and it must be noted these flavours do appeal to many people.

*** 1987 St Nesbit ($30). An aromatic wine showing rather much oak for its light Auckland-style fruit flavours, but drinking easily.

   There are not too many good 87 reds left in the woodwork now. People like Matawhero, Nobilo, and Ngatarawa may have cards up their sleeves. Since 1987 was exceptional in parts of the Auckland district, one interesting question remains. What happened to the fruit grown at the Antipodean vineyard, Matakana?   □


NBR Weekend Review,  Friday June 16, 1989,  pp. 19, 21

Hot reds from a cool clime

LAST month's column (19th May) dealt with the top wines in a review of pretenders to the New Zealand cabernet throne. Eight very different wines, each in its own way of five-star ranking, were discussed. This month I review the wines not achieving the top bracket, together with some recent cabernet releases. A few overseas wines of similar style have been assessed with them, to assist objectivity and the maintenance of international standards.

Four Star
**** 1985 Ch Gruaud-Larose, St Julien ($70). Dense velvety ruby in colour, with some garnet. Bouquet is very different from nearly all the new world wines, with no emphasis on varietal characters at all. Instead there is warm ripe fruit, cedary oak, and quite strong farmyard complexities on bouquet, followed by a long, rich, supple flavour. Only the Stonyridge has similar weight, of the top New Zealand wines. The Vasse Felix is even closer in total style, but both are much purer. That said, the Gruaud in fact drinks splendidly. Buyers must establish their own dividing lines for the complexities in this wine. It benefits from a good splashy decanting or two, several hours before use. Long cellar potential.

**** 1985 Te Mata Awatea Cabernet/Merlot (NA). Deep ruby, retaining youthful hues. Ripe fruit on bouquet and palate, with both berry/plum characters and floral/violets suggestions. Excellent toasty oak adding depth. Subtle and understated wine, attractive drinking. Cellar potential.

**** 1987 Pask Cabernet Sauvignon ($21). Consistent with my report last November, the Pask is beautifully ripe with toasty oak, but it is soft and already very accessible. It is not a long-term cellar wine (meaning five or more years).

**** 1987 Te Mata Coleraine Cabernet/Merlot/Franc ($35). Good ruby, slightly lighter than the Awatea 87. Bouquet is more curranty, and less complex, than the Awatea at this stage. Good oak, and long flavour with some richness, but a slight phenolic edge detracts. Coleraine and Awatea are separate vineyards, both within a kilometre of the Te Mata winery. As Awatea has been replanted, and merlot has progressively come on stream, its wine is catching up with proprietor’s home vineyard. In some years it may be better. Further assessment of these two in five years will be fascinating.

**** 1987 Matua Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($20). Good ruby. Plenty of fruit weight on both bouquet and flavour, with curranty amd some overripe or jammy notes, plus good oak. At this stage the whole wine is slightly estery and unknit. It gives the impression of recent bottling, and still needing to marry up. It will be very similar in style to their successful 1986, but fractionally lighter.

**** 1985 Te Mata Coleraine (NA). Good ruby, slightly older than the 85 Awatea. Initially clogged bouquet, with berry fruit below. Good flavour, attractive oak, but the whole wine subdued, with stalky hints. Benefits from splashy decanting. At this point in the tasting there is a step down in concentration of flavour, and seriousness of the wine. Since in general the following wines are under $20, they rate as attractive lighter four star wines.

**** 1987 Vidal Hawkes Bay Cabernet/Merlot ($15). Fragrant bouquet and flavour, with soft berry fruit reflecting both ripeness and merlot content. It is richer all through than the Esk Valley blend, but similarly reflects the benefits of Villa Maria quality control permeating the group. The best value in the tasting.

**** 1987 Rongopai Cabernet Sauvignon ($21). Aromatic curranty bouquet with fair fruit ripeness and complexity, good oak, acid on the fresh side. Clean attractive typical New Zealand cabernet. Cellar potential.

**** 1987 Esk Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($16). Good ruby. Ripe aromatic berry and light new oak on bouquet. Good flavour, softer than the Rongopai. Several years cellar potential.

**** 1985 Ch Laroche Bel-Air ($22.50). A premiere Cotes de Bordeaux wine. Good ruby colour. Attractive and fragrant bouquet epitomising sound modern petit Bordeaux. Clear cabernet/merlot ripeness, touch of new oak, pleasant weight. This is a good example of a modestly priced wine from Bordeaux, which is comparable in all essential respects to better New Zealand cabernet/merlot styles of similar price. Whether one prefers complexity, integration and subtlety of flavour, as here, or the more obvious fruit, oak, and acid of many New Zealand wines, is an interesting subject for dinner table debate. In middle New Zealand, Rumble of Wellington has exclusivity on this wine. In Auckland, Quills. Cellar potential, particularly at the case price of $240.

**** 1987 Brookfield Cabernet Sauvignon ($17). Medium ruby. A fragrant lighter wine with curranty berry fruit, and distinctive American oak still to marry up. This is a much more open and accessible wine than recent Brookfield reds. It will be very attractive drinking in a couple of years.

Three Star
*** 1987 Stoneleigh Cabernet Sauvignon ($19). In comparison with the stylish 1986 wine, which was cast in a crisp currant Bordeaux style via French oak, this 1987 wine has attractive American oak on bouquet. Though Marlborough cabernet is rather different from Hawkes Bay, I'm tempted to say this year’s Stoneleigh is cast in a Cooks style. As well as oak, it has plenty of aromatic berry cabernet, and good fruit and acid. It is another clear statement that given the application of modern viticultural research to achieve maximum fruit ripeness and flavour in the vineyard, Marlborough will make better cabernet styles than the first ten years indicated.

*** 1986 Robard and Butler Coonawarra Cabernet Shiraz ($15). Maturing light ruby. Fragrant bouquet more shiraz than cabernet, in the light almost floral and raspberry style made reliable by Seppelts Moyston and other good commercial Australian reds 25 years ago. Fair fruit, good acid, an appealing nearly minty and berry complexity, gentle oak more French than the Blass, relatively early maturing. Good light Australian red.

*** 1987 Esk Valley Cabernet/Merlot ($16). Lighter wine than the 1987 cabernet from the same firm but with some merlot fragrance adding complexity. Soft and relatively early developing, attractive drinking.

*** 1986 Ch Laroche Bel-Air ($22). Similar in total style to the 1985 above, good fruit and weight, but not quite the same finesse and absolute quality. Benefits from decanting and aeration.

*** 1985 Ch Robin, Bordeaux Superior ($16). Another minor Bordeaux from the Cotes de Castillon, imported by Kitchener. Compared with the very good 1985 Ch Laroche, this wine is less pure but even more winey. There is an appealing savoury complexity adding zing to both bouquet and palate, plus good fruit, soft acid balance, and older oak. It is drinking beautifully. Many would prefer it to the purer and more modern 85 Laroche.

*** 1985 Cooks Fernhill PB Cabernet Sauvignon ($22). Characteristic fragrant bouquet of slightly phenolic American oak and cabernet fruit, in the style established by McWilliam's in the 70s, and Cooks later. The fruit  is reasonably ripe, and the wine has good balance. It is riper than the 1984, but lacks the weight and richness of the now excellent 1983. Still some cellar potential.

*** 1987 Brookfield Cabernet/Merlot ($19). Similar medium ruby to the Brookfield cabernet, and similarly accessible, but bouquet and flavour appear less ripe. Oak is predominantly French, in the blend. If these green-tinged fresh cabernet-styles (as the perceptive English wine writer Oz Clarke calls them, favourably) appeal to you, this one is not stalky, and will develop in bottle. The move back to a more open, breathing, red wine style at Brookfield is excellent. The only lack in 1987 is fully ripe and weighty fruit flavours. I look forward to the 1989s.

*** 1985 Ngatarawa Glazebrook Cabernet/Merlot (NA). Big velvety and youthful colour. This is one of the richest wines in the set, but it is sadly flattened by sulphide characters. It needs very splashy decanting, several times, for best enjoyment now. Future is uncertain. These sulphur-related masking smells are interesting. Whereas the similarly rich Gruaud-Larose has the vinosity to escape with the description ‘farmyard’, and the smells do not mask the flavour, in comparison the Glazebrook is much harder to explore. Fruit quality is so good from this vineyard, one can only hope these detracting fermentation-derived characters will be reduced in later vintages.

*** 1986 Penfolds Ne Plus Ultra Cabernet Sauvignon ($17). Mature ruby. Fragrant fresh blackcurrant and oaky bouquet. Pleasant flavour, reasonably ripe and rich by commercial New Zealand standards, but a bit herbaceous in the present company. It is oakier than the average of parent company Montana's Marlborough cabernet.

*** 1987 Blass Red Label Shiraz ($15). Light maturing ruby. Soft, sweet, red-winey bouquet with gentle resiny oak. Soft grapey flavour with some light raspberry shiraz berry character, not bone dry. This is Blass' up-market answer to the various Long Flat Reds, carefully tailored to please an advertising-led market requiring consistency, quaffability, and some style, now. It is not a cellar wine. Keen drinkers can buy much more exciting and varietal Australian reds at this price, but that is not what this Blass package sets out to provide. It makes some of the New Zealand wines in this tasting look austere.

Two Star
** 1988 Pask Roys Hill Dry Red ($12). This blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot shows more fruit and substance than previously. Like the French to follow, it is not totally pure, but it quaffs easily after splashy pouring.

** 1985 Ch la Gravette ($14). An acceptable example of petit bordeaux, pleasant fruit, light old wood. There are various complexities which a technocrat would call grubby, and a hedonist farmyard complexity. It is good to see simple but serviceable French drinking claret coming in at prices near the mainstream for local. A Kitchener wine.

** 1987 Lincoln Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) Good ruby. Some fruit richness, but the wine is underripe to the point of showing herbaceous qualities. Should soften slightly in bottle.

Also tasted:
   1985 Louis de Campenac Bordeaux ($13)
   1986 Matua Valley Waimauku Claret ($8)
   1988 St Aubyn Cabernet/Merlot ($8)

   The tasting provides interim answers to most of the questions posed at the start of last month's column.  

   New Zealand's best red: there is no longer any monopoly on this, and similarly, there is no single best wine. For the 1987 vintage, and at the moment, Stonyridge Larose leads by a whisker over Villa Maria Reserve Cabernet/Merlot.

   Waiheke Island is certainly challenging Hawkes Bay in some years, and other carefully delineated dry microsites in the Auckland region and maybe elsewhere will also. If global warming continues on the present trend, within decades premium cabernet styles will also be made consistently in the Wairarapa, and possibly Marlborough. Given favourable seasons, and intensive viticultural management, the prime requirement for fine wine in these select places will be winemakers combining appropriate experience with acute sensory skills, and extensive tasting experience.

   The 1987 Villa Maria Reserve wines based on Mangere fruit illustrate the point nicely. As noted last November 11, they will prove to be essential study wines in the evolution of New Zealand reds. They show astonishing physiological ripeness of flavour, for low sugar ripeness. The contrast with the 1986 Reserve wines is dramatic.

   Nonetheless, Hawkes Bay retains the advantages of greater consistency of climate, particularly in terms of low humidity and lower average rainfall, in the ripening season.

   Whether any red wine is worth $30-$35 ex-vineyard is a multi-faceted question. While it can be said Te Mata  made hay while they could, their 1982 and 1983 wines now amply justify their trend-setting release prices. Other wineries are now producing to similar standards. With a more open wine market generally, more competitive pricing reflecting the intrinsic quality of the wine year to year will be a step welcomed by the consumer. Faithful application of such a policy would allow for price reductions.

   On the issue of how they compare beyond New Zealand, our very best reds are certainly of top international standards. They will however appeal more to palates attuned to relatively cooler climate French wine styles.

   The case for merlot is clearly answered. When it comes to subtlety, complexity, and finesse in our cabernet styles, a significant percentage of ripe merlot in the blend softens the wine, and adds quality. We will increasingly see use of the other bordeaux blending varieties cabernet franc, malbec, and petit verdot, for exactly the same reasons as in Bordeaux. It is noteworthy the merlot in the Villa Maria reserve wine came from Hawkes Bay. Though Waiheke shows  it can be done in Auckland, nonetheless this thin-skinned variety more readily retains good health, and develops better colour, in the drier East Coast climate.

   For strength of character and taste, straight cabernet still has a lot going for it, when it is flavour-ripe. Ease of ripening is the principal reason the Australians do so well with it straight, and have less less need for softer blending varieties as in Bordeaux and New Zealand.

   Considering the tasting as a whole, and the range of New Zealand cabernet styles from green and acid to ripe and velvety, the top 1987 wines show a considerable advance on those reviewed in my account of the 1985 wines (NBR, 26th of June 1987). The review was titled: "Ripe fruit needed for cabernets", and the point remains.

   With the 1989 reds now safely in the winery, and some pleased noises emanating from the more communicative winemakers, it will be exciting to see whether their intrinsic quality is further enhanced in cellar. Regrettably, some potentially fine wines are degraded at this stage. Climatically, there should be some 1989 reds better than the best 1987s. Since our reds are still totally overshadowed by our whites on the international scene, the debut of our best 1989 cabernet styles in a couple of years is an exciting prospect.   □


NBR Weekend Review,  Friday,  May 19, 1989   pp. 15, 16

Best reds in vivid contrast

PREMIUM New Zealand cabernets and cabernet blends are now marching towards, and through, the $30 barrier. Though some are still selling out quickly, frequently-heard questions include:
•  What is the best New Zealand red at the moment
•  Does Waiheke Island really make wine as good as Hawkes Bay
•  Are Te Mata reds really worth $35
•  How do our $30 reds compare with similarly priced Australian, or French or Italian for that matter
•  Why are so many labels mentioning merlot.

   To help form a measured response to some of these topics, I recently set 16 cabernet-based reds before 12 of Wellington's most experienced tasters. Reputable overseas wines were included, to act as reference points for discussion. The perils of this approach are conceded, but a ratio of 6 imported to 10 local lessens the ever-pervasive influence of cellar or regional palate. Imports included 1986 Ch Gloria and 1985 Ch Gruaud-Larose from Bordeaux, 1986 Oakridge Cabernet Sauvignon from the Yarra Valley and 1985 Vasse Felix from West Australia, and an Italian cabernet.

   The wines were from the 1985, 1986 or 1987 vintages, and all had been brought to room temperature for 48 hours. They were decanted into 16 identical numbered bottles 2 hours before the tasting. Those bottles were then further masked and renumbered by an assistant, to achieve a double-blind format whereby nobody, including the organiser, could know which wine is which.

   The tasting panel included three Wellington wine merchants, cellar-masters of wine societies, two national wine judges, and Martinborough's leading winemaker/judge. Wines were scored out of 20 points, following standard judging procedure. All told, the tasting procedure was as exacting as could be reasonably expected.

   The panel's verdict for the New Zealand wines is presented in rank order in the accompanying table, together with details of packaging and price. Note that using a panel of 12, scores must average lower than for the usual judging panel of three or four. That any wine averaged 18 or even near to it serves to emphasise the very high quality of the top wines.

Ranking for some good young New Zealand cabernets
Wine and rank
Punted bottle
Cork *
  1    1987 Villa Maria Reserve Cabernet/Merlot
  2    1987 Stonyridge Larose
  3    1987 Villa Maria Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
  4    1987 Te Mata Awatea Cabernet/Merlot
  5    1987 Goldwater Cabernet/Merlot/Franc
  6    1985 Te Mata Awatea Cabernet/Merlot
  7    1987 Te Mata Coleraine Cab Sauv/Merlot/C Franc
  8    1987 Matua Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
  9    1985 Te Mata Coleraine  Cabernet/Merlot
  10   1985 Ngatarawa Glazebrook Cabernet/Merlot
*  all corks nominal 50mm length except Ngatarawa 45mm; all very good quality for extended cellaring.

   My assessments of the wines follow. Fresh samples of all wines, plus other contenders and other recent red releases, were later retasted in another completely blind assessment of 31 wines, to provide consistent notes for this review.

   The best wines stand out for their glorious deep ruby/carmine and velvet colours, and their depth of bouquet and flavour. The 1987 Stonyridge Larose Cabernet/Merlot and 1987 Villa Maria Reserve Cabernet/Merlot were clearly the top two wines of the group tasting, both by analysed scores and discussion. They also emerged as the top two in my later tasting, so there is not much doubt.

   These two wines state clearly that New Zealand reds have graduated into the ranks of the top international claret styles. Not only are they claret style; by virtue of our temperate climate they are uncannily reminiscent of fine Bordeaux. That said, like most new world wines, they lack the total complexity of fine Bordeaux. That is an evolutionary stage, which can be remedied in the winery. Their exciting feature, contrasting with many Australian and Californian cabernets, is that they possess an intensity of varietal flavour, coupled with a delicacy of natural acid and lower alcohol, which makes them both flavoursome and rich, yet not heavy. These two wines contrast vividly with each other, adding further to the excitement about our best reds.

***** 1987 Stonyridge Larose ($33). Colour is intense velvety carmine. Bouquet and flavour are rich, ripe, soft and complex, showing all the merits of blending the four classic Bordeaux varieties cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, and malbec. Oak, and acid balance, are excellent. This Waiheke Island wine has a generosity of fruit, and a richness of velvety texture, which will be the envy of many a winemaker. Its  plumpness is in some ways speaks more of Pomerol or St Emilion than the Medoc. More extravagant analogies could be made. NBR readers were alerted to this exceptional wine in the issue of April 22, 1988. It then cost $24, en primeur. It now amply fulfils that promise, and will cellar for a decade. Its softness does not bespeak early fatigue, merely excellence of ripe fruit.  

***** 1987 Villa Maria Reserve Cabernet/Merlot ($23). Compared with the Stonyridge, this wine is fractionally less deep in its classic colour, but much more aromatic and berry on bouquet. Flavour is similarly crisper, firmer, and more aromatic, with oak more noticeable. This wine too is clearly Bordeaux in style, beautifully fine grain, very long in the mouth, with good cellar potential. If the Stonyridge is in the broadest sense Pomerol in style, the Villa wine is Medoc. Cabernet makes up 80% of the blend, the balance merlot. Sixty per cent of the cabernet is from the Lambie vineyard at Mangere, which is rapidly developing a reputation as an exceptional microsite, jet fuel and oxidation pond odours notwithstanding. All the merlot and 20% of the cabernet, come from Hawkes Bay. There have been small releases of this wine after the last two competitions. It is still sparingly available in the trade, and at the winery. The black label is not suited to reproduction.

***** 1985 Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon ($30). The first of the marker wines. Full velvety ruby. Splendidly ripe, cedary, and complex cabernet bouquet. Full rich flavour. Great cabernet very close in style to  ripe year Bordeaux such as 1982. In contrast, ours at best are reminiscent of more typical Bordeaux years such as 1983 or 1981. Vasse Felix is arguably making the most consistently fine cabernet in Australia, over the last few years. It is readily available at Wilson Neill, though not necessarily of this year.

***** 1987 Te Mata Awatea Cabernet/Merlot ($33). Velvety ruby, lighter than the preceding. Bouquet however, is as intense, with great complexity and appeal, and the flavour is if anything more attractive. The merlot component seems to be even more noticeable than in the Villa Reserve, both in the floral bouquet and the supple palate. The aftertaste of lingering rich fruit, and subtle oak, is of the highest quality. Depth of colour alone is no indicator of quality. This too is a truly international claret style, with fine cellar potential. It was released in March, and though sold out at the winery, it is sparingly available in a few southern North Island outlets.

***** 1987 Villa Maria Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($23). Though fractionally deeper in colour than their cabernet/merlot, and equally impressive in bouquet, flavour and weight, this wine is not quite as complex, mellow, and enchanting as the blend. The two wines provide a vivid demonstration of the magic to be achieved by blending, as the Bordeaux chateaux have done for three centuries. Merlot adds floral fragrances, even hints of violets, and suppleness and flesh to the stern cabernet. All the fruit is from John Lambie's vineyard at the unpronounceable Ihumatao, close by Mangere airport. Brix was an unbelievably low 20°. The quality and intensity of flavour is, however, compelling. Never has there been a clearer demonstration of the difference between picking on the physiological maturity of the grapes, as assessed by ripeness of flavour and taste, compared with a conventional use of sugar ripeness as a crude index of maturity. Winemaker Kym Milne deserves much praise.

***** 1987 Goldwater Cabernet/Merlot/Franc ($29). This other Waiheke challenger to Hawkes Bay is velvety carmine/ruby in colour, slightly less intense than the Stonyridge as befits its extra year in oak. Once breathed, the whole wine is firmer and more aromatic than the Stonyridge, richer and riper in fruit than the Villa Reserve, and weightier but less immaculate than the Awatea. It places more emphasis on vinosity, and less on purity of bouquet and flavour. It is in some ways therefore closer to young Bordeaux in style, and like them benefits from a splashy decanting. This is clearly the richest and ripest Goldwater red so far. With its firm tannins and good acid, it has long cellar potential, and will provide many interesting comparisons with the other top ‘87s. It will be released in mid-June. Freepost Box 2541, Waiheke Island.

***** 1986 Chateau Gloria, St Julien ($29). Dense velvety carmine, magnificent. The whole wine is both impressively rich, yet demurely understated, due to the splendid weight of grape tannin masking the plummy ripe fruit. Assessing such wines early can easily trap less experienced tasters. If one goes back to a vintage such as 1966 in Bordeaux, however, there were equally tannic wines which seemed very reserved in their youth, and have flowered beautifully since. This first taste of the much praised 1986 vintage, in Bordeaux, promises well for those importers who have ordered early. The wines are reputed to be very tannic, and will be at require careful study and evaluation. Those with the fruit to stand up to the tannin, as here, will repay long cellaring.

***** 1985 Frescobaldi Mormoreto ($40). This is one of the new generation Italian wines, influenced by Bordeaux. It is 90% cabernet sauvignon, 10% cabernet Franc, and comes from Tuscany. Colour is ruby/garnet, lighter than the others. Bouquet is intensely savoury and exciting with great vinosity. This alone separates it from the more fruit-dominant new world wines. Flavour is long, savoury, and complex, rich yet not weighty. Acid balance is fresher than some, but the whole wine is beautifully integrated. Well worth exploring, particularly if you like fine chianti. It is superb with food.   □

   Conclusions from the tasting, and assessment of a further 16 wines, will be included in the next column.