Felton Road has become one of Central Otago’s leading wineries in the US market thanks to the ceaseless promotion of their wines across the world’s major wine markets. Critics and writers can do much to enhance a winery’s reputation (and Felton Road has certainly done well in that regard) but you’ve got to pull the cork (or twist the cab in the case of these wines) for the trade and consumers to show there’s some proof to the pudding.
What’s most exciting is that the winery has become one of leading proponents of bottling individual vineyards separately creating, in essence, premier cru sites among the plantings they have dealt with over the past 25 years. Bottlings from their Calvert and Cornish Point vineyards complement the original plantings at the Elms vineyard and show distinct differences even though the sites are only a few miles apart.
But what has been really intriguing to those involved in the more geeky side of wine is their early commitment to drill down even further and to bottle individual blocks from their vineyards. Felton Road quickly noticed that certain blocks of their pinot noir plantings performed exceptionally well in their blending trials and began to bottle them separately. The Felton Road “Block 3” and “Block 5” Pinot Noirs have quickly become iconic wines and show the completely different profiles that can come from vineyards not that far apart. The winery has essentially completed the arc from making village-level wines to discovering and bottling their interpretation of grand cru-level cuvees. This is essentially a window into how New Zealand’s pinot noir industry is maturing.
When it comes to chardonnay, Felton Road’s history has seen them release three chardonnays over the years: a Bannockburn regional cuvee, a more-focused bottling from the first vines planted at the Elms Vineyard and their single site Felton Road “Block 2” Chardonnay which was first produced in 2001. Recently, winemaker Blair Walter found that the chardonnay vines from their Block 6 had matured in such a direction that the 2015 wine deserved to be bottled separately. And tasting through a bottle of the 2015 Felton Road “Block 6” Chardonnay indicates that this new bottling will be a perfect addition to the winery’s portfolio.
The grapes for both cuvees are from the Elms Vineyard, the winery’s original plantings from the early 1990s. Both vineyards have similar soils and are planted to the Mendoza clone, the more popular selection used throughout New Zealand until the Dijon clones began to arrive. Block 6 has a more northerly slope (perfect for catching the sun’s energy) and higher elevation than its sibling which faces east.
The new wine is a perfect foil for the winery’s “Block 2” Chardonnay. That chardonnay celebrates a more Chablisienne style with a taut, leaner palate framework, some toasty oak on the edge and a firm fruit presence. It demands introspection as well as some aeration or cellaring to really show itself.
The “Block 6” still retains that Felton Road classicism in terms of the shape of the palate and its emphasis on fruit over oak. But here, there are more tropical notes on the nose and the medium-bodied palate, a statement originating from the Mendoza clone. The bouquet is a bit more outgoing with spice and a whiff of mead mingling with the riper fruit components and chalk-laced citrus to focus the finish.
Overall, the Block 6 possesses just a bit more plumpness to the palate and softer textures which will provide for more immediate appeal while the firmer Block 2 charts its own path. But the path that is exciting is the confidence the winery is taking to bottle wines from the best parcels of their original plantings. It will be exciting to see what happens as they drill down further on their other vineyards as the future unfolds.
No trip to New Zealand to attend the Pinot Noir Conference would be complete without a visit to Martinborough where the country’s pinot thing really started. And it proved to be a worthwhile visit as the region looks ready and re-energized to reclaim the spotlight it once owned as the country’s most acclaimed region for pinot noir. Much like what happened in Australia’s Yarra and Hunter Valleys, an infusion of new winemakers and wineries has brought new ideas and approaches to winemaking and marketing to the region, essential as Central Otago and Marlborough seem to dominate the headlines when it comes to kiwi pinot. Here’s a look at what’s happening in Martinborough.
What’s in a Name
Martinborough has always had a small problem due to the name of the region. There has always been a bit of confusion with Marlborough, the more well-known neighbor across Cook Strait. Martinborough, along with Masterton and Gladstone, also make up the larger collection of wine regions that comprise the Wairarapa district. The fact that its named Wairarapa does not help much either as it can be easily confused with the Waipara wineries outside Christchurch. So what is a wine region to do?
As in similar circumstances, the region’s wineries have created a new marketing association called Wellington Wine Country, Wellington being the country’s capitol some 90 minutes away from the winemaking action. And as always with this type of rebranding, the new name leaves a bit to be desired, most notably requiring the trade and consumer to know that Wellington has something to do with Martinborough and vice versa. But it’s likely the powers that be have done some research before rolling out the new name so there’s little use arguing about it. What’s best is with the name agreed upon, it appears that everyone is ready to take this new energy and spend it on promoting the region’s wine. And that will benefit everyone.
Martinborough Drills Down
Pinot noir has always been about the search for site, the one place where climate, dirt and grapes combine to create a sublime wine. In New Zealand, wineries first had to sort out how to make pinot and what regions worked. Over the past 25 years or so, the regions have finalized their identity and style and now subregional differences are becoming apparent. Today, a thorough understanding of them is necessary in order for the trade to effectively sell them to retailers and consumers.
The logical progression sees winemakers now identifying increasingly finer differences in their vineyards. NZ’s top producers are now bottling wines from single vineyards that show an even more drilled down look at the nuances of their terroirs. Here is another reason why NZ wine can be so exciting, watching wineries begin to find the grand cru locales in their regions.
Ata Rangi has always believed their estate pinot noir to be the best representation of their winery and did not see a reserve bottling as part of their philosophy. However,they have recently begun promoting their Ata Rangi “McCrone” Pinot Noir as an expression of a differing site nearby their own vineyards. Dry River has also had the same philosophy yet bottled an old vine cuvee as “Dry River Estate” in 2013 and a “Craighall Vineyard” in 2014. However, it’s Larry McKenna who has really embraced this trend with four separate bottlings from the Martinborough Terraces to complement his “Kupe” Pinot Noir from the Te Muna subregion. For pinot geeks and New Zealand wine enthusiasts, this drilled down look at growing and making pinot noir promises to provide for some exciting wines to drink in the near future.
Getting Older Now
With many vineyards planted in the 1980s, a chunk of vines on the Martinborough Terraces are starting to enter a new phase in their life. Now that they are between 25-30 years of age, the behavior of these vines has changed in ways that have been unexpected. As Larry McKenna at Escarpment explained it, no one knew what might happen as the vines got older. This is the first time New Zealand’s winemakers have experienced this stage of a vine’s development so they are now forced to adjust their past practices to account for the changes in the fruit they are harvesting.
Winemakers are now noticing that grapes can be picked at lower sugars allowing them to make wines with lower alcohols. In the vineyards, grapes are now ripening more evenly and there’s less variation within bunches. Differences between clones are lessening and the feeling is that the site’s true terroir is showing through. The finished wines are now showing less primary fruit and tannins softening bringing savory flavors and textures to the fore.
And this is another exciting insight about winemaking in New Zealand, the opportunity to encounter new and unexpected things as a vineyard gets older, something rarely experienced in the Old World. In Burgundy, the understanding of how a vine ages is passed down from generation to generation so the grower has a better idea of what to expect from a vine as it ages. Some vineyards are a mix of different ages interplanted together so the vine’s behavior at certain age groups is hard to notice. But in New Zealand, winemakers are “Hanging 10” as the vines express themselves in unexpected ways. Makes things exciting for everyone.
Martinborough probably sees more vintage variation than other pinot noir growing regions in New Zealand. Lower yields are the biggest problem thanks to winds that pick up during spring flowering causing few berries to set. Indeed, the vines struggle all year against strong breezes making it difficult for the vines to grow large bunches. Nasty weather as fall arrives with wet and cold does not help things either.
So it was good to see the region enjoying a succession of good vintages after some difficulty in 2011 and 2012. While the successful 2013s have been in the US market for some time, pinot enthusiasts should keep their eyes peeled for the pinots from 2014 and 2015 that will be released in the upcoming months.
What proved most exciting was a return to form for Craggy Range with their 2014 Pinot Noir from the Te Muna subregion. Having crafted a lighter, more ethereal style that was a marked change from their initial releases, the latest vintage forms a bridge between both styles that will see fans of juicy, textured pinots reaching for their wallets. The layered, dark red-fruited palate is textured and harmonious with a long, soft finish. Craggy Range’s 2014 “Aroha” Pinot Noir, a reserve bottling from two specific plots in the Te Muna vineyard, remains the winery’s wine to secure if you prefer a more delicate statement
The Escarpment series of vineyard designated pinots from the Terraces shows an exciting light on individual vineyards from the Martinborough Terraces. While Larry McKenna’s close planted Kupe vineyard in the Te Muna subregion could be considered his most important bottling (probably because he planted it!), his other cuvees can give that wine a run for the money as happened with the 2015 Escarpment “Te Rehua” Pinot Noir. Here’s a complex, multi-faceted wine that showcases the power and structure of the Terraces (and in screwcap for the first time as well!). To be released next year, it continues to secure it’s place as the top bottling after the Kupe Pinot.
Cult winery Kusuda shows no indication of losing its reputation as the Martinborough estate with the most buzz. Hiro Kusuda continues to show grace under pressure as the hordes descended on his table at Wellington to try his wines. The wines (there was some syrah floating about) maintain that rare balance of intensity and finesse with the 2015 possessing a bit more restraint than other wines talked about in this section. A 2008 vintage showed the benefits of holding on to some wine so should you find any of the 2015 (they are unavailable in the US market), make sure to put it away for short bit.
Finally, Dry River Winery continues its run of deeply fruited pinot noirs with their 2015 Dry River Pinot Noir. Showing a shade more finesse and softness during the past few years, the palate is still more compacted than open requiring some cellaring time to truly reveal itself. Yet, there’s no doubt that there some immediate appeal that makes popping a bottle sooner than later an inviting proposition. The problem is that in 2015, thanks to the region’s variable weather, there isn’t much wine to be found so be proactive if looking for your favorite Martinborough wine with that vintage on the label.
The New Zealand wine industry has just finished hosting its 6th edition of Pinot Noir NZ, a tri-annual (now quadrennial) conclave that brings together the country’s pinot noir producers with the global wine community of importers, writers and other hangers on. Prior to the event, wineries from the Marlborough region hosted a few folks to an enlightened traipse through the vineyards of the Awatere and Wairau Valleys and I managed to add on a few winery visits around the trek. Following are a few observations and updates from my visit there.
It’s clear that the recent earthquake in the country’s South Island had more of an impact on the Marlborough’s wine region than is generally known. Many wineries lost significant amounts of the stainless steel tanks that are needed to age and store wine with reports of some companies suffering up to a 20% decrease in storage capacity. This will cause some wineries to look for storage in other regions if they do not get existing tanks repaired in time or get new ones ordered and installed. That may take some time and the situation is not helped by shortages of stainless steel. Engineers and welders are in short supply and and are working 24/7 to not only get things ready for harvest but to get existing equipment up to newer safety standards.
There’s some concern that a good harvest could test the ability of wineries to process their fruit but a relatively cool summer has seen a slightly smaller cropload on the vines while ripening is anywhere from 5-10 days behind normal. Winemakers express their good luck and fortune that the quake did not come at night when workers were about and that it did not occur closer to harvest creating unimaginable difficulties in the region’s ability to process all the fruit.
Some nearby tourist areas will clearly suffer as the main road along the island’s western coast and its’ neighboring train track are out of commission. These routes are essential for trucking goods and services up and down the island, equipment, the industry’s workforce and finished wines for transport. Windy backroads are now handling increased traffic adding some significant time and stress for those travelling up and down the South Island. There’s no quick fix for things, estimates range from 18-30 months before roads and tracks are repaired.
New Sauvignon Blanc Styles Shine
Started when Cloudy Bay created its Te Koko sauvignon blanc, many of Marlborough’s savvy producers have taken to producing a more serious interpretation of the grape. This usually entails some barrel fermentation and aging, perhaps some natural yeasts to start things off and a bit of malolactic action as well. The first examples were interesting but tended to accentuate the grape’s herbal characteristics in not the best direction.
Today, wineries have now selected specific vineyards and reviewed their growing techniques to pick fruit that is better suited to these new techniques and the results have been well received by critics and consumers alike. Recent vertical tastings of Giesen’s “The August 1888” and Greywacke’s “Wild” sauvignon blancs revealed a new dimension to the category that the trade and wine enthusiasts should consider.
While there is no doubt that the latest releases from both wines showed considerable appeal, giving these wines 4-6 years in the bottle really transforms them to another dimension. Initially focused and compact in their youth, the wines’ complexity and texture were ramped up considerably after spending a few years spent in the cellar. Taking on Burgundian sensibilities while providing hedonistic pleasure, these wines were an exciting revelation during my visit. Here’s hoping that wineries working with this new style of sauvignon blanc take some older vintages to market and show what these wines can offer with a bit of patience and, more importantly, save a parcel or two to be re-released for sale down the track.
Marlborough Turns Up the Volume
For the majority of this decade, Marlborough has seen very little new vineyard expansion. The global financial crisis led many wineries to hit the pause button and at the same time, the prevailing narrative has been that Marlborough would soon be fully planted with no room for left for new vines. Long-held views dictated that water scarcity and frost-prone weather conditions would make a westward expansion of the region’s vignoble a risky proposition. It seems, however, that the region’s nurseries and viticulturalists are back at work. This raises the prospect that continued demand for the region’s wines could see prices rise in the future.
Fueled by double-digit growth over the last few years, brands like Brancott from Pernod Ricard and Constellation’s Kim Crawford are projected to double their sales in the future so the move westward is on again. Apparently, the costs and risks involved with frost and securing water rights is worth it to secure the fruit necessary to maintain the strong growth in sales. And given the slow changes already happening in the region because of climate change, this bet could be a sure winner for those rolling the dice. The ultimate winner, however, is the Marlborough district as a whole as the region’s wines secure and maintain ever more demand for the future.
2014s Are Looking Good
Between the trip to Marlborough and the Pinot Noir conference a few days later, there were plenty of opportunities to taste both upcoming releases and see how some older wines are coming along. It’s pretty clear that 2014 will see a some exceptional wines. Kevin Judd’s Greywacke pinot was exciting aromatically as it offered up an exciting melange of red fruits and sweet spices. It was a thrilling of example of the bright, clean medium-full bodied style that the region can do so well. The Giesen family have now been working with the acclaimed Clayvin vineyard for a few years now focusing their efforts on understanding the vineyard and getting it more healthy. That seems to be paying off with their 2014 that is more structured and full-bodied than the Greywacke example. Here are slightly darker fruits with great precision presented on a balanced platform of focused tannins.
2007 in Marlbrough was the first superlative vintage to show off the contemporary style that has defined the region. The rich, mouth-filling textures that came to typify Marlborough pinot were the result of new clones, hillside plantings and maturing vines, all of which came together to produce some tasty wines. Dogpoint, like neighboring Greywacke, are classic proponents of the elegant, ethereal style of the region and the 2007 from magnum was holding up beautifully, ready to drink with open aromatics. The 2007 Highfield was always a bigger wine with a core of concentrated fruit thanks to the parcel of Omaka Valley fruit that made up a significant portion of the wine. Today, there’s some softer textures to be found but that deep core remains indicating a few more years remain. All in all, great to see how Marlborough is not just a producer of ready-to-drink pinots.
Over the past decade or so, the Hunter Valley has really revealed itself, not only as a bastion of youthful energy that has transformed the region as a locus for contemporary wines but also in resurrecting respect for the vines and vineyards that came before them. New bottlings highlighting individual plots of ancient vines are weaving compelling wines into the fabric of the Hunter. All of this after a decade or so that has seen Hunter semillon and shiraz reach new heights of quality.
The renewed respect for the older vines that are the backbone of the Hunter has led to many folks to take an even deeper look at what is actually planted there. While Australia does not compare when it comes to the wide variety of varietals grown in California, there are plots here and there that contain some pretty interesting stuff. McWilliams, one of the Hunter’s oldest wineries and owner of Mount Pleasant Winery, home to legendary winemaker Maurice O’Shea, is home to a rarity named montils. The grape recently found a home in their new wine program entitled B-Side which is devoted to experimental, small batch winemaking.
The original home for montils is in the Cognac region of France where it’s also used to make eau-de-vie. It ended up in the Hunter as part of the Busby collection of grapes that contributed to the foundation of Australia’s wine industry back in the 1830s. Prized for its ability to maintain a low pH in warm climates, it has fallen out of favor in France.
New plantings of the grape have been recently arranged from the original vines that were planted in the 1920s at the winery’s home vineyard. Winemaker Scott McWilliams decided to round up some shiraz planted by O’Shea in his Rosehill vineyard back in 1946 and co-ferment the two grapes as was done back in the day. Because there was so little montils available, only 800 bottles were made.
The result is a translucent, pale red wine that is a perfect wine for those desirous of a lighter styled wine. Fresh and crunchy red fruits fill the palate but resonate lightly thanks to some crisp acids. Bits of spice and light tannins frame the whole experience, both aromatically and texturally, thanks to a bit of stems in the ferment and old Hungarian oak. A couple of years should see this wine pick up a bit of weight and the acidity mellow.
This is a great window into Australia’s movement towards lighter, fresher red wines that are also seen in wines like 2015 Te Mata Gamay Noir and 2015 De Bortoli La Boheme Syrah/Gamay. These local products are starting to populate the hipster wine bar scene there and could easily make a splash in the States. Quaffable and refreshing, one can feel the mustache grow and the tats form a sleeve on your arm as you quickly polish off the glass and reach for another.