Tag: New Zealand

The Mystery of the GinGin Clone: Part 1

It’s not often that someone with a background in wine retail finds themselves involved in a viticultural mystery of some significance. But things happen….

In no way would I consider myself a qualified viticulturalist or winemaker. My wine career has focused on retail, putting wine in people’s hands. To do a better job of that, it was also important to learn. Three decades of visiting the world’s vineyards and cellars have only taught me how little I really know and how much more there is to be learned. What I have learned over the years is that I truly love chardonnay, especially for the ability to see how decisions made in the vineyard and the cellar become apparent in the glass. My love of the grape has driven me to continually learn more about what goes into the final product.

My passion for chardonnay was particularly stoked as examples from the southern hemisphere began to appear in America. Australia and New Zealand were clearly capable of making world-class chardonnays that rivalled the best from California and Burgundy. Layered, complex and ageworthy, the best examples satisfied both the hedonistic and intellectual aspects that wine can encapsulate.

What follows is a story about how a mystery about chardonnay came about and how, almost accidentally, it got solved. Partly a personal narrative of how the mystery came about and how it got solved, I hope readers enjoy this little story of a small trip I undertook over the past few years.


Raising the Question

LeeuwinEstate_mrbg_logoAs the first of Australia’s chardonnays of consequence began to appear in the US market, it was clear that Leeuwin Estate was fashioning some of the best wines in the country. Denis Horgan, the thoroughly passionate and entertaining owner of the winery, was forever expounding on the superiority of Margaret River’s climate and its suitability in producing top-notch chardonnays.

As more Margaret River chardonnays appeared in the States and the region consolidated its’ position as a preferred appellation for the varietal, visiting winemakers began to promote the role that the “GinGin” clone played in producing fine chardonnay. At the time, the role of clones in making chardonnays and pinot noirs was just beginning to be part of the dialogue between wineries and the trade in California. As a result, certain clones were mentioned more than others, increasing the familiarity about some clones over others. Margaret River winemakers had great pride in the GinGin clone making it a unique story amongst all the varietals being discussed at the time.

Years later, New Zealand chardonnays arrived in the US market although in much smaller amounts than what Australia was exporting at the time. What little chardonnay that made it to America was also subsumed by an avalanche of Marlborough sauvignon blanc so it was pretty rare that conversations with winemakers focused on factors that contributed to quality Kiwi chardonnay.

Nevertheless, having mastered a bit of an understanding about clones, it became natural to ask growers and winemakers about which ones were used in NZ and it became clear that the “Mendoza” clone was the foundation of the best chardonnays of the time. Once again, winemakers took great pride in the role that this particular clone played in fashioning the final product.

“Hen and Chicken” berries (Winetitles)

What became of special interest was the way winemakers from New Zealand assigned the same words and descriptions in describing the Mendoza clone as Australians did when talking about the GinGin clone. All of them noted the appearance of shot berries, “hen and chicken” berry sizes on small bunches, problems with leaf-roll virus, low or reduced yields, as well as richly textured tropical fruit flavors. Despite the problems that were encountered, winemakers from both countries agreed that the quality of the final product was superior enough to overlook any difficulties encountered in the vineyard.

Given that the descriptions and problems ascribed to the GinGin and Mendoza clones were nearly identical, I frequently asked winemakers from both countries whether the clones were related in any way and interestingly, I never heard any suggestion that the two were the same or could be linked in any way. Indeed, many winemakers clearly had never even considered the possibility that they could be related. But my gut told me the two could be one and the same. And that there may be more to the story of these two clones that no one had considered.


Click here to read Part 2 of this post.

Wine Review: 2016 Te Mata Gamay Noir

Wine Review: 2016 Te Mata Gamay Noir

The gamay craze has sure captured the attention of wine scribes and hipster winelists of late. And some of this is deservedly so given the price of burgundy these days and the tendency of the best cru Beaujolais to resemble their pinot noir brethren, both in style and price. (It also might have to do with the increasing investment of Burgundy’s wineries in Beaujolais as well.) Much of the heightened promotion of gamay also comes from Beaujolais’s use of natural wine production techniques that are increasingly part of the region’s winemaking regimen.

It’s interesting to note that the domination of gamay production that Beaujolais enjoys has not been threatened much by wine regions in other countries. Unlike their pinot noir brethren whose global monopoly of production has seen challenges from regions across the globe, gamay the grape is pretty much entirely associated with Beaujolais the region.

A long time long ago, a retired banker by the name of Charles Shaw imported some of the more authentic gamay noir au jus blanc in his attempt to make a serious gamay in Napa Valley. It was quite tasty and a good representation of the varietal for those who appreciated the grape back then but the real stuff in California today is a rare find. A look at winesearcher yields less than a dozen producers and the grape is clearly less important (36 tons picked in California 2016) than its brother, the mal-named “Napa gamay” (1700 tons in 2016) which is actually valdiguié. Amazingly, there are 20 producers in Oregon, enough that a gamay festival is scheduled very soon.

So whats with these upstarts in the southern hemisphere producing a gamay that is actually appearing on the shelves and winelists in the US market? Yes, New Zealand, and Australia for that matter, are cranking out some serious examples of the grape. Yes, there are about 7.3 hectares of gamay in NZ with only two wineries of note so were not talking much but something is obviously brewing down there. (Australia has over 25 producers planted in all types of growing regions across the country).

The gamay producers of New Zealand and Australia producers are not just glamming on to the latest trends (though many are known to do so). The grape has a history that extends some 20+ years in both countries, just another example of how many interesting wines from both regions we don’t encounter from our perch in the States.

Te Mata’s Gamay Noir has a lengthy pedigree with the vines planted in hills north of Napier. The grapes were brought over from France by the Buck family back in 1995. The wine seems to have had a bit of a low profile in the past, I don’t recall tasting it until the last few years when it seemed to appear out of nowhere and announced itself as ready for the spotlight.

And ready it is with a bright ruby red color, and a light-bodied, zesty red fruit core that’s supported with crunchy acids. It’s the kind of wine that gives you the impression that a waxed mustache and a tattoo sleeve will appear once you’ve ingested it, it’s that good… and hip… The 2016 reflects the vintage with its’ more elegant weight while the 2015, a wine that can still be found in market, will exhibit a bit more concentration with spice notes and deeper red fruit flavors on the backpalate. The fresh crispness remains as will the ‘stache, the ‘tats and the great value. The list price is under $20.

Gamay-NV-95x300As a point of reference, New Zealand’s other gamay comes from Central Otago’s Rippon Vineyard and is worth the search if you can find it (it is one of the first wines to sell out each year and is not in the States as of yet). Nick Mills’ version of gamay is as one might expect since it is made in an unabashedly natural way. These are old vines as well, planted some 25 years ago. Not sure if there’s a shared story with Te Mata but worth investigating. A classic Rippon gamay is powerful and concentrated with savoury textures surrounding a core of bright red fruits, a revealing contrast with the Te Mata. This version is what more naturally made gamays should aspire for with its clarity and precision.

Now about those Aussie gamays…


Wine Review: 2009 Ostler Pinot Noir “Caroline’s”

Wine Review: 2009 Ostler Pinot Noir “Caroline’s”

Standing behind the table and pouring wine at a consumer table has to be one of the more thankless tasks in the entire wine industry. In addition to the classic salesmen promoting their winery’s portfolio, this front line of wine promotion is often manned by representatives of marketing associations designed to shine a light on the wines of a particular country or appellation. As a fan of New Zealand and Australian wines, I often deal with the government organizations that are charged with introducing their country’s wines to the US market.

David Strada is the man on the frontlines for New Zealand Winegrowers and is often found at consumer wine events focused on pinot noir… Which is where I found him last weekend manning a table at the annual World of Pinot confab in Santa Barbara. As in previous events like these, David brings along an assortment of currently released Kiwi pinots from various regions (the 2014 Quartz Reef Pinot Noir from the Bendigo subregion of Central Otago was most impressive). But it’s always good to check out his selection as he often makes a point of pulling a bottle or two with a bit of bottle age and he did not disappoint with a 2009 Ostler “Caroline’s” Pinot Noir that piqued my interest.

Yes, this is a post about Ostler but only had one picture of that so putting in a Quartz Reef pic as it is in the post.

The pursuit of limestone-laden soils by pinot noir producers has a long and well-established history. Naturally occurring in Burgundy, New World pinot enthusiasts have had to do the hard yards to go out and find the stuff. The search for limestone soils provided the foundation story behind Josh Jensen’s Calera Winery back in the 1970s. In New Zealand, the limestone influence is easily found in the Weka Pass subregion just north of Christchurch where Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley have both made some compelling wines that reflect their soils.

The latest focus in New Zealand for the limestone inclined is the remote Waitaki Valley where vines were first planted in 2001. The region is a few hours east of Central Otago where the exceedingly marginal climate makes it difficult to grow grapes. Indeed, the region has already seen numerous wineries pull out of the region because of low yields and the expenses incurred by growing grapes in such an isolated area. Today, Waitaki is largely planted by small, independent growers, larger outfits having decided the risk of frost and inconsistent yields make it too risky to.

The chalky minerality that can come from limestone soils was easy to notice in the first pinots noirs from Waitaki and those wines immediately garnered considerable recognition. But coming from the 2004 vintage and from very young vines, the palates were also a bit attenuated and lacked the fruitweight to balance the intense mineral-laced spine and tannins.

That was not the case with later vintages as wines from brands like Valli and Forrest began to justify the hype. Clearly, a bit of vine age helped out the wines here. And thanks to a great write-up from Matt Kramer in the Wine Spectator, the 2010 Ostler “Caroline” Pinot Noir, got some sales traction in the US market. At the time (the spring of 2013), it was markedly better than the previous vintage, especially if you were preferred that haunting limestone scent and texture in your pinot.

But what a difference a few years makes. That ripe and clunky ’09 Ostler had softened and revealed a pretty elegance that must have been buried under the fuller-bodied wine of a few years ago. More elegant, even ethereal in texture, the limestone element was clearly in play now and the wine was all the better for it. But most importantly, I was glad I gave that wine a second chance and so I must take this opportunity to say thanks to those who provide them. Thanks, David!

Wine Review: 2015 Felton Road “Block 6” Chardonnay

Wine Review: 2015 Felton Road “Block 6” Chardonnay

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.

Felton Road winemaker Blair Walter at the winery

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.2017-02-05 11.57.25.jpg

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.

Notes From Marlborough

Notes From Marlborough

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.

The Earthquake

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.

Hanging in the Marlborough hills with Ivan Donaldson (Dogpoint), Sam Weaver (Churton), Luc Cowley (Auntsfield) (r-l)

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.

Giesen’s 2010 “The August” sauvignon showed the benefits of aging

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.

An oldie and a goodie

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.