Mission Estate Gewürztraminer 2008

Hawkes Bay Gewürztraminer from a label that appears to have a considerable presence at the lower end of the market here in New Zealand. Varietal lychee on the nose is quite promising. Beyond this, however, the aroma profile becomes dull, lacking the character and assertiveness one might wish for in this variety. There’s some floral influence but otherwise it’s all a bit simple and blunt.

Things don’t get a lot better in the mouth, unfortunately. It’s thick and a bit flabby, owing to an acid structure that is overwhelmed by the wine’s viscosity and what appears to be some alcohol heat too. There doesn’t seem to be much intensity of flavour either, with wisps of lychee and spice disappearing into a vortex of blandness.

Disappointing, and overpriced too.

Mission Estate
Price: $NZ20
Closure: Stelvin
Date tasted: December 2008

Esk Valley Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec 2007

I confess I loved many of the Hawkes Bay reds tasted on my last visit to New Zealand, so I’ve been keen to try a few more this visit. Whilst Gimblett Gravels Syrah is a spectacular style and very appealing me, tonight I’m trying a Bordeaux blend, which is historically more typical to this region.

Lovely bright purple colour, not overly dense, almost garish in its purity. On the nose, sweet red fruit and a distinctively Gimblett Gravels spice that reminds me of pot pourri. There’s a nice savoury edge to the fruit too. The more I sniff the deeper the aroma profile becomes, adding layers of complexity as I swirl. Very nice. The palate is currently highly structured with ripe yet very assertive tannins emerging quite early in the line. On entry, more bright fruit that edges towards confectionary but is held in check by spice and savouriness. Then the tannins come, powdery and even, masking the flavour profile a bit. That’s ok though, all it takes it some energetic swirling and chewing for a rush of fruit to register on the tongue, along with a well-judged amount of vanilla oak. It’s medium bodied, consistent in line and coherent. Reasonable finish.

A lovely return to Hawkes Bay.

Esk Valley
Price: $NZ30
Closure: Stelvin
Date tasted: December 2008

Stoneleigh Rapura Series Sauvignon Blanc 2008

Interesting wine, this one. To pontificate for a moment, the potential for obviousness with this style tends to produce a couple of extremes: wines that capitalise on the most outre aspects of the typical flavour profile, and wines that play down the astrigency and aromatic dimension to the point where they become almost apologetic for what they are. Of course, in most cases one seeks a happy medium, and I was happy to discover this wine falls at neither end of the spectrum.

A soft aroma profile that nonetheless shows a range of typical notes: grass, passionfruit and other slightly tropical delights. As a style, it definitely tends towards subtlety, perhaps even dilution, but compensation comes in the form of considerable complexity and delicacy. It’s a nice wine to smell. On the palate, if its tendency towards dilution is confirmed, so too is its complexity, impressive in the context of this style. Entry is driven more by structure than flavour, but this trend is reversed as the wine gains pace. More aromatic and slightly astringent tropical fruits cascade over the middle palate, generating some satisfaction. The after palate and finish gently stroke the palate, fairly subued.

I wonder if the lack of flavour intensity is a result of the vintage? In any case, a very drinkable wine that shows good complexity and well judged balance.

Price: $NZ24
Closure: Stelvin
Date tasted: December 2008

Vidal Sauvignon Blanc 2008

It’s fashionable to bash Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, but I confess I’m a fan. At their best, they represent the sort of flamboyant vulgarity that is its own reward. I think their style misleads some into thinking all examples are equivalent, but I’d suggest their outré character makes things like balance and scale more important than many other, perhaps more forgiving, wine styles. When Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc goes off the rails, it really shows.

All of which is a less than promising introduction to this wine, made by a Hawkes Bay winery from Marlborough fruit. From what I understand, 2008 wasn’t a spectacular year, many wines showing the challenges of the vintage. This is the first I’ve tried, and it’s not a disaster by any means, but it is firmly tilted towards the sort of herbal grassiness I associate more with Margaret River than Marlborough, and which I have trouble with in excessive quantities.

On the nose, typically forthright yet showing a strident grassiness that sits atop the aroma profile, dominating other notes of crisp passionfruit and gooseberry. This somehow makes it more astringent yet duller at the same time; not a great outcome. It says something for the resilience of this style that, despite the odd balance, this wine is still quite clearly a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. The palate shows a softer wine that, whist remaining shackled to grassy notes, also remains quite drinkable through clever winemaking. By tempering any excess of acidity, the winemakers have softened this wine’s inherently astringent flavour profile to the point where it goes down quite easily. It continues to lack substance in terms of fruit notes, but it’s crisp and clean and refreshing. One could do a lot worse.

As an aside, I must come up with some form of shorthand for “Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc,” as it’s quite cumbersome to type over and over again. Any suggestions?

Vidal Estate
Price: $NZ20
Closure: Stelvin
Date tasted: December 2008

Château Musar 1997

The nose is absolutely beautiful, reminiscent of baker’s chocolate, roses, fresh roasted coffee, and molasses.

The wine itself is however entirely undrinkable: a complete disjointed mess of unwelcome, shrill acidity combined with reedy fruit and unpleasant sourness. Cork taint? I’ve never had a Musar before, so I sadly have no frame of reference here.

I have nothing more to say about this wine.

Ch. Musar
Price: No idea
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: December 2008

Rockburn Pinot Noir 2007

Typical Central Otago aroma that reminds me of sweet and sour plums. Very clean and straightforward, and a little subdued perhaps. There are some herbal edges that add up to a moderately complex aroma profile.

On entry, a lovely sizzle of acidity and flavour. It’s lighter in tone than some other Central Pinot Noirs, which can tend towards larger scale, dark fruit. No, this wine is lightfooted by comparison, and one of its pleasures is that it has presence and impact without heaviness. Flavour intensity reaches a peak on the middle palate, where red fruits alternate deftly between sweet and tart. The whole is light to medium bodied. Alas, things start to go amiss on the after palate, where intensity drops too suddenly towards a finish that doesn’t match the scale of the entry and mid palate. It’s still quite a young wine, though, and I wonder if it might fill out a little with some time.

There’s a lot to like here but, for me, this wine lacks a sense of excitement and character that would make it truly compelling. Still, not a bad way to get your Central Otago fix.

Price: $NZ40
Closure: Stelvin
Date tasted: December 2008

Rockburn Pinot Gris 2007

As a Canberran, I grew up with the civilised notion of a well-stocked supermarket liquor section. After years of living in other, less advanced cities (Sydney, Brisbane), I’ve largely forgotten this convenience, and it’s a pleasant surprise, when visiting home or, as now, New Zealand, to rediscover the efficiency of purchasing red wine and Berocca in the same transaction. Indeed, popping into the Papakura Countdown supermarket yesterday evening revealed a relative treasure-trove of wine, perhaps not as wide ranging as a dedicated alcohol shop, but quite serviceable nonetheless. I wasted no time in choosing a few bottles to have with dinner.

I’ve had some nice Pinot Gris from Central Otago, tending towards rusticity perhaps, but full of flavour and generosity. Chard Farm and Peregrine spring to mind, and there are no doubt others. This one, though, isdisappointing. Its nose is a largely mute, revealing wisps of grapey flavour, and a higher toned dimension alongside, but nothing especially well defined. On the palate, good acidity, a little rough and ready but firm and lively too. On one level, it’s quite flavoursome. As I sip, though, I find I’m unable to focus on specific notes, not because I don’t recognise key flavour components but because the whole is vague and blurry in character. There’s no significant definition here, no precision or clear framework for the flavours to relate to one another. So, although it has reasonable presence in the mouth, it’s not a wine that rewards close examination or leisurely contemplation. The bottle states 13.3% alcohol, but I wonder if there isn’t a slight alcohol burn on the finish.

Price: $NZ24
Closure: Stelvin
Date tasted: December 2008

Ramblings: Style v Substance (4 of 4)

The future

In a sense, it’s easy to describe what has come before, but much more difficult to prescribe a future path. I speak as a consumer first and foremost, someone who is unhealthily passionate about wine and who hopes to gain much pleasure from it for the rest of my life. I care deeply about what I drink, not only because wine is bloody expensive, but also because, to paraphrase Len Evans, life’s too short for crap wine. I might amend this sentiment to reflect my own point of view, which is that life’s too short for wine that isn’t true to its region, and that isn’t made to engage deeply with its inherent potential.

It’s a truism that our only unique asset as a wine producing nation is our land. The same varieties exist all over the world, but there’s only one Yarra Valley, or Margaret River. The experiences of nations with a far greater history of wine production than our own inevitably tell us that, in the end, regions are what come to be identified with wine styles.

A lot of the work has already been done by our industry pioneers and current leading lights, and thanks to them we have a range of regional wine styles that ought to qualify as national treasures. Yet there’s still so much energy and experimentation underway, and perhaps this suggests a shared feeling that the best is yet to come. It may be that in many existing regions, we’re only just beginning to identify not only the highest quality wines at a broad level, but also how a particular style may vary based on sub-region, and which outstanding vineyards ought to be recognised as such through unique bottlings. Drilling down like this enables us to capture the variety and drama within each region in order to tell, and sell, this story to the world. It also enables us to hone our understanding of what works best in a given region, focusing time and investment in these wines instead of on wines that can only deliver mediocre outcomes.

As for an end state, if we regard the Old World AOCs and equivalents as the natural conclusion to centuries of experimentation with vareties and terroirs, then in order to achieve the same level of quality and renown, perhaps we need to take a correspondingly long term view. It takes time to identify the strengths of each region, what works and what doesn’t, especially if we liberate ourselves from the comfortable constraints of received wisdom around varietal definition and style. By all means look to the Old World for inspiration, but not for wines to emulate in a New World context. Instead, take the lessons around blending, terroir and appropriate varieties and put them to work in a uniquely Australian context. Most of all, identify the truth in a region, nurture these authentic styles, and ruthlessly cull the rest.

There are some challenges with a “region first” approach. From a commercial perspective, I suspect many consumers rely heavily on varietal composition when purchasing. It’s an enormous shift to start thinking in terms of regions, especially after years of marketing and indeed winemaking focus on grape varieties. Regionality is also inherently more complex. There are only a handful of commonly used grapes in the local industry, and it doesn’t take long even for newcomers to grasp the range on offer. Regions, on the other hand, are both numerous and hierarchical in nature. A deep view consists not only of a broad categorisation (“Barossa Valley”) but also sub-region (“Greenock Creek”) and even vineyard or plot. Perhaps the shift to a more regional focus will take a long time, and may require a degree of market maturity. But if we agree that a view of wine primarily in terms of varietal composition masks our unique strength — our regions — then it’s an inevitable, necessary change. It’s our opportunity to understand what Australian wine is really about.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Domaine Alain Chavy Saint-Aubin 1er Cru En Remilly 2006

A subtle, prickly nose that’s more about minerality than anything else. Not that it’s one dimensional; indeed, there are subtle, elegant fruit and almond notes that fill out the wine’s aroma profile. As with the 2005, this is evolving rapidly in the glass, crisp white stone fruit moving up to push the entire nose forward a notch. The minerality gains a sort of smokey dimension with some energetic swirling. It’s not excessively complex, but this wine has the sort of clean, characteristic aroma that is a pleasure to smell — this is a self-confident wine.

Entry is crisp and acidic, lightfootedly ushering delicate fruit flavour to the middle palate. Wines that show consistent line from nose to palate are especially satisfying to me, and I’m happy to report this one replays the same almond and light stone fruit flavours observed in its aroma, albeit with an additional sense of weight. Having written that, it’s quite a light bodied wine, noticeably acid driven. It seems minimally worked, with little creaminess and no discernible butterscotch character. Instead, one enjoys a straightforward purity, an unmediated sense of terroir, although perhaps one held back at present by its structure. I’m yearning for a few ounces more weight and intensity.

Perhaps I just need to be patient. Hints of richer yellow peach sneak out now and then, promising a future filled with greater generosity.

As an aside, I had a couple of glasses of 2004 Brands Chardonnay the other day, and was reminded simultaneously of why full-throttle Chardonnays have historically been extremely popular and why they became, ultimately, reviled. I felt like I was eating dessert, an overly rich one at that, which was delicious in the same way that sweet, battered, deep fried things are delicious. We couldn’t finish the bottle between us. The funny thing is, I have a periodic craving for this kind of Chardonnay. I guess they have their place.

Domaine Alain Chavy
Price: $A48
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: December 2008

Cayuse Syrah 'En Cerise' 2005

At first smell, all I could think was “hey, this doesn’t smell American at all!” Unlike every other Washington syrah I’ve smelled, this wine gives me flashbacks to the Red Baron wine bar in Paris where I spent two lovely evenings drinking my way through obscure French wine regions just a few months ago.

Surprisingly, the nose is brutally thin, very mineral, with a very faint hint of the warmer Washingtonian climate almost totally obscured by what I can only imagine is old world winemaking: instead of plush, Australian raspberry jam, what you get is cold, austere, frankly barnyardy (but not Brett-y) funk edged with dirt. It’s quite a shock, especially as I had expected something quite different: Cayuse are a tiny, boutique, mailing-list-only producer, and even if the winemaker is French, I had just assumed that this would be a big, lush syrah something like the (amazingly delicious) John Duval-produced Sequel syrah, which is apparently from Walla Walla as well, just as this wine is – and yet this Cayus wine is utterly different from Duval’s.

It’s when you finally treat yourself to a sip of this that the New World components become apparently: there’s a fullness, a thickness that I wouldn’t associate with traditional Rhône wine that’s a thrilling counterpart to the austerity of the nose. Flavors are mostly in the realm of cured tobacco, black fruits, dried cherries, and just a hint of sourness to keep it all in check; there’s also a kind of burnt sugar sweetness that isn’t sugar, just sweetness that’s delightful as well. The finish does stay around for a while, reminding me somehow of Victorian toiletries (and I mean that in a good way: it’s like a once-popular floral scent that went out of fashion shortly before your grandparents got married), with a wonderful wood-coffee smoothness that leaves you very, very happy that you got to drink some of this wine.

Price: $45
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: December 2008