Craggy Range has by far the most glamorous tasting facility of all the wineries I visited in Hawkes Bay late last year. Its natural setting is glorious, but the spacious room itself is all glass and shiny surfaces — very upscale indeed. Worth a visit, for sure. There’s also a large range of wines available for tasting, including this, one of Craggy Range’s premium cuvées. It is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc and, on tasting at cellar door, was almost impenetrable. I took this as a personal challenge, of course, and purchased a bottle for later tasting.
The flagship wine from Unison Vineyards in New Zealand. As with the regular Unison, this wine is a blend of Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, proportions unspecified. A spicy, peppery, dried floral, clean-fruited nose that keeps shifting from under my feet (nostrils?). It’s a forthright. slightly lifted nose that promises intensity and dexterity in the mouth. Fruit is deep and complex, moving between shots of cassis, sweet raspberry liqueur and other goodness. Creamy, custard oak adds plushness. As it sits in the glass, high toned spice is giving way, partly at least, to fruit and oak. I love wines like this, constantly changing and revealing layers of complexity. The palate is initially a bit disorienting, in that it is perhaps less momentous than indicated by the nose. Once you adjust to the scale of it, though, it vibrates with fascinating flavours. Entry is tingly and acidic, signalling the other principal pleasure of this wine: texture. Intense fruit flavour registers soon thereafter, flowing to a medium to full bodied mid-palate of clean, complex fruit and spice. Coffee-ground oak is a fairly prominent flavour influence, and is somehow appropriate given the acidic, extracted nature of the mouthfeel. The after palate leaves behind any plushness of fruit and progresses to a more oak-driven savouriness that suggests some time in bottle may be beneficial. Finish is long, slightly sweet and a little aggressive. I wish I had more bottles of this. It’s a different wine from the Unison, although clearly emerging out of the same idea of “wine.” It’s a bigger wine in most ways, built to drink slowly and examine closely. I love it. Start drinking in about 5 years. Update: I’ve been following this wine for two days (unrefrigerated) and it has really opened up to become almost voluptuous. Great balance, the after palate and finish filling out nicely. No signs of the wine tiring yet. Unison VineyardsPrice: $NZ48Closure: DiamDate tasted: January 2008
According to Trinity Hill, this wine is made only in vintages of a certain quality, the previous release being a 1998 wine. This 2002 is the current release and was purchased at cellar door a few weeks ago.
Characteristic dustiness is most noticeable on the nose, along with equally typical cassis fruit aromas and some supporting cedar oak. Some age is evident, not through any prominence of tertiary aromas but from good integration of flavour components, each seeming to melt into the other in a relaxed fashion. Good balance. Entry is smooth and fairly immediate, with fruit flavour registering quite quickly on the palate. The middle palate shows the same dustiness as the nose, but which here comes across as an attractive gravel note. Slightly simple red and black berry fruits sit underneath and are propped up by more savoury oak. As with the nose, flavours are well integrated. Weight is medium bodied at most, and the wine gives an overall impression of elegance rather than power. Fruit flavour continues linearly through the after palate, rising attractively towards a finish of fine, chalky tannins. Satisfying length.
I wondered at some points whether it lacks a little in intensity on the palate, but perhaps it’s a stylistic thing rather than an absence of flavour. I suspect a lot of people will enjoy this interpretation of Cabernet, which is stylish without being a showpony of a wine. It could certainly sit longer in bottle if you were so inclined, though it’s drinking well now. We had this wine with Wagyu rump and it matched the beef really well, all flavours intermingling deliciously.
Trinity HillPrice: $NZ29Closure: CorkDate tasted: January 2008
This wine is Unison Vineyard’s signature wine, along with the “reserve” level Unison Selection. It’s a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from Estate grapes. The proportions of the blend are not specified, and deliberately so. When I queried Unison about this, I was told it views the Unison wine as a style whose blend may vary from year to year, so the exact percentage of each variety is really beside the point. It’s nice to encounter a producer with such a clear, confident vision.
Black Barn has an interesting range of wines, including some that are unusual in the context of Hawkes Bay producers. This wine, a straight Malbec, is one of them (they also do a Sangiovese and straight Cabernet Franc in addition to a wide range of other red and white wines). I tried this at cellar door and it seemed promising at the time, so I picked up a bottle for more thorough tasting later on. Captivating, expressive nose of dried flowers (of similar character to Gimblett Gravels Syrah, though this wine is from a different sub-region in Hawkes Bay), sweet jammy Malbec fruit, some oak, some stalk/foliage. Complex without being forbidding. The entry is smooth and tactile; the point at which fruit flavour hits the tongue is quite palpable. Full bodied middle plalate is full of intensely sweet fruit, more savoury dried flowers, and toasty oak. The wine’s line continues strongly through the palate and rises a little during the after palate, creating a nice lift of flavour. The finish is characterised by fine, chocolate-like tannins that extend the wine’s flavour most satisfyingly.What a fun wine. There’s nothing super sophisticated about this number, but it’s full of flavour, shows good complexity, has character and is ready to drink right now. What’s not to like?Black BarnPrice: $NZ35Closure: DiamDate tasted: December 2007
The other half is quite fond of Pinot Gris and that keeps me in the tasting loop as far as this variety is concerned. It’s quite fashionable to knock Gris as unworthy but, occasionally, a wine does stand out. They are the exceptions that prove the rule, perhaps.Quite a rich colour, hay-like verging on golden. A subtle nose of pear, apple skins, some vanilla oak and bitterness. The palate is big but strangely flavourless. Initially, the entry ushers in similar fruit flavours as seen on the nose. On the middle palate, however, phenolic bitterness becomes quite prominent and persists until an after palate and finish that display alcohol heat (14%).These combine to mask the attractive, varietal fruit flavour and transform the wine into a rather coarse experience. Time in glass didn’t assist with the wine’s balance. I think this wine might be best accompanied by something summery and rustic in flavour — Caesar salad, perhaps.Black BarnPrice: $NZ20Closure: StelvinDate tasted: December 2007
I tasted another Te Mata Chardonnay, the Woodthorpe Vineyard wine, a couple of weeks ago and was quite impressed. So I picked up Te Mata’s premium Chardonnay eagerly at cellar door, and today had the chance to open it for a drink. Nice wine to finish off Christmas Day, I reckon.Youthful, pale hay colour, good clarity. The nose is quite tight, with some yeasty characters along with zingy citrus and some nutty oak. Balanced and subtle, with flavours showing excellent integration. The wine’s entry is very fresh due to prominent acidity, and marks the start of a very structured, driven line that shoots right down the middle of the tongue. The middle palate shows an array of flavours ranging from cooler climate Chardonnay fruit to yeasty/creamy characters and nutty/spicy oak. Fruit flavour is moderately intense and of good complexity. As with the Woodthorpe, the wine is really well balanced, each element contributing an appropriate amount of flavour and structure to the wine. Unlike the Woodthorpe, the Elston is much more structural, at least at this stage. This translates to an impression of astringency and suggests the wine might drink well in a couple of years’ time. An impressive wine that is all about harmony rather than impact and scale. Drink this with a creamy pasta dish and leave some in the bottle to ponder through the evening. Good value for what it is.Te Mata EstatePrice: $NZ37.20Closure: DiamDate tasted: December 2007
If you’re in the Hawkes Bay area, I strongly recommend a visit to Unison Vineyard. We dropped in and were greeted by the effusive and extremely passionate viticulturalist, who gave us a sensational tasting and lots of information about each wine, the vineyard, and the region generally. Oh, also they make a lovely olive oil (from Estate fruit) and a delicious Balsamic vinegar. This wine is their straight Merlot, priced reasonably and intended to be consumed sooner rather than later. Garnet colour, looking a bit older, perhaps, than one might expect from a 2006 vintage wine. Attractive, though. The nose is fabulous — a lifted, multifaceted flavour profile that passes through herbal, medicinal notes, dark fruits and some oak quite seamlessly. Overall, quite savoury and tight. The entry is subtle, and the wine builds intensity as the palate progresses. The middle palate is again quite savoury, with lots of dark fruit and more herbal flavours, and a sweet edge to keep things relatively easygoing. Medium weight palate with a nicely textured, rustic mouthfeel (somewhat Italianate, perhaps). Oak is reasonably prominent, and perhaps a little coarse in its sappiness, but never overwhelms the wine. The after palate starts to drop slightly in intensity before drying, slightly rustic tannins kick in to carry the wine off with good length. This is a very drinkable wine that will, I imagine, go very well with Italian food. A nice expression of Merlot that will please lovers of the more savoury side of this variety. Good value too.Unison VineyardPrice: $NZ24Closure: StelvinDate tasted: December 2007
I had a few Hawkes Bay Sauvignon Blancs while in the area and, perhaps inevitably, found some wineries comparing their wines to (perhaps even justifying against) Marlborough wines. This wine from Black Barn is pretty representative of the Hawkes Bay style.Pale, hay-like colour, brilliant clarity. Heavy, thick tropical fruit aromas that lack the higher register of flavours that make the Marlborough style so distinctive. Some may consider this a very good thing. Certainly flavourful, if not explosive. Lively entry that zings with firm, though not searing, acidity. The middle palate is full of tropical fruit flavours and passionfruit, not lightfooted so much as thick and heady. No great complexity here, but it’s a nice flavour profile for sure. The after palate rises in the back of the mouth to a climax and then tapers off pretty quickly. The finish is of adequate length for this variety.I’m in two minds about this wine. On the one hand, it’s a nice change from Marlborough wines, it tastes good and it’s well priced. On the other hand, it’s a not especially distinctive wine (and style). Nice for a change of pace, perhaps.Black BarnPrice: $NZ18Closure: StelvinDate tasted: December 2007
To my shame, I’ve been drinking even more than I’ve been writing up while in New Zealand. Here are a few bits and pieces of marginal interest.Mission Estate Winery Hawkes Bay Merlot 2006I used most of this wine for cooking but swilled a glass once the casserole was underway. And whaddya know, it’s actually pretty good. Nice fruit, easygoing structure, no boiled lollies in sight. Definitely on the riper end of the spectrum for Merlot, and none the worse for that. Great quaffer. Wish all Aussies at this price point were as good. Fruit comes from various vineyards in the Hawkes Bay region, including the Gimblett Gravels.Mission Estate WineryPrice: $NZ14Closure: StelvinDate tasted: December 2007Jacob’s Creek Shiraz 2005I don’t know what this wine is doing in here, but let’s just say that it was offered, and as we all know, it’s rude not to accept a gift.It’s actually not too bad, certainly a fault-free wine at the very least. The fruit flavour has that confected red fruit quality that screams “industrial” to me, but hey, it’s tasty and has lots of flavour. Not bad.Jacob’s CreekPrice: $NZ9Closure: StelvinDate tasted: December 2007Matua Valley Late Harvest Muscat 2006I was having cravings the other night in Gisborne (just a few nights before the big earthquake, no less) and wandered up to the local supermarket to grab some dessert and, of course, wine to go with. I have no idea what grapes are in this wine, although the label does, at least, let the purchaser know that they are from the Gisborne wine region.There’s some nice, sweet fruit flavour here, a little “jasmine tea” in character, but harsh acidity quite overwhelms any sense of flavour. It’s not the sort of acidity that is cleansing or sprightly — it’s just harsh and unbalanced. Oh well.Matua Valley Price: $NZ12 (375ml)Closure: StelvinDate tasted: December 2007