Joelle Thomson's online wine guide

Vintage tales at Church Road…

The launch of Church Road’s flagship wines has become something of a decadent fixture on the calendar of New Zealand’s wine writers.

It’s not just the latest top tier ‘Tom’ wines that we get to taste, but a snapshot of New Zealand wine history in Hawke’s Bay. Older vintages of Tom are unscrewed (the Chardonnay) and uncorked (the Merlot Cabernet blend and the Syrah). This year we were given a major treat – three of the earliest varietal table wines ever made in New Zealand by the late, eponymous Tom McDonald himself.

Wines from the 1950s, 1967 and 1977 were all uncorked and were in surprisingly fine fettle. They were branded 1967 McWilliam’s Private Bin Cabernet Sauvignon, 1977 McWilliam’s Cabernet Sauvignon and McDonald’s Cabernet Sauvignon (with no vintage but from a section of the winery’s cellar that was devoted to 1950s bottles). All three of the older wines were recorked 15 years ago, which helps to account for the good nick they were in, but really, it was staggering to see these wines expressing their raw material.

The best, for me, was the 1967, but I am slightly biased because that’s my birth year and the privilege of drinking something that’s 50 years old, made by one of New Zealand’s most important wine pioneers and that still tastes of the grape it was made from was… well, let’s just say, it was a good night. The 1967 McWilliam’s Private Bin Cabernet Sauvignon was a touch musty when first poured but was otherwise clean with pronounced flavours of black olive, green capsicum and rosemary; that dried herb, hot dusty road and black olive character that epitomises great old Cabernets. What a treat.

This year marks another milestone too – 120 years since the Church Road Winery was founded by Bartholomew Steinmetz as Taradale Vineyards with five acres of land (purchased for one hundred pounds per acre, back then). The now famous Tom McDonald began working at the winery when he was 14 years old and was left in charge of the winery for the first time when he was 19 years old, while Steinmetz travelled back to Luxembourg. McDonald then bought the winery outright when he was 29 and went on to produce varietal Cabernet Sauvignon in an age and stage when New Zealand wine was mostly made from hybrid grapes with added sugar and alcohol as fortified wine.

McDonald’s legacy is often talked about but it’s not until you actually taste those older wines that the big picture suddenly comes into clear view. He was a man way ahead of his time, so it seems fitting that one of this country’s icon wine brands is named after him.

The event that launched the 2014 Church Road Tom wines this year paid homage to the man himself, but also looked forward, with winemaker Chris Scott showing that the future of this winery is firmly in the Bay.

This year, the winery has doubled its capacity so that 100% of its grapes are now processed at the winery rather than a portion of them being transported down to Brancott Estate in Marlborough; where many tanks were destroyed in last year’s Kaikoura earthquakes. This is good news for Church Road, even if it means more work for the winemaking team. It reduces paperwork and allows them to focus instead on processing their grapes as soon as they have been harvested – rather than the grapes having to journey south. It allows greater quality control because the entire journey from grapes to wine takes place at one location.

Scott began at the winery in 2005 as a cellar hand when studying winemaking and viticulture at the Eastern Institute of Technology. When he graduated, he was offered a permanent role at the winery and has since graduated up the ranks to chief winemaker. It sometimes seems like lofty title for a man who is a self declared hedonist and is clearly so passionate about his job. But taste the wines he makes and all of a sudden the word ‘chief’ takes on a whole new meaning.

The 2014 Tom tasting

Closures… A screw cap is used for Tom Chardonnay and the two reds are sealed with natural cork with a wax seal over the top.

Drink it… Chardonnay

Three vintages of Tom Chardonnay were tasted from 2010, 2013 and 2014 – the latest.

2014 Tom Chardonnay

Winemaker Chris Scott’s preferred vineyard for Chardonnay in Hawke’s Bay is the Tuki Tuki Vineyard where grapes are planted in a limestone valley, about four kilometres from the coast. The cooling sea breeze has a strong impact on the temperature here, enabling the Chardonnay grapes to retain noticeable freshness (acidity), which helps preserve the intensity of flavour in this wine, for which the grapes were 100% pressed directly to barrel, then treated to a 100% wild ferment and 100% malolactic conversion. This wine has pronounced ripe citrus flavours (think: grapefruit, sweet lemon) and a touch of butterscotch on its lingering, flavoursome finish.


Cellar it… Syrah

Two vintages of Tom Syrah have been produced and both were tasted; the 2013 and 2014. Both are impressive deeply coloured, flavoursome big Syrahs, but my preference was strongly for the 2014, which heralds a stylish change in taste. 

2014 Tom Syrah 

It’s big, bold, black in colour (well, almost; this deep purple wine has colour spades) and its   ripe black fruit flavours, full body and velvety mouthfeel provide the X factor here; it’s a beautiful wine which can evolve positively in a cool dark cellar, for at least up to a decade.


Cellar it… Merlot Cabernet

Three red blends were tasted; the 2007 Tom Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, the 2013 Tom Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot and the latest 2014, which sees the blend change slightly.

2014 Church Road Tom Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon

Most of the grapes in this wine were grown on the Gimblett Vineyard (62%) with the balance grown on the Redstone Vineyard (38%) in the nearby Bridge Pa Triangle area; the cepage (French word for the mix) is similar: Merlot makes up 62% of the wine with the balance being Cabernet Sauvignon. So this is a stylistic change in direction from the former Tom reds, which have mostly been dominant in Cabernet Sauvignon. The result is a red which is more approachable in its youth, softer plummier fruit flavours lead this wine to a firm, full bodied wine, which spent 20 months in 225 litre French oak barriques, of which 74% were new, with the balance being on their second year of use.

This is a lovely drink now but will improve in 4 to 5 years time, mellowing and intensifying in savoury taste. It can age for up to 10 years and, depending on your taste and your willpower, beyond.



Vineyard tales… from Alexandra

It you have ever felt like throwing caution to the wind, you will understand the sentiments behind Grasshopper Rock Pinot Noir, which is made from grapes grown on one of the edgiest vineyards in New Zealand.

The location is what makes it an edgy wine because it comes from Alexandra. It is the most eastern of Central Otago’s four main sub-regions. Alex’, as it is colloquially known, is also home to regular record temperatures for hottest, coldest and driest in New Zealand on an annual basis. This means it can be challenging in terms of grape growing. Grapes grown in and around Alexandra, as those at Grasshopper Rock Vineyard are, can frequently experience both spring and autumn frosts, putting them at high risk of decimation at both ends of an already relatively short growing season. Not that edginess is everything, even if it does make a damn good tale to tell.

This wine makes my short list of top Pinot Noirs in New Zealand because older vintages that I have tried have shown it has great ageing potential. Like most youthful Pinot Noir made in Otago, this wine is all bright fresh fruit, dry tannins and high acid when young, but give it five years (and then some) in the bottle, and it soften out, develops savoury, earthy, mushroom-like flavours, which I find incredibly attractive.

This is the latest…


2015 Grasshopper Rock Earnscleugh Pinot Noir RRP $34

Grasshopper Rock’s Earnscleugh vineyard was established in 2003 by a group of Pinot loving friends and has since produced wines that age beautifully for five years and longer.  It’s made with a mix of yeasts, some wild, following which it is aged for 10 months in oak; 28% new, so the wine’s deep black cherry flavours gain complexity from subtle oak, which adds a smoky aspect to the wine. It is a fresh, bright, juicy young red now, but will develop into a more savoury creative, with time (and willpower too).

Vineyard tales of Syrah and New Zealand…

Among the perils of being a wine writer is being surrounded by bottles of wine and the temptation to pour a large glass of the best ones. When it comes to Syrah and New Zealand today, the best have  noticeably risen in quality over the past four years, as winemaker Hugh Crichton told me, over a glass of his new 2015 Vidal Reserve Syrah, which costs approximately $20.95.

  • Syrah is now the third most planted red grape in New Zealand with approximately 440 hectares nationwide, mostly in Hawke’s Bay with promising examples also made on Waiheke Island. It accounts for less than one tenth of the quantity of Pinot Noir made in New Zealand, as of 2017.

Why, I asked Hugh, is Syrah on a roll in Hawke’s Bay today – and is it still growing, percentage-wise?

“I see Syrah playing a strong part in the quality story of Hawke’s Bay. It’s a premium variety that can command high prices  in many of the places it is grown around the world. From this point of view it aligns well with the quality story we are also telling with Chardonnay and the Merlot/Cabernet blends grown in Hawkes Bay.”

What about its growth… how’s it doing?

“There’s a growing critical mass of very good examples of Syrah now coming out of Hawke’s Bay – an important factor when going to the market and saying we believe Hawke’s Bay makes great Syrah. You need to back that statement up with more than just a couple of great examples.”

Why does it work in the Bay, in your view?

“Syrah’s style versatility lends itself to being a suitable variety in Hawke’s Bay. In cooler years it’s still possible to make a very acceptable Syrah, albeit a lighter, fresher, spicier/floral example as compared to the richer styles produced in warmer years. The same can’t be said for all later ripening red varieties. Is it more suitable than other red varieties – I’m not so sure but what Hawke’s Bay does create is a fairly distinctive style of Syrah, with a growing following and one that is recognised for quality by wine critics around the world. It’s good to be different if that different is good.

“Shiraz vs Syrah – they both bring different things to the table.”

Tell us about the pros and cons of Syrah in the Bay – how does it differ from Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon?

“Here are my pros:

  • Syrah has a certain amount of uniqueness and differentiates itself away from the bigger, fuller, richer, heavier more alcoholic styles from the hot vinicultural regions of the world.
  • Acceptable styles of Syrah can be produced from most vintages.
  • It has elements of freshness, fragrance and real drinkability but not at the expense of flavour and depth. There is real consumer interest in these style across a number of varieties. The challenge is to have depth and concentration of flavour with in a lighter framework.
  • It’s almost impossible, except in the hottest of years, to make “Shiraz” styled Syrahs. This, I think, is a good thing  – climate dictating style will lead to a greater chance of style becoming reasonably consistent and therefore recognisable from vintage to vintage.
  • It’s natural style  – very little or no need to make adjustments in the winery. This can’t be said for all regions in the world where Syrah is grown. Our acidity is natural acidity – nothing added.



And the cons?

  • If grown in cooler sites or where it is over cropped, the spice/pepper element can dominate the wine along with higher acid levels. There’s not  a great deal around so will need to grow more to get it over more people’s lips.
  • It can be expensive to some – particularly when grown on better sites, at lower yields and when aged in good quality French oak up to 20 months. But even at higher prices HB Syrah’s are very good value from an international perspective.
  • The name Syrah may confuse some people if they know the variety as Shiraz but the confusion would be greater if we called it Shiraz, given most people have an expectation of what “Shiraz” tastes like.

How does it compare to Cabernet Sauvignon?

“In the right sites (warmer)  and at the right crop loads (low)  Cabernet Sauvignon makes some exceptional wines in Hawke’s Bay. While it may not be as commercially viable and can be challenging in cooler vintages, it has the ability to make wines of great quality that can age gracefully over decades. Many of these wines require  patience  in the consumers cellar, given the often higher levels of tannin. Careful of extraction of tannin (natural) during ferment is key but the tannin in the skins and seeds needs to be ripe in the first place which again comes down to the vinicultural side and the season. One advantage that Syrah can have over some of the Cabernets is that it doesn’t usually show the greener, herbal flavour profile at relatively lower ripeness at higher cropped/less warm sites and cooler years. Consumers can find this green profile off putting. But the future for Hawke’s Bay is not in lower cost, lower quality Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s in the premium examples that show good flavour and phenolic ripeness.”

What are the biggest challenges with Syrah in New Zealand’s cool climate?

  • If site is too cool or vines are over cropped, then wines become  dominated by pepper (rotundone) which can take over the wine.
  • Commercially Syrah can be challenging as in my view some of the best examples come from warmer sub regions and at lower crop levels. Syrah also benefits from time in quality oak – both have financial implications with cost and cash flow with time in barrel.

“Another case for Syrah is that stylistically it can show real fragrance, purity and drink-now appeal, which is important.”

The new 2015 Vidal Reserve Syrah, $20.95, 13% ABV

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