Joelle Thomson

Author, journalist, writer

A place to call home

I sometimes wonder if this column should be called the Secret Diary of a Wine Writer. It doesn’t have quite the same ring as Secret Diary of a Call Girl, but you never know where diary entries might take you and this weekly (sometimes fortnightly) blog often seems to be as much about life as it is about wine. And I wouldn’t be the first person to suggest that great wines can be a great analogy for life.

This week’s four remind me of the last four places I have lived in, which is slightly poignant right now because I have just moved house to one of the country’s smallest wine regions – the Wairarapa; an hour or so away from Wellington city. But I digress and this is not my diary. It is, however, the story of four vastly different wines made by the same winemaking team from four different vineyards.

Each of these wines tells the story of its home. Its soils, its climate, its wind exposure, its frost risk; all of these factors and more are expressed by the Valli winemaking team of Grant Taylor, Jen Parr and Karl Coombes. This talented team produce an even wider range of Pinots each year but these are their flagship wines, each one highlighting its home in four corners of Otago from the cool climate Gibbston Valley to the warmth of Bendigo and the edgy Waitaki Valley. Bannockburn also features but there is not, yet, a single vineyard wine from Alexandra – something I would love to see them do. I can imagine an Alex’ Pinot from Valli would rock similar flavours to the Waitaki Pinot.

It’s a privilege, as always, to be sent these wines to taste and here are my thoughts.

2018 Valli Gibbston Valley Central Otago Pinot Noir
RRP $69
Gibbston Valley is my pick of Valli’s four Pinots each year and the 2018 lives up to its usual deliciousness. It’s made from a stony vineyard planted in 2000 with seven different clones of Pinot Noir (777, 115, UCD5, 114, 10/5, UCD6 and 113). The grapes were ripe enough to use 30% of them for whole bunch fermentation and the wine was aged in French oak for 11 months with 31% new oak adding body and weight but allowing the spicy red currant and red flavours to shine. Elegance is the word that always springs to mind when tasting Valli Gibbston Pinot Noir – and here it is again. This Pinot drinks superbly now and can age for a decade or longer. There were 21,990 bottles produced – snap up at least a couple for your cellar.



2018 Valli Waitaki Vineyard North Otago Pinot Noir
RRP $69
This wine comes from one of the coolest climates in Otago, namely the Waitaki in North Otago. It’s made from five different Pinot Noir clones; 115, 777, Abel, UCD5 and 114, grown on limestone based river gravels from a vineyard planted in 2001. This vintage had 20% whole bunch fermentation and was aged in Mercurey oak for 10 months, prior to bottling. There were 13,900 bottles made. The style is the lightest in body of all four wines with structure provided by fresh vibrant acidity, which adds zing and a long finish.



2018 Valli Bendigo Central Otago Pinot Noir
RRP $69

Chinaman’s Terrace in Bendigo is one of Central Otago’s most favoured vineyard sites, thanks to its altitude providing the benefit of escaping much of the region’s ever present frost risk and providing elevated levels of sunshine too. The wine is made from vines planted in 2005 and due to its ripe, rich flavours, a relatively large portion of the grapes – 50% – were whole bunch fermented then aged for 12 months in French oak, 30% new. It’s full bodied Pinot Noir with structure to burn. A vastly different style with more power than the other wines but retaining the elegance and silkiness provided by bright acidity, which gives length to every impressive sip. Drinks beautifully now and is a keeper for the long term too.


2018 Valli Bannockburn Central Otago Pinot Noir
RRP $69
This wine is made from grapes grown on a stony vineyard on schist bedrock in Hall Road, Bannockburn, one of the warmest corners of Central Otago. It’s made from six different Pinot Noir clones (777, 115, UCD 5, 10×5, 113 and 13). Rainfall in this area is low and the tannic concentration in this wine is high compared with the other three wines in the Valli Pinot Noir stable. It’s a big smooth, full bodied Pinot, which drinks well now and will definitely become rounder and smoother with age.

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The best wines of 2019

It’s almost over and I’m not complaining. There have been high points in 2019 but there’s nothing like a new beginning. And since the past week has been all about moving house, a whole new beginning awaits, but that’s another story.

This column is about my top 10 wines of the year. Like many other top 10 lists of books, music and films of the year, this column is one perspective, but although the list is mine, it has been informed by tastings almost every day of the year with wine professionals whose palates and minds are aligned to mine – and also challenge me to think outside the square, which is where many of these wines are coming from.

It’s a list, which, interestingly for some readers, does not feature solely New Zealand wines, despite the fact that the majority of wines I taste are from this country. This list reflects the fact that wine is incredibly multi faceted, which is what makes it so stimulating, interesting and ever changing for those of us who have been bitten by the global wine bug. So there are no apologies for sharing a small snapshot of the vast number of great bottles that come my way.

This list is not solely about about my highest scoring wines but is about the wines that have given me the most pleasure – wines that are, in most cases, widely available and affordable to any wine lover.

So here, without further ado, is my top 10 wines of the year.

Wine of the year

Cayetano Palo Cortado

(Despite all of the above, this wine is not readily available.)

Winemakers give the best recommendations and usually put their money where their mouths are, as the talented and visionary Marcel Giesen and his partner, Sherwyn Veldhuisen, did when they imported small quantities of this high quality palo cortado sherry. Palo is the rarest type of sherry and is the hardest to track down in New Zealand.

The name comes from the vertical line, known as a palo, which is made on a sherry cask chosen to be used to make palo cortado. This sherry is hazy amber, full bodied and dry with richly flavoursome aromas of sandalwood (that’s the part that gets me straight away), caramel, dried apricots, peach, apple, spice and a long, fresh finish.

Complex doesn’t even touch the sides. If you can get it, try it.


Best Riesling of 2019

2016 J J Prum Riesling Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese $55-ish

Last year I cycled past the vineyard that this wine is made from; this year I enjoyed the wine from one of the great vintages in the Mosel, 2016. And it wasn’t just any old time I enjoyed this wine either – it was at the celebration of Raymond Chan’s life, held at another great winery – Ata Rangi in Martinborough. Raymond is the man who turned on the Riesling light switch for me and this great white was a fitting drink in his honour – made from grapes grown on one of the best (and steepest) pieces of viticultural real estate on Earth.


Most frequently enjoyed wine of the year – organically certified

Quartz Reef Brut NV $29-$34

5 stars

If I had to name one wine of the year, it would have to be all about Pinot Noir, but not as you usually know it. This sparkling wine from Central Otago is my favourite New Zealand bubbly, not only because it’s insanely delicious but it’s also deliciously affordable and widely available. It’s also an accurate reflection of the region it’s from, Central Otago, where Pinot Noir rules the vineyard area with 78% of the land planted in vines. This bubbly is 72% Pinot Noir and 28% Chardonnay. It was aged on lees for two years following its second fermentation in bottle. It was then riddled, disgorged and bottled by hand by the small team at the unassuming Quartz Reef winery in Cromwell, Central Otago. It is organically certified and punches significantly above the weight that its modest price suggests.

Most affordable wine of the year

2016 Main Divide Riesling $20.99

If greatness can be determined by enjoyment, availability, affordability, then meet this stunningly concentrated, richly flavoursome Riesling harvested between 24 April and 30 May in 2016 in North Canterbury – a region that is now fourth biggest in New Zealand wine production but remains under the radar in so many ways. The depth of flavour, spritzy character and moderate alcohol of 12% ABV make this medium sweet Riesling a winner – especially with its vibrant zesty punchiness and length.

Most surprising Pinot Noir of the year

2015 Jackson Estate Vintage Widow Marlborough Pinot Noir $29 to $34

Not that I don’t love the great Pinot Noirs from Marlborough – and there are a growing number – but this wine was a total surprise due to its sheer depth of flavour and earthy, spicy aromas, full body, elegance, length. What more could you ask for in Pinot Noir? I have loved so many from Central Otago, North Canterbury and the Wairarapa but this one was a delicious surprise.


Best French wine of the year

2016 Chateauneuf du Pape Beaurenard $87.99

Ask anyone from this family owned southern French winery about organics and they cut straight to the chase – “We don’t mess around with organics – we decided to go all the way and become biodynamic.” And the proof of their exacting work comes through in the outstanding taste of their wines. This classic Chateauneuf du Pape is 70% Grenache, 10% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre, 10% Cinsault (and can include smidgeons of other permitted grape varieties, such as Grenache Blanc).

Deep ruby, dry, full bodied with refreshing acidity to carry the bigness of the fruit and provide this wine with its long finish. Stunning.


Best Italian wine of the year

2011 Produttori del Barbaresco Muncagota $92.99

This is a 100% wine in every way; it’s 100% Nebbiolo, in keeping with the exacting rules of the small, hilly Barbaresco appellation (DOCG) in Piemonte in north west Italy and it was 100% satisfying. Pale in colour, dry, full bodied and powerful in flavour – it rivals the Palo Cortado in this line up for best overall wine of the year. It was a stunning, velvety, silky, spicy, red fruit, savoury, earthy expression of one of my favourite grapes.


Best alternative fizz of the year

Villa Sandi Superiore di Cartizze NV DOCG $62.99

This wine is a step up. Light on body, big in flavour. Refreshing and zesty with a long finish and surprising purity of lemon-y zing about it. It’s a big wine from a big winery; Villa Sandi is an old established winery situated in the heart of Prosecco country in north east Italy and while the majority of its production is light bodied fizz. This sparkling Italian shows Prosecco in a new light.


Best Aussie wine of the year

2012 Brown Brothers Patricia Pinot Noir Chardonnay $30.99

This bubbly was made from grapes grown on one of the coolest vineyards in Victoria, 800 metres above sea level in the upper King Valley in northern Victoria, Australia. It’s ablend of 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay and was aged on tirage for six years following its second fermentation in bottle. Toasty, rich, full bodied and super fresh. No wonder it’s so damned tasty.


Best Sauvignon of the year

2016 Pegasus Bay Sauvignon Semillon $33

We all have our comfort slippers but mine are a little edgy in taste, as is this full bodied, bone dry, zesty and creamy expression of Bordeaux’ classic white grapes – Sauvignon and Semillon. Only in this wine, the grapes come from the Waipara Valley in the heart of North Canterbury. If you’re looking for a surprise dry white with creamy flavours, a full body and green fruit aromas, here it is.

PS: I have also loved Champagne Lallier Rosé (absolutely stunning), 2016 Mount Edward Pinot Noir, 2007 Quartz Reef Pinot Noir, 2014 Te Kairanga John Martin Pinot Noir, 2016 Craggy Range Te Muna Pinot Noir, 2012 Escarpment Pahi Pinot Noir, 2017 Dog Point Chardonnay, 2016 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir and many, many more wines. Just in case you noticed a few that didn’t seem to make the incredibly limited cut.

Next year it will be a top 100 wines of 2020 from yours truly.

In the meantime, have a great and happy New Year. Bring on 2020.

All prices are in New Zealand dollars and may vary.

Joelle Thomson’s Top 12 sparkling wines of 2019

It’s the time of year when my job really does go to the next level of toughness. So many bubbles. So little time. How to taste, rate and write about all the good bottles of bubbles on the market, let alone enjoy the occasional glass or three.

This weekend we will pop the cork on a very large bottle of celebratory bubbles because we have finally found a new place to call home – in the wonderful Wairarapa town of Martinborough. It’s not called the silly season for nothing. Did I mention we are not only snowed under with work (like half the world right now) but we also bought and settled a house in less than a week (did I hear the world’s smallest violin playing just for us?). It’s easy to get absorbed into one’s own problems, first world or not,  so, conscious of the bigger issues in the world and of the festive season, here my top 12 bubbles of the year. I hope you enjoy them and the hopeful chance for rest and relaxation over the next few weeks, wherever in the world you are.


Quartz Reef Brut NV $29-$34

5 stars

Quartz Reef Brut was the brainchild of winemakers Rudi Bauer and Clothilde Chauvet (daughter of champagne maker Marc Chauvet) who pioneered Central Otago’s best known bubbly, which has now become Bauer’s flagship sparkling wine (he also makes a stunning vintage blanc de blanc and a rosé). This one, like most wines from Otago, is based mostly on Pinot Noir (now 72% of the blend) with the balance being Chardonnay. It’s aged on lees for two years and it’s almost a travesty that it costs so little, given the intense flavours, great body and length. Not that I’m complaining because if I had a house pour wine, this would be it (and, okay, I have to admit, it often is).


Villa Sandi Cartizze Vigna La Rivetta DOCG $62.99

4.5 stars

Cartizze is the hillside heart of Prosecco country where the best bubbles are made. Its steep hillsides equal higher sunshine, which equals riper grapes and more flavoursome wines. And this bottle proves the point because it comes from the Vigna La Rivetta Estate, a cru Prosecco that lives up to its importers’ suggestion that it sits among the best sparkling wines of the world.

If you’ve ever wondered if there was such a thing as next level Prosecco, well, here it is.


Tohu Rewa Rosé Methode Traditionelle $40

4.5 stars

Rewa Rosé is all about Pinot Noir and is aged for two years on lees, which provides its rich, savoury, toasty flavours and lingering flavoursome finish. A stunning wine that punches well above what its price suggests. Delicious.


Tohu Rewa Blanc de Blanc  $30 to $31

4.5 stars

The South Island of New Zealand is home to some of the world’s tastiest and best value bubbles, including this creamy smooth, 100% Chardonnay with all the richness, weight and length of sparkling wines that usually cost a lot more than this.


2013 Saint Clair Dawn $37 to $49

4.5 stars

This sparkling wine was made in honour of its namesake, Dawn Ibbotson’s 100th birthday in 2014. She has now turned 105 and still lives alone, with a little daily help – and a fresh crisp, dry and full bodied glass of this stunning wine to enjoy every day. It’s made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; all hand harvested. The Chardonnay was tank fermented with malolactic fermentation to add softness while the Pinot was fermented in aged French oak barrels.


Champagne Lallier R015 $49.99     

4.5 stars

Lallier is a stunning champagne house based in Ay and the R015 is the flagship wine. It’s made from 61% Pinot Noir, 39% Chardonnay and 80% of the grapes come from the 2015 vintage, which is where the name R015 comes in. R stands for recolte (harvest) and the remaining 20% is 2008, 2009 and 2012 reserve wines. The result is dry, full bodied, toasty and complex.


Bollinger Special Cuvee $89

5 stars

If a five star rating suggests perfection, that’s because the fine bubbles, intense flavours and impeccable balance in Bollinger’s flagship bubbly, the Special Cuvee, is outstanding. And don’t just take my word for it. Bolly is made from 60% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Meunier; over 85% of which are from Grand and Premier Cru vineyards – top vineyard sites.


2012  Brown Brothers Patricia Brut $29.99

4.5 stars

If 800 metres above sea level in northern Victoria isn’t reason enough to grow grapes to make cool climate, high quality sparkling wine, then I don’t know what is. This blend is 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay with long lees aging providing richness and dryness to this full bodied, flavoursome bubbly.


Champagne Taittinger Prelude Grands Crus Brut NV $129.99

4.5 stars

Another tasty champagne from a well known house and grand cru vineyards. Love the freshness, full body and dry taste of this beautiful bubbly. A must try for champagne lovers.


2017 Alpha Domus Cumulus Methode Traditionelle $28.99

4 stars

A blancs de blancs made from hand picked, whole bunch pressed grapes (gentle extraction, great concentration). Bone dry with one gram of residual sugar, 12.5% ABV, creamy smooth flavours and firm acidity adding freshness and length. It’s made from 26 year old Clone 6 Chardonnay vines grown at Bridge Pa in Hawke’s Bay and was disgorged at Soljans in West Auckland.


2012 Daniel Le Brun Blanc de Blanc $39.99

4 stars

This is 100% from Chardonnay with all the rich, creamy taste and full body that suggests. A big brand that retains high quality in its production and a modest price to boot.


No 1 Family Estate No1 Rosé $47

4 stars

Daniel and Adele Le Brun made their first bubbles in Marlborough in 1980 and have since forged a name as top producers of sparkling wines made the same way as champagne, only in the eminently more affordable region of Marlborough – and they are members of Methodé Marlborough. This is one of their extensive range of bubblies; dry, full bodied and with high but balanced acidity combining nicely with the intense toasty aromas, thanks to being 100% Pinot Noir.

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