Joelle Thomson's online wine guide

Pyramid Valley Cabernet Franc… I won’t hear a word against it…

Wine of the week

2014 Pyramid Valley Growers’ Collection Howell Family Vineyard Cabernet Franc $61-ish

It’s the best 100% Cabernet Franc I’ve ever tasted, a humbling wine with its incredibly surprisingly and pretty red plum perfume and bone dry style. This wine made was made with indigenous (rather than commercially purchased) yeasts by North Canterbury winemakers Mike and Claudia Weersing, who bought the grapes from the Howell family in Hawke’s Bay.

It’s pricey but sometimes you do get what you pay for – this is an iron fist, velvet glove and all that accompanies both.

Orange wine in NZ today… What’s the state of play?

This story was originally published in NZ Winegrower magazine, February 2017.

Adventurous, boundary breaking and innovative? Or over extracted, faulty and faddish?

Orange wines have taken over where corks and screwcaps left off, as the wine industry’s current hot topic of debate… They can be organic, biodynamic, skillfully made expressions of aromatic grape varieties or they can be oxidized, phenolically challenging and lacking in fruit expression.

Whichever side of the fence they sit on stylistically, orange wines look like they are here to stay, if sufficient numbers of winemakers and gatekeepers in the world’s industry are any indication.

Their most vocal proponent in New Zealand is the country’s newest Master of Wine, Stephen Wong. He suggests that the most successful orange wines tend to be made from regions with access to good aromatic white grape varieties. Generally, this means cooler regions and it makes New Zealand a natural fit for orange winemaking. In his travels in the glass, Wong has seen more orange wines emerge from regions with a strong representation of smaller wineries, especially organic wineries, which are often aligned with natural wine philosophies. While he concedes that orange wine and natural wine are not interchangeable, he suggests there is a significant overlap between the two.

In New Zealand regional terms, Wong says North Canterbury and Central Otago led the initial charge but Marlborough, Gisborne, Nelson, and Martinborough have also produced a substantial number of orange wines while Hawke’s Bay was only represented by one producer until recently. He has yet to encounter any orange wines from Waiheke or Northland.

Winemaker Lynnette Hudson also sees a greater number of orange wines being made by winemakers who focus on using certified organic or biodynamic fruit in their wines because the principal of making an orange wine is returning to the basics.

“This can mean minimal intervention winemaking with low to no impact on the environment, human health and, supposedly, a true expression of the grapes and where they are grown; terroir.”

Hudson suggests the role of orange wines is to trigger thought about growing grapes that make less impact on the environment and to make wines with less of an interventionist approach.

“The idea seems to be to make healthier wines for those who live around the vineyards and for consumers who drink them, which can suggest lower SO2 additions and fewer additives in general.”

So, how does orange winemaking in New Zealand compare with orange winemaking styles produced internationally?

Wong sees three factors coming into play.

Firstly, New Zealand grapes possess an immense fruitiness which comes through in many of the country’s orange wines. The varieties used play a part because most of New Zealand’s national vineyard is planted in aromatic varieties, so most orange wines tend to be made from varieties such as Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc.

The second factor is the time that wines spend on skins tends towards the shorter end of the spectrum. Like Australian orange winemaking, New Zealand’s tends to last for three to four weeks, with very few going on to spend ten weeks of skin contact, although there are exceptions.

“As a result, we don’t see as many of the highly complex developed spice aromatics and phenolic structures more common in longer-macerated wines. New Zealand orange wines also tend to be less oxidative than their Georgian or Friulian counterparts,” says Wong.

“The majority of New Zealand orange wines are softer in their phenolic make-up from the shorter time on skins, but there are a few which are fiercely tannic,” Wong says.

There is a school of thought that grippy orange wines are the result of a moderate, but insufficient length of time on skins. In the same way as tannins in red wines can become smoother and more complex as they continue macerating, orange wines can, potentially, benefit.

The third factor is vine age. New Zealand vines are generally younger than those used by many European producers and Wong suggests that local winemakers are more careful with what they extract as a result.

He also suggests there may be less complexity or phenolic maturity to pull out of the skins as a result of the generally younger vine age in this country.

“For me, really good orange winemaking is unafraid to extract – longer times on skins obtain intense flavours beyond what is possible with white winemaking – but also being skilled enough to know how to manage those tannins and phenolics so the wine is still enjoyable texturally. A good orange wine should bear some relationship to the varieties being used, but transcend them,” he says.

In terms of tannin structure, winemakers at Sato and Pyramid Valley are pushing the envelope and he has also been impressed by the orange wines made by Francis Hutt at Carrick, and James Millton at the Millton Vineyard. He suggests that Hutt and Millton are marrying structure with perfume in their wines made from highly aromatic varieties like Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Viognier.

“I’ve also seen some interesting work with malolactic fermentation in orange wines from Lucie Lawrence at Aurum and Jen Parr at Valli.”

The use of amphoras, also known as tiñajas, is more prevalent in Europe than in this country for orange winemaking. This is a technique which can incorporate noticeable oxidation with a superb effect, which adds complexity rather than spoils the wines, says Wong.

As for a direction for orange winemaking in future, Hudson sees a strong divide between winemakers who she describes as extremists and those who hate the thought of making extreme orange wines.

“For me I find it exciting to push the boundaries but having a sound winemaking background has taught me how to make wine with little or no intervention but using temperature as a controlling factor.  This has helped me to produce orange wines that are not faulty. I do not believe that orange wines means faults are acceptable. At the end of the day these wines have to be drinkable. This is my personal opinion and lots of people think faults are acceptable. I just can’t drink faulty wines,” she says, adding that she hopes orange wines remain a strong category that encourages the reduction of additives in both the vineyard and the winery.

“Any step in this direction is a positive one.”

Wong says orange wine sales are growing in New Zealand but believes this is more indicative of an increase in the number of drinkers trying orange wine for the first time than a growing market.

“I don’t think many will continue to purchase or drink orange wines after their first experience, and even some of the more daring drinkers may choose to keep orange wines as an option in their list of possible wines but may not order them regularly.”

He thinks the future for orange wines is a niche market in wine bars and adventurous restaurants as well as influencing conventional winemaking as winemakers gain confidence with their techniques and and include more skin contact components in their wines to add interest and texture.

“There may come a time when there is a spectrum of wines with varying levels of skin-contact rather than just orange wines vs normal whites

“Organic wine should be in everyone’s mind”

“Organic wine should be in the brain of everyone – to spray the grapes as little as possible is everything and if you go to organic or biodynamic practices, I think the grapes are more tasty.”

So says Ludwig Vanneron. He’s a French winemaker on a mission to one of Hawke’s Bay’s smallest wineries – Chateau Waimarama.

The winery exports about 99% of its wines to Japan. A smidgeon are sold in New Zealand, mostly at top end luxury lodges. The winery was founded by John Loughlin (owner of Askerne) and is now owned by a Japanese businessman who is based off shore, says general manager Chase Arquette, who wants to take Chateau Waimarama’s wines to the next level, hence the introduction of an international consultant with a broad international overview.

Enter Vanneron – a graduate of Bordeaux’s University’s Wine Faculty. His latest visit to New Zealand was in November 2016, when we met to look around the six hectare vineyard – which is planted with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Syrah.

The discussion focuses on the vineyard more than the winery because, as the old maxim goes (although he doesn’t say it), you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear or, to put it in wine terms, great grapes make great wines.

“By going to this idea of organic, to reduce the product you spray, you improve the acidity also in the wine and after two or three years you see the pH decreasing by 0.1 or 0.2. I have an example in St-Emilion.”

Just as it takes three years to become fully organic, it takes this time for changes to show through in the wine – to, for instance, raise the acidity and increase the aromas.

“In New Zealand we don’t have this problem – we have nice flavours in the wines because of the acidity but to improve the overall health and ripeness of the grapes, we want to eliminate all pyrazines (green flavours) from Cabernet and we want to do this with no compromise along the way,” says Vanneron, as he we walk around the vineyard.

It’s a small but extremely varied site where temperature differences vary by up to two degrees, due to east and north east aspects. The slope of the site also provides a slight altitudinal change and a low lying dip on one part can create a frost risk, if spring is cold.
The best way to achieve ripeness in these mid to late ripening grape varieties on this site is to prune judiciously at the most advantageous time of year. This is often earlier than traditionally thought prudent, says Vanneron.
“It is important to prune early for Cabernet Sauvignon in order to eliminate the pyrazine flavours that can come through in this variety,” he says, adding that green aromas in Cabernet are not only a potential problem in Hawke’s Bay but everywhere this grape is grown.
He is based in Bordeaux but with regular wine consultancies in New Zealand (at Waimarama) as well as in Italy (Tuscany), Turkey, Armenia and other countries, it can be difficult for Vanneron to see his French based family. His frequent travels provide him with an extensive international overview of the world’s wine industry today, however, and he works with a young French winemaker, 28 year old Julie Barthoux, who is also involved at Waimarama.

“When we make red wine, we need to think about the aging; it has to improve for five to 10 years. We really want to do the best with everything on this vineyard, not only with Cabernet but with Syrah as well because that is the flagship red of the Bay. In Japan you find wines from all over the world and the competition there is the same as if you go to New York or London so there is no compromise in terms of flavour. The wines need to stand up against the best from Bordeaux but in the end the wines are New Zealand wines and we want to enhance their best qualities as we focus on improving the overall flavours.”

Chateau Waimarama was one of the first to become a member of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, which was formed in 1995 and now has 98% of all New Zealand’s producing vineyard area as members.

In Vanneron’s words, the organic focus at Chateau Waimarama is to reduce sprays, retain grass between rows to keep microfloragrowing and to retain a balance in the whole vineyard environment – he suggests that the tradition of avoiding grass in between the rows of vineyards is not a good practice because it eliminates potential positives in the environment.
“A lot of people think a French person will come and tell them what to do but I am a part of the team and am not here to tell everyone how it will be because this is New Zealand. We are not Bordeaux, even though the grape varieties we have at Waimarama originate there,” says Vanneron, who believes strongly in regional and national identity rather than affixing French labels to wines made in other places.

Chateau Waimarama winery is one of the smallest in the Bay. It is a modest sized brick building on a six hectare vineyard at Tuki, two minutes drive from the Bay’s iconic Te Mata Estate, but significantly smaller.
“I am a big fan of the fresh taste of New Zealand wines, it’s one of the most appealing factors in all of the wines made in this country — reds and whites – and one that should be maximised.”


The wines from Chateau Waimarama

Significant change is afoot at Chateau Waimarama where the latest reds are softening in the barrel hall as they benefit from the slow but steady process of controlled oxidative aging in oak. The two wines below are currently in bottle, are sealed with cork and are available in extremely limited quantities. I was impressed by their rich fruit flavours, full body and dry style but even more so by the barrel samples I tasted at the winery. Unfinished wine can be difficult to evaluate but it can also be a transparent expression of what’s to come – in this case, I look forward to tasting the new wave from Chateau Waimarama.

Watch this space.

2011 Cagirina Merlot Malbec

2012 Minagiwa Reserve Selection

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