Joelle Thomson

Writer, author, journalist

Month: March 2017 (page 1 of 5)

NZ Pinot Noir road trips

This story was first published in NZ Winegrower magazine, April 2017.

You hear the words ‘road trip’ and think Thelma and Louise, but a little more planning was required for the 600 people who took three trips around New Zealand’s six Pinot Noir regions earlier this year…

The road trips were part of the country’s biggest ever wine conference – Pinot Noir NZ 2017, held in Wellington from 1 to 3 February. And the road trips were metaphorical rather than real. But still. That’s a lot of wine and it is, literally, impossible to look at, taste and form an indepth impression on each and every one. A wine writer commented that another approach to the regional tastings had to be found – and fast. This is easier said than done.

A sit down tasting might be more contained. This could feature one wine from each producer, but many might wonder why we couldn’t taste more wines and have the invaluable opportunity of talking with winemakers, owners, marketers and those intimately involved with growing grapes and making wine. And since so much time is spent sitting at wine conferences, do we really need any more long sit-down affairs?

It’s easy to see – and taste – why the road trips have evolved into rooms of people who have long since tired of sitting and are now focused on tasting, talking and sharing the turangawaewae of their wines.

Each of the three road trips had its highlights. Here are my stand outs…

Road trip 1: Auckland, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa and North Canterbury

 This was the most diverse road trips, spanning the widest geographic area and biggest range of climates, soils and elevations. It includes sub-tropical West Auckland with its high rainfall, maritime climate and, perversely, high frost risk in some springs, right through to the distinctly cool climate maritime region of North Canterbury.

Auckland is home to the smallest amount of Pinot Noir produced anywhere in New Zealand but it is significant due to the quality focus of Kumeu River Wines – a consistent high hitter with Chardonnays and now making pretty, floral, red fruited Pinot Noirs.

Bay’s best: Sileni Pinot Noirs

Hawke’s Bay’s Pinot Noir has been eclipsed by its big reds and Chardonnays, but the Bay frequently produces more Pinot Noir than the entire North Canterbury region. And it’s mostly from one producer– Sileni Estates. This medium sized, family owned winery owns significant inland vineyards that benefit from cool coastal breezes, inland vineyards and a slight elevation. At last count, Sileni Estates makes five different Pinot Noirs, not all made every year. The top wine is Sileni EV (Exceptional Vintage) Hawke’s Bay Pinot Noir –20% new French oak allows the red fruit, refreshing high acidity and softness to shine. This bodes well for the Bay’s red future. Lime Rock Pinot Noir from Central Hawke’s Bay never fails to impress from a small limestone vineyard.

North Canterbury

North Canterbury had the most diverse range of wines in this room, unsurprisingly, given its vineyards span the gamut of cool maritime Waipara to cool inland Waikari. Soils vary massively from loam to limestone, with other variations.

One conference highlight, for me, was a talk by Central Otago winemaker Sarah-Kate Dineen, who was charged with providing an overview of the North Canterbury Pinot scene. She did so with many straight forward facts (the Teviotdale Hills providing shelter from the nearby ocean, just 9 kms away) and humour that the scene was set for this region to shine. Which it did.

Like the Wairarapa, North Canterbury’s vineyard’s are beaten up regularly by wind, which can intensify savoury flavours and firm tannins. Pegasus Bay and Pyramid Valley impressed me the most. The library release of 2009 Pegasus Bay Prima Donna Pinot Noir was one of my top three wines of the entire Pinot Noir NZ 2017 event. Other top drops included: 2013 Bell Hill, 2015 Black Estate Home Block, 2015 Pyramid Valley Angel Flower and 2015 Greystone Pinot Noir.

Wellington Wine Country

Savoury, dark and intense. These words apply to Pinot Noir from this region, thanks to high quality wines from Martinborough, Gladstone and  northern Wairarapa. Favourites for me were: 2015 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, 2015 Big Sky Pinot Noir, 2015 Craggy Range Te Muna (a wine really hitting its straps after more than a decade’s production – and a significant reduction in new oak, which allows the fruit to be the star), 2015 The Escarpment Kupe, 2014 Julicher, 2015 Te Kairanga Runholder and 2014 Urlar Select Parcels – yet to be released, this is the first wine from Carol Bunn. She is the new winemaker at Urlar Estate, and making choices to ensure this is a winery to watch (earlier picking being one). And let’s hear it for Wellington Wine Country. The name makes geographic and logical sense. Wai words abound and cause confusion internationally. Wellington Wine Country offers great potential for tourism. Enough said.

Road trip 2: Nelson and Marlborough  

The two regions of Nelson and Marlborough are perennially overshadowed by their southern neighbours and Marlborough is the most underrated over performer for Pinot Noir. Highlights are too numerous to name and star players consistently raising their quality. The most outstanding, juicy, deliciously savoury Pinot Noir from Nelson is the 2015 Neudorf Moutere Pinot Noir. History showed earlier this year (in an old bottle of 2006 Neudorf Moutere Pinot Noir) that it has stellar aging potential.

Marlborough’s star performers are a long list, but the biggest wine company in the country ranks high for me right now. Brancott Estate winemakers Patrick Materman and Jamie Marfell are growing quality from $16 to new Pinot Noir peaks around $100 – yet to be released. I am a big fan of the red fruited Stoneleigh Pinot Noir, particularly the Rapaura Series, which reveals more depth of flavour and a savoury twist. Look for the company’s new Brancott labels later this year.

Other top wines for me: 2015 Astrolabe Province Marlborough Pinot Noir, 2015 Churton Pinot Noir, 2015 Corofin Settle Vineyard East Slope Marlborough Pinot Noir (exceptional), 2015 Dog Point Pinot Noir, 2015 Greywacke Pinot Noir, 2015 Jules Taylor Marlborough Pinot Noir, 2014 Nautilus Pinot Noir, 2014 Spy Valley Pinot Noir, 2013 Te Whare Ra Single Vineyard 5182 Pinot Noir, 2013 Terravin Pinot Noir, 2014 Villa Maria The Attorney Pinot Noir and 2016 Zephyr Pinot Noir (Not yet released).

Road trip 3: Waitaki Valley and Central Otago

Central Otago shines for its cohesive polish and top producers, the peaks being Folding Hill, Mount Edward, Domain Road, Domaine Thomson and Felton Road.
This region’s presentation has it in spades over all others. Perhaps it’s the relative isolation of the world’s southernmost wine region, perhaps it’s the people, perhaps it’s the strong sense of turangawaewae in Otago, but this region walks all over the others with its strong identity. My absolute top list is:

2013 Bald Hills Single Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2010 Brennan Wines Pinot Noir, 2014 Brennan Gibbston Pinot Noir $30, 2013 Domain Road Central Otago Pinot Noir $38, 2014 Domaine Thomson Surveyor Thomson Pinot Noir Rows 1-37 $45, 2015 Felton Road Calvert Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2015 Folding Hill Orchard Block Pinot Noir $65, 2015 Ballasalla Pinot Noir $27, 2015 Maude Mt Maude Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2014 Misha’s Vineyard The High Note Pinot Noir (not yet available), 2011 Mount Edward Central Otago Morrison Vineyard Pinot Noir $65, 2015 Nevis Bluff Pinot Noir and 2015 Quartz Reef Pinot Noir.

Small winery profile: Lauregan Vineyard in Central Hawke’s Bay

This story was first published in NZ Winegrower magazine, April/May 2017, by Joelle Thomson.

They say good things come in all shapes and sizes and for the New Zealand wine industry (heavily reliant on Sauvignon Blanc – 86% of the country’s exports and 74% of its white grapes), this is true because the vast majority of producers are relatively small… Meet Mike Old and Hazel Allan of Lauregan Wines…

They met on Wellington’s Lambton Quay, fell in love and moved to Rome where they fell in love again – with Italian wine. So, Italy’s well known Sangiovese grape was their first choice when the couple moved back to New Zealand and planted a small vineyard in Central Hawke’s Bay. But Mike Old and Hazel Allan learnt the hard way that this grape and that place are not a marriage made in vine heaven.

The couple own one of the smallest wineries in New Zealand, Lauregan Wines in Elsthorpe, in Central Hawke’s Bay.

The 1.4 hectare sloping vineyard experiences cooler nights and hotter days than many other areas that are closer to the coast in the Bay.

They lived in Italy for nearly a decade before returning to New Zealand in 1983 and planting their vineyard at Elsthorpe a decade later, in 1993. Since living in Italy, they had longed to replicate a little of the food and wine culture they had fallen deeply for on their travels.

Enter Sangiovese. They bought Sangiovese grapevines from Corban’s Viticulture and planted them, watching vigorous growth all through summer. The growth seemed to go well, until late in the season when rainfall can put paid to the ripening cycle of this late ripening grape, which is the key grape of Tuscany and also happens to be one of the most widely planted grapes throughout Italy. But the climate there is significantly different to Hawke’s Bay because it tends to be drier throughout summer and autumn. And, as they discovered, it is a rather different proposition in Hawke’s Bay when it comes to late ripening grapes, so they have now replaced their Sangiovese with the early ripening Pinot Noir, much to Olds’ chagrin.

“I would love to have another go at Sangiovese but it would have to be under very strict conditions and a small enough block to do a lot of handwork because, even in a very good vintage such as 2013, it struggles in this environment,” he says, adding that while Malbec also holds strong appeal for him and Allan, he would prefer to specialise in Pinot Noir – “and do a bloody good job of it.”

That job translates to a full bodied, deeply coloured Pinot Noir, which Old attributes to the hotter days and cooler nights in Central Hawke’s Bay.

Asked why he views this central area as different in climate to the rest of the Bay, he suggests a number of factors.

To begin with, the location is inland so the climate is cooler in winter and during the night, year round. Then there’s the altitude. Lauregan Vineyard is about 170 metres above sea level and surrounded by hills, such as the 520 metre high Mount Maraetotara and the 620 metre high Mount Kahuranaki. Both offer shelter from wind and protection from cooling coastal breezes so that many days reach 30 degrees Celcius in summer and have a more pronounced temperature difference between day and night.

“These extremes of morning and night mean it can be one degree or a frosty morning followed by a 30 degree day. This, in turn, can often be followed by very cool night time temperatures, which can drop down to four or five degrees. Even during a warm vintage, the nights are very cool,” says Olds.

The biggest pluses of living in Central Hawke’s Bay are the quietness, the beauty and the fact there’s no travel time to work. On the flip side, frosts are a constant worry and work is always in your face, says Old, who makes the Lauregan wine in a purpose built winery, which he describes, modestly, as a shed, on site.

Like the better known wine sub-regions of Hawke’s Bay, the Central Hawke’s Bay area has a wide range of different soil types, aspects, altitudes and weather patterns, including everything from limestone (at Lime Rock Wines) to 250 metres altitude at Tuakau, to name but a few examples.

“Valley climate conditions come into play where we are, which are exacerbated by changing altitudes, even in our small vineyard,” says Old.

“The valley combined with the altitude drives the day-night temperature variations, with the shelter of the valley leading to higher temperatures during the day and the collection of cold air at night leading to regular spring frosts and cool temperatures overnight.”

By planting on the hills, he has discovered it is possible to gain a more even distribution of sunshine on the vines and to gain absorption of heat into the soil.

“Although our average temperatures here are less than in the rest of Hawke’s Bay, our ripening isn’t as delayed as would be expected because of the hillside aspect,” Old says.

He and Allan do not participate in New Zealand Winegrowers’ sustainability programme but they are, he says, mindful of minimising inputs on the vineyard and aim to be as organic as possible on the relatively heavy clay soils they work with.

“Our clay soil means we generally have a slower start to the season while the ground heats up but we don’t have to irrigate because there is enough water in the soil to keep the plants happy.”

They planted their first grapes in 1995, putting Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese in the ground because they were inspired by Super Tuscans, which can be made with a range of traditional and non traditional Tuscan grapes, usually underpinned by Sangiovese in the blend.

“We were peasants in Italy and a special bottle of wine for us was a good Chianti Ruffina, so we thought it would be good to earn a little bit of money from the land we bought here,” says Old.

Little bit is the best description. The couple purchased just 1.4 hectares of land and it has now all been replaced in Pinot Noir, comprising a range of different clones, including the Abel clone along with 5, 114, 115, 667 and 777, all of which went into the ground in 2008. They planned to make their first vintage of Pinot Noir from the 2012 vintage, but Olds describes that year as “the worst summer of my life”.

The first vintage of Lauregan Pinot Noir was in 2013, a year he describes as sublime.

The Pinot Noir is full bodied, which Olds attributes to the cool climate’s high diurnal range and the low cropping levels rather than to oak maturation.

“Our philosophy is one bunch per shoot and that, plus the open canopy contributes to the ripe fruit character and solid structure of the wine. Hot days and cool nights must also contribute to this.”

The oak regime has been consistent for all four Pinot Noirs to date. It includes one third new oak, one third in one-year old barrels and on third in 2 year old barrels.

“It was like chalk and cheese experiencing the difference between the 2012 and the 2013 vintages. From here we need to keep getting better. The only way for us to make any money is to produce really good wine. We don’t want to be millionaires, we just want to make really good wine and have a little money in our retirement.”

Bargain wines… let’s hear it for Kiwi Chenin Blanc

Did you know there is more Pinot Blanc in New Zealand (29 hectares) than Chenin Blanc (22 hectares – a drop from over 50 hectares in 2007)?

I didn’t, til last night, but after tasting a trio of very good Chenin Blancs from Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough at Regional Wines in Wellington, I am asking – again – why isn’t there more Chenin Blanc in New Zealand?

It’s affordable (no oak used so it’s not OTT in price to produce), it’s dry, it’s medium bodied and it’s interesting in flavour – so much more interesting than many of the safe wines on lists everywhere… don’t get me started.

Last night we tasted the tip of the experimental iceberg of New Zealand’s fast growing wine industry. It sounds like an interesting area but it’s a tiny one.

Big picture: New Zealand’s entire vineyard area is almost identical in size to the Champagne region in France – we have about 36,000 hectares of grapes compared to the Champagne region’s 34,000 hectares (latest available statistics online at NZ Winegrowers and the CIVC.

Given that over 24,000 of New Zealand’s 36,000 hectares are devoted to Sauvignon Blanc, it’s a tall order for winemakers to find a spot to plant anything else but a little Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris to supplement all the savvy… but, with over 1368 grapes in official commercial production worldwide, it is staggering to see such heavy reliance on one thing.

This is what inspired a couple of us to host the tasting last night at Regional Wines (which employs me as an independent wine consultant). So we tasted local Albarino (Alvarinho), Chenin Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Syrah and Verdelho. The wines ranged from $15.95 for the 2015 Aronui Albarino from Nelson (a hit, by the way – it was some people’s favourite) right up to $89.95 for the 2013 Elephant Hill Airavata Syrah from Hawke’s Bay (a wine to cellar rather than drink now because it’s such a monster red).

The three Chenin Blancs we tasted were:

2014 Astrolabe Chenin Blanc, Wrekin Vineyard, Marlborough

Marlborough winemaker Simon Waghorn may be saturated in a sea of outstanding quality Sauvignon Blanc, but he is a Chenin Blanc fan too and this is one of the country’s emerging styles to watch – now in its fifth (?) vintage… correct me, if I’m wrong. It’s fresh, lemony and dry as a bone. Delicious.

2013 Esk Valley Winemaker’s Reserve Chenin Blanc, Hawke’s Bay

Hawke’s Bay winemaker Gordon Russell does an outstanding job with this top tier Chenin – he also makes one for $20, which is lovely, but this is super concentrated, hence our pick of the trio.

2016 Maxim Chenin Blanc, Hawke’s Bay

Hawke’s Bay winemakers Darragh and Charlotte Hughes source a portion of their Chenin grapes for this wine from the Moteo Vineyard (the same location that Esk Valley Chenin comes from). This is stylistically very different, with ripe yellow fruit characters and firm acidity providing freshness. This wine was one of the most popular of the evening – and a great newcomer to the Kiwi wine scene.

The Chenin Blancs…

They all rocked in their freshness, their flavour and their diversity – overall consensus was that the star was the Esk Valley Chenin Blanc, which stood out for its incredible concentration of flavour. What types of flavours? Well, think green apples, clover honey, a hint of lemon here, a touch of oatmeal there and all held together by tight refreshing acidity that puts so many neutral white wines out there to shame.

I’m in love with Chenin Blanc. Have been ever since I had one of those mind blowing moments with one at a friend’s 40th a few moons ago. It’s one of those grapes that seems to take to New Zealand’s maritime climate like a duck to you know what…

Why isn’t there more?


PS: Top tips from our tasting…

Cellar buster…

Stash the 2013 Elephant Hill Airavata Syrah in your wine cellar

Weekend treat…

The 2013 Redbarrel Syrah from Hawke’s Bay is a sensational red for $29 from specialist stores. Love its depth of purple colour and wild deep fruit flavours and savouriness.

Find out more about our 2017 wine tasting programme here: regional wines.

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