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.