Joelle Thomson

Author, journalist, writer

Month: May 2017 (page 2 of 5)

Is Syrah the Next Big Red Thing in NZ?

Hawke’s Bay winemaker Rod McDonald has broken new ground for New Zealand red wine this week, winning Best International Syrah at the world’s biggest wine competition – the International Wine Challenge in London. 

The winning wine is the modestly priced 2015 Rod McDonald Quarter Acre Syrah, which has a recommended retail price tag in the vicinity of $31.75.

The wine also won trophies at the Challenge for Best New Zealand Syrah and Best New Zealand Red as well as Best Hawke’s Bay Syrah, bringing its tally of awards at the show to four in total.

Rod says the win is big not only for him but also for New Zealand, adding that it shines a light on the Hawke’s Bay region (undoubtedly New Zealand’s most diverse, in terms of wine styles it produces).

He says that while quality is a given in his winemaking philosophy, he decided a couple of years ago to start making wines that would be more polarising in style, less polished but with more individuality and personality. This win supports his thinking.

The 2015 Rod McDonald Wines Quarter Acre Syrah also won Platinum Best of Category – Best New Zealand Red Rhone Varieties at the annual UK Decanter Wine Awards last week, cementing its string of accolades.


My tasting note… 2015 Rod McDonald Quarter Acre Syrah $31.75

Hawke’s Bay Syrah has grown from zero (almost) to hero in 20 years. In 1997 there were 30 hectares of Syrah in this country and today there are 443 hectares. This deep ruby Syrah has powerful flavours of black fruit, black pepper and black spice (cloves, vanilla, cinnamon), which woo you into this full bodied, bone dry, new wave Hawke’s Bay wine, which has a lingering finish and drinks beautifully now, thanks to its impeccable balance. It will also age well, if willpower exists.

Vintage tales of cork vs screw cap… Martinborough

Everyone has their tipping point and for Larry McKenna that came in 2014 when a disappointingly high volume of cork affected wines made him rethink his wine closure strategy.

The owner and founder of the Escarpment Vineyard in Martinborough is now sealing all his wines with screwcaps.

The move took effect from May this year on the winemaker’s new  2015 Escarpment Pinot Noirs, which he tasted with the wine trade in Wellington.

“The move to screwcaps on all the wines happened because of the 2014s, which were too frequently affected adversely by cork. That was enough to convince me to move to screwcaps – there was too much influence of cork taint in those wines,” says McKenna, who had hoped cork would have delivered more consistent quality on his wines, which have been among the top tier of New Zealand Pinot Noir since the very early days of the Martinborough wine region. McKenna made the first Palliser Estate Pinot Noir and all of the early Pinots at Martinborough Vineyards – one of the first four wineries in the small region.

It’s not easy to pick one – or even two – of his new wines as stand outs because the quality is so high across the entire range, and these are the wines I tasted in his new release tasting earlier this month:

2014 The Escarpment Vineyard Pinot Gris

Barrel fermented, dry Pinot Gris – lees contact and old barrels add textural richness and a full body, which is balanced with zesty lemon flavours and a long finish.

2014 The Escarpment Vineyard Pinot Blanc

Same winemaking for the Pinot Gris but from a variety that McKenna describes as more neutral. That said, I love the full body and hints of nutty flavour in this wine.

2014 The Escarpment Vineyard Martinborough Chardonnay

The grapes in this wine were picked earlier than McKenna says he normally would, in order to accentuate the fruit flavours; this wine was 100% barrel fermented with high solids which has always been a focus for McKenna because it accentuates savoury flavours. Only 20% of the oak here was new; the rest older barrels, which is another feather in this wine’s fresh, concentrated, flavoursome cap.

2015 The Escarpment Vineyard Kupe Chardonnay

Smaller crops, higher concentration of flavour and great aeration make this wine a rock star in New Zealand’s Chardonnay universe; this vintage was characterised by smaller crop levels than 2014 but the oak regime is the same. It’s the same oak regime as above but the wine tastes slightly more savoury with spicy nuances; no doubt the lower crop levels and greater concentration of fruit flavour mean that everything tastes dialled up. In a deliciously good way.

There are five Pinot Noir in McKenna’s Escarpment range:

2015 Escarpment Pinot Noir

2015 Escarpment Pahi Pinot Noir

2015 Escarpment Kiwa Pinot Noir

2015 Escarpment Te Rehua Pinot Noir

2015 Escarpment Kupe


To drink now?

My pick to drink now is the 2015 Escarpment Te Rehua Pinot Noir, which has darker fruit flavours than many Pinots, lending this wine a richness, spiciness and drink-me-now style.

For the long haul…

The 2015 Escarpment Kupe is the wine I recommend to cellar for the long term, due to its intense concentration of flavour, pronounced acidity and long finish, all of which bode well for a long life…

2015 Escarpment Kupe

This is the jewel in the Escarpment crown, made from grapes planted at higher density (to encourage competition for nutrient uptake among the vines); this wine has more oak, more whole bunches in the ferment (70%) and more lifted perfume aromas as a result. It’s bold, robust and spicy. A very good wine to drink now and with good ageing potential too.


Vintage tales of old Pinots from Otago…

How well does Central Otago Pinot Noir age after 15 years?

 It’s a question that many Pinot Noir drinkers been asking themselves and here’s our chance to find out – how does Central Otago Pinot Noir taste after 10 to 15 years in a wine cellar?

Tomorrow night, I will host a tasting with the Regional Wines & Spirits team in Wellington, in which we will look at 6 vintages of Central Otago Pinot Noir from one wine producer, which eliminates many of the variables we could encounter, if we were tasting wines from a number of different wineries.

The vintages we will taste

The vintages are: 2002, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2014 – the 2014 is available for purchase at the end of the tasting.


The brand 

Crawford and Catherine Brown started the Bannock Brae wine brand in 2001.

In his previous working life, Crawford was a brewer with Lion Nathan and also worked for other brewing companies around the world. He ended up as brewery manager at Speight’s in Dunedin (his home city) and when he got promoted out of his job into a desk job, which he didn’t like, the writing was on the wall – he left. He and his partner in life and in wine, Catherine, bought eight hectares of land in Central Otago, which they planted with Pinot Noir, Riesling and, later on, with Gruner Veltliner grapes. The majority was Pinot Noir.

“I happily tell people that the view from the office now is much better.”

The Browns have subsequently sold 6 of their 8.5 hectares and they now buy fruit from their surrounding neighbours, with the proviso that 100% of it comes from the Upper Clutha Basin – Cromwell and Bendigo – says Crawford.

Their Pinots are not fined or filtered and can form a deposit on the bottom of the bottles as a result. For the past couple of years there has been a coarse filtration on the Goldfields Pinot Noir. 

Label change

The label change came in 2014 in response to increasing feeling that the label was a bit too artisanal and didn’t reflect the wine quality. “We were blown away by the different concept, which is fresher and simple and straightforward.”


The winemakers have also changed over the years and are as follows:

2001 & 2002 Matt Dicey

2003 & 2004 Peter Bartle

2005 to 2009 Matt Connell

2010 to the present day Jen Parr


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