Report from a tasting last night at Regional Wines…

Verdelho, Hawke’s Bay reds and Gordon Russell…

I first met Gordon Russell 23 years ago in the upstairs room at Regional Wines in Wellington. He has changed a little since then. The room has not changed one iota.

The reason for the meeting back then was the same as the reason for meeting him again last night – a wine tasting of one of New Zealand’s highest priced wines; Esk Valley’s The Terraces, which now retails for approximately $145 (NZ dollars). Is it worth it?

How does anyone ever accurately place a dollar value on rarity and high quality. The diminishing law of returns kicks in with wine around this price zone, but there are wines that cost more and can be such wow-me experiences that I find it tricky to talk about value over the $100 mark. It’s a bit like beauty. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Last night, the beholders were 21 people who had paid to come and meet Gordon, taste his wines and buy themselves a piece of the specialness that he makes from the tiny terraced vines he has overseen and made wine from since 1991.

That’s no mean feat in a country the size of New Zealand where wine drinking is in its infancy, let alone winemaking, and the industry is still learning to stand on its own two feet. Companies such as the Villa Maria Group (owner of Esk Valley) are pivotal in the creation of a sustainable wine industry here in New Zealand, and make it possible for the consistent creation of top quality wines such as The Terraces.

Quirky in a good way… a very good way

We tasted a wide range of wines last night but my highlight was a white – and a quirky one at that. It’s Verdelho, which is made in minuscule amounts in this country and all by the Villa Maria Group; from both an Auckland vineyard inside a volcano in Mangere and the other is the Esk Valley Verdelho from Hawke’s Bay. I love this wine for its freshness (high acidity), its ripeness (intense mandarin and grapefruit flavours) and its quirkiness; it’s different in a good way. A very good way.

2017 Esk Valley Verdelho

Verdelho has thick skins, small berries and comes from a tropical island of Madeira (1000 kilometres south west of Portugal).

“When the opportunity came to import a grape that didn’t exist in New Zealand, Verdelho seemed like a logical choice way back many years ago, and now I don’t think we would do this but it is well suited to our rainy maritime climate in New Zealand,” says winemaker Gordon Russell, who says the first grapes were planted in 1998 in Hawke’s Bay.

It’s a very hit and miss variety in terms of vine yield and it was first made in 2001; in miniature quantities – just one keg of wine was made.

On the up side, its unusual elliptical shaped berries are small, thick skinned (helps to avoid fungal disease risk) and the concentration of flavour is high, due to the berry size. Potential alcohol can be very high, due to high sugars which are balanced by its high acidity.

This wine is from a vintage that looked promising and then suffered massively from rain at the end of the harvest season. Fermented in a combo of stainless steel and 600 litre barrels with wild yeast and then blended together. Flavours are dialled up citrus with high acidity balancing a touch of residual sugar (between 4-8 grams per litre), which is not noticeable in the slightest – this wine finishes on a bone dry note.

 We also tasted three vintages of Esk Valley The Terraces; approximately $145 per bottle…

The Terraces is a field blend red made from dry farmed, organically grown grapes, which are fermented in 80 year old concrete fermentation tanks, sunk into the ground.

The first vintage of Esk Valley The Terraces was made in 1991 and it was  initially a Cabernet Sauvignon dominant wine but the blend of grapes has changed over the years and the original Cabernet vines have been replaced by Malbec on that particular part of the vineyard. You can read more details about The Terraces here http://www.eskvalley.co.nz

All The Terraces wines are made from grapes fermented in 80 year old concrete fermentation vats without temperature control. However, because the concrete fermenters are sunk into the ground, the temperature remains constant.

Here are my notes on three vintages of The Terraces…

2015 Esk Valley The Terraces

Big and bold and ripe with its deep ruby hue, dark fruit flavours massive firm tannins; it’s still very youthful at the moment with firm, smooth but grippy tannins, which suggest it will age well for a decade – and then some.

2014 Esk Valley The Terraces

Approachable, open and ripe with hints of complexity such as mocha, dark cocoa and dark black fruit flavours. A lovely drink now but with good potential to age for up to a decade, thanks to its ripe dark fruit flavours and robust tannins.

2013 Esk Valley The Terraces

It was named the best vintage ever at the time, until the dry and warm 2014 summer came along, but this wine remains a shining example of a top vintage in New Zealand’s second biggest wine region. Ripe, dark, youthful, big smooth, slightly grippy tannins – a reminder of this wine’s relative youth and definite aging potential.