A column for the under dog

Numbers aren’t everything but when it comes to commercial enterprises, they’re usually the most accurate measure of success, which brings me to a trio of bottles that I’ve been eyeing up on my tasting shelves all year. The trio in question is Chenin Blanc, one of the least successful grape varieties in New Zealand today, occupying about 20 hectares of the country’s grand total of 39,935 hectares of grapes growing nationwide.  There’s more than a hint of irony in that because Chenin Blanc was once one of the key workhorse grapes in the country, mostly used to blend in with other high cropping grapes (cue Muller-Thurgau) to make high volumes bag-in-box wines. Another irony is that Chenin was used in such a non descript way because it is one of the great classic grapes of the world, first written about in 1496 by Thomas Bohier in the Loire Valley, France.

Chenin enjoys growing in cool climates, such as parts of the Loire, as well as here in New Zealand, where one of its biggest proponents is Ian Quinn, grape grower from Hawke’s Bay. He sent me down three interesting wines all made from Chenin Blanc grapes grown on his Hawke’s Bay vineyard, each one a different take on the Chenin theme thanks to being made by three different winemakers.

They may be under dogs but they represent great potential for a largely forgotten great white grape in New Zealand.

18.5/20
2019 Easthope Chenin Blanc
Crisp, dry, medium bodied, youthful and tight. This is a style that highlights the fresh acidity of Chenin Blanc and has some great texture, thanks to winemakers Rod and Emma Easthope fermenting a portion of the grapes in one of their stone eggs, with the balance in barrel, all with wild yeast.

18.5/20
2019 Esk Valley Winemaker’s Reserve Chenin Blanc
Gordon Russell of Esk Valley worked with several different ferments of Chenin to balance fruity appeal with freshness and weight in a dry wine that drinks well now and will age superbly for those with willpower.

17.5/20
2019 Decibel Giunta Chenin Blanc
A portion of this wine was fermented with native yeasts with ferments in older neutral oak barrels and 500 litre puncheons. It’s highly fruity in flavour with lively acidity adding fresh texture mid palate. Drinks well now and can definitely age for nine to 10 years, potentially further.

Small volume high quality vintage

Speed was of the essence this year when harvesting grapes in New Zealand’s biggest wine region this year, says Jane Hunter, managing director of Hunter’s Wines in Marlborough.
Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are her top picks for vintage 2021. Volumes are down but quality remained relatively high, she said, when asked for her thoughts on vintage 2021.
“Vintage 2021 was similar to vintage 2020 in terms of quality but vintage 2020 yielded slightly higher volumes of grapes. The biggest challenge this year was getting everything into the winery at peak ripeness. Because of the light crops, fruit ripened quickly, so we had to be right on top of testing and then bringing the fruit in when it got to the desired ripeness.”
Hunter says that since the winery has its own processing facility and harvester, the team at Hunter’s Wines was able to harvest quickly.
“Our lesser challenge was the relatively inexperienced vintage crew. Normally we would have a number of overseas winemakers in the mix. However, they were keen and adjusted quickly to the daily routine and did a good job.”

Hunter’s Wines was one of the earliest wineries in Marlborough and one of the country’s first to produce sparkling wine made using the traditional method, the same way that champagne is produced. MiruMiru bubbles form a significant part of Hunter’s Wines production.

Jane Hunter is the recipient of recipient of the Wolf Blass AM Award 2016 and Wine Marlborough Lifetime Achievement Award 2016.

A church with a new lease of life

I tend to give organised religion a wide swerve these days after dabbling in it as a teenager, but this week I rediscovered a church worth visiting. It is the home of Clos Henri Wines in Marlborough and while not actually used as a church any more, the quaint little colonial building that houses this winery’s cellar door is the sort of place that encourages a reverential approach.

It’s home to some of this country’s rare few single vineyard Sauvignon Blancs, all made entirely from estate grown grapes (nothing bought in), all of which are grown organically and biodynamically to ensure healthy soil and better regulation of plant vigour and health. The Clos Henri vineyards are also planted at high density with 5050 plants per hectare to enhance the expression of place that most definitely comes through in the wines, most of which are white and all distinctively different in flavour. The soils at Clos Henri are also different. There are three types. Broadbridge clay,  Greywacke river stones (on lower terraces around the chapel) and Wither Clay (on the hill behind the chapel). The wines in this story were sent from Clos Henri  to write about and rate, but it seemed a shame to keep them all to myself, so I put them in a blind line up for co workers at Regional Wines & Spirits in Wellington. We all discovered the incredibly high quality that Sauvignon is capable of, if produced with the love and care that the winemaking team at Clos Henri do. These wines reflect place, philosophy and quality more than they speak of Sauvignon Blanc as a fruity white wine. The philosophy of the French Bourgeois family, which has been growing grapes in Sancerre in the Loire Valley for 10 generations, shines through clearly in these excellent whites. This family came to New Zealand in 1999 to expand their Sauvignon Blanc production but it has always been about quality rather than volume. Even the (supposedly) entry level Sauvignon Blanc punches above its weight when it comes to quality and price. This Petit Clos Sauvignon retails for about $21.99 but it’s all about flinty subtlety, texture and dry flavours. Not all lower priced Sauvignon Blanc produced in New Zealand is actually dry these days so it’s incredibly refreshing to taste an entire line up that is.

Four wines of the week

17.5/20
2018 Clos Henri Petit Clos Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc $21.99
Fermentation of this organic Sauvignon Blanc was in stainless steel to retain freshness and the wine is bone dry. Its complex creamy taste comes from three months on lees maturation on lees to add depth, which balances the fresh acidity in this zesty little wine. It was fined once and lightly filtered before bottling.  

18.5/20
2019 Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc $33.99
This organic Sauvignon Blanc was fermented in a combination of  85% stainless steel and 15% old French oak barrels, with the oak portion fermented using wild yeasts. The complex creamy taste comes from eight months aging on lees with stirring to encourage body and mouthfeel.  French white wine lovers will find more than a hint of Loire-like flavours in this dry Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs, which is more restrained and less overtly fruity in style than most. 

19/20
2016 Clos Henri Greywacke River Stones Sauvignon Blanc $65
Organically certified, hand picked grapes were fermented with wild yeasts in 600 litre Austrian oak barrels, aged on lees 20 months and bottled unfiltered. Just 701 bottles of this wine were made from the stony soils of the Clos Henri Vineyard in Marlborough. It is the ultimate expression of place, a concept that rings true in every sip of this waxy, full bodied, zesty dry white with its flavour notes of grapefruit, which I often find typical of great whites made in Marlborough.
Love this style. It is my pick of the four great Sauvignons made by Clos Henri and reminds me strongly of outstanding Sancerre. 

19/20
2016 Clos Henri Marlborough Broadbridge Clay Sauvignon Blanc $65

Organically certified, hand picked grapes were fermented with wild yeasts in 600 litre Austrian oak barrels, aged on lees 20 months and bottled unfiltered. Just 724 bottles of this wine were made from the clay soils of the Clos Henri Vineyard in Marlborough. It is the ultimate expression of place because it is made identically to the wine above, the only difference being the soil types on which the grapes in the wine were grown. This is a more herbaceous, flinty style and bears a strong resemblance to great Pouilly Fumé from the Loire Valley, France.