Wellington Wine Wednesdays

Wine Wednesday is a free, fun, low key tasting, which I host every week  at Regional Wines & Spirits in Elice Street, by the Basin Reserve from  4pm to 7pm.

Best of all, no bookings are needed. Just turn up, taste an interesting new wine and grab a bargain buy because every wine we taste has a discount for that night only.

Regional Wines & Spirits is Wellington’s largest and longest established independent wine, beer and spirits store, and my role is Wine Programme Director, a fancy title that means I do everything from hosting tastings to writing blogs, in store information and shelf talkers to upping the ante of the store’s tasting programme, alongside our other expert staff.

Wine Wednesdays are a great way for customers and staff alike to try new and interesting wines and the majority of them are under $20, so super affordable for mid week enjoyment. Come along and join us…

This week’s wine is a cheeky little Sicilian red made from Sicily’s most prolifically planted red grape – Nero d’Avola, which covers more than 19,000 hectares on this, the biggest island in the Mediterranean. It’s a beautiful grape with enormous potential for high quality wines as well as super affordable gluggably drinkable reds, such as our $16.99 bargain buy this week.

Vineyard tales… quirky in a good way – Esk Valley

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.

Vineyard tales of great whites in Marlborough

Big wine regions often get a bad rap but where would we be without them? Last week I visited Marlborough with a group of New Zealanders who work with wine (from the Hamilton Beer & Wine Company and Regional Wines & Spirits in Wellington). And we were all staggered by this region’s heavy reliance on Sauvignon Blanc. Even when you do expect it,  the stats can be a tad overwhelming. Here they are…

Marlborough in a snapshot

85% of Marlborough’s wine production is Sauvignon Blanc

3 subregions account for plantings of this white grape

45% of grapes grown in the Wairau Valley

25% of grapes grown in the Southern Valley

30% of grapes grown in the Awatere Valley

Pinot Noir… there’s of it in Marlborough than in Central Otago

Chardonnay… there’s plenty and it’s very good but totally eclipsed


So, there we were visiting Astrolabe, Whitehaven Wines and Nautilus Estate, marvelling at the outstanding taste and modest prices of the Chardonnays ($26, $22 and $35, respectively) only to discover that these wines account for less than 5% of the overall production at both Whitehaven and Nautilus. Percentages weren’t discussed at Astrolabe, but winemaker Simon Waghorn’s firmest focus is naturally on Sauvignon Blanc and he makes a wide range from different vineyards, sub-regions, single vineyards and blends.

There are good reasons for this a focus. New Zealand wine is now the fifth biggest export earner for the country, and Sauvignon Blanc makes up about 85% of this.

But still, it’s surprising how good New Zealand Chardonnay is today and how small its profile is.  So, why is Chardonnay overlooked?

Is it because of the big buttery numbers that ruled in roost back in the 1980s and ’90s? Or the heavily oaked versions that followed? Or the easier, non oaky charms of Pinot Gris, which is nibbling at Chardonnay’s heels in New Zealand’s national vineyard today?

Ten years ago, I remember a blind date telling me unequivocally that there was no way he would drink a Marlborough Chardonnay because they simply weren’t any good.  I tried to persuade a little open mindedness because back then there were some exceptional Marlborough Chardonnays, but he wasn’t having a bar of it. Needless to say, he didn’t last longer than five minutes.

Today, Marlborough is emerging as one of New Zealand’s most promising Chardonnay regions, even if it’s still only making a relative trickle of wine made from this perennially popular white grape. Large oak puncheons (500 litres) are favoured by Whitehaven winemaker Sam Smail and large 3000 litre cuves are often used for fermentation by Nautilus Estate winemaker Clive Jones, who has reduced the amount of Chardonnay he makes in order to focus on better quality. When opening old Nautilus Chardonnays a couple of years ago, Jones was as amazed as the rest of us at the youthfulness and consistency of these wines under screwcap. They might have been nudging eight years of bottle age, but they were as fresh as a daisy and looked like they had only been in bottle for about two years, due to their pale lemon colour.

It’s nearly the weekend, or perhaps yours has already started, but sitting on my desk are two Chardonnays from another great, under rated Chardonnay region – Margaret River in Western Australia. As we in print media, watch this space for notes on Vasse Felix Chardonnays, made at a winery which turns 50 years young this year. You don’t need to convince me that 1967 was a good year to be born.