ANDREW CAILLARD MW profiles a selection of the blue chip New Zealand winemakers that are now making some of the country’s, and the world’s, most focused wines
New plantings, new varieties and new winemakers: the search for new expressions of classic wine styles by the more adventurous wine enthusiasts in New Zealand is unstoppable.
That drive is focused on the vineyard and its impact on wine quality. But as quality expectations are raised, many of these winemakers are going beyond the technical constraints of winemaking and venturing into the realms of philosophy. Sounds offbeat but it is this exactly this need to question and improve quality that leads to new technology and new ideas. Those behind Stonyridge Vineyard, Te Mata, Dry River and Pegasus Bay have a strange symmetry – a spirit of time and place. As New Zealand experiences a brain drain of unprecedented proportions, it is good to see people who believe deeply in their country.
(DRY RIVER, MARTINBOROUGH)
It is with some trepidation that I meet Dr Neil McCallum, owner of Dry River, the almost legendary Martinborough winery. His difficult reputation is eclipsed only by a few cantankerous old bastards across the Tasman. McCallum explains himself. ‘I am driven by the fire within. I have this obsessive need to do better and go further. It’s not awfully different to an artist putting paint on a canvas. All difficult people have particular vices that are virtues for creativity. They punish themselves in order to achieve their goals.’
McCallum, who has a doctorate from Oxford University, was a senior research chemist for the New Zealand government. ‘The mental attitude of winemaking is similar to organic chemistry. Almost every decision you make has ramifications down the line. What you do in April could have an impact on what happens in November the year after. You have to have complete faith in yourself.’McCallum planted his vineyard in 1979, on Martinborough’s now famous crescent of gravels, essentially a river terrace with a great cool climate, low rainfall and low moisture storage – the ideal properties for growing deep-rooted vines.
So what makes good Pinot Noir? ‘The variety should express itself to its fullest potential. Essentially I think that a non-judgemental vision, rather than an aim to make a particular style, is the best way of maximising Martinborough Pinot Noir. The emphasis should be on caretaking, although great Pinot needs concentration and structure to achieve development.’
The vineyard is McCallum’s matrix of nature and nurture. It is here, he believes, that major improvements to his wines can occur. ‘Many producers shun the convention that wine is made in the vineyard but how many are religious through their hearts? I think many are just simply brainwashed. Few are really able to connect the flavours in the vineyard to the winery.’ In exceptional years McCallum labels his Pinot Noir ‘Amaranthe’ which in Greek mythology was an everlasting flower. It is a subtle way of encouraging his clientele to
cellar these wines for a bit longer. The 1999 Dry River Amaranthe is certainly such a wine. Medium dark crimson coloured, this is a very clear-fruited wine with high pitched strawberry essence and touches of dark chocolate and rose. The palate is concentrated with plenty of mouthfeel, complex dark cherry, strawberry and meaty flavours, fine even but pronounced tannins finishing firm and tight. It needs time to evolve.
(STONYRIDGE LAROSE, WAIHEKE)
I first met Stephen White on the MV Tolaga Bay in Auckland harbour in 1982 while on my way to Australia. It is bizarre, therefore, to find ourselves together again exactly 18 years to the day at his Stonyridge Vineyard on Waiheke, an extraordinarily beautiful island with curvaceous, almost mountainous hills and a myriad of inlets and bays. Indeed White, with his swarthy good looks, pierced ears and sinewy physique has the look of a modern-style swashbuckler. After a year at Lincoln University spent studying horticulture, and ‘touched by the wand of happy madness’, White embarked on the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1978. It was sailing around the Med as a crew member on a 54-foot yacht that fired his enthusiasm. White explains: ‘Here I was in this incredibly creative and wealthy part of the world. I was deeply impressed by the Italian passion for food, wine, opera and women. And I reflected that the latitude and climate was similar to that in NZ.’I arrive at Stonyridge on a sparkling early summer afternoon, the air filled with the tremulous quiver of birdlife and insects. The vineyard lies in a cake tin-shaped valley protected by the cold winds. The land cost $40,000 (£11,350) but it was agreed that only a deposit of $4,000 (£1,135, which White borrowed from his father) would be paid until a new land title had been issued. It took more than three years for the transaction to be finalised, by which time the vineyard was in production.
The vineyard was planted in 1982, initially with Cabernet and then progressively to Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. ‘Cabernet is the blood of the land,’ says White. ‘It brings out the character of Stonyridge in a very direct way. It just rocks and rolls.’ Cabernet, which comprises 55% of the Stonyridge Larose blend, provides the muscular tone. Merlot gives aromatics and flesh. ‘And a Cabernet blend without Petit Verdot is like going to a ball without make-up.’ White feels his cultural practices are the main reason for his success. ‘We take a low chemical, post-hippy, anti poisoning-the-planet approach to our vineyard.’ At vintage, fruit is picked according to taste and ripeness. ‘We are complete psychos in the vineyard. We treat each vine like an individual.’ The 1987 vintage of Stonyridge Larose put the wine firmly on the map. Consistency of quality and a careful management of style and stature have made it one of the most sought-after New Zealand wines. Stonyridge Larose (about 1,000 cases) is sold en primeur. White keeps back some of the wine for those who make the pilgrimage to Waiheke Island. The 2000 vintage, still in
barrel, is dark plum-coloured with deep-set cedar, lead pencil aromas and touches of
blackberry and black olive. It is richly flavoured with juicy blackberry plum cedar fruit, loose-knit tannins, and plenty of length. It is still very elemental but clearly this is a good vintage. The 1999 vintage, in bottle, is incredibly perfumed with plummy, meaty cedar aromas and touches of herb garden. The palate is highly concentrated, generous and fleshy with cedar, plum, blackcurrant fruit, soft tannins building up to a grippy finish. Both wines are essentially fruit-driven styles with oak in the background.
JOHN & NICHOLAS BUCK
(TE MATA COLERAINE, HAWKES BAY)
Te Mata Estate, New Zealand’s oldest winery, was rescued from oblivion in 1972 by John Buck, a pugnacious, larger-than-life wine merchant. With the help of Michael Morris, an Auckland bean counter, they bought, revitalised and developed the vineyards and winery into one of the most beautiful wine estates in the world. The winery has an ultra-modern fermentation room, and the stables harbour one of the most sophisticated temperature-controlled barrel halls in the country. The Coleraine vineyard was planted in 1979, a narrow elongated band of north-facing vines that yawn lazily down the haunches of the Havelock Hills – classic early lambing country with warm sandstone-based alluvial soils and protected from ill winds. Planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, this vineyard immediately proved its potential with the release of the 1982 Te Mata Coleraine – a wine that attracted significant approval from wine scribes and wine collectors. I meet John Buck’s son Nicholas who grew up at Te Mata. With a background in finance, the British wine trade, and a stage at Château Margaux, he has returned to the enterprise as its marketing manager. Buck is urbane, charming and articulate with plenty of enthusiasm and energy. I ask him how the initial excitement for the Coleraine was
converted into commercial success?
‘In the early 1980s everyone put their wines in wine shows. Dad stopped doing it because he felt the style wasn’t suited to the system. It immediately created notoriety for the wine, especially as Dad was known as a wine show judge. He positioned Coleraine as the highest priced New Zealand wine, allocated it to all his contacts and by sheer will created an enthusiastic following.’ Coleraine, which is made by Te Mata’s extraordinarily talented winemaker Peter Cowley, is considered to be one of New Zealand’s greats. The 1998 vintage is a marvellously intense cellaring style wine with deep red purple colour, plum, mulberry, aniseed, iodine aromas and lead pencil cedar nuances. The palate is extremely deep-set with mulberry, plum, cedar flavours, very textured fine-grained tannins and smokey, cedary oak. The tannins are firm but will soften out over time.
(PEGASUS BAY, WAIPARA)
The Pegasus Bay winery, located an hour’s drive north of Christchurch on the gently
undulating landscape of the Waipara, is a far cry from Dr Ivan Donaldson’s first one-acre, 10-variety vineyard. Today his son Matt, who grew up with his father’s enthusiasm, and his partner/co-winemaker Lynette Hudson are largely responsible for the making of Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir. Lynette Hudson studied winemaking at Lincoln University and worked vintages in the UK, Burgundy, Oregon, Australia and Romania. She is quirkily confident with vivacious good looks and halogenic intensity. Matt Donaldson graduated from Roseworthy Agricultural College in South Australia in 1990 and has worked vintages in Australia and Europe. He looks like an acid jazz musician with his tallish but slight build, inquisitive face and a curly explosion of unkempt hair. When they talk of Pinot Noir they speak in stereo. This couple are clearly Pinot Noir junkies. ‘Pinot Noir is our passion. It’s in our veins. You have to work hard to make good Pinot Noir. But you have to love it to make exceptional Pinot Noir.’
The 15-year-old, low yielding 30-hectare vineyard is the key to Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir. It is planted on free-draining sand and gravel. Situated on the lee of the rolling Teviot Dales, the vineyard is protected from easterly winds. The area is locally known as Death Valley because it’s hotter and drier than much of the surrounding region. ‘We wish to get the best possible expression of our site. We constantly refine the way we work,’ says Hudson. The 1999 Pegasus Bay Prima Donna Pinot Noir, a cellaring style, showed plenty of dark cherry fruit and spicy oak with some ginger. The palate is textural with plump dark cherry, spicy, exotic fruit, fine gravelly tannins and good length. I think I preferred the very seductive 1999 Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir. With a brilliant medium crimson colour it has lovely intense raspberry, cherry/ginger fruit characters. The palate is silky textured with cherry, strawberry and raspberry fruit, fine, loose-knit tannins, a touch of grippiness, richness, underlying toasty malty oak and long finish. Exceptional indeed
Written by ANDREW CAILLARD