Thursday, April 19, 2018

Expressing Terroir

I’m not a philosophical person at all, and consider myself really quite ordinary in thinking.  But the philosophical debate of terroir expression touches me.  Let me say from the start I believe in it.  There are all manner of detailed and thoughtful descriptions that tell us what makes terroir what it is.  Some people are very specific, from soils, geology, geography, microclimate, climate, regionality, the role of wild micro-organisms, and the hand and culture of man and society.  These may be the factors to weigh up in arguing for or against its existence.  I have a much more basic instinctual feel about it.  Wines show their provenance, and all the above factors play their part.  This is terroir, and it’s consistent.  Well in the best defined sites, the best wines, and to me, anyway.

One point is whether terroir will exist in all situations, or is it hidden, lost or obliterated by outside influences, especially the hand of man, or winemaker signature?  Many believe terroir is indeed delicate and fragile, and easily lost.  I’m not quite so sure.  I see wines from the same physical provenance shine through, regardless of vintage, different style interpretations and even a heavy winemaking hand.  Sometimes, it requires patience, but eventually terroir comes through and can be identified.  I must remind myself, that as a notable winemaker said “not all terroirs are worthy of capturing and expressing”.  How true is that, and we tend to focus on terroir, especially with the wines of Burgundy, and the best Pinot Noir growing regions, and the like of the Langhe for Nebbiolo in Barolo and Barbaresco.  Of course, claret shows terroir too...

Anyway, enough of this stuff, before I get beyond my comfort zone.  There is a set of New Zealand Pinot Noirs that demonstrate terroir to me.  From Martinborough, from well-established and well-defined and delineated sites, all made by the same hand.  They are of course, Larry McKenna’s Escarpment Vineyard ‘Insight’ Pinot Noirs.  Year-in and year-out from 1996, the wines behave remarkably consistently.  The latest releases, the 2016s are more approachable than other years, but each label remains the same in expression.
The 2016 Escarpment Martinborough Pinot Noir is the ‘district blend’ combining town fruit with that from Te Muna Valley.  It’s probably more winemaker signature, but the wine is always black-fruited and robust in structure.  Surely its fruit origins play a role in its taste?  From 2016, there is no ‘Pahi’ single vineyard wine.  The vineyard so sold.  It was always the lightest, the most fragrant and the prettiest.  A New Worldy sort of wine.  The contrast was the 2016 Escarpment ‘Kiwa’ Martinborough Pinot Noir.  This is consistently more Old Worldy in expression with savoury fruit flavours, some dried herbs, maybe a bit of game and cedary lift.  Funky, but in the nicest way, and no brettanomyces at all.  Then came the explosively rich, succulent and aromatic 2016 Escarpment ‘Te Rehua’ Martinborough Pinot Noir.  The boldest and the fruitiest wine with the size and structure to match.  Always a favourite and always a winner.  Any finally the flagship, the 2016 Escarpment ‘Kupe’ Martinborough Pinot Noir.  Always the blackest in colour and fruit expression.  The most layered and complex.  The one with the most considerable extraction and structure,  The greatest potential to be great and the longest-lived.  The site must be special.  Vines planted in 1999.  Close-planted Abel clone, the wine receiving a high percentage of whole bunch, but you wouldn’t know it.  It must play a part in the style, but then too, the other wines aren’t shy in it.  These wines show terroir.  I feel it, and consistently.   

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Big Daddy

It’s lovely having The Young One and Jo-Bow around.  They are easy people with a constant smile, and life around them is positive.  As the next generation, they are taking to wine, and enjoying learning about what they like.  With SWMBO and I, who are older and the former generation, The Young One and Jo-Bow tend to defer to our preferences in wine, because they think we know best.  But they are realising that it’s about taste and what you feel like yourselves, and as a group, and to try and suit the situation.

It was a cooler evening, and SWMBO had cooked a hearty meat-loaf for dinner.  We had a couple of options for accompanying wine: an elegant, but complex-flavoured Pinot Noir, or else a rather monumental Bordeaux-varietal based red.  In reality, either would have worked, but if one were being objective, the stronger wine was better for the food, and for the weather.  So that’s what they chose.  Well-done!
We opened the 2015 Babich ‘The Patriarch’ Gimblett Gravels Hawke’s Bay.  It’s a blend of 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot and 22% Malbec.  It’s named after Josip Babich, who founded Babich Wines with his first vintage of grapes in New Zealand in 1916.  Historically for the family and for the New Zealand wine industry, he is a true patriarch.  The wine was impenetrable black-red colour.  The nose and palate packed densely with masses of ripe black fruits, and hints of spice, nutty, cedary and pencilly oak.  Absolutely gorgeous structure with the extraction to carry the wine for another decade, but fine-grained enough to make it enjoyable now.  Deliciously sumptuous and opulent, but carrying itself with a sense of style.  It didn’t overwhelm the flavoursome meat-loaf, but stood strong to be counted as something special on its own.  It added to the meal in flavour, and completed the evening.  I’m not a big daddy, but the wine was.  

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Mineral Magic

The word ‘minerality’ can be divisive among wine enthusiasts.  There are the hard-liner scientifically-based buff who correctly tell us that there is no actual physical mineral up-take by vines that goes into the resultant wines.  Then there are those with easy imaginations who are happy to use the word ‘minerality’ to describe anything in a wine that resembles wet-stones and thirst-quenching sensations.  I admit I veer towards the latter, as most people who are keen on wine understand the sense of using the word to describe their impressions in tasting a wine that has this taste of the earth and its mineral constituents – whether it actually has these minerals in the wine or not!
On a visit to the Bassinet Babes, they brought out a rare bottling that truly spoke of minerality.  The wines of Hiro Kusuda in Martinborough are highly sought after and high proportion of them find their way into his fans’ cellars in Japan.  But specialists stockists get small amounts, and bottles find their way into wine lovers’ cellars, such as the Bassinet Babes.  Without any hesitation, they opened the 2014 Kusuda Martinborough Riesling.  12.0% alc. and 1.1 g/L RS, but an impressive 4,268 bottles made.  Hiro is a Riesling fanatic, having trained in Germany, so it’s not too surprising to see this much made.  I’m sure he’d be better served making more Pinot Noir and Syrah, which he has developed a cult following for, and from which he can earn more money.  But money isn’t everything.

This wine is the quintessential expression of minerality.  Very dry and very tight and taut.  Yet surprisingly rich and deep-fruited without giving any sense of opulence and lusciousness.  This is crisp, refined, firm and thirst-quenching, with the faintest lime and lemonade fruit, but with an over-arching character of minerals.  Wet-stones and chalk, but much more delicate and subtle than those descriptors suggest.  Beautifully smooth textures, great linearity, and precision and purity to burn.  This is great wine that oozes mineral magic and finesse.    

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Modern Plushness

Some wine regions were pre-ordained to be magnificent, and indeed the wines reflect that majesty.  The Ribera del Duero is one such region, northern Spain in location, and to the uninitiated, not to dissimilar to Rioja to the east.  Of course the soils and geology differ and the elevation of the Ribera del Duero gives other characteristics.  Tempranillo is now seen as the major variety in both regions, so the comparisons are interesting.  It wasn’t always that way, with the Bordeaux varieties playing a significant part earlier.  Rioja Tempranillo seems lighter, more red-fruited and fragrant, whereas Ribera del Duero Tempranillo is more black-fruited, and with greater intensity if not structure.  These are generalisations of course.

The senior Ribera del Duero is Vega Sicilia, one of the world’s greatest wines in fact.  It has the track record, breeding, quality and longevity to prove its place.  At its best, it is incredibly concentrated and complex, quite classical in construction, maybe even claret-like in the very finest sense.   After all, great Bordeaux was its model.  Then coming onto the scene, Alejandro Fernandez of Pesquera fame made Ribera del Duero accessible to the world, and then followed all manner of producers, some small with tight visions and others, larger, such as the Torres giant, determined to make this wine one for all to enjoy.
The 2014 Torres ‘Celeste’ Ribera del Duero Crianza is a great wine in that it has made Ribera del Duero very approachable in price, availability and style.  The style is the key.  Black coloured, quite dense, it is plush with ripeness of black fruits.  Sweet with a touch of savoury and complex earthiness.  Beautifully structured with extract, but balanced by the fruit sweetness.  This does have a sense of gravitas, but it is a pleasure to drink, especially when young.  Its price means you can afford to buy a case of it, where you’d think about taking out another mortgage for the likes of Vega Sicilia!  It is a true Ribera del Duero, but with concessions to the international market.  There’s nothing wrong with that if people love the wine, and make them think about increasing their mortgage….    

Wednesday, April 4, 2018


I’m a person of facts and figures, which suggests I am an objective person probably with an approach of science, especially when it comes to wine.  But there’s no doubt an element of emotion and subjectivity that plays an important part in the overall assessment of a bottling.  And this is most true at the very top level.  These are wines which come near to perfection in quality and in style, the former attribute coming about by intellect, and the latter by feeling and personal preference.
I have no qualms about rating a wine at a perfect 20 points out of 20.  Of course, only when a wine can’t be bettered for what it is.  Much of this decision will be based on technical matters, such as fruit ripeness and intensity, along with componentry balance,  Then comes the more effusive parameters of style, and of course, this can be assessed objectively to a degree, but in the final analysis, it comes down to the tasters’ personal perception of beauty and expression of provenance taking into account the winemakers’ signature, among other things.  There are some people who will never find perfection in a wine, or for that matter in anything in their lives, and I pity them, for they will never be truly happy with their lot.  A fulfilled life must have moments when nothing can be better, and I believe and feel that the occasional wine reaches that point.  It’s not a matter of lower standards, but making total pleasure accessible.
One wine that I’d call perfect is the 2014 Villa Maria ‘Ngakiriri’ ‘The Gravels’ Gimblett Gravels Hawke’s Bay Cabernet Sauvignon.  It is the second iteration of Villa Maria’s icon wine.  I actually rated the inaugural 2013 wine a perfect score to, but this 2014 is even more perfect.  The ripeness level is incredibly poised, as it shows ideal varietal character with sweetness and richness, without going over the line.  The fruit opulence is matched by super-fine extraction and structure.  There’s considerable body to this, but it’s effortless in expression.  The decadence is balanced by acidity to the ideal level, so the wine has gorgeous vitality.  The extra degree of ripeness and slightly finer acid and tannin gave it the edge over the 2013, which had a beautiful edginess, which will see it age particularly well.  It’s a matter of style in choosing which perfect wine suits me best.  The 2014 brought a bigger smile to my face, and made me happier.  The 2013 was intellectually more thought-provoking.  Both are exceptional wines.  Perfect.