Tasting Reviews

New Zealand Riesling Challenge Wines – A Re-Look

In 2010, one dozen winemakers participated in the inaugural New Zealand Riesling Challenge, stemming from the ideas of Neil Charles-Jones wishing to investigate if the fruit of one vineyard would show the winemakers’ influence on the varietal expression and possibly the character of the site and region. To do so, four tonnes of Riesling fruit from the Mud House vineyard were given to each of the participating winemakers to make a wine in the manner they saw fit. Each of the winemakers made at least 250 cases of wine, and these were packaged into 3,000 cases of mixed wine, each with one bottle of each produced by the different winemakers.

The first official judging held on 19 December 2010 revealed the ‘winners’ to be Mat Donaldson of Pegasus Bay, followed by Matt Dicey of Mt Difficulty, then Mike Brown of Golden Hills. I participated in a tasting of the wines in Wellington in March 2011 with a group of wine professionals. Our findings yielded Matt Donaldson of Pegasus Bay first, Matt Dicey of Mt Difficulty second and John Forrest of Forrest Wines third. The group noticed that despite a range of styles from bone dry to sweet (at 55 g/L RS), a Waipara regional expression came through in all the wines, this being seen in "delicate and subtle lime flowers, mandarin and blossom” aromas and flavours (click here to see my report).

At a gathering before Toast Martinborough, we broached our case of samples. The wine were served identity known in order of ascending sweetness, as indicated on the bottles which carried the IRF scale. My impressions follow:

First was the New Zealand Riesling Challenge ‘Paul Bourgeois’ Waipara Riesling 2010 (17.5+/20), showing elegant toasty and petrolly aromas on a dry, crisp and tight, but fine-textured palate. This had a fine, long finish. Dry and 12.5% alc. Paul Bourgeois is from Spy Valley. Second was the New Zealand Riesling Challenge ‘Duncan Forsyth’ Waipara Riesling 2010 (17.0/20), with its shy, and slightly dumbed down, tightly bound toasty aromas. This was again quite reserved on palate, showing lime and toasty flavours, quit soft, and if anything a little flat. Dry and 12.5% alc. Duncan Forsyth is from Mount Edward. Third was the New Zealand Riesling Challenge ‘Simon McGeorge’ Waipara Riesling 2010 (18.5/20). This was beautifully refined with fresh citrus fruit aromas, and a rich, lusciously juicy palate, with fine textures, excellent balancing acidity to render it towards dryness, and a lingering finish. Dry/Medium Dry and 12.8% alc. Simon McGeorge was from Waipara Hills. The fourth wine was the New Zealand Riesling Challenge ‘Ant Mackenzie’ Waipara Riesling 2010 (18.0+/20), a wine with finesse and penetration on the nose, and lovely delicacy on the palate, showing beautiful lime and toasty detail, and piquant acidity. Medium Dry and 12.4% alc. Ant Mackenzie was with Te Awa.

Fifth in tasting was the New Zealand Riesling Challenge ‘John Forrest’ Waipara Riesling 2010 (18.0/20), a gentle and ethereal wine with exotic and honied notes on the nose, and also gentle on the palate with subtly lifted fruit and soft, integrated acidity. Medium Dry and 12.0% alc. John Forrest is at Forrest Wines. Sixth to be tasted was the New Zealand Riesling Challenge ‘Matt Dicey’ Waipara Riesling 2010 (18.0-/20), very fine and elegantly presented on nose with lime, honey and toast, the aromatics showing freshness. On palate, softly rich and luscious, with limes and lifted florals, toasty notes and a dry-textured finish. Medium Dry to Medium Sweet and 12.0% alc. Matt Dicey is at Mt Difficulty. Number seven in the line-up was New Zealand Riesling Challenge ‘Mike Brown’ Waipara Riesling 2010 (17.5+/20). This was elegant with a tight core of lime fruit with toastiness on bouquet, and a rich, lusciously up-front palate of lime and toast with honey elements, with bright acidity. Medium Dry to Medium Sweet and 12.0% alc. Mike Brown was at Golden Hills. Eighth was the New Zealand Riesling Challenge ‘Jules Taylor’ Waipara Riesling 2010 (18.0/20), showing tight lime and toast aromas with excellent depth and intensity, and a palate with similar depth and fine concentration, and soft acidity and textures, adding to the richness. Medium Sweet and 11.0% alc. Jules Taylor is at Jules Taylor Wines.

The ninth wine was the New Zealand Riesling Challenge ‘Patrick Materman’ Waipara Riesling 2010 (17.5+/20) showing an intense and penetrating nose with a solid and concentrated core of lime and toast aromas on a bright, tightly poised palate with crisp acidity and a dry, phenolic-textured finish. Medium Sweet+ and 10.5% alc. Patrick Materman is at Pernod-Ricard. Tenth in the line-up was the New Zealand Riesling Challenge ‘Mat Donaldson’ Waipara Riesling 2010 (18.5+/20), a complex aromatic wine with an expansive array of citrus fruits, exotic florals, honey and toast on the nose, and a rich, luscious and honied palate with toasty detail, and just a hint of dryness and phenolics on the finish. Medium Sweet+ and 10.0% alc. Mat Donaldson is at Pegasus Bay. The eleventh wine was the New Zealand Riesling Challenge ‘Simon Waghorn’ Waipara Riesling 2010 (17.5/20). The nose is very soft and integrated, the honey and toast elements on the nose harmoniously interwoven. Rich and luscious on palate, the flavours are a little restrained, and fade to a light finish. Sweet and 9.5% alc. Simon Waghorn is at Astrolabe. The twelfth and last wine was the New Zealand Riesling Challenge ‘Larry McKenna’ Waipara Riesling 2010 (18.0+/20), very elegant and fine, with taut and intense aromas of limes, honey and toast. On palate, wonderfully posed with rich and luscious flavours, balanced by bright and refreshing acidity. This is refines and sleek, but with a degree of decadence. Sweet and 9.0% alc. Larry McKenna is at The Escarpment Vineyard.

Some Conclusions
As with tasting the wines 6 years earlier, there was a similarity in the flavour profile of the wines. All had developed honied and toasty complexities, which varied in degree for each wine. Some wines displayed relatively youthful freshness, while others showed some drying. This is more an expression of varietal development, and the distinctive Waipara character as seen in the younger wines was not so evident. The question could be posed: Is the site personality or terroir exerting an influence to produce the homogeneity of flavour profile? My impression is that this may be the case.

It found it interesting to compare my scores on this occasion with that of 6 years ago. My marks this time around were considerably better for 7 of the 12 wines. The most dramatic increase occurred with the Larry McKenna wine, suggesting the oxidative character detected 6 years ago was due to a faulty bottle. 4 wines were scored on par, and one wine was scored lower, this being the Duncan Forsyth wine. This was dumbed down – was this due to a faulty seal or has become a lesser wine? This is difficult to answer.

An important difference to note is that in blind tasting, as was done in 2011, most tasters are more critical, leading to lower scores. Tasters tend to score more positively when the identity of the wines is known. This may have had an influence in the differences of the scores then and now. Of course, there is the possible and likely cause of improvement with bottle age.

Despite good intentions, the exercise was not repeated after the inaugural 2010 wines. It is a shame, as the wines certainly provide interesting results.


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