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Ash Ridge Shows Greater Definition and Quality and a Syrah Surprise

By July 11, 2017No Comments
Ash Ridge is a relatively recent wine venture in Hawke’s Bay; Chris and Sonya Wilcock have made enormous progress since they planted their first vines in 2005. Their winery and cellar door are based at the ‘Cardoness’ vineyard on S.H. 50 near the junction of Ngatarawa Road, which places Ash Ridge is the Bridge Pa Triangle district. The Wilcocks draw fruit from the ‘Wines Underground’ vineyard (formerly known as the ‘Peet’ vineyard’) nearby, and along with supplementing contract fruit aim to make high quality Hawke’s Bay wine.

The first vintages were made under contract at existing wineries, but with the arrival of the talented, young Lauren Swift to take the winemaker role from the end of 2012, there has been a growing consistency of quality apparent. I’ve noted this in my reviews over the recent years. One of the major influences on the Ash Ridge range has been the introduction of different tiers, with the 2013 vintage. There is a very clear definition between the more accessible ‘Estate’ range to the high quality ‘Premium’ label, to the ‘Reserve’ bottlings which are designed to be exceptional. There is a secondary ‘Hills & Rivers’ brand which is primarily sold overseas.

As with any winery, Chris and Sonya have experienced exciting as well as challenging times, but their belief in looking after their own destiny has grown considerably. Having employed consultants in winemaking in the transition from contact winemaking, the Wilcocks have placed their faith (and responsibility) for the winemaking solely on Lauren’s abilities, and the most recent wines justify this decision. Lauren, in November 2015 took on Lochy Bainbridge to work in the vineyard and winery, assisting her.

The growth of Ash Ridge has been very encouraging, especially when allied with the steps up in range definition, and overall consistency and quality. In 2012, the production was approx. 2,000 cases of wine. It doubled the next year to 4,000 cases in 2013. Nowadays, 8,000 to 9,000 cases are made, from around 115 tonnes of fruit processed. www.ashridgewines.co.nz

Lauren Swift, winemaker at Ash Ridge

Tasting the New ‘Reserve’ Releases
Lauren Swift was in Wellington to make some calls on media and trade. I’ve met Lauren before, at Ash Ridge’s distributor’s road show (MacVine International) a couple of years ago, but it was a pleasure to spend some more time with her to discuss the happenings and her work at Ash Ridge. She bought some wines to taste, of course!

The ‘Reserve’ 2016 Chardonnay and 2015 Syrah
Ah Ridge have tightened up the nomenclature of their ranges, to clarify their market presence. There remains the ‘Estate’ as the accessible tier. ‘Premium Estate’ has now become ‘Premium’ and the top ‘Vintner’s Reserve’ has become ‘Reserve’ – much easier! However, behind the label changes has gone much thought into the stylistic differences between the tiers. The Chardonnay and Syrah varieties are part of all three tiers, but the characteristics are very different based on the selection of parcels and barrels for the finished wine. Here are my notes on the ‘Reserve’ 2016 Chardonnay and 2015 Syrah.

Ash Ridge ‘Reserve’ Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay 2016 
Bright, pale, straw-yellow colour with golden hues, lighter on the rim. The nose is very fine and elegant with concentrated aromas of white stonefruits, white florals and restrained notes of gunflinty sulphide reductive complexities, lending a minerally overview unfolding a little smokiness. Medium-bodied, the palate is vibrantly lively with fresh and crisp acidity enhancing the clarity of the white stonefuit, nutty and flinty, mineral flavours. This is taut and thirst-quenching and the wine follows a very refined, textural line, leading the a lighter finish. The finish blossoms in flavour and richness with some time in the glass. This is a very elegant, refined, contemporary Chardonnay with stonefruit, flinty and mineral flavours on a lively palate. This will develop over the next 4+ years. Fruit from the ‘Cardoness’ vineyard, approx. two-thirds clone 15, and one-third clone 95, fully barrel-fermented to 12.5% alc., the wine aged 9 months in 45% new French oak with batonnage and approx. 50% MLF. 18.5/20 Jul 2017 RRP $40.00

Ash Ridge ‘Vintner’s Reserve’ Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2015 
Very dark, deep, black-hued purple-red colour. The nose is very fine and tightly bound with intense and penetrating aromas of black-berried fruits intermingling with black pepper and minerals. Very restrained spice notes give way to blossoming florality. Medium-bodied, the palate is still very tightly bound, and elegantly concentrated with a firm core of blackberry fruit, along with bold black pepper notes and nuances of minerals a spices, with suggestion of dark herbs. The acidity lends a mouthwatering feel and the wine possesses a very fine-grained, taut structure. The acidity also lends poise and liveliness and carries the wine to a long, sustained finish of black fruits, pepper and minerals. This will become richer over the next 5-6+ years. MS and Chave clone Syrah fruit from the ‘Cardoness’ vineyard, fermented to 13.0% alc, approx. 70% by indigenous yeasts, with 35% whole bunches and plenty of uncrushed berries, the wine aged 18 months in 30% new oak. 18.5/20 Jul 2017 RRP $50.00

The ‘Doppio’ Syrah Wines
Lauren has created ‘Doppio’ as the newest project at Ash Ridge. Its aim is to show the “raw form of the Syrah resource”. Ash Ridge uses the MS and Chave clones of Syrah as it increases the blending options for the wines. The ‘MS’, ‘Limmer’ or ‘Heritage’ clone is the more widely planted Syrah in the country, and it is generally agreed to produce the most consistent high quality results. Its background is that Dr Alan Limmer of Stonecroft saved cuttings from the then Te Kauwhata Research Station for his use. It is purported that they originate from the vines brought here by James Busby. I would say that all of the top bottlings of Syrah in this country are based on this clone. With the growing success of the Syrah variety, it was inevitable that new clones were brought in for trialling, and these included the ‘Chave’ clone, named after one of the Northern Rhone’s iconic producers of Hermitage (Syrah wine), and that the clone originated from those vines. There has been mixed success for the Chave clone from what I understand, and it does exceptionally well in some sites, whereas it is a lesser performer than MS in others.

During a blending session at Ash Ridge in November 2014, Lauren felt is a shame that the individuality of the wine from each Syrah clone would be lost once blended. So strong was her conviction that the wines of each clone be showcased that Chris Wilcock agreed to their separate bottling. The chosen name for the wines was ‘Doppio’, Italian for ‘double’. The grapes were grown in neighbouring rows, and the wines treated essentially identically except for oaking and a few minor details, and one barrel of each was bottled, to produce 300 pairs of wines. The two Syrah will be available only as a two-bottle pack, to cost $150.00, and the wines “are designed to be opened together, with friends, to provoke inspiration, thought and discussion”, says Lauren. I believe this is the first time that there has been a commercial bottling of two Syrah clones in New Zealand in this situation. So a first for Ash Ridge, bravo! Here are my impressions of the wines. They are both excellent and different wines worthy of any enthusiasts’ attention.

Doppio Hawke’s Bay ‘MS’ Syrah 2014 
Very dark, deep black-hued red colour, near impenetrable, with some purple. The nose is full and voluminous with deep, rich and ripe dark-red berry fruit aromas along with blackberries and raspberries, along with fragrant violet and dark red florals, revealing a little reduction. The has aromatic beauty, a fine, concentrated core, and great finesse. Medium-bodied on palate, the wine is elegantly proportioned with rich, ripe, juicy and succulent dark raspberry, blackberry and aromatic fruits, with dark-red and violet floral perfumes. The fruit has excellent depth and concentration, with very fine-grained flowery tannin extraction and structure, with balanced acidity lending vitality and adding to the fruit brightness. Some mineral elements emerge, not as reduction, but as integrated complexing detail. The wine carries to a very long, crisp, aromatic finish. This is all elegance, fragrance and finesse. It will develop for 8-10+ years. MS clone Syrah fruit from the ‘Cardoness’ vineyard, fermented with a portion of whole bunches and uncrushed berries to 13.0% alc., the wine aged in a new French oak barrique for 18 months. 19.0+/20 Jul 2017 RRP $150.00 as a two-bottle pack with a Chave clone bottling

Doppio Hawke’s Bay ‘Chave’ Syrah 2014 
Full, even, impenetrable black-red with youthful purple hues. The nose is firm nd densely packed with ripe aromas of blackberry fruits along with black plums and minerals. Again, some reduction is apparent, but not to be of concern, This is fulsome on nose, unfolding complexing nuances of game and funkiness in the most positive way. Medium-full bodied, this is rounded and fulsome, quite solid in presentation with a packed heart of ripe black-berried fruits, with savoury interest, showing a touch of game, minerals and funkiness. Black floral notes add to the aromatics. This has plenty of fine-grained tannin extraction, the palate with great presence, with integrated acidity. The wine has a degree of completeness and carries well to a fresh finish. This is about black fruits, subtle complexing funkiness, and a solid, fulsome mouthfeel. Yet it is accessible. It will age 10-12+ years easily. Chave clone Syrah fruit from the ‘Cardoness’ vineyard, fermented with a portion of whole bunches and uncrushed berries to 13.0% alc., the wine aged in a 1 y.o. French oak barrique for 18 months. 19.0/20 Jul 2017 RRP $150.00 as a two-bottle pack with a MS clone bottling.

A Note on the Oaking
The Chave wine was deemed not to benefit from new oak, so a 1 y.o. barrel was used, whereas the lighter MS clone wine would benefit from the maturation in new oak, bringing the wines closer together in some ways. This would also produce the better balanced pair of wines for the consumer. I had a more purist’s point of view that the two wines should have been oaked identically, thus increasing the similarity of the elevage. I suggested that both wines could have been matured in 1 y.o. oak. But then the ‘drinkability’ and balance of the pairing may not have been as good. Anyway, some food for thought…

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