General Blog

Dakins Road – A Road to Roam

By January 11, 2012No Comments
As the greater Wairarapa region grows in recognition for wine, certain areas, sub-regions and microclimates are proving to be noteworthy. Dakins Road, near the settlement of Gladstone is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the best places to grow grapes and there are now a number of wineries and vineyards established which seem to be flourishing. Johner Estate has a cellar door open all year round, and it is easy to visit Blairpatrick, Cottier, and Urlar if you call ahead. Gladstone Vineyard, 3 Terraces, Schubert and Borthwick Vineyard have strong presences there or nearby too, and newcomer Lynfer Estate has actually been growing for a number of years. Dakins Road is quickly becoming a vinous destination, its familiarity enhanced by the annual Wairarapa Wines Harvest Festival, held at ‘The Cliffs’, situated half-way down the road. I’ll be attending the 2012 Wairarapa Wines Harvest Festival on Saturday 10 March (click here for details), but it was opportune to make my own visit beforehand, having a little roam on Dakins Road.
 
Gladstone Vineyard – Biological Viticulture
Gladstone Vineyard has become the foundation and focus for the Gladstone district and in fact the greater Wairarapa region, being one of the oldest established properties, and making consistently top quality wine, and positively supporting the efforts of their neighbours. Established in 1986 on Gladstone Road, Christine and David Kernohan took over the operation in 1996, and have steadily grown the business, supplementing the 3ha ‘Home Block’ by planting the 10 ha ‘Dakins Road’ block purchased in 1998, and with fruit from leased and contract vineyards, in all with around 30 ha to draw from. Christine is supported by winemaker Gerhard Smith, who has been with Gladstone Vineyard since 2005, and he in turn gives great credit to vineyard manager Kyle Mason for the ever improving fruit quality.

The Gladstone Vineyard approach to grapegrowing in French terms is ‘lutte raisonnée’ or ‘reasoned struggle’ where the minimum use and dosages of chemicals possible are used. Here, it is called ‘biological viticulture’, Kyle employing the system and range of organic liquid biological cultures created by ‘BioAg’ over the last four years. The move away from conventional growing with high chemical inputs towards sustainability and environmentally friendly system was nerve-wracking for Kyle especially, worried about pest, disease and weed control, but the improvement in vine balance quickly became clear. Soil life and biodiversity are the aims of Gladstone Vineyard, with the total growing management coming into harmony, and it now includes organic and biodynamic practices. Kyle is in a working group with Pete Wilkins (ex Martinborough Vineyard, and now at Alana Estate) and Clive Paton of Ata Rangi who are all very pleased with the advances made with the biological viticulture method to date.

As with many of the producers in the greater Wairarapa region Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are the principle varieties, these comprising 70% of the plantings. This is followed by Pinot Gris, Bordeaux varieties, Viognier and Riesling. The Gladstone Vineyard range is backed by the ‘12,000 Miles’ wines, the popularity of which are taking an increasing proportion of the 160 tonne annual crush.

A quick tasting of some barrel samples from the 2011 vintage demonstrated the continuing upward trend. Christine and Gerhard have attained a better oak balance in the ‘Sophie’s Choice’ Oak-Aged Sauvignon Blanc. Part of this is due to the increased production to 6 barrels, allowing greater choice of wood input. Only 33% of this vintage is new oak. This is one of my favourite Gladstone Vineyard wines, with a subtle concentration, arguably a result of the 25 years vine age. Then a Pinot Noir, which will be a blend of ‘Home Block’ and ‘Dakins Road’ fruit, this very fine, tight, elegant and with excellent violet florality, and supple textures. Very different was a barrel sample of the ‘Wairarapa Hospice’ Pinot Noir magnum wine which will be offered ‘en primeur’ in April. This is a blend of fruit from Gladstone Vineyard, Urlar, Borthwick and Fairmont, the elevage under Christine’s direction, and the finished wine to be sold for raising funds for the Wairarapa Hospice. (Click here for more information.) Much more concentrated, dense and structured, with complexing savoury spice notes to the fruit, this should be a wine of substance. www.gladstonevineyard.co.nz
 
Johner Estate – An Expansive Range
Some 4 km down Dakins Road is Johner Estate. The cellar door, with a yurt-styled frontage is open all year round, and with a full range of wines available for tasting, it makes the drive to the end of the road a worthwhile one. For many people, the Johner range is mind-boggling, but for the adventurous drinker, this is a treasure trove to explore varieties and styles. Established on bare grazing land in 2001, the focus of the vineyard is Pinot Noir, which comprises around 8 ha of the plantings. Next is Sauvignon Blanc with 3.5 ha. Interestingly, Syrah has become a specialty for Johner, and recent plantings make it third in priority, followed by Chardonnay. There is about one hectare of a ‘fruit salad’ of varieties, which is the spicing to the range. The Dakins Road fruited wines are labelled as ‘Gladstone’, and those with contract fruit ‘Wairarapa’.

Karl Johner and his son Patrick also have a family winery and operation in Germany, which has provided a fascinating synergy. The New Zealand wines must be an intriguing comparison with the German styles, but more importantly, the Dakins Road business is actually a complementary arm to the Johner enterprise. While Karl devotes much of his time to the Wairarapa winery and Patrick is more overseas, Steven Bates, now with the company 7 years, is left in charge of the day-to-day New Zealand side of things. Steven’s expertise is in the vineyard and management, but he also participates in the winemaking with Karl and itinerant Swiss winemaker Raphael over vintage. All of the production and bottling is done on site, with equipment imported from Germany. 60% of the 150-200 tonne annual production is exported, with Germany obviously a major destination for the wines.

I tasted much of the Johner Estate range last year, and my reviews can be seen by clicking here. During my visit, Steven showed three new 2011 vintage dessert wines, the sweet wine style being another category in which Johner Estate is beginning to specialise in. All are labelled as ‘Wairarapa’ wines, carrying around 170-180 g/L residual sugar, and all very different to the norm. The Noble Riesling 2011 at 12.5% alc. is a full, robust style with ripe yellow florals and fruits along with plenty of zingy acidity. This will be a fulsome wine over time. The Noble Syrah 2011 at 11.0% alc. has an unusual purple-brown colour with distinctive cinnamon spice aromas and flavours that combine well with the dark red berry fruit notes. Incredibly unctuous yet cutting acidity provides balance. Thoughts of donuts and brandy-snaps with lashings of custard and cream came to mind. And finally the Noble Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, at 14.0% alc. This has a provocative amalgam of honey, cedar, spicy red fruits and nuts, with a rancio-wood element. The deep flavours, body and weight of this dessert wine will handle cake and chocolate. I was asked to review the latest addition to the portfolio, a 2009 Chardonnay Methode Traditionnelle wine. Click here to see the review in ‘Feature Reviews’ this site. www.johner-estate.com
 
Borthwick Vineyard – Getting it Right
The Borthwick Vineyard is sited on Dakins Road below that of Urlar, and minimally signaged as Paddy Borthwick has yet to facilitate taking visitors at a cellar door operation. So the Borthwick label has a very low-key and near invisible presence in the region to the outsider, but it should be noted it plays a major role in the Gladstone area. The vineyard is part of the Borthwick rural operation which is better known for the Te Whanga Farm, a sheep and cattle station and iconic Angus stud. 85% of the 180 tonne wine production is exported, making it a most significant label representing the Gladstone area and Wairarapa overseas. And Paddy Borthwick’s extensive experience as a winemaker has made him a resource for newcomers for advice in establishing their own winegrowing operations. Paddy offers as much assistance as possible, as he wishes the area to succeed.

The professionalism with which Borthwick Vineyard is run can be instantly gauged upon seeing the winery. It is an impressive and nearly imposing building with a pleasing wooden presentation, a large footprint and high ceilings. Built in 2004, it clearly has the potential to handle a great deal more than it currently processes, and the air is filled with the aromas of expensive oak. The layout is such that a cellar door is ready to be implemented if necessary, indicating the thought and planning gone into the site and construction. Behind the winery is the 20 ha vineyard, established in 1996. The vines are planted on an expansive and beautiful escarpment that flows down to the Ruamahanga river. 75% of the plantings are split evenly between Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, the rest again evenly among Pinot Gris, Riesling and Chardonnay.

Braden Crosby is Paddy Borthwick’s winemaker, arriving in 2005. His role and abilities have stood Borthwick in good stead as the growing export markets are demanding more of Paddy’s time. Braden has Lisa Hodson tending the vines, and the vineyard performs extremely well, with archetype fruit being delivered for winemaking. There’s no desire to go down the more extreme and risky path of organics and biodynamics, and in the winemaking side, there’s no need to make wines that are cutting-edge or on the edge. It’s all part of getting the basics right, but the basics here are at a very high standard.

I mentioned to Paddy and Braden the ‘N.Z. Summer of Riesling’ campaign (click here for more info), and straight away, three vintages of Borthwick Riesling appeared for tasting. The 2011 Riesling at 11.5% alc, made with a portion of botrytis-affected fruit is a very user-friendly style, off-dry with limes and honey and a gentle, satisfying disposition. The 2010 Riesling, at 13.0% alc. is one of pure varietal character and right down the line, with several years ahead of it, and tasting on the dry side. A library stock 2006 Riesling showed how beautifully and interestingly the variety can develop with bottle age. Dry, and with intense toast and honey flavours, but also with stylish mineral notes that convey some classiness. They made an ideal display of Riesling’s ability to show well with versatility, but also of the fine standard of Borthwick wines. www.borthwick.co.nz
 
Urlar – Committed to the Wairarapa
Urlar is regarded as one of the serious quality labels from the Wairarapa, even though it is a relative newcomer. The first vintage was in 2007, tiny quantities being made, and from there on in, the wines have figured among the best of the region. They have quickly become sought-after, both locally and internationally, as 95% of the production is exported.

Angus Thomson, from a Scottish farming heritage, had visited New Zealand a number of times before settling with his wife Davina in the Wairarapa. With relatives in the district (Paddy Borthwick is a cousin), he had an affinity with the Gladstone district which Davina quickly shared. They fell in love with the site which now has their house overlooking their vineyard, and are totally committed to living in and working with the land, making wine that is truly representative of their location and region. They’ve brought a slice of the homeland with them, their family home full of the dark and sturdy furniture that is so typically Scottish, their hardy and resilient approach to growing, and respect for their environment. Representing their heritage, the label, Urlar, is Gaelic for ‘The Earth’.

The Urlar vineyard covers 32 ha, all a contiguous block, and is the first on Dakins Road, the address technically being East Taratahi Road. The winery is modern in design and its clean, simple lines are striking and inviting. At present, visits are by appointment, but the Thomsons plan a cellar door complex which will take in the attractive lake with panoramic views of the vines. 45% of the 32 ha are devoted to Pinot Noir, with 40% to Sauvignon Blanc, these two varieties the mainstays of the region. This is followed by approximately equal plantings of Riesling and Pinot Gris. The vineyard is managed by organic and biodynamic principles, and is certified BioGro organic.

Winemaker is the ever-smiling Guy McMaster, who along with the Thomsons, is dedicated to Gladstone and the Wairarapa, and is also passionate about having the wine reflect the terroir of the site. The style of the Urlar wines is one of richness and amplitude, a result of the slightly heavier soils away from the Ruamahanga river’s edge. This attribute has been present from the start and seems consistent, with vintage variation having only a moderate influence.

So it was with real pleasure to be asked to review the latest releases, the 2011 Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, and 2010 Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir to see the continuing work. Click here to read my reviews of these wines. www.urlar.co.nz

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