Although my guest Linden Wilkie of The Fine Wine Experience (check out his blog: lindenwilkie.blogspot.com) tastes and drinks the great classics such as Chateaux Lafite and Petrus, or DRC La Tache, with half a century of bottle-age, in vertical flights regularly, his New Zealand heritage of open-mindedness and egalitarianism means that Te Mata ‘Coleraine’ and Kumeu River ‘Mates’ Chardonnay are equally welcomed to taste. His first choice to visit in Martinborough was Dry River, and considering how this boutique winery has a wonderful world-wide reputation, it wasn’t surprising.
Winemaker Poppy Hammond takes little credit for the quality and style of the wines. As far as she is concerned, it all happens in the vineyard. As the vines have matured, so has the understanding of how they perform best. Founder Dr Neil McCallum worked it all out, and the fine tuning with Poppy’s husband Shayne taking responsibility for the vines until last year, the Dry River model has been consistently performing at the top level. It’s all about “farming phenolics” maximising ripeness, avoiding any green flavours and also avoiding high alcohols in the resultant wines. Light and heat at crucial times is the key, and the use of ‘Extenday’ ground cover to reflect UVB is just one innovation used.
Dry River is a very small boutique winery. The reputation is big, but with an annual production of only 2,500 cases of wine, ‘boutique’ could almost be replaced by ‘micro’ or ‘garagiste’. 35-40 tonnes are harvested from three sites, each around 4 ha in area. The ‘Dry River Estate’ has Pinot Noir, Mendoza clone Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Viognier, the Gewurztraminer removed. The ‘Craighall’ site, shared with Ata Rangi, has Riesling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Tempranillo. And the ‘Lovat’ vineyard is planted to Syrah, Gewurztraminer and Dijon clone Pinot Noir. All of the fruit is vinified in a tiny room which gets cramped with two people working in it. There is a small range of stainless-steel tanks from 350 to 3750 litres, and a 1 tonne press. It’s all very natural, except the fermentations are all inoculated, to remove any risks. Due to the size of the ferments, there is no need for temperature control.
Wilco Lam, Poppy’s right-hand man over the last two vintages will be taking a more responsible role for the 2012 harvest as he will step into Poppy’s shoes once this vintage is over. Wilco has been on the Martinborough scene for quite some time now, having worked at Martinborough Vineyard, Margrain and Alana as well. The vineyards are in the hands of Robert Wills, with over a dozen years’ experience in cool-climate sites in the Strathbogie Ranges in Victoria Australia. Both ‘newcomers’ are fully versed in the workings at Dry River and I can’t see any significant changes being made.
Poppy and Wilco took Linden and myself through a tasting to experience the range and styles. All of the wines are classics. The Dry River ‘Craighall’ Riesling 2011 at 12.0% alc. and 4.5 g/L rs had evocatively rich lime aromas, with a dry palate that explodes with lime flavours. Accessible now, this has drive, length, and lovely acidity and it will keep well. The Dry River Viognier 2009, at 14.1% alc. and fermented dry without any oak influence is elegant and minerally on bouquet, but unctuous, with a well-proportioned palate that has subtle power emerging in the glass. First made in 2006, it is only the 2010 and 2011 that have significant residual sugar. Next was the Dry River Pinot Gris 2010, fruit from the ‘Dry River’ and ‘Craighall’ sites, fermented to 13.5% alc. and 18 g/L rs. Ripe pears and spices with honied richness feature in a near-decadent style here. Luscious yet powerful. A great wine. Also great is the Dry River ‘Lovat’ Gewurztraminer 2011, 14.0% alc. and 20 g/L rs, made from 20 y.o. vines. Beautiful perfumes abound, but it is the poise from the acid raciness that is the highlight. The wine is simultaneously oily and richly texture to match the crispness. And the fruit intensity builds.
Three reds came next. Firstly the Dry River Pinot Noir 2010, made from clone 5, 10/5 and some Dijon clones, carrying a very elegant 12.76% alc. The nose has a tight core of dark berry fruits, and the palate balances richness of fruit with lively acidity, along with silky tannins. This looks very good for the vintage. Then from a riper vintage, the Dry River Pinot Noir 2006, showing darker berry and plum characters, fulsome and dense with Asian spices and a lush texture. Fruitcake and mushroom interest is now starting to appear. The final wine shown was the Dry River ‘Lovat’ Syrah 2009, 13.0% alc., with penetrating perfumes of violets, white pepper and bacony oak on nose. Superbly defined on palate, this is tight and carries serious extract, the tannins fine and becoming supple. It is just starting to show a little development.
Maybe that last line summarises where Dry River is – just starting to show some company development. Dry River is entering its secondary phase with some new and upcoming personnel. Everything is in its place in vineyard and winery. The changes should bring on some more interest and layers. www.dryriver.co.nz