General Blog

Dry River – New Drive

By August 1, 2014No Comments
I sense the Martinborough district is entering a positive phase of confidence after a challenging period exacerbated partly by the global financial crisis. Purchases and investment have seen a number of vineyards and wineries come back with considerable energy and the momentum is palpable. With a new ownership structure, Murdoch James has revitalised their operation and just purchased Alana Estate. Foley Family Vineyards have acquired Te Kairanga and Martinborough Vineyards. I recently caught up with John Kavanagh, winemaker at Te Kairanga to taste the excellent 2013 wines, and saw at first-hand the improvements (click here to see my report). The team at the venerable Martinborough Vineyard are keenly anticipating moving forward under the Foley ownership as well. And John Bell and Kaye McAulay have sold Vynfields, with Harry and Zinder Guo seamlessly taking over.

Wilco Lam and Ant Mackenzie
Dry River’s winemaker, and general manager
Dry River – A Stronger Energy
Dry River has gone through a series of changes that could be unsettling for any younger company. Neil and Dawn McCallum’s retirement was followed by the departure of viticulturist Shayne Hammond and Poppy, his wife and the winemaker. A number of factors have mitigated any significant disruption there. As one of the pioneers of the Martinborough vignoble, much stability can be attributed to the well-established vineyards and old vine resource which continues to provide superb fruit. The viticultural and winemaking systems established by the McCallums over the course of more than 25 years have ensured the maintenance of quality wine production.

Wilco Lam has stepped into the breach as winemaker. Wilco was Poppy’s quiet understudy, being at Dry River since 2010, but working in the Martinborough district since 2002, he is very much a local with a long experience and understanding of the complexities of the region, as well as being intimate with the Dry River vineyards and winery. Wilco and his family reside in the homestead on-site, so is truly living his dream. I certainly see Wilco as the ‘face’ of Dry River. Heather Gibbs continues as the administrator, regarded by the team at Dry River as the real day-to-day boss, and is arguably the strongest supporter of the values that made and makes Dry River the iconic winery it is today.

The other source of progress is general manager Ant Mackenzie, who became involved when he was in charge of Te Awa, which was also owned by Dry River’s proprietor Julian Robertson. Ant has an enviable track record as a winemaker in New Zealand, with chief winemaker roles at Framingham, Spy Valley, Mud House and Te Awa, and his overseeing role at Dry River is a natural fit. Ant has other hats, as a consultant for Villa Maria Estates, and as winemaker for a number of private clients, as well as being a winegrower in his own right with a home vineyard in Hawke’s Bay. Ant’s broad experience and knowledge of the New Zealand wine industry and its place in the modern world is invaluable for Dry River to move into the future, retaining its place as one of the most highly regarded wine producers in the country.

I recently called into Dry River to catch up on developments, spending time with Wilco, Heather and Ant, discussing the future. There is a steadfast desire to make the finest wines possible, and managing the tiny production, which is less than 3,000 dozen made every year, to balance market presence and supply is a key issue. Increasing the vineyard area or raising the yields is contrary to the principles that the Dry River style and quality are based on. So in a crowded market place, it’s a matter of keeping people informed, increasing awareness of what they do, and making stronger connections with existing and new clientele. I certainly feel a very strong energy emanating from Dry River now.

Dry River winemakers
Wilco Lam and Coralie Allexant-Maniere
A Preview of 2014 and 2013 Dry River Wines
After a quick drive around the ‘Lovat’ and ‘Craighall’ vineyards, I had the opportunity of tasting some preview samples, whites from the 2014 vintage and reds from 2013, both regarded as superior years, with Wilco, Ant and assistant winemaker Coralie Allexant-Maniere, who conveniently hails from Burgundy. They discussed their individual approach to the handling of each of the 8 varieties Dry River has planted, working towards the evolved Dry River style that has emerged from the vineyards. Interestingly, richness and ‘fat’ is desirable in the likes of Viognier, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, whereas linearity is the call in Riesling and Chardonnay.

The first wine was a tank sample of the dry expression ‘Craighall’ Riesling 2014. This is extremely elegant and fine-featured, with beautiful delicacy and purity of limes and white florals, with pin-point minerality. The stand-out characters were the very soft phenolics and soft acidity, showing the ripeness achieved and sensitive handling. This sits at 11.5% alc. and 5 g/L RS, and I suspect the pH is pretty low, too. Wilco sees this as a slightly lighter expression than the 2013, but it sure has great class.

Then onto the ‘Dry River Estate’ Viognier 2014, at 14.5% alc. and 8 g/L RS. I’ve been a little unsure of the perceptibly sweeter style of previous vintages, and prefer the drier direction that Dry River has taken it, as the management of the vines has resulted in the preferred balance. Initially a little reduction on the nose, but clearing quickly to reveal lovely exotic florals and some background ginger, rather than the broader apricotty aromas and flavours. This has undeniable power and depth, but the slippery and viscous mouthfeel are integral with the phenolics and extract.

Of the reds, there was a sample of ‘Dry River Estate’ Pinot Noir 2013, one of the components of the final blend , this being the produce of the oldest vines, clones 5 and 10/5, top-grafted in the early 1980s onto rootstock established in 1979. This was a complete experience to taste, with initially soft, light and beautifully sweet dark red and black fruits lifted with gorgeous violet florals and spices. Supple, succulent and fine-grained, but opening up in the glass to show the underlying inherent structure that is easy to overlook if glancing quickly. An incredible 50% whole cluster, superbly harmonious and totally unobtrusive. That’s how it should be!

Then an approximation of the final blend of Pinot Noir 2013, usually around 50% ‘Craighall’, and 25% each of ‘Lovat’ and ‘Dry River Estate’ fruit. You can throw out any residual notions that Dry River’s Pinot Noirs are Syrah-like, as this sample was the essence of ‘pinosity’. Ripe black and red berry and cherry fruits with suggestions of plums, with great aromatics and perfumes. This is perfectly ripe, with no excesses. It’s the structure that stands out. This has a wonderful core with concentration, balancing power, structure and style. The palate is tight, and the acid vitality provides ideal energy. This has an overall finesse that truly delights.

The last sample was the ‘Lovat’ Syrah 2013. At this early stage, it could be mistaken for a spicy Pinot Noir; afterall, it is handled as the Pinot Noir is. Fruit with excellent ripeness, with spicy black and red berry and plum fruits, hints of chocolate, spices and pepper unfolding, but violet florals and aromatics throughout. To distinguish it from Pinot, more concentration, intensity, structure and extract, to match the more exuberant fruit, no doubt. Great textures, richness and elegant length.

The Dry River style continues relentlessly. These will be wines well-worth anticipating over the coming year or so. www.dryriver.co.nz

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