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Esk Valley – Full Circle Tradition

By February 15, 2012No Comments

The Esk Valley winery at Bay View, just north, out of Napier, built by the Bird Family of Glenvale fame in 1933 seems an anachronism. Visiting Gordon Russell there, the old concrete block nature and deep underground cellaring along with the traditional warehouse-like outbuildings, including the cellar door all seem to be from a bygone era. Yet functionality then has come full circle and is very much appreciated by the modern winemaker and marketing whizzes. On initial appearances to the uninitiated, Esk Valley exudes an old-world, rustic charm that actually is more inviting than a high-tech, ultra-slick, shiny new winery and cellar door to many people. And from a winemaking perspective, Esk Valley has many features that are highly desirable nowadays. The wine flow through the winery is gravity-fed, negating harsh pumping of must and juice. The 23 concrete open fermenters are perfectly sized to ensure there is no overheating. They are made for hand plunging, the most gentle and arguably most effective way of maceration and extraction.

Esk Valley also retains a strong, own identity within the Villa Maria Estates group, which has stood the brand in good stead over the years. The boutique winery image is in fact a genuine one, with some concessions to the modern wine world. It remains a Hawke’s Bay dedicated operation, though wines from Marlborough fruit have been part of the portfolio for a number of vintages. Of its 30,000 case production, at least two-thirds is from Hawke’s Bay. Winemaker Gordon Russell draws from the same dedicated vineyard sites every year in making his wines. Most of these are in the Gimblett Gravels, and a strong liaison has existed with Bob Newton for fruit from the ‘Cornerstone’ vineyard for superior grapes. The most special site is, of course, ‘The Terraces’ hillside vineyard facing the winery. The wines from these vines are the high-profile ones for Esk Valley, but interestingly, the Marlborough wines have been just as successful for Esk Valley as the rest.  www.eskvalley.co.nz 
Barrel Sample Tasting
Gordon took me through a tasting of barrel-samples before a selection of bottled wines. The unfinished wines figured among the most significant for Esk Valley. The first was from the ‘Howard’ vineyard in Bay View, normally one of the components for the ‘Reserve’ Chardonnay. The vineyard was devastated by extraneous hormone spray, but a tiny parcel, not affected was retrieved to make 5 barrels of 2011 wine that will probably be bottled as the ‘Reserve’ This is a citrus bomb, with savoury complexities and great length. A small amount from the ‘Davies’ vineyard in Fernhill, providing lush passionfruit and distinctive oak toast may find its way into the finished wine, which will have 40% new oak influence.
Reds tasted started with a sample ‘The Terraces’ 2011, a field blend of approximately equal proportions of Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. This is very elegant, tightly bound with a harmonious amalgam of herbs and perfumes, lifted with acid liveliness. While not the biggest ‘The Terraces’, this is attractive indeed. A questioned posed was would it be beneficial to bottle this as a ‘second tier’ wine at half the price? The ‘Cornerstone’ Syrah 2011 is also elegant and very fine featured, but marked by a lovely sweet fruitiness, especially on the finish. And surprisingly rich and concentrated is the ‘Newton’ Malbec 2011, its density moderated by a curranty cut. This is one of the more serious 2011 barrel sample reds I’ve seen to date.
Finished Wines Tasting
The bottled wines began with the Verdelho 2011, showing gorgeous herb, gooseberry and stonefruit flavours that speak of lusciousness and weight, probably from the near 60% barrel-ferment. I was also delighted by the ‘Winemakers Reserve’ Chenin Blanc 2011, the first ‘Reserve’ of this varietal since 1998 and the fifth released since 1990. A combination of the exotic with steel and minerals, tight, long and clearly very ageworthy, only 600 litres (around 65 dozen) made, thus very rare. A huge voluminous nose is the feature of Pinot Gris 2010, but this must be the tightest and most stylishly refined and concentrated to date, something Gordon is striving for. The ‘Winemakers Reserve’ Chardonnay 2010 is very rich, with nutty-oak infused stonefruit flavours and dense, soft textures. The cleanliness and decadent power with interest, though practically none of the trendy ‘complex sulphides’ stands out in this wine. It offers immediacy and approachability, as well as medium term cellarability, but it’s hard to resist now.
The ‘Winemakers Reserve’ Merlot/Malbec/Cabernet 2010 is based on 75% Merlot. This is well-ripened, showing dark plum and currant fruit, finely textured and elegant, but with an underlying core that results in finesse with drive. This shows the possible beauty of a long and late growing season. The standout for me was the ‘Winemakers Reserve’ Syrah 2010, which combines a funky earth and mineral element with wonderful perfumes and spice notes. The palate is luscious and possesses great tension. Again, this is another classic example of finesse balanced with richness resulting from a cooler vintage. It is easy for elegant wines to be dismissed, especially coming after an outstandingly ripe year such as 2009 when big, ripe and fully-structured examples come through, but the Esk Valley 2010s are very smart indeed.

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