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In the Middle of Vintage 2013 at Esk Valley

By March 24, 2013No Comments
We had the fortune of staying a couple of days with Gordon and Pia Russell in the middle of the 2013 vintage in Hawke’s Bay. Gordon is a veteran winemaker with over two decades in charge at the Esk Valley winery just a few hundred metres away from his home on the Bay View beachfront, and unlike many people loves to live nearby his workplace. Over the critical vintage period, Gordon will go to work early and come home late, without a break for around 40 days continuous. In some years, such as the cold and dismal 2012 vintage it’s truly hard work, but the love of what he does sees him through. For 2013 it has been a dream run. The growing conditions have been perfect and a brilliant year has been long overdue. Gordon’s wife Pia is the perfect support, knowing so much depends on the right decisions being made. She’s aware of the action and demands at Esk Valley, and calls into the winery regularly, often with a basket of fresh baking as a treat for the staff in the morning before she heads off to work.

Just because there’s been plenty of heat and sunshine doesn’t mean that every grape variety has grown in ideal conditions. The aromatic whites can enjoy slower and cooler ripening, but having taken in most of the whites, the assessment is that the whites have retained excellent acidity and have great flavour. At that point, the reds were in such a state that even if they were pulled off the vines there and then, the quality would be extremely high. I’m writing this report a week later, and the weather has continued to be perfect since. It appears a cracker vintage is in the works.

Esk Valley – Plungers at the ready

Tasting 2013 Juice and Wine
Pia Russell took us in to visit Esk Valley and catch up with Gordon, who had left for work very early that morning. The traditional look of the Esk Valley winery is its charm and I’m happy to say that nothing seems to have changed. Today, Chenin Blanc fruit was being crushed, and the equipment for the reds being readied for the arrival of those grapes in the coming weeks. Being a Sunday, it was relatively quiet with Gordon and his assistant Dane Jarvie on hand with a handful of cellar crew, and the evergreen Sue Cranswick attending to visitors at the cellar door. It was perfect timing for a taste of what had recently come in and what was resting in barrel.

We had a taste of the free-run of the Chenin Blanc 2013 – fresh, grapey, and sweet with sugar, but also with the characteristic elevated acidity of the variety. A great pre-taster for anything to follow.

Then to some of the oldest wine still in barrel at the winery. Gordon has a ‘secret’ stash of twelve barrels of fortified wine. The barrels have lost a quantity through evaporation, but that only intensifies the flavours and richness. Two barrels were tasted, firstly a raisiny ‘Muscat’ style, then a more caramel-tea leafy ‘Tokay’ style from Verdelho material. They show aged characters, but not the intense rancio flavours required for ultimate complexity. Gordon reckons the acidity is still too high in feel, but I don’t know enough to disagree strongly!

Onto newly-fermented 2013 wine in tanks The comparison between two Hawke’s Bay Sauvignon Blancs showed differences on origin, a ‘Te Awa’ Gimblett Gravel sample being more greengage and stonefruits with a rounded mouthfeel, the ‘Keltern’ fruit fresher, with gooseberries and more acid zing. A Pinot Gris, still with its pink tinge to drop out had restrained guava-like fruit aromas and flavours.

I find it difficult to understand, let alone appreciate newly barrelled wine, but there were discernible differences between a ‘Davies’ Ohiti Road vineyard and a ‘Bayview’ vineyard Chardonnay, the former crisp, tight and soft-textured, the latter with more weight and subtle layers of flavour. The latter site regularly delivers ‘Reserve’ quality fruit, and it will do so again in 2013.

Tasting 2012 Red Wine from Barrel
Much has been said about the 2012 vintage in Hawke’s Bay, and indeed it was a difficult one with attaining full ripeness generally a challenge. However, there are always varieties in certain sites that perform well. Gordon showed some barrel samples which proved there is good wine in the wings.

There is a small parcel of ‘Omahu Gravels’ Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Sauvignon that Gordon deems sensational. It consists of 5 barrels from 20 made. Fearing he might be too close to it to be objective, he sent a sample up to his fellow Villa Maria Group winemakers in Auckland, who also pronounced it outstanding. Gordon has separated it into a ‘Part A’ and a ‘Part B’, the former being better and thus highly protected. We tasted the ‘Part B’, which was saturated black in colour, with great density and purity of rich, blackcurranty fruit. The tannin feel is ripe and fine, the acidity in balance, and no suggestion of stalk or stem. Beautiful stuff for sure.

Malbec performed well in 2012, supporting Gordon’s faith in the variety in Hawke’s Bay. A ‘Cornerstone’ Malbec, oozing big, ripe black fruits, lovely sweetness with layers of shine and fruit spice that the variety has. Quite opulent, and blacker than black.

Merlot was problematical, as it can be, and a typical example was tasted with the ‘Vidal Block’ from the ‘Terra Vitae’ plantings. Lighter in colour and fruit weight, lovely fragrance but with elevated acidity. This will be a blending component that will add length to a finished wine.

A new oak barrel of Limmer clone ‘Conerstone’ Syrah was excellent. Reasonably powerful for me, but more elegant to Gordon, this combined cooler white pepper and violet fragrances with black fruits and black pepper. The acidity soft and great length made me suggest ‘Reserve’ level, with Gordon more inclined to see it bolster the regular label. 

Gordon Russell at The Terraces Vineyard, Esk Valley

The Terraces Vineyard
The ‘Terraces’ vineyard is one of the great vineyards in New Zealand. Its track record over two decades is proof, and working with the site, the vines and the wines has instilled a sense of wonder, respect and adoration about it in Gordon Russell’s psyche. He loves talking about it and walking through it. Measuring only 1.2 ha in area, the plantings are slowly changing in proportion from what was approximately one-third each of each variety to now 50% Malbec, 35% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc. There is some Syrah planted now, the plants 4 y.o., yielding around 2 tonnes with the first crop in 2012. Things going well, there will be a ‘Terraces’ Syrah in the future. As the vineyard evolves, Gordon ponders that a Chateauneuf-du-Pape style wine may be at the end of the path for the site.

There is no denying the vineyard’s position and aspect. It is sheltered from the north-easterly sea breezes that ironically sets the climate for the rest of the Bayview area, allowing the north-westerly aspect to capture and enhance the sunlight shining on the wines. The Chardonnay vines at the foot of the slope and at the front of the winery drive experience cooler conditions. There is more moisture here than in the Gimblett Gravels, in humidity and rainfall.

We walked up and around the rows of vines, sampling berries from each of the varieties planted. The Cabernet Franc had real intensity of flavour, with prominent texture and acidity. Two different rows gave slightly different profiles. The Malbec also crunchy with a soft fleshiness to the mouthfeel and flavour. And the Merlot softer, plummy with sweet jam. Gordon was aware of the progress each variety and how much more time the vines would need before picking. The fruit from the vines on the ‘Terraces’ vineyard is very precious. Gordon pointed out that there were 35,000 bird net clips used, arguably more per hectare than any other vineyard in the country. With this care, attention and love, superb wine can be expected. And with 2013, the wine could be the best yet. www.eskvalley.co.nz

Cabernet Franc protected with some of the 35,000 clips on nets

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