John Buck celebrated his 70th birthday in the first week of September, a few months after the actual date which was in the middle of vintage at Te Mata Estate. As could be expected, a whole series of Te Mata wines, including some historical wines from the Chambers’ period, were shown to attendees, but the highlight would have been a tasting of Madeira wines culminating in an 1827 example.
I did not attend, but my journalist friend Karl du Fresne was a guest, and he recorded the birthday celebration in his inimitable style. Karl felt that visitors to Raymond Chan Wine Reviews would be interested in the proceedings, and I concurred, so I have been given permission to post and publish his article on my website. The article is reproduced below.
Actually, his birthday fell in April. But because that was right in the middle of the grape harvest, the busiest time of the year at the Te Mata Estate winery he co-founded in 1974, he postponed the celebrations for several months.
Then he put on a two-day event that revolved, naturally, around wine. The piece de resistance was a tasting of vintage madeiras, some of the rarest treasures of the wine world. The oldest wine opened was from 1827 –13 years before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
It was a classic Buck gesture, combining an element of showmanship with a serious message about the remarkable longevity of fine wine.
As well as being an influential figure in the wine industry, Buck is one of its characters: ebullient, tough, genial, smart, blunt and single-minded. He’s also a visionary who saw, years before most others in the industry, that New Zealand could produce wines of world class.
Nearly 40 years have passed since Buck and a like-minded Wellington accountant, Michael Morris, acquired a rundown Havelock North winery then known as TMV (for Te Mata Vineyards).
It was a formidable partnership, combining Buck’s drive with the financial acumen of the older Morris. Both wine aficionados, they had met at a dinner organised by the Wellington Wine and Food Society, to which Morris had been introduced by his client Graham Kerr, New Zealand’s first celebrity chef (and later to become internationally famous as the Galloping Gourmet).
The Te Mata vineyards had originally been planted in the late 19th century by wealthy landowner Bernard Chambers, one of several gentleman New Zealand farmers who aspired to produce fine wine. Chambers planted classical French grape varieties and built a winery, but his ambitions were thwarted by the rise of the prohibition movement.
The vineyards were sold in 1917 and passed through several owners before Buck and Morris arrived on the scene decades later. By then, the vines mostly consisted of inferior hybrid grape varieties and palomino, a grape favoured by producers of the cheap sherry that the wine industry then specialised in. The vines were all uprooted.
Te Mata’s story since then has been one of resolute commitment to the goal of producing wines made in the classic French style – refined, subtle, complex wines, built to last. Te Mata Coleraine, the winery’s flagship red wine, was one of the first New Zealand wines to attract international attention and has become a benchmark for quality and consistency.
Initially the focus was on Bordeaux-style red wines made from cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc grapes, but as time has passed the Te Mata range has expanded to include chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, syrah and the lighter red, gamay. Across all these styles, from Elston chardonnay to Bullnose syrah, its wines are ranked among the best New Zealand produces.
The company has also expanded geographically, from its original vineyards at the foot of Te Mata Peak, on the outskirts of Havelock North, to the district known as the Bridge Pa Triangle, west of Hastings, and to its Woodthorpe property further west still, on the southern banks of the Tutaekuri River.
As Buck points out, Te Mata Estate remains family owned, regionally specific and “ruggedly independent”. Buck and Morris, business partners and close friends still, have remained remarkably true to their original vision. Their wives and families are intimately involved in the winery too. Buck’s second son, Nicholas, has gradually assumed many of his father’s responsibilities and older son Jonathan runs the estate at Woodthorpe.
The close-knit family ethos also encompasses key personnel. Former winemaker Peter Cowley, now technical director, has been with Te Mata since 1984. Winemaker Phil Brodie joined in 1992 and viticulturist Larry Morgan arrived in 1994. In an industry where people tend to move around, that’s a rare degree of long-term stability.
The theme of Buck’s birthday celebration was longevity, though he disavowed any suggestion that improvement with age was something that could be applied to him. Rather, it was about longevity in wine – an internationally acknowledged hallmark of fine wine.
The Te Mata wines that were opened for tasting dated back to a 1982 Awatea cabernet sauvignon (Coleraine’s slightly less illustrious sibling). Guests also sampled two ancient wines left over from the Bernard Chambers era. They had been given to Buck and his wife Wendy by Chambers’ elderly daughter in 1986 but their age couldn’t be pinpointed. Buck knew only that they were made before 1906.
Some of the wines were a revelation, among them a 1996 Te Mata Cape Crest sauvignon blanc. Sauvignon blanc is a wine generally considered best drunk young, but at 16 years old the Cape Crest was a marvel of subtlety and complexity – a testament to the benefits of fermentation in oak barrels rather than stainless steel tanks. An Elston chardonnay from the same year was full and rich but still bright and fresh.
Among the reds, a 1991 Coleraine stood out – a finely structured, impeccably balanced wine that Te Mata regards as its best vintage yet. A 1998 Coleraine – still a youngster – was almost as impressive.
The pre-1906 wines were historical curiosities which demonstrated that not all wine improves with age and even the best eventually deteriorates. They had no labels and Buck could only guess at their contents, though one was clearly fortified. Both were badly faded but still drinkable. Not surprisingly, the fortified wine had lasted better and still had a raisiny-tasting core.
But it was the bottles of vintage madeira – a fortified wine from the Atlantic island of the same name – that aroused the greatest curiosity.
Madeira was once celebrated throughout the wine-drinking world (America’s founding fathers used it to toast the Declaration of Independence in 1776), but these days it’s made in tiny quantities and the best examples are hard to procure. Buck tracked down 14 bottles of rare vintage madeira only by calling on his extensive connections in the international wine trade. They included wines from 1974 (the year Te Mata Estate was founded), 1940 (the closest Buck could get to 1942, the year of his birth), 1920, 1870 and 1827.
They are extraordinary wines whose heady aroma, overwhelming intensity of flavour and dense texture is unmatched even by the finest vintage ports.
Descriptors, those often fanciful terms wine geeks use in an attempt to convey the maddeningly elusive character of great wine, flew around the Te Mata tasting room like shrapnel. Michael Morris’s son Alastair, who manages Wellington’s Regional Wines, joked that he’d run out of superlatives with several wines still to go.
Some of the wines were said to have a salty tang, others a fruit-and-nut character. Malt, figs, walnuts, molasses, treacle, spice, toffee, maple syrup, citrus, butterscotch, prunes, orange peel … all these descriptors were deployed, and all were applicable. Yet ultimately, words were inadequate to describe the way all these nuances of flavour melded as one.
Some of the wines were almost unbearably sweet at first taste, until the underlying acidity – one of the factors that makes madeira last so well – kicked in.
By the time we got around to the 1827 Quinta de Serrado, a wine that was still remarkably fresh and bright, I’d given up. I simply wrote in my notebook: “Wooaah!” Not the most technical summation, but you get the idea.
Our host’s advice was sound. “Just enjoy them,” Buck said, “because you’ll probably never try them again.”