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Lion’s Wine Portfolio Roadshow

By November 14, 2011No Comments

There has always been the contentious issue of how committed a brewery can be in running a wine distribution company and indeed owning a wine making operation. Time has usually shown that the beer sales and marketing role is not compatible with that of wine, though both are nominally ‘alcoholic beverages’. And to that matter, spirits is another category requiring specialist handling. It seems inevitably, such ventures fall apart, and continue to do so. The exception to the rule is Lion, who has a considerable portfolio of wine interests here in New Zealand and overseas, and seems to have weathered difficult times to come out strong and growing. Passionate staff is one element of the success, as is a tight, balanced and complimentary range of wines. Lion’s portfolio is a very strong one with individual members who have their own niche and style. It was a pleasure to taste through the wines offered under the Lion umbrella, ironically in Lion’s offices, housed in the Mac’s Brew Bar Building on the waterfront in Wellington. Here are my thoughts on the wines tasted:

Martinborough Vineyard have continued their solid way as one of the true stalwarts of the region, with winemaker Paul Mason assisted by Phil McArthur in the winery. I have been impressed with the Burnt Spur range over the past few years, and feel it is unfairly neglected by the consumer. The clay soils give a softness and breadth that make them very accessible. The Burnt Spur Sauvignon Blanc 2011 has those delicious pungent passionfruit flavours and the Burnt Spur Pinot Noir 2010 has a sweetness and fleshiness that appeals. A brace of Martinborough Vineyard Rieslings were exciting, the ‘Jackson Block’ 2011 zingy, sherbetty and with bright aromatic lift. The ANZWA trophy-winning ‘Manu’ 2011 tight but seductive with its subtlety, though with 25 g/L rs. I’m a sucker for the big, bold, slightly forward Chardonnay 2009, simply mouthfilling stuff. And comparing the two Martinborough Vineyard Pinot Noirs was a treat, the 2009 ripe and beautifully textured, showing the proper use of 15% whole bunch. The 2010 a tighter, more elegant and what will be a more aromatic and floral number. Heading the same way is the super-premium ‘Marie Zelie’ Pinot Noir 2008. Still concentrated and dense with built-in layers of interest, but pulled back in overt oaking and size. This is another step forward for Paul and his team, but he’d attribute it to the benign vintage, as he does the Syrah/Viognier 2009, the ripeness of that year ideal for the Syrah variety. I reckon it’s the best release of that label to date.

Wither Hills in Marlborough is another wine label that has also prospered without any deviation. Young and enthusiastic winemaker Sally Williams took us through a selection. Wither Hills are extremely pleased with the fruit from their cooler coastal ‘Rarangi’ vineyard, and one can see why with their ‘Rarangi’ Sauvignon Blanc 2010, showing great drive and depth, along with some secondary interest. ‘Rarangi’ fruit goes into the Chardonnay 2010 as a significant blender, this wine being well-constructed in a classical Marlborough style that ticks all the boxes. The same philosophy works with the ‘regular’ Pinot Noir 2010, dark fruited and sensually spiced, with a long finish. This is quite the complete wine for me. The single-vineyard expressions from Wither Hills will become more widely seen over time, and I liked the ‘Taylor River’ Pinot Noir 2007 for its firm concentration and packed black berry fruit flavours and developing interest.

Always offering value, Obsidian dispenses with the myth that wines from Waiheke Island are exorbitant in price. Lindsay Spilman and Graham Stenberg were playing tag-team in showing their compact selection. The wines are certainly big in structure and serious for it, but they retain fruit sweetness. Powerful to the point of massive are the Weeping Sands Cabernet/Merlot 2008, a complex, gamey cassis infused number and the Montepulciano 2009, again a densely moulded wine. A contrast is the particularly juicy, slippery and peppery Syrah 2010, also under the Obsidian second tier. This has come together even more so since I last tasted it in September. Tasting the Obsidian 2008 red from Bordeaux varieties showed how we as a Pinot Noir focussed nation may miss out on classical wines made with the more popular red varieties enjoyed by the world. This is superb cellaring stuff for another decade.

The earlier releases of The Ned wines from Brent Marris had all the foundation, but not the polish, and arrival of Liam McElhinney as his right-hand man has brought the wines closer to their potential. Liam points out there’s more to come, as their Marlborough vineyards are still young. Already cropping rates have shown a distinct difference in the style of The Ned and the more serious Marisco wines. It is the open friendliness and archetypical style of The Ned wines that makes them worthy of note. The Sauvignon Blanc 2011 has pungency and passionfruit, more so than in previous releases, and the Pinot Noir 2010 is invitingly supple and juicy. The Marisco ‘King’s Series’ are more concentrated due to their lower cropping levels. I’m enjoying the best of the 2010 Sauvignon Blancs, and the ‘King’s Favour’ 2010 has tightness and tension, and just a touch of extra interest from bottle development, and the ‘King’s Wrath’ Pinot Noir 2010 similarly packed with interest and ripe, dark fruits seasoned with good oak. It was a great exercise looking at two sweet wines, The Ned Noble Sauvignon Blanc 2008 decadently botrytised and the more Sauternes-styled Marisco ‘Sticky End’ Noble Sauvignon 2009, both of high quality, but so different!

John Hancock is no longer the ‘enfant terrible’ of the New Zealand wine scene, but I always suspected it was a bit of a show and put-on. His relaxed demeanour reflects how his Trinity Hill brand has matured, and the wine quality sits at the top level. Who wouldn’t be happy with that? John is still out there, shaking hands and pouring wine into people’s glasses, as he knows this is how you make a lasting, loyal friendship. As always, John Hancock and Warren Gibson are refining what they do, and continuing to carefully push the limits. His black-label ‘Gimblett Gravels’ Chardonnay is a ‘Hawke’s Bay’ Chardonnay 2010, as it includes Central Hawke’s Bay fruit, and it’s superb. Exemplary citrussy fruit with wonderful rich complexities and racy acids will ensure a good life of 5-6 years. The simple Bordeaux-varietal Hawke’s Bay ‘The Trinity’ 2009 is just a sumptuous fruit-fuelled treat with sweet and dark plums filling the palate. The big brother ‘Gimblett Gravels’ ‘The Gimblett’ 2009 is far more sophisticated and easy to gloss over if you are in a hurry. Its intricate layers need time to unfold. Two Syrahs were the stars. The ‘Gimblett Gravels’ Syrah 2010 has such exotic aromatic fruit and silky tannins, and energy from the acidity that it’s hard to resist. But the newly-released ‘Homage’ Syrah 2009 is a wine that reminds me of the majesty of Hermitage. This is magnificent.

One of the key ways Lion has maintained its success with their wine portfolio is by the inclusion of true boutique labels, and Margrain from Martinborough fits the bill perfectly. The delightful and diminutive Kate Throp put us through the paces with the range made by Strat Canning. It was very satisfying to see some wines with a little bottle-age complexity available, especially in a world awash with new, just-bottled releases. The Pinot Gris 2008 is dry, toasty and honied, but bone dry, looking like a serious Alsace number. Carrying 11 g/L rs, the Riesling 2008 has refined textures and lovely toastiness also. A showcase of elegance and finesse here. Similar is the ‘Home Block’ Pinot Noir 2008, with its velvety textures and building spice complexities. I enjoyed this especially. Possibly the star is the Sauvignon Blanc Botrytis Selection 2009, well-ripened past any varietal herbaceousness, into the tropical spectrum, and wonderfully luscious and racy.

Another boutique label is Brian Bicknell’s Mahi label of Marlborough. New arrival Gemma Lyons who came for vintage and decided to stay was totally familiar with Brian’s philosophy of building textural qualities into his wines rather than relying on up-front fruit. Interestingly the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011 was exuberant in passionfruit flavours, but had a fine drying thread through the palate. A total contrast is the ‘Boundary Farm’ Sauvignon Blanc 2009, much more ‘worked’ with wild yeast and oak input, yet sensitively so and soft in presentation. The ‘Twin Valleys’ Chardonnay 2010 is another wine ramped up in layers of complexity and tied in with texture. The exceptional nature of the 2010 vintage will mean this should cellar well too. Don’t be deceived by the pale colour of the Marlborough Pinot Noir 2009. It’s packed with lovely savoury-spicy red fruits and enticing oak nuances. It delivers much more than expected if looking at the colour alone.

One of the legacies of purchasing the Lindauer and Corbans brands from Pernod-Ricard, Lion has inherited the invaluable resource of experience, in the form of specialist winemaker Jane de Witt, with 16 years behind her. She represented the Huntaway, Corbans and Cottage Block wines. The Huntaway range exudes soft drinkability. They seem the ideal consumer-friendly wines. The Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011 is full of pungent passionfruit flavours that coat the palate. Fulsome and expressive, the Gisborne Viognier 2010 is a generous and bold wine that impresses with its richness. And the Gisborne Chardonnay 2010 flows through the palate with slippery acidity and lush, stylish, rounded fruit. The Corbans ‘Private Bin’ wines are not as adventurous in winemaking as the Cottage Block wines, and this has benefitted the Corbans Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay 2008 which featured its sweetly ripe fruit and sensitive oaking. This is a Chardoonay that will have strong appeal for most drinkers. The Cottage Block Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay 2009 is much more complex, with sulphide sophistication and greater oaking and intensity. This is the stuff favoured at wine shows at present. The Cottage Block range is so consistent and a credit to winemaker Tony Robb and the viticultural team; the Hawke’s Bay Cabernet/Merlot 2007 showing ripe liquorice and earth and excellent structure for aging, the spicy, white and black pepper laced Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2008 showing the benefits of a cooler growing season for the variety, and a hedonistic Hawke’s Bay ‘Cut Cane’ Pinot Gris 2009, a ripe yellow stonefruited dessert wine with density and concentration of honied notes.

Mount Difficulty is one of the legends of Central Otago now, and tasting through Matt Dicey’s wines, one is not surprised. I feel that Matt is gradually building in greater mouthfeel into all of his releases and the steady progression he is doing it with is bringing his followers with him. I’d say he has European food-friendly textures and weight on his mind. The Roaring Meg Pinot Gris 2011 has been a runaway success for him, the off-dry and fruit forward style having immense attraction. The tighter, finer and drier Mt Difficulty Bannockburn Pinot Gris 2011 is a classier drop and its penetration and cut are startling. Showing remarkable subtleties and gentle richness and purity, the ‘Target Gully’ Riesling 2010 is sheer beauty. And surprisingly fine, yet clear-cut in varietal expression is the passionfruity Bannockburn Sauvignon Blanc 2011, a sleek number indeed. The Central Otago Chardonnay 2008 looks to be a little more forward than the 2007, but it’s got all the fruit, oak and complex layers showing already. The finishing gem was the ‘Long Gully’ Pinot Noir 2009 that has put on more depth, weight and mouthfeel. Its cellaring ability seems a decade plus now. Matt says there will be the three single-vineyard Pinot Noir releases again with the 2010s.

To say that I left the best to last would be grossly unfair to the other wineries exhibiting, but Te Whare Ra is quickly becoming a super-star in my books. Jason and Anna Flowerday are incredibly precise in their viticulture, winemaking and style direction. Although Anna seemed slightly nonchalant, I could sense the great pride in what she had to offer. The two 2011 Rieslings showed sensational finesse and aromatics, the ‘D’ dry version with driven lime and talc flavours, the ‘M’ medium wine tight and hinting at its lush heart. Another highlight was the Pinot Gris 2011, demonstrating true purity and clarity with real depth and line. The ‘Toru’ 2010 aromatic blend was shy initially, but blossomed on the palate to fill the mouth with an array of minerals, florals and spices. For those who think Gewurztraminer must be over the top to be good, check out TWR Gewurztraminer 2010. The oldest Gewurz vines in Marlborough have given incomparable density. But this is extremely refined with it. Same with the Chardonnay 2010, pervasive citrussy fruit wrapped up with layers of oak toast, nuts, cream and with elegance. The style remains the same with the Pinot Noir 2010, all precision, detail and balance. The wine is tight, but the intensity the highlight. TWR is a label to keep in the forefront of your mind.

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