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Man O War – Waiheke Giant

By May 11, 2012No Comments

The Man O’ War label and company is a little mysterious, as the wines are only now just making an impact on the New Zealand and international wine scene. The image seems appropriate as the owners are the publicity-shy Spencer family. However, all is set to change. The company is destined to be the most significant player on Waiheke Island by way of its size, and the aspirations are for the very top level in quality. Although vines were planted in 1993, the first commercial vintage was recent, in 2006, and things are gearing up with a rush.

Man O’ War is somewhat removed from the rest of the Waiheke wine scene in physical terms. It is situated at the eastern end of the island, around 30 to 45 minutes easy drive away from Ostend, depending on which route you take. We drove the longer southern road and took in the wonderful views of steep hills and coast to reach the new cellar door operation at Man O’ War Bay. There you can taste all of the company’s current release wines in a lovely setting with views out to the ocean, while enjoying the excellent platters which can be purchased there. There are a mind-boggling 90 individual hillside blocks totalling around 60 ha of vines all on the Man O’ War Farm station owned by the Spencer family, the vineyards tended by experienced viticulturist Matt Allen.

Highly respected winemaker Duncan McTavish was lured from the Waipara Valley in 2008 just in time to see the crush in 2007 double from 150 tonnes to 300 tonnes the next year. Around 300-400 tonnes of fruit, including that off Ponui Island, is processed at the winery, currently situated at Man O’ War Bay in a converted old boat shed, producing 20,000 to 25,000 cases. All of the vineyard blocks are kept separate for blending options and retaining individuality. A new winery to be located at the viticultural ‘red’ sheds amidst the vineyards is in the pipeline, and this will no doubt allow the winemaking facilities easily accommodate the small lot vinification and continued growth.

The baseline range of wines is the white labelled Man O’ War tier, and the flagship wines are the black labelled bottles. At the cellar door, we tasted the Man O’ War ‘Valhalla’ Chardonnay 2010, a rich, oaky and opulent wine, with a Man O’ War ‘Dreadnought’ Syrah 2009, packed with black fruits, spices and bacony oak flavours. Both are crowd-pleasing, hedonistic numbers that seem to represent the showy, opulent style in the flagship range that Duncan makes so well. Duncan will be introducing a super-premium gold label range with the excellent 2012 vintage just harvested. The styles will include a Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend, a Pinot Gris, Bordeaux-blended red, Syrah and a Sauternes-style. Even though 2012 has provided the best fruit he has seen to date, these gold label wines will be a ‘work in progress’. Duncan is very pleased to have friend and mentor Danny Schuster, now resident on the Island, take a healthy interest in his work at Man O’ War.
Tasting Some 2012 Vintage Wine Samples
Duncan and Matt’s team had just finished picking the last of the 2012 fruit, and he had a little time to show us some of the new wines from this harvest. Pinot Gris is a variety that he is very pleased with, and there will be three expressions. Duncan showed us wines which approximated the final releases. Firstly an ‘Estate’ Pinot Gris 2012, around 25 g/L rs, with excellent lifted pear fruit aromas and flavours, this showing good texture allied to richness. Then the ‘Exiled’ Pinot Gris 2012, with a high proportion of the St Helena clone, more definitive with ginger and spice layers over the fruitiness. A sample of what could be the ‘gold label’ Pinot Gris 2012, 100% St Helena clone, richer again and with more layers of exotic fruits, but intriguingly more ethereal and refined at the same time. Duncan is hoping this could be a bit of a cult wine in the future.

Sauvignon Blanc too is a variety that does well. The approximate ‘Estate’ Sauvignon Blanc 2012 has richness and textbook gooseberries, herbs and minerals, not the punch of Marlborough, but certainly zesty with weight. A blend that could be the ‘Gravestone’ Sauvignon/Semillon 2012 was more nuanced with grass, herbs, smoke, and again more subtle and layered than up-front.

I’ve enjoyed Man O’ War’s Chardonnays of late, and seeing 2012 components was fascinating. A Chardonnay 2012 sample from an elevated site with clay soils, quit softly textured with harmoniously present citrus and tropical fruits. A ‘Gorse Lane’ Chardonnay 2012 showed the effects of a cooler, clay-soiled site with a south facing aspect. This was tighter, with depth and concentration, well-proportioned and funky in interest. This could be an important part of a superior blend.

Duncan finally showed us some 2012 reds. A wonderfully rich and concentrated, pure blackcurranty Petit Verdot 2012. Ripe fruit with this variety shows the quality of the vintage. A Malbec 2012 exotic, broad and already accessible with an amalgam of boysenberries, florals and wild red fruits. Then an ‘Asylum’ Syrah 2012, from a near-impossible, ludicrously steep slope, made with 15% whole bunch, expressing great purity of black berries, pepper, spices and violets, combining richness with raciness.

The ‘sleeping giant’ moniker is used frequently, but ‘wakening giant’ is probably more apt for Man O’ War. www.manowarvineyards.co.nz

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