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Mills Reef – A Worthy Detour

By September 2, 2011No Comments

Although Mills Reef is regarded as a Hawke’s Bay winery because its fruit source is from that region, the winery is actually situated in Bethlehem on the outskirts of Tauranga. In fact it is nestled in the growing residential suburbs, but the winery complex is well hidden by the large manicured grounds and imposing restaurant, tasting room and administration complex that has similarities to a large Florida mansion. This is all good for Tauranga and indeed Mills Reef, as the city of Tauranga is growing more quickly than most anywhere else in the country, now about the same size as Hamilton, if not bigger. Its proximity to Auckland is a bonus as well, and the restaurant and hospitality side of Mills Reef has grown enormously over the last decade. It really is worth the detour if one is heading to Hawke’s Bay from Auckland.

The distance by truck from Hawke’s Bay to Tauranga is around 4 hours, and general manager Nick Aleksich and winemaker Paul Darwick pointed out that even with machine harvested fruit, the journey has no detrimental effects to the quality. Mills Reef now transports all of its fruit from The Bay to the Bay of Plenty for processing and vinification. This affords greater control over the winemaking and handling. Nick and Paul pointed out that the quality of the fruit in the first place was the key to their quality. The vineyards have well-establish vines in proper balance, and the quality of grapes have never been better. Many organic practices have been increasingly adopted over time.

The winery has a very consumer-aware approach to the winemaking styles, and founder Paddy Preston has a strong voice in ensuring the wines are user-friendly. The team are very aware of the latest trends and adopt them if they fit in with the fruit and the direction they pursue. A great deal of thought goes into the sensitive use of oak, and I feel that their expression of wood is an important feature of the top wines. Most of the barrels are 300 Litre hogsheads, and the innovative ‘Integrale’ 400 Litre barrels play an important role in the Syrah wines.

Paul and Nick showed me some wines from barrel, and I was very impressed, the wines should put paid to any negative feelings about the 2011 and 2010 vintages being difficult in Hawke’s Bay. A sample of Chardonnay 2011 from Meeanee, destined for the ‘Reserve’ label was roftly rich with lifted aromas and a fine chalky texture. A barrel of Chardonnay 2011 from ‘Mere Road’ fruit to be bottled under ‘Elspeth’ had depth, richness and power, showing the success of the variety in some earlier ripening sites. This should be a beauty when all blended up and bottled.

It was the 2010 reds that made a strong impact on me, by way of the tannin management. Greater suppleness and finesse has allowed the fruit to become more prominent. No doubt the slower build-up in the ripening has endowed the wines with more aromatic lift as well. A sample of what will probably be ‘Elspeth’ Merlot 2010 had great beauty of perfumed red fruits along with very fine grained tannins that just underlined the fruit. And a remarkable ‘Elspeth’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 sample, showing great clarity of blackcurranty fruit, Tightly held and with elegance, the tannins here too were ultra-refined and in total balance. The acidity was in proportion, but clear to see, as it should be in this variety.

The Syrah wines seem to receive a little more ‘soul’, if not attention. Paddy Preston has the final say on how the ‘Elspeth – Trust Vineyard’ wines are made. The vineyard itself is close planted and the vines low to the ground, and interestingly the vines have come into balance quickly. These factors have encouraged a style of ‘Frenchness’ in the ‘Trust’ vineyard wines, the ‘Elspeth – Trust’ Syrah 2010 sample having wonderful aromatic sweetness. Paddy is happy to see about 10% U.S. oak used, and this amplifies and enrichens the perfumed spices. A sample of what will be the green label, ‘Elspeth’ Syrah 2010 was darker, denser, with black fruits, and it was altogether more serious in structure. It was absolutely fabulous.

Mills Reef has a strong presence in the local market and its image seems larger than the 500 tonne annual crush it manages for the various Mills Reef labels. The success and acceptance of the wines here means there may be little incentive to expand the export programme that accounts for 20% of the production. With such a strong base here, is there a need to look further? I’m sure many other wineries would desire to be in their situation!

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