The ‘Winery of the Year’ award is my way of recognising the best performing wine producer who has submitted wines to Raymond Chan Wine Reviews for independent assessment in ‘Feature Reviews’ over the year from the start of December the previous year to the end of November in the current year. The criteria for the award are based on the qualities and significance of the wines in terms of excellence as seen in my descriptions and ratings, as well as how the wines have appealed to me on a subjective and hedonistic level as a wine enthusiast and consumer. In addition, the award can take into account innovation and style, and the progress the producer has made in making fine New Zealand wine, as well as the setting of standards for this country’s industry. Taking these factors into account, I presume that readers who follow Raymond Chan Wine Reviews will find great enjoyment in the wines made by the ‘Winery of the Year’ too. The nominated wine producer is sent a commemorative engraved brass plaque.
Winery of the Year – Te Whare Ra
The Raymond Chan Wine Reviews ‘Winery of the Year’ for 2014 is awarded to Te Whare Ra, the boutique vineyard and winery of Jason and Anna Flowerday in the Renwick sub-region of Marlborough. Te Whare Ra and the Flowerdays represent the modern and young face of winegrowing in New Zealand, making a range of beautifully elegant, exceptionally high quality wines, with the greatest respect for the environment from which the fruit is obtained.
I’ve come across very few winegrowers and winemakers who give so much thought to every aspect of the vineyard, winery, winemaking, how their wines show in stylistic and quality terms, and how the wines are presented in the marketplace, as Jason and Anna. This reflects their passion, enthusiasm, extremely high standards, hard work and attention to detail in creating and crafting wines that reflect their vineyard and region, and their guiding the wines sensitively so that they are expressed with great finesse. At present, New Zealand wines are generally enjoyed for their strong and distinctively clear fruit flavours. It is apparent that our industry must progress towards producing wines which are more refined, subtly complex and textured with the ability to develop, so as to appeal to the increasing and maturing fine wine drinkers of the world. The Te Whare Ra wines are at the forefront of this movement in this country.
Wines of Breathtaking Beauty and Finesse
Te Whare Ra wines have come my way over the years at trade tastings, industry exhibitions and private tastings, and I’d built up a feeling for the wines. The Flowerdays’ approach, philosophies and wines they’d made already put them into a class that deserved recognition.
It was only this year that the Flowerdays first submitted their wines for ‘Feature Reviews’. The 2013 white wines and 2012 Pinot Noir I tasted in June literally stunned me. All of the wines displayed a beauty, elegance, intricacy and delicacy that are rarely seen. The balance, pure and focussed fruit expression, and tactile beauty made them stand apart from most of what I taste and drink. Of the 8 wines reviewed, I rated all but one at 5-stars. The classical Marlborough varietals of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay from 2013, and the Pinot Noir from 2012 all have discreet complexities and textures. I scored them 18.5+/20, 19.0-/20 and 18.5+/20 respectively. However, it is with the aromatic wines that Te Whare Ra is sublime. The ‘D’ dry Riesling and ‘M’ medium Riesling, both 2013s were scored 19.0+/20 and 19.0/20. The Pinot Gris 2013 was rated 18.5/20, and the Gewurztraminer 2013 19.5-/20. Given some bottle-age, I could see the ‘Toru’ 2013 aromatic blend, which I scored 18.0+/20, grow into a 5-star wine.
Last month, 3 new wines were submitted for ‘Feature Review’, and again, I found the beauty and finesse of the wines breathtaking. The ‘Single Vineyard 5182’ ‘D’ dry Riesling 2014 scored 19.0/20 for me, and this was bettered by the ‘Single Vineyard’ ‘M’ medium Riesling 2014 with a 19.0+/20 rating. The Pinot Noir 2013 also achieved a 5-star eating. These results show the consistency with which Jason and Anna attain quality and style. The wines are not conventional wine show winners, as they are extremely elegant. Even though Anna is a regular wine competition judge, there is no concession to making a ‘show winning style’. The wines deserve time, contemplation and good food to enable them to exhibit their best and be understood and appreciated.
Respect for the Environment
When Jason and Anna Flowerday purchased Te Whare Ra in 2003, they acquired some of the oldest vines in Marlborough, with plants established in 1979. These were in a run-down state. They understood the unique and valuable resource that these vines represented. Seeing much old vine material lost in Australia, they realised the necessity of protecting and preserving these plants, allowing them to deliver the potentially outstanding fruit they were capable of. From working with old vines in their Clare Valley vineyard, they knew the key to rejuvenating them was to ensure healthy soils, which was achievable by organic management. The greater issues of sustainability, respecting and working as part of the environment were also on their minds, and thus, from the beginning, their goal was to farm in harmony and balance with nature.
It has been an 11 year journey for them so far, and it is no doubt an on-going process. Te Whare Ra’s 11 ha of vines are now managed to organic and biodynamic regimes, gaining Bio Gro organic certification in 2012. The Flowerdays and Te Whare Ra are members of OWNZ (Organic Winegrowers of New Zealand), the New Zealand Biodynamic Association, and a founder of MANA (Marlborough Natural Winegrowers). The Flowerdays say they are not evangelists in making wines under such regimes, but have taken this path through “informed decisions…and experience” with the goal of making “the best and most expressive wines possible”.
With the release of the 2014 wines, which mark the 35th anniversary of the first plantings at Te Whare Ra, the Flowerdays have designated and labelled the wines from the home block ‘Single Vineyard 5182’, referring to the vineyard number assigned by BioGro New Zealand. Jason and Anna envisage releasing small parcels of wine made from fruit from other organic growers under the Te Whare Ra brand, but carrying different ‘SV’ numbers in the future.
Although one of Marlborough’s oldest wineries, Te Whare Ra is one of the most modern in outlook. The boutique size of the business is celebrated by the Flowerdays, and they know they can’t compete in volume and price, so they must be quality focussed and innovative. Their modern and contemporary style of wine sets them apart from most of Marlborough.
The Flowerdays are fully engaged in the modern world of social media to inform, be informed by and interact with their customers, distributors, resellers and any interested party about what they do and what their wines are like. This is in conjunction with the established channels of communication and marketing, and the combination is indeed powerful and wide in reach and influence. Te Whare Ra serves as a very strong model for conducting business in the modern wine world. www.twrwines.co.nz
Contenders for ‘Winery of the Year’ 2014
Selecting my ‘Winery of the Year’ is one of my most difficult decisions at Raymond Chan Wine Reviews, and it only gets harder, as the number of producers making top class wines and submitting them for ‘Feature Reviews’ increases. This year, Valli Vineyards is my runner-up. Grant Taylor is a legend in Central Otago, and garners the greatest respect for the number of outstanding wines he has been responsible for, having worked in the region since 1993. Leaving Gibbston Valley Winery, Grant devoted his energies to his own label Valli Vineyards, which primarily expresses the sub-regions of Otago with Pinot Noir. His Gibbston Valley bottlings, first made in 1998, Bannockburn first vintaged in 2000, the Waitaki Valley in 2004 and Bendigo in 2010 are always superb and reflect each of the different sub-regions distinctly. There is a Valli house-style as well, and this is sensitive to the expression of regionality, but it is one that has been developed over the two decades plus of working with Pinot Noir in Otago to show the variety to its strengths.
I’ve conducted ‘Feature Reviews’ on the Valli Pinot Noirs from the 2009 vintage, and the 2012s tasted in December last year were sensational, each of them rated 5-stars. On those wines alone, Valli was one of the strongest contenders for ‘Winery of the Year’. Yet Grant is making Riesling wines of equal quality, his ‘Old Vine’ bottling from the Black Ridge vineyard in Alexandra simply stupendous. Combined with his consistency, Valli Vineyards could not be ignored. I have the 2013 Valli Vineyard sub-regional Pinot Noirs to review this month, so look out for them. These could quite possibly put Valli up for contention for ‘Winery of the Year’ in December 2015.
Other Outstanding Producers
Here I point out other producers who could also easily have been awarded ‘Winery of the Year’. This list is fairly consistent, as their performance is always at the very highest level, seemingly regardless of vintage conditions. Each of these producers has the strongest of ranges, and across different varieties and styles, they achieve an excellence that few can match. These are Ata Rangi in Martinborough, Neudorf in the Upper Moutere, Nelson, and Pegasus Bay in the Waipara Valley, the latter two have previously been awarded ‘Winery of the Year’. Joining this group is Villa Maria Estates, the undisputed wine show champion, who sent in an awe-inspiring selection of 2013 Chardonnays. And I must mention Auburn Wines, the Central Otago Riesling specialist, which has now unfortunately ceased production. The 2013 wines were a continuation of the excellence set by the previous three vintages.
Practically at the same level is a larger pool, indicating the depth of quality of our wine industry. Almost all of these producers base their wines on unique and well-established vineyards. Man O’ War in Waiheke Island possibly has the youngest vines, but their ‘Reserve’ wines are superb. From Martinborough, the wines from Larry McKenna’s Escarpment Vineyard, and those of Dry River are among the country’s best. Stylistically, Dog Point and Greywacke are showing the complex and innovative side of Marlborough. Black Estate and Greystone are consistent 5-star wine producers with superb offerings. And the wines I’ve seen from Gibbston Valley, Maude and Rockburn put them at the top level too.
This year, there are so many other producers who are showing true excellence. Mudbrick on Waiheke Island, Elephant Hill from Hawke’s Bay, and Palliser Estate from Martinborough are my other North Island producers of note. From the South Island, Auntsfield from Marlborough and Waimea Estates are of a similar standard and consistency from what I’ve tasted. The small Georges Road label in Waipara also has great wines, as do Misha’s Vineyard and Mondillo from Central Otago.
From the above names, one can gauge which of the country’s regions have experienced favourable vintages. I suspect that next year, there will be a greater mention of producers from the North Island, and especially from Hawke’s Bay. The mention of a winery in this summary of the year is dependent on what they decide to submit for ‘Feature Review’. Some ask me to review wines that are not from their top tiers, but I know that they will have wines in their portfolios that would make them worthy contenders for ‘Winery of the Year’.
And a final note on two imported wine labels that have made very strong impressions with me over the last 12 months; both are Australian. Firstly the Howard Park wines of Western Australia. Sheer quality and class in the Riesling, Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon wines put them at the top of the overseas examples I reviewed. And the Alpha Crucis 2012 ‘Winemakers Series’ demonstrated not only how great McLaren Vale Shiraz can be, but also the influence of winemaker signature, with six wines made by six different winemakers.
The Top Wines of 2014
Here are the outstanding New Zealand wines I have tasted as ‘Feature Reviews’ during the period of start of December 2013 to end of November 2014. The following wines are presented according to variety or style. On occasion where there are ties in the scoring, I have listed more than one in that particular category. Not every varietal or wine style merited listing. The wines celebrate diversity and excellence throughout the country.
- Quartz Reef Central Otago Methode Traditionnelle Vintage 2009 (18.5+/20)
- Saint Clair ‘Wairau Reserve’ Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (19.0+/20)
- Pyramid Valley ‘Growers Collection’ Moteo Ridge Hawke’s Bay Chenin Blanc 2013 (18.5+/20)
- Ashwood Estate Gisborne Pinot Gris 2013 (19.0-/20)
- Auburn Bendigo Central Otago Riesling 2013 (19.5/20)
- Dry River ‘Lovat’ Martinborough Gewurztraminer 2013 (19.5-/20)
- Te Whare Ra Marlborough Gewurztraminer 2013 (19.5-/20)
- Mudbrick ‘Reserve’ Waiheke Island Viognier 2013 (18.5+/20)
- Neudorf Moutere Nelson Chardonnay 2013 (19.5/20)
- Villa Maria ‘Reserve’ Marlborough Chardonnay 2013 (19.5/20)
- Two Rivers ‘L’Ile de Beauté’ Marlborough Rosé 2014 (18.5/20)
- Gibbston Valley ‘School House’ Central Otago Pinot Noir 2012 (20.0/20)
- Redmetal ‘Resolution’ Hawke’s Bay Merlot 2013 (19.0/20)
- Matariki ‘Taurus – A Collection’ Hawkes Bay 2007 (19.0-/20) (Cabernet Sauvignon predominant)
- Mudbrick ‘Velvet’ Waiheke Island 2013 (19.0/20) (Varietals undisclosed)
- Rod McDonald ‘Trademark’ Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2011 (19.5/20)
- Cable Bay ‘Sweet Gloria’ Waiheke Island Late Harvest Viognier 2012 (19.0-/20)
- Pegasus Bay ‘Aria’ Waipara Valley Late Picked Riesling 2012 (19.0-/20)
Favourites of the Year from the Wine2Trade Portfolio
Wineries that are distributed by ‘Wine2Trade’, the company that Raymond Chan Wine Reviews’ operates under, are not eligible for the ‘Winery of the Year’ award. (Click here to see these wineries.) In way of compensation, I will list separately my ‘Favourites of the Year from the Wine2Trade Portfolio’ in a follow-up article, which has now been posted here. Also, click here to see my favourites from 2013.