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 – Valli Vineyards
For 2016, the Raymond Chan Wine Reviews ‘Winery of the Year’ is awarded to Valli Vineyards, the Otago winegrowing venture of Grant Taylor. The Valli Vineyard Pinot Noir wines are unique and supremely high quality expressions of Otago regionality. The path to understanding and recognising regionality and terroir has not been expressed with great success in New Zealand, but Grant Taylor’s wines must be considered among the best at doing so. And as intimated above, the wines are certainly world-class in quality.
Grant was born in Otago, and after graduating from Lincoln College, he went to California in 1980 to help establish Pine Ridge Winery in the Napa Valley. There he grew an illustrious work record until coming back to Central Otago in 1993 to head the winemaking at Gibbston Valley. As well as developing Gibbston Valley into one of the region and country’s top makers of Pinot Noir, winning many awards along the way, he produced the first vintages for many highly regarded wine labels such as Bald Hills, Carrick, Felton Road, Hawkshead, Mondillo, Mount Edward, Mt Difficulty, Peregrine, and Rockburn. In addition, Grant maintained his international perspectives by assisting to establish Archery Summit in Oregon in 1995, where he continued to consult for a number of years.
It is without doubt that few people would have Grant Taylor’s understanding of Pinot Noir in Otago. His experience of the variety, the different clones, the interaction with rootstocks in various soils, geology and geography, as well as climactic conditions, coupled with his making of countless wines must make him the foremost Pinot Noir expert in Otago. From this work grew Grant’s desire to express the variations of Otago Pinot Noir regionality and terroir. Grant identified a number of sites in different regions which demonstrated these characteristics, and with the 1998 vintage, Grant produced his first Pinot Noir wine under his own label, Valli Vineyards, a wine made from Gibbston fruit. In 2000 he planted his own Gibbston vineyard as a step towards his dream. Then followed a Bannockburn bottling in 2000, a Waitaki Valley wine in 2004, a Bendigo Pinot Noir in 2010, and most recently a Lowburn Pinot Noir in 2014 from the Burn Cottage site of his friends Ted Lemon, Claire Mullholland and Marquis Sauvage. Grant left Gibbston Valley in 2006 to devote himself to the Valli Vineyards project. www.valliwine.com
Astounding Regional Expression
Although I’ve tasted most of Grant’s early Valli Vineyards wines, it was when I began operating Raymond Chan Wine Reviews that I had the opportunity of tasting and examining his wines properly. In October 2011, I tasted the 2009 vintage Valli Vineyards ‘Gibbston Vineyard’, ‘Bannockburn Vineyard’ and ‘Waitaki Vineyard’ Pinot Noirs and was astounded by the clarity of regional expression. However, it was also the sheer quality of the wines, all earning a 5-star rating, as well as a distinctive house style of serious structure and complexity. The following year, the 2010 vintage wines, admittedly a great year in Otago, took my interest up another level. The 2010s saw the introduction of the ‘Bendigo Vineyard’ wine, which I rated 19.5-/20. The ‘Waitaki Vineyard’ wine gained a 19.0/20 score from me, and the ‘Gibbston Vineyard’ and ‘Bannockburn Vineyard’ wines both garnered 19.5/20 scores.
Similarly high ratings followed for the 2011 and 2012 vintage releases. The 2013 vintage releases were so good that I nominated Valli Vineyards as my runner up to Te Whare Ra as my ‘Winery of the Year’ in December 2014. In April this year, I reviewed the 2014 Valli Vineyard Pinot Noir releases. These, included for the first time, the ‘Burn Cottage Vineyard’ from Lowburn. My ratings were 18.5+/20 for the ‘Burn Cottage’, 19.0-/20 for the ‘Bannockburn’, 19.0/20 for the ‘Waitaki’ and ‘Bendigo’ and 19.5/20 for the Gibbston wine. (Click here to see my reviews.)
But it was not only the scores, but the style of the wines that made them sensational. The clarity and consistency of regional expression was reinforced, and Grant’s signature of structure, complexity and longevity were very evident. These were yet again great wines. Some thoughts on regionality and its expression must be stated. It is the precursor to terroir, and for many people, the concept of regional expression has yet to be seen and proven in New Zealand, whether it is in Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc or any other variety, in any district. One only needs to taste the different vintages of the Valli Vineyards Otago Pinot Noirs to see it operating. The consistency of personality for each regional bottling over different vintages is startling. The same consistency can be seen in the Escarpment Vineyard Martinborough ‘Insight’ single vineyard Pinot Noirs of Larry McKenna, Escarpment Vineyard being my ‘Winery of the Year’ in 2015.
Grant’s talent and skill for making superb and wonderfully expressive wines is not confined to his Otago regional Pinot Noirs. From Gibbston is excellent Pinot Gris; but I am particularly enamoured with his Riesling wines, whether dry or sweet in style, or the fruit sourced from the former Black Ridge vineyard in Alexandra or from the Waitaki Valley. Grant also makes wine under contract for a number of producers, and the Pinot Noirs for SOHO, under the ‘McQueen’ label, and the ‘China Girl’ and ‘Signature Selection’ Pinot Noirs for Crown Range Cellar have been very successful. Another sign of Grant’s abilities is his legacy in the current wines at the Gibbston Valley winery today. The winemaker there, Chris Keys studied under Grant, and Chris has taken the wines to new heights, Grant’s base work in vineyards, viticulture and winemaking having a profound influence.
A Time of Growth
As with all top producers, Valli Vineyards has been growing. For Grant, it’s not a matter of increasing production significantly in volumes, but improving what he is doing. No doubt he would like to make his Otago regional Pinot Noirs even clearer in their definition. The quantities of the Otago Pinot Noirs have been fairly constant over the years, subject to the vagaries of vintage conditions, quality of fruit, and what is made available to him. For 2014, there were 916 cases of the Gibbston wine made, 441 cases of Bannockburn, 366 of Waitaki Valley, 400 cases of Bendigo, and 212 of Burn Cottage. However, Grant’s resources have grown to enable a slight increase in the regional wines in coming vintages. Grant oversees the management of the vineyards with help from Grant’s first cousin Tim Valli and the Vinewise Viticulture team.
At the beginning of 2015, talented, multi-award winning winemaker Jen Parr joined the Valli Vineyards team. Jen is very well-known for her time as winemaker at Olssens and Terra Sancta, as well as her contract work for a number of Central Otago labels, and for her two terms as chairperson of the Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration. She brings with her a wealth of international experience and a wonderful palate, as well as an inquisitive and detailed mind full of innovative ideas. The Pinot Noirs that she has made have given her the firepower to work alongside Grant and no doubt reinforce the quality of the Valli wines, if not improve them. Her first job was working with Grant to determine the 2014 regional Pinot Noir blends, which were the major influence in Valli Vineyards being chosen as ‘Winery of the Year’ for 2016.
Jen’s latest and unique addition to the Valli Vineyards portfolio is ‘The Real McCoy’ Pinot Gris Orange Wine 2015, given extended skin contact and barrel influence. The wine is one of the best-balanced and beautifully flavoured bottlings in this contemporary and thought-provoking category. The fruit for this wine comes from the 4 ha McCoy’ vineyard in Gibbston, next door to Grant’s original vineyard, acquired by Grant to enable more breadth to the Valli Vineyards range. Clearly, Jen is already making significant and new contributions.
And also recently, Grant shifted his base of operations from the former Gary Andrus site in the Gibbston Valley to what was the Olssens winery in Cromwell. The capacity of the Cromwell site is 150 tonnes, more than the Valli Vineyards production, and there is a new barrel hall added, giving Grant and Jen a lot more room to make the Valli Vineyard wines, improving efficiency. It is a little ironic that Jen Parr is very familiar with the new site too!
Contenders for ‘Winery of the Year’ 2016 and Runner-Up
Selecting my ‘Winery of the Year’ is one of the most difficult decisions in operating Raymond Chan Wine Reviews. The country has been blessed with very good to outstanding vintages since 2013, generally across most of the country’s growing regions. This has resulted in a very large number of outstanding wines. Keeping in mind only producers who submit their wines for ‘Feature Review’ are eligible for the award, there were still almost too many to choose from!
Here I highlight the contenders for the 2016 ‘Winery of the Year’. I go geographically from north to south, and conclude with my runner-up to Valli Vineyards.
From Waiheke Island, Patrick Newton has crafted some superb Mudbrick Vineyard releases, all six 2015 ‘Reserve’ wines capturing 5-stars. The Millton ‘Clos de Ste Anne’ 2014 releases are without any doubt the best wines I’ve seen from Gisborne this year, the Chardonnay, Viognier Chenin Blanc, Syrah and even Pinot Noir all rated at the top level.
With 2014 rated as highly as 2013 by many Hawke’s Bay producers, it is no surprise with the large number of contenders from this region. The Craggy Range ‘Le Sol’ and ‘Sophia’ 2014s are stupendous as is the Trinity Hill ‘Homage’ Syrah 2014. Particularly wonderful are the Sacred Hill ‘Special Selection’ wines ‘Wine Thief’ and ‘Riflemans’ Chardonnays from 2015 and the 2014 ‘Brokenstone’, ‘Helmsman’ and ‘Deerstalker’. These are matched by the Clearview Estate 2014 ‘Reserve’ and ‘Endeavour’ Chardonnays and ‘2013 ‘Basket Press’ red.
In Martinborough, my last year’s ‘Winery of the Year’, Escarpment Vineyard yet again put up a superlative set of single vineyard Pinot Noirs, the 2014s nearly rivalling the sensational 2013s. Ata Rangi put up a broad and diverse range from Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, ‘Celebre’ and Pinot Noirs to demonstrate their overall quality, which is stunning. This was matched by the exceptional Autumn and Spring releases of Dry River. New entrant Devotus has now two vintages of exceptional Pinot Noirs under their belt, and deserves recognition for them.
Two Marlborough producers shone for their different styles. The Te Whare Ra 2016 aromatics, 2015 oak-influenced whites and 2013 Pinot Noir all show the beautiful delicate hand in crafting the ‘SV 5182’ BioGro certified organic wines, whereas the Dog Point 2014 ‘Section 94’ Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are rich, funky, textured and complex.
The brilliance of Pegasus Bay across its whole range and the innovative techniques of Greystone Wines in Canterbury see them both as worthy contenders again for ‘Winery of the Year’. This year, they are joined by Black Estate who have terroir expressive Pinot Noirs as their feature in a very strong range.
From Central Otago, the single vineyard Pinot Noir Gibbston Valley wines continue to show their regionality and site. Sam Neill’s Two Paddocks wines do the same, and it will be interesting to see how his new Bannockburn ‘Fusilier’ vineyard performs after an auspicious start. I’ve added Mondillo to the contenders list, as their Bendigo Rieslings and Pinot Noirs have shown consistent greatness over the years, and the latest wines are as good as ever.
As one can tell, the list of contenders is indeed a collection of some of the best producers making some of this country’s greatest wines. Last year, I could not choose a runner-up. This year, I can. It is Ata Rangi of Martinborough. This year’s reviews of the 2016 ‘Lismore’ Pinot Gris, 2015 ‘Petrie’ and ‘Craighall’ Chardonnays, the 2012 ‘Craighall’ Riesling, 2014 ‘Celebre’ and 2013 ‘McCrone’ Pinot Noir all captured 5-star ratings. This was capped off by my 19.5/20 score for the flagship 2014 Pinot Noir. They are a clear and deserving ‘Winery of the Year Runner-Up’ in 2016.
Other Outstanding Producers
As is customary, I also highlight other outstanding producers who have sent superb wines for ‘Feature Review’. It could be interpreted that this group is a step down from the ‘Contenders’, but I should point out possible mitigating circumstances. A number of producers choose not to send in their best wines; others may intermittently submit wines or only make a small number of wines, thus the sample size is not large enough to make a proper judgement call. In any case, I consider them worthy of attention, with the potential to be selected as a future ‘Winery of the Year’.
Hawke’s Bay figures strongly in noteworthy producers, and I have thoroughly enjoyed wines from Ant Mackenzie, Brookfields Vineyards, Elephant Hill, Rod McDonald Wines and Tony Bish Wines. Martinborough is very strong with Alexander, Martinborough Vineyard, Palliser Estate and Te Kairanga all producing their fair share of top wines.
From Marlborough, there have been many wonderful singular wines presented, but Spy Valley’s ‘Envoy’ bottlings and the Two Rivers wines of Dave Clouston are ones to seek out. Neudorf Vineyards hasn’t sent too many wines lately, but their offerings continue to be top class. Greenhough is a strong support for the quality of the Nelson region wines. Relatively new Waipara Valley entrant Tongue in Groove is an up-and coming producer. Watch this space. And from Central Otago, the consistent high quality of Folding Hill, Grasshopper Rock, and Misha’s Vineyard have made their mark on me.
The previous winners of ‘Winery of the Year can be accessed by clicking here.
The Top Wines of 2016
Here are the outstanding New Zealand wines I have tasted as ‘Feature Reviews’ during the period of start of December 2015 to end of November 2016. 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. Interestingly none of these were scored a maximum of 20.0/20.
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 next week. Click here to see my favourites from 2015.