The Sacred Hill ‘Rifleman’s Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay is one of the great New Zealand wines, and its quality is credited to the winemaking skills of veteran winemaker Tony Bish. Tony however acknowledges the vineyard as the source of the quality and character of the wine rather than any special input from him. The ‘Riflemans’ vineyard, owned by Sacred Hill’s Mason family is on a site inland overlooking the Tutaekuri River in the Dartmoor Valley. The 24 ha vineyard, with soils comprising volcanic ash and red metals over limestone, was planted in 1990. It is a Chardonnay site, now with approximately one-third each of Mendoza, clone 95 and 15, but features 2.5 ha of the original ungrafted Mendoza vines which make the ‘Heritage’ source for the top wine. These vines are low-yielding and produce particularly concentrated wine with a distinctive mandarin and citrus fruit character, and a ‘peacocks’ tail of flavour on the finish, according to Tony. The fruit from the younger vines goes into other Chardonnays in the Sacred Hill portfolio, and these wines have proven to be very successful, showing the special nature of the site. www.sacredhill.com
Tony Bish – Sacred Hill
Tony Bish – Sacred Hill
A Preview Luncheon
To celebrate the release of the 2013 Riflemans Chardonnay, a number of trade and media were invited to a preview tasting of it along with a selection of other Sacred Hill wines to match a four course luncheon at Wellington’s iconic Boulcott Street Bistro. Who could turn down such an invitation which combined wine made by Tony Bish and food created by Rex Morgan? Here, I offer my impressions. www.boulcottstreetbistro.co.nz
Pre-Taster – ‘Sauvage’ Sauvignon Blanc 2011
Two bottles opened, one still reserved with subtle green stonfruits and complex detailing of flinty lees, minerals, earth and spices, along with delicate nutty and toasty oak. The other broader and showing bolder aromas and flavours, along with oxidative elements. Ah, the joys of cork closure. Not assessed or rated.
Bluff oysters with ponzu jelly – ‘Virgin’ Chardonnay 2013 and 2011
Sacred Hill’s ‘Virgin’ Chardonnay was first made in 2011, a difficult vintage for the variety in Hawke’s Bay, which offered the conditions to make a super-premium unoaked style worthy of including in the ‘Special Selection’ tier. The wine celebrated Sacred Hill’s 25th winemaking anniversary. As a style, unoaked Chardonnays doesn’t garner much respect, unless it’s Chablis and shows terroir. The wine incorporates input from Laroche Chablis and Champagne with the use of yeasts in its making. Appreciating it requires the drinker to put on a different hat. With this hat, I see great clarity and purity, but also the fruit presence.
The ‘Virgin’ Chardonnay 2013 (18.5/20) is very pale in colour with beautifully lifted aromatics of white florals and white stonefruits, still possessing some youthful fermentation esters. Markedly dry to taste and refined with its freshness, this is vibrant and vital with lifted, pure stonefruit and floral flavours, minerality even, underlined by the finest phenolics and driven by poised and piquant acidity. The linearity and finesse are remarkable features, but there is a brooding presence of complex detail and the promise of greater weight to emerge. To compare, the ‘Virgin’ Chardonnay 2011 (18.5/20), full straw colour, with depth and density of elegantly concentrated white stonefruits with a layering of savoury nutty elements. Distinctly dry, savoury white and yellow stonefruits are complexed by nutty, flinty notes. Still tightly bound, but with depth, presence and increasing palate weight as the wine flows. Thirst quenching acidity, tempered by a softening phenolic line. This is developing with style, and will continue to do so.
Both wines were great matches with the oysters, the 2013 more one of balance, with a sweetness noticeable, and the combination resulting in a mouthful of finesse. The 2011 wine grew in richness, but was quite harmonious with both the oysters and the salty ponzu flavour.
Lobster tagliatelle with lemon nage – ‘Riflemans’ Chardonnay 2013 and 2007
A wine that hasn’t been released every vintage, but the 2013 especially anticipated, as the year is becoming recognised as one that is truly outstanding, particularly for reds from my perspective. Tony talks about his input in this wine as being quite minimal, “the wine making itself”. Picking, whole bunch pressing, straight to barrel for natural fermentation and leaving the wine to go through its maturation on yeast lees. Of course, it’s not quite like that, with experience and taste crucial to judgements and timing on decisions to act or do nothing. Tony is a master of this sensitive philosophy and methodology.
The ‘Riflemans’ Chardonnay 2013 (19.5+/20) light goldencolour. The nose very tightly held with aromatic and exotic citrus fruits and yellow florals, revealing extremely refined mealy, nutty oak, cashew nut depth, and creamy MLF waves. Medium-full bodied and distinctly elegant, this is about fruit weight and concentration, and slippery flowing, creamy textures. Plenty of potentially complex mealy and nutty notes under the stylishly rich, lush, exotic fruit flavours. Beautifully fine, ripe acidity lends tension and drive, and the wine follows a very smooth thread of phenolics leading to a very long, sustained finish. This builds in depth, revealing layers of interest. Great wine in the making, but already sensational. To compare, a ‘Riflemans’ Chardonnay 2007 (18.5+/20), a favourite of Tony’s. Bright lemony straw-yellow colour. Initially quite closed and densely packed with some locked in reduction savouriness on nose. Gradually opening up with breadth, volume and depth, with complex savoury dark yellow citrus and yellow stonefruit aromas, infused with nutty and toasty notes. Some reduction still, but adding to the layers of interest. A wine of mouthfeel and weight, with noticeable textures, the fruit becoming drier, but with a full range of nutty, toasty flavours, a little oxidative secondary and tertiary development opening up in the glass. Drinking now, based on this bottle.
With the food course, the 2013 became more creamy in flavour and texture, harmonising superbly. The drier, textural nature of the 2011 stood apart, the savoury flavours offering a contrast to the sweetness of the lobster and saltiness of the dish.
Roasted sirloin with short rib, kumera gaufrette and truffled potato tortellini – ‘Brokenstone’ 2011 and ‘Helmsman’ 2011
The 2011 vintage is one that has been maligned, being sandwiched between the cool 2010 season and even colder, wetter 2012 vintage. 2011 saw ripeness from a warm initial growing season, which only became problematical with rains at the end. So the 2011 reds have a surprising ripeness, and there’s proper weight and sufficient richness. The wines just don’t have the extra power and ripeness of the likes of 2009 or 2007, let alone 2013, but they can be very attractive. That’s how Tony sees the 2011 ‘Brokenstone’ and ‘Helmsman’. He felt them to be good enough to be bottled as ‘Special Selection’ wines, which will be good to tuck into, while waiting for the so-called better years. I tried these wines late last year at the ‘Gimblett Gravels Annual Vintage Selection’ tasting (click here to see my report), where they looked great in the company of their peers. Today, they were more restrained, softened and a little lighter, more together if anything. Tony also pointed out his wines are ‘Hawke’s Bay Blends’ rather than ‘Bordeaux Blends’, showing the growing feel of independence and individuality of the region rather than relying on the comparison with another.
The ‘Brokenstone’ Merlot 2011 (18.5+/20), a blend of 87% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Syrah and 3% Malbec. Dark, deep, black-red with light purple hues, very youthful in appearance, the bouquet is also youthful and primary, with fragrant and aromatic plum fruits, along with enriching spicy elements. Quite an elegant wine in weight, the flavours of sweet and spicy dark red plums are amalgamated with fine-grained tannins resulting in a well-proportioned, stylish core. Succulence, aromatic richness and finesse lend accessibility, and the wine possesses a very long and sustained finish with spices and violet notes. Simple delectable. The ‘Helmsman’ Cabernet/Merlot 2011 (19.0+/20), a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% each Cabernet Franc and Merlot, also dark, but blackred in colour. Elegant and building in depth and intensity on the nose, more driven in dimension rather than voluminous, with aromatic cassis and lead-pencil aromas, with subtly interwoven notes of cedar and savoury olives with blackcurrant leaf lift. Tightly bound on palate, this has a firm and intensely packed line. Concentration, with lively acidity, the wine youthful, fresh, vibrant and still with much to unfold. Textural and dry to match the fruit sweetness, the tannins becoming more prominent as the wine progresses. This will age well, easily 8-10 years, but the fineness and suppleness will enable approachability.
The ‘Brokenstone’ was a wine that could easily be sipped on its own, and as a better match with the sirloin steak, due to its less pronounced tannins and sweeter flavours. However the ‘Helmsman’ had the power, cut and grip to absorb the short rib richness and textures, the wine coming into its own with the meat.
Chilli chocolate tart with espresso cream – ‘Brokenstone’ 2006 en magnum
A treat to have a ‘Brokenstone’ Merlot 2006 (18.5/20) served in 1.5 Litre format. Very dark, deep, black-red with some purple still, youthful. The bouquet is fulsome and bold with complex, secondary, savoury dark plum and berry aromas, along with brash undergrowth and herbal notes, and lifted dark red floral perfumes. Some resiny oak elements are part of the mix, adding complexing interest. A robust and strong wine with plenty of fruit and tannin extraction, providing grip with mouthfilling breadth. Dark, savoury plums and undergrowth, along with dark chocolate, spicy oak and aromatic lift. Game notes emerge and the secondary nature growing. The hearty mouthfeel and structure carries through to a firm, textured finish. This has plenty of life yet, another decade, easily more, especially in magnum.
Seemingly an unusual match, but chilli and chocolate are proven to go with dry red wine. Interestingly the sweetness prevails, the heat, cream and coffee just intermingling with supporting nuance. The dessert richness mollifying the tannins. A tick!