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The Beginnings of Riesling in New Zealand & Montana Marlborough Rhine Riesling 1981-1994

By January 12, 2012No Comments

This is a rather personal and potted history of the beginnings of Riesling in New Zealand and brief tasting notes of a tasting of Montana Marlborough Rhine Riesling from 1981 to 1994.

Ever since Riesling has been recognised as one of the great varieties, wine enthusiasts have been engaging the wider drinking public to enjoy the many and varied styles that it is capable of. Riesling has been on the scene for just over three decades in New Zealand, and it still struggles to be recognised, with relative newcomer Pinot Gris racing past in less than a decade to have nearly twice the 1,000 hectares of plantings of Riesling. I believe that the ‘Summer of Riesling’ campaign (click here for more details) may be a marker in increasing the awareness and enjoyment of the variety in this country, as it has done overseas.

Most of the credit must be given to Montana Wines for establishing Riesling as a commercial crop in New Zealand. The 1979 release of the Montana Marlborough Rhine Riesling can be regarded as a milestone and the prototype for modern Riesling in this country. Before then, ‘Riesling’ in New Zealand was the description for the widely planted and successfully popular Muller-Thurgau variety brought in from Germany. Being a Riesling x Sylvaner cross, it was easier to just label and call the wine ‘Riesling’. Of course, the more correct people called it Riesling-Sylvaner, or Sylvaner-Riesling, or both, if there were various bottlings, the latter slightly less highly regarded, putting the coarser Sylvaner first. As the true Riesling, aka White Riesling, Rhine Riesling or Johannisberg Riesling began appearing, the correct Muller-Thurgau title became more prevalent. It was all so confusing then, and with the Aussie Hunter Riesling (Semillon) and Clare Rieslings (Crouchen) floating around, it was a minefield for label interpreters.

Of course there were some wonderful ‘Rieslings’ made from Muller-Thurgau which approximated the character of real Riesling. Nearly everybody had at least one, but I enjoyed wines from Babich, Corbans, Cooks, Delegats, McWilliams, Nobilo and Totara. Arguably the most exciting in the late 1970s was Montana’s ‘Bernkaizler’ Riesling, which had to change its name to ‘Benmorven’ Riesling following suggestions of threats of legal action from Germany. The stop-fermented or suss-reserve added medium-dry to medium versions were better balanced than the drier styles.

The release of a set of Montana Marlborough white varieties from the 1979 vintage was foreshadowed by a couple of Montana Marlborough Riesling-Sylvaner releases first, signalling the onset of fruit coming on-stream from the ground-breaking plantings in the Wairau Valley. The 1979 release consisted of a Sauvignon Blanc, Rhine Riesling and Gewurztraminer. These created a buzz of excitement among the keen wine community. They were labelled elegantly, the wording in beautiful flowing script, the bottles adorned with strong, thick, white plastic capsules and sold for around the $7.00 mark, top-end pricing at the time. Though expensive, they sold quickly, and were consumed quickly; a good thing as in hindsight, the vintage was an average one that aged quickly. The 1980 wines were a step up, and these went on to succeed at wine shows as few other wines had done before, and indeed age very well.

One must remember that Montana was one of the ‘hot’ and innovative wine companies at the time. Owned 40% by Seagrams, it competed with Corbans as the biggest player, and with Villa Maria on the show circuit. And Montana usually triumphed. A special ‘Winemakers’ Selection’ dozen was soon released, and Pinot Noir joined Cabernet Sauvignon in making Montana’s Marlborough wines some of the industry’s most exciting. Then followed a series of Marlborough releases that cemented Montana’s dominance in the commercial and fine wine market both domestically and internationally at that time and for the coming decade plus. Following 1980, the 1981, 1982 and 1983 wines were especially highly rated. The winemaking team led by Peter Hubscher, with John Simes and Andy Frost based at the ‘Riverlands’ winery out of Blenheim as the hands-on men are unsung heroes.

Among our tasting group, a little cynicism or ‘tall poppy syndrome’ operated. Biggest couldn’t be best was one ethos. Many of us could detect the ‘Montana squirt’, a similar character in all the white wines, despite their varietal distinctiveness. ‘House-style’ might be the term today, but in trying to account for the similarity of Sauvignon, Gewurztraminer and Rhine Riesling, there was the theory that Montana had a base wine (the ‘squirt’) to which each varietal juice was added. Another theory was that Montana just kept on adding one variety into a partly filled tank of one of the other varieties! A possible and much more plausible, modern explanation for the cooler, slightly herbaceous nature of the wines was the standard of viticulture at the time. In any circumstance, the Montana Marlborough wines were highly distinctive and recognisable, making them easily identifiable in blind wine tasting sessions.

With success comes imitation, and before long, there were a number of Rhine Rieslings from the progressive producers. The variety was propagated in all regions, with Corbans and the associated negotiant Robard & Butler label prominent. Villa Maria, Selaks, Sutton Baron (Collards), Delegats and Penfolds all had Rhine Rieslings by the mid-1980s. The variety was championed by newly established, serious producers such as Weingut Seifried, St Helena, Ngatarawa and Te Whare Ra. For those with a sense of foresight and classicism, exciting things were happening, and Rhine Riesling became the new darling. As with Syrah today, plantings were pitiful, but the wines were sought-after for their tighter structure and length over Muller-Thurgau, and an undoubted, but unproven ability to keep well. Endorsement came in time, from Serena Sutcliffe MW judging at the 1990 Air New Zealand Wine Awards where I was involved, the 1983 Montana, Corbans and Robard & Butler Rhine Rieslings all receiving gold medals and singled out for praise by the guest judge.

The formula for Montana Rhine Riesling has remained remarkably constant over the three decades of making. The fruit was sourced from the ‘Brancott Estate’ vineyard, picked at 22-23° Brix and cool-fermented to around 12.0% alc. leaving a residual sugar of around 13 g/L. TA was in the region of 7.5 and a pH of around 3.4. The initial releases were at 10.5% alc. and picked probably at the 21-22° Brix mark. Seeking greater ripeness, the picking went to 23.5° Brix, and alcohols went up to 12.5%. The TAs dropped under 7.0 and the pHs edged down to just over 3.0. In recent years, the label included Awatere Valley grapes and an ever increasing portion of Waipara Valley fruit. Today’s descendent, the 2010 Brancott Estate ‘Classic’ Riesling is wholly Waipara Valley fruit fermented to 10.7% alc. and 16.2 g/L rs, with a TA of 7.9 g/L and a pH 3.1.

Montana Marlborough Rhine Riesling 1981 – 1994
Here follow brief comments of a tasting of some of the earliest Montana Marlborough Rhine Rieslings, the last bottles from my old cellar. The wines have been stored in conditions of fluctuating heat (a tin roofed garage) for most of their life. The 1992 vintage wine has been excluded, saved to be opened on my son Oliver’s 21st birthday to celebrate the year of his birth. (Although there is a Montana Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 1992 also to be opened, there are better 1992 bottles such as Penfolds ‘Grange’, Guigal ‘La Turque’ Cote-Rotie, DRC La Tache and Ch. Petrus, as well as a box of Vintage Port to draw on!). Most of these Montana wines have been tasted by me many times before, and all are in reality well past their best, but surprises are always in store. The wines were tasted oldest to youngest and in groups of three:
1981: Deep golden orange colour, this is shy, but with a solid and densely presented nose of slightly spoilt beeswax, not quite clean. Medium-dry, this is rather light in flavour, over-ripe citrus fruits, lozenges, soft in mouthfeel, but still with acidity. Honied notes on the aftertaste. This has residual honey characters showing some integrity. 10.5% alc. 13.0/20
1982: Deep golden orange with a little yellow. This shows sharp oxidation on bouquet, some caramel coming through. Medium-sweet to taste, a honey and oxidative amalgam remains on palate along with crisp acidity. There is good mouthfeel, but unfortunately the oxidation is too prominent. Front label deteriorated, alcohol % unreadable. 12.0+/20
1983: Deep golden orange colour. Some TCA and soft oxidation to the fore, but with nuances of toastiness and a little kero. Medium-dry, this has an elegant proportion and fine textured mouthfeel and core. Toasty elements with oxidation, but still with acid vitality. This bottle faded and probably tainted. Past low shoulder ullage equivalence. 11.5% alc. 10.5/20
1984: Deep golden orange colour, the nose has an unusual mix of herbaceous, sappy and herbal aromatics alongside lozenge and caramel, and a nuance of oxidation. Off-dry, this is light-bodied, thin, herbaceous in flavour with harsh acidity. Weak and watery in the wine department, and reflecting the cool vintage, but curiously not dead. Unpleasant. 11.5% alc. 9.5+/20
1985: Bright golden-yellow with lemon hues. This has a soft, gentle and integrated nose with wild honey and toast notes, building in depth. Medium-dry, this features succulent honey and sherbet flavours with toast, underlined by clean, soft acid. Quite complete and without overly broad, this is extremely developed, but still very attractive. This became dry with air time. 12.0% alc. 18.5-/20
1986: Deep golden orange in colour, not bright. The bouquet is marked by sherryish oxidation, quite firm and hard. Medium on palate, oxidation rules, but there is a lively sweetness and succulence from an esters lift that provides a modicum of appeal. 12.0% alc. 12.0/20
1987: Light golden yellow colour, this has freshness and an elegance on bouquet, honey, toast and some dried flowers. Medium in sweetness, there is some weight and a core to the palate line, with flavours of honey, sherbet and esters, the acidity quite soft. A touch drying on the finish, but in remarkable condition, showing no oxidation. 12.0% alc., 13 g/L rs, TA 7.5 g/L, pH 3.38. 17.5-/20
1988: Deep, orange gold in colour, the nose is sharp and oxidised, and quite light in expression. Medium-dry, this is very light in weight, but showing honey and lozenge flavours and burnt honey, the oxidation present, but not rampant. Good acidity carries the finish with length. Cyclone Bola vintage, with a little effect in Marlborough only. 12.0% alc., 12 g/L rs, TA 7.5 g/L, pH 3.4. 11.0-/20
1989: Deep, golden orange colour, this has a full, broad and open nose of caramel and toffee, with over-ripe tropical fruits, suggesting botrytis. Medium in sweetness, the palate is soft and gently presented, showing light and attractive flavours of toffee and burnt honey, a little flabby, but with residual acidity. No noticeable oxidation, but the fruit has pretty much faded. 12.5% alc., 14 g/L rs, TA 7.5 g/L, pH 3.4. 15.5/20
1990: Light golden-orange colour with yellow hues. This has a light honied nose with notes of caramel and an element of oxidation. Medium-dry and light weighted, honey and toast flavours feature, and attractive caramel notes emerge. The palate verges on thinness and the acidity is somewhat flat, but the softness and delicacy are positives. 11.5% alc., 13 g/L rs, TA 7.1 g/L, pH 3.2. 12.5/20
1991: Bright, light golden yellow colour. The nose is composed of yellow florals with honey, alongside notes of toast with fresh herbs. Medium-dry to taste, this is an elegantly proportioned wine with subtle and ethereal flavours of flowers, lime fruit and honey. The toasty characters are restrained. Fresh, lively acids are present, but in the final analysis somewhat on the thin side. 12.0% alc. 15.5/20
1993: Deep, light golden colour, the nose is marred by TCA cork taint which results in a herbal grubbiness to the aromatics of ripe citrus fruit. Off-dry to taste, this is light and even in expression, with gentle honey and toast notes to the citrus fruit. The TCA intrudes and builds in dirtiness and flattens the palate. 12.0% alc. 11.5/20
1994: Bright, even, light golden yellow colour, this has a fine and tightly bound bouquet, somewhat shy. Limes, honey and subtle toasty aromas are melded together. Medium-dry, this is gentle and easy, light in body, and quite subtle in flavour expression. Yellow florals, hints of honey, some lusciousness, and gentle nuances carry through on a good finish. There is balanced acidity contributing to the harmony, but in essence uncomplicated. Pleasant and textbook stuff, but in good condition for its age. 11.5% alc. 16.0+/20

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