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Urlar – A Transition in Progress

By March 18, 2017No Comments
I’ve always had an active interest in the evolution of Urlar, the winegrowing venture of Angus and Davina Thomson in Gladstone. Coming from a Scottish farming history, they established their vineyard in 2004, and it was evident from their first releases that their aim was for quality. The name ‘Urlar’ which in Gaelic means ‘The Earth’ also represented their respect for the growing environment, and they have employed organic and biodynamic practices from the start, becoming BioGro certified organic in 2010.

The wines have evolved over the years, and transition is continuous. Guy McMaster, winemaker and viticulturist at Urlar for nine years guided the wine styles towards that of serious sophistication and significant textural expression. The wines became recognised for their complexity and were soon appreciated by the enthusiast market for that style.

With Guy’s departure, Carol Bunn, the talented and well-known Central Otago winemaker took up the reins in time for the 2016 vintage. I visited Urlar this time last year, soon after Carol joined up with Angus and Davina. It was indeed an exciting time with plenty of challenges ahead for all (click here to see my report). The growing season for the 2016 vintage, combined with Angus’s desire for wines with more fruity expression, and Carol’s natural sense of winemaking, have led to the new wines showing a stylistic change. The change can be seen in the 2015 wines, made by Guy, but finished by Carol, and especially in the 2016 vintage wines, made by Carol from the ground up (click here to see my report on tasting the newly fermented wines late in April last year).

The change towards a more fruit-expressive style is something that was felt would be appreciated by a wider segment of the market. However, both Angus and Carol are aware of making any radical alterations, as this could confuse existing clientele. Having tasted wines from Urlar from 2014, 2015 and 2016, it can be seen that the transition is happening; the 2015 wines stylistically bridging the 2014s and 2016s. Across all of the wines, there is a strong definition of character, which reflects the vineyard, the soils, and the terroir as the commonality. There is certainly no loss of quality, and quite possibly an increase. In the final analysis, it is a matter of style interpretation and preference that will decide how the wines are received by the market. I for one am impressed by the wines made in 2016. www.urlar.co.nz

Davina Thomson & Carol Bunn – Urlar

Tasting the 2016 Wines
I made a quick visit to Urlar to taste a selection of wines with Carol Bunn and Davina Thomson. It was timely, as vintage 2017 was looming, so it was good to get in before it started getting very busy. Carol reported that at this stage, 2017 looks very good. The vineyard was healthy through intensive work throughout the year which they attribute to under-vine cultivation, the use of biodymamic preparations and opening the canopy at key times. Yields were on target at around 4 tonnes per hectare. The good weather needed to be maintained until the end of the month to give promise of an excellent harvest. Following are my notes on the wines tasted. The whites had only just been bottled, and the 2016 Pinot Noirs were tank samples.

The White Wines
The change to greater fruitiness was evident in the Riesling where purity was enhanced, as well as Sauvignon Blanc, both the ‘regular’ bottling as well as the ‘Select Parcels’, with bold thiol passionfruit in the former, and bright green stonefruits in the latter. The 2016 wines showed a lighter textural touch too. The comparison of the 2015 and 2016 Pinot Gris wines reinforced these changes. The 2015 Pinot Gris seemed to possess a degree of freshness as well as the complex savoury expression and weight that has been the norm over the past vintages. The 2016 focusses on aromatics and fragrance, and is ‘lighter on its feet’.

Urlar Gladstone Riesling 2016
Bright, pale straw colour. The nose shows aromatic purity with lime fruit and exotic floral notes. Dry to taste, the fruit is luscious in expression with limes and florals. The fruit is tightly bound with fine textures from the fruit extract. Acidity is fresh, but soft. This feels as if it is low pH. Flavours of wet-stone minerals unfold adding a layer of firmness and quenchability. This has lovely Riesling finesse and florality. This is 12.0% alc. and 5 g/L RS, the TA is around 8 g/L and pH pretty much on 3.0. 12% fermented in older oak.

Urlar Gladstone Sauvignon Blanc 2016
Tank fermented with a portion of the wine finishing ferment in barrel. 3 months on gross lees. Bright straw-yellow colour. The nose is redolent of passionfruit and tropical fruits, with subtle fresh herb and gooseberry notes. The aromatics are elegant in presentation, with good intensity, and classical in varietal character. On palate fresh and zesty, with lifted passionfruit flavours, and notes of chalky minerals. Very fine featured and textured, with soft, but bright acidity. This has all the up-front fruitiness with a degree of accessibility.

Urlar ‘Select Parcels’ Gladstone Sauvignon Blanc 2016
Fully barrel-fermented, 9 months in barrel with approx. 40% MLF. Straw-yellow with slight golden hues. On first nose, the sweet and toasty oak apparent, but then green stonefruits emerge. Nectarines, greengages and spicy herbs unfold. On palate this has lovely freshness and vibrancy, the green stonefuits and spicy herbs melded harmoniously with the oak. The textures show creaminess from the barrel-ferment, but this is balanced by acid cut. I expect this to grow in richness and weight with deeper fruit flavours. The complexity built into this is bound to show.

Urlar Gladstone Pinot Gris 2015
Light golden-yellow colour. Relatively elegant, but this is well-concentrated with complex, savoury yellow stonefruit aromas with nutty lees work. The aromatics retain an underlying freshness, Dry to taste and full-bodied, this is a wine of power and concentration, showing savoury complexing layers of stonefruits, florals and nutty notes. Even an oxidative element contributing to the detail. The palate has balance textures, grip and acid freshness. The wine flows with power. Certainly in the savoury and weighty camp.

Urlar Gladstone Pinot Gris 2016
Light golden-yellow colour. This has a fresh nose with white stonefruit aromas and lifted florals. Some rose-petal notes with honeysuckle. Dry to taste, the aromatic fruit is the feature. White stonefruits, clean and clear in presentation, with exotic floral and tropical fruit hints, along with honeysuckle. Very refined textures and fresh acidity lend elegance. The palate has yet to show its full weight and detail. The leesy interest still to unfold. A wine of beauty and fragrance, which will fill out with more substance in time.

The Pinot Noirs
There were significant differences between the 2015 wine and two 2016 Pinot Noir wines. No doubt some of this is due to vintage variation, the 2015s showing a lighter and more accessible character, as I’ve experienced generally in the Wairarapa district to date. But also, some of the differences must be attributable to Carol’s handling of the fruit, elevage and blending. The 2016s show darker fruit with more vibrancy, though not quite like Central Otago! There is a step up in concentration and depth with the ‘Select Parcels’, as can be expected. Both 2016 Pinot Noirs come in at just a smidgen under 13.0% alcohol, showing flavour and phenolic ripeness without excessive alcohols.

Urlar Gladstone Pinot Noir 2015
Light ruby-red colour with some depth, and purple suggestions. The nose is elegant in proportion and tightly bound with fragrant red berry fruits unfolding a layering of savoury dried herb and complexing whole cluster stalk notes. A medium-bodied wine with rounded soft red berry fruit flavours entwined with whole bunch stalk, and dried herb flavours. The mouthfeel features soft extraction and textures, with some acid cut providing freshness. There is a completeness to the wine, and it will be relatively forward, say for drinking within 4-5 years. This is representative of the Wairarapa in style. Around 30% whole bunch, 10 months in oak, 20% new.

Urlar Gladstone Pinot Noir 2016 Tank Sample
Dark, deep, purple red colour. The nose possesses ripe dark red berry fruit aromas, along with fragrant violet perfumes. Subtle notes of dark and dried herbs unfold. Is this the whole bunch? This has elegance in presentation. On palate the fruit flavours of dark-red berry and black cherries show with juiciness and lusciousness. The definition is very clear. The mouthfeel is refined with supple tannin extraction and soft, balanced acidity. Notes of liquorice and spices emerge in the glass. Beautifully ripened and refined, this will be an elegant number. Approx. 10% whole cluster.

Urlar ‘Select Parcels’ Gladstone Pinot Noir 2016 Tank Sample
A selection from the vineyard, rather than a selection at barrel stage. Approx. 20% whole bunch and 50% new oak. Dark, deep, purple-red colour. This has a firmly concentrated and intensely packed nose of black cherry and blackberry fruits along with violet floral lift. Some toast oak and maybe a hint of complexing reduction on the nose? The palate is well-packed with deeply concentrated black fruits. Some riper plum notes too. The florality remains a strong component. Layers of whole bunch and spices, with oak adding to the richness. Fine grained tannin extraction and integrated acidity allow the fruit to prevail. This has weight and presence. A 5-star wine with 8+ years aging ahead.


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