On Monday evening I attended the Wellington leg of Hot Red Hawke's Bay. Hot Red is an annual showcase for both the trade (in the day) and the public (in the evening). Obviously the trade event is free, where the public event is $40 per person. My ticket to the public event was kindly supplied by Hawke's Bay Winegrowers who organize the event.
Hot Red originally started out as a red wine only event (hence the name) but now wineries can showcase whichever wines they wish. There were 28 wineries (29 in Auckland) showing 200 wines at the event so there is definitely opportunity for serious tasters to get their moneys worth. It was at Te Papa and there was also an excellent array of antipasto and canapes circulating throughout the evening.
But I'm not here to talk fluff. Over the course of an hour and a half (the whole event goes for three) I tasted about 50 wines and took notes on just under 30. 'Notes' is actually a pretty generous description for my scribblings; one (2013 Esk Valley Late Harvest Chenin Blanc) simply reads "lovely".
I'm not going to go through all the wines, rather I am going to go through my highlights, discuss trends I see emerging and name my favourite wines in three categories: below $20, $20 - $45 and above $45.
Wow! Almost everyone from the Bay has been raving on about how awesome the 2013 vintage is. To be honest I've been beginning to file it away as brandwank as they have had some great vintages in the last few years ('05, '06, '07 & '09) and after the relatively disappointing '11 and '12 it is understandable that producers want something to herald. It was exciting then to try (only a handful mind you) of top tier 2013 wines. These included barrel samples of Mills Reef Elspeth Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, Trinity Hill Montepluciano (which will be released under their black, Gimblett Gravels label) and several top end Chardonnay which I will get into later. The top wines have amazing concentration, depth and class and should renew interest in Hawke's Bay both domestically and internationally. The entry level and mid tier wines are also sensational, the reds are rich and full, as are the commercial Chardonnay's (as well they should be).
Wow! This tasting reminded me just how awesome HB Chardonnay can be at every price point. I really enjoyed the 12's as coming from a cool vintage they had masses of acid which I love but from a more commercial POV the '13 vintage wines at the more affordable end of the market are rich, full of masses of fruit and have a lot of character. The best example of this was the truly fantastic '13 Villa Maria Cellar Selection. Style at the top end has really matured as well. The best wines balance richness and bright fruit with judicious oak, crisp acid (which means they age) and are made with respect to the vineyard. My top picks were (the now sold out) '13 Sacred Hill Riflemans, '13 Mills Reef Elspeth, '12 Two Gates by Rod McDonald and 2012 Trinity Hill.
I mentioned the '13 Trinity Hill earlier but I was also impressed buy the 2010 Beach House. Both of these wines were extremely impressive and struck a nice balance between classical Monte' (which goes well with Pizza and Pasta) and the spoofulated super modern examples with silly price tags. Both wines were able to maintain their Monetpluciano-ness (i.e. I want to eat them with spicy sausage pizza) but still be firmly rooted in the New World.
Consistency (2011 and 2012)
As I mentioned earlier 2011 and 2012 were very difficult vintages for Hawke's Bay. But it is the difficult vintages that prove both the region's and individual producers mettle. Other than a couple of very small producers who shall remain nameless, every wine I tried from these vintages (very few premium wines were made in this vintage) were delicious. Between $15 and $35 wines from decent - well regarded producers from this vintage are extremely enjoyable, offer value at the various price points and most importantly taste like what they are and where they come from. I think that this is something consumers, even those at the price conscious (rather than price driven) end of the market are beginning to demand. There were in fact a couple of Syrah's from these vintages such as the 2011 Beach House that I preferred stylistically to the supposedly 'better' 2010s. Lets discuss that later. My point is that even in very difficult years HB offers predictably consistent quality most of the time, this is something to be celebrated in and of itself.
I have always been a strong advocate for HB Syrah but either the dominant style is changing or my tastes are (or both). It seems to me that winemakers are favouring a fruit heavy approach with masses of sweet berry and plum, high proportions of Vioginer (or blending Viognier rather than the traditional co-fermentation) giving the wines gaudy perfume, OTT spice and rich overt oak. Structurally they lack acid and tannin structure. It may be obvious but I don't enjoy this approach, my favourite wines to be in a much more restrained, savoury style with subtle, layered spice, soft feminine aromatics and length and freshness coming from a balance between acid and tannin. I want 'beautiful' rather than 'pretty'. Is that too much to ask? Here are my picks of what was on offer: '12 Te Mata Bullnose (I know I bagged it in a previous post but it was showing amazingly well), '10 Vidal Legacy, '10 Esk Valley Winemakers Reserve, '10 Unison and the '09 The Cypress.
I hinted at this earlier when I was writing about Monte but some of the most exciting wines being made in the Bay are no longer traditional varieties. Chenin and Verdelho from Esk Valley, the odd premium Arneis, Gruner from Lime Rock, Te Mata Gamay, Tempranillo from Trinity Hill, Church Road Marzemino and even Grenache (in good years) are cementing themselves. People are no longer buying these wines because they are new, they are buying them because they are awesome wines, offer value for money and bring something different to the table.
The simultaneous rise and decline of Viognier
A few years ago it felt like there were so much Vioginer on the market, most trying to compete with Pinot Gris in the sub $20 region. Sub $20 Viognier sucks and almost everyone (consumers, producers, the trade and even us hacks) have realized it. If you want Viognier under $20 go to Australia. I admit, there are a couple of wines that knock it out of the park in this price bracket, this only occurs with a couple of producers where they have access to several excellent vineyard sites and are committed to keeping their premium offerings premium. This aside there are some amazing examples in the $20 - $30 bracket in two main styles. First there are fresher, prettier, extremely aromatic examples such as the 2013 Quartre Acre, then there are the richer, smoky, exotically spiced styles such as the 2013 Elephant Hill. There are still wines around that are taking richness and oak too far but they are becoming few and far between. Viognier is here to stay and while there may be fewer on the market the ones that are left are getting better and better every vintage.
Below $20: 2013 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Chardonnay ($16)
In two words: Smooth + Seductive.
$20 - $45: 2011 Beach House Syrah ($25)
In two words: Spicy, aromatic.
Above $45: 2009 The Cypress ($88)
In two words: Concentrated power.