2015 Wine in Review

So, it is that time of year where people release top ten lists and so forth. This is a top twenty of sorts, but broken down into ten categories that mean something to me (and I hope, you) with a winner and runner up... 

This year has been a challenge for me. Both generally and in relation to wine. It is the first year in many that I have tasted as widely as I have and this has opened my eyes to a lot of new things. I have also opened a restaurant, written and released a book and bought a house. This list is mostly, but not exclusively kiwi. Likewise I've also tried to include wines that are on the market (however rare) because, you know, thats the way I roll. 


Most challenging (and rewarding) wine...

These are wines that were just so different, standing out head and shoulders over the monotony screaming with personality and individuality and are challenging in a way that made me shift my preconceptions about wine in general. These are not wines for everybody but they deserve to be celebrated. 

Runner up: 2013 Paltrinieri 'Greto' Lambrusco DOC

Funky, bone dry, red and sparkling. Not what I was expecting but a stunning wine and one which is an amazing buy for under $20 retail. I'm going to be drinking a lot of this over summer. 

Winner: 2014 Milton Libiamo 

Wow! This is a head-fuck of a wine. This year has seen a lot talk about natural wine in general and orange wine in particular both those who love the wines and hate the wines have been equally loud and sometimes vitriolic. The arguments are getting tiresome. Both camps are right (and wrong): yes, they are here to stay but they will only ever represent a fraction of the market. At Hillside, we've been supportive of these wines (but not out of devotion to any worldview) because they are interesting, different and challenging. Challenging (as this category suggests) often equates directly to rewarding. This wine is both. Aged on skins for 78 days it is a wall of tannin but is also a beautiful expression of vintage, variety, vineyard and the personality of its creator James Milton. To me, these four things in balance is the ultimate expression of wine. It has taught me something about orange wine too - the process can seriously mute varietal characters so imho those varieties with heightened aromatics (Gewurtztraminer as is the case for Libiamo) but also Sauvignon and to a lesser extent Riesling trump less aromatic varieties like Pinot Gris and Chardonnay (although there are exceptions such as the fantastic Mount Edward 'Clockwork' Orange). And needless to say when it comes to skin contact wines, while it is not the case for this one, less is often more. 


Wine that shifted my thinking...

These two wines are chosen because they made me think very differently about a variety, region, winemaker or combination of the above that I had previously discounted. 

Runner up: 2010 Terroir Wines BDX

80% Cabernet, 20% Merlot from Martinborough. To me this would always be a challenging proposition to the point where previously I would have said, "why bother, this is going to be too green, and whats more, way to hard to sell". But it is fantastic. Super ripe, pure and focused with edge and drinkability. The 11 is better in every way (it is also 20% more expensive and not in my opinion 20+% better). Damn good wine. Get some.  

Winner: 2014 Savage 'Follow the Line'

I don't often also buy wines for both myself and the restaurant, this is one of those exceptions. A truly beautiful blend of rhone varieties, starring Cinsaut and from the Western Cape in South Africa. First off, the variety. Usually starring in lesser southern French blends (that have a coarseness that I am rarely fond of), I've never seen a Cinsaut with such purity, poise and grace. Something that further surprised me considering the region too. Light in body and colour but wonderfully aromatic and spice. It has power and presence without being overbearing.  


Best Value...

Not the cheapest, but the wines that to my mind offer amazing bang for buck. Both retail for under $25 but that is more of a coincidence than something planned

Runner up: 2014 Colombo Syrah

This was a hard pick for me, but the Colombo came in a hair over the slightly less expensive Ash Ridge (also HB Syrah). Bright, fruity, expressive of vineyard and vintage but also unique. Has the poise of a Pinot with cranberry and white pepper. Bloody good. 

Winner: 2014 RM Wines Two Gates Gewurtztraminer

Its not your proto-typical gewurtz. Bone dry and more musky than spicy/floral. That said it is delicious and was our 'house white' in the restaurant for a few months. We will be drinking it at the wedding in January. 


Most exciting wine....

Not necessarily the best but the wines that exited my palate... These are the wines that when opened you are forced to text wine buddies to come taste or simply force a glass into the hands of unsuspecting passers by. 

Runner up: 2014 Kindeli 'La Zorra'

Skin fermented (a.k.a. orange or amber wine) has featured heavily in my life this year. I am a convert but not a blinkered one. They can be extremely challenging and some are, put simply, fucking awful. But those go for wine in general. This has been one of the most rewarding. It is Chardonnay and unlike many orange wines, still tastes varietally pure. It has been a great tool to have in the arsenal and has matched amazingly well to countless dishes.

Winner: Bellbird Spring Sous Voille

Another challenging style but one that forces you to stand up and take notice. Essentially a sherry style (part way between a manzanilla and palo cortado maybe) but grown in Canterbury and made from Pinot Gris. Aged in the traditional solera method with a veil (hence the name) of flor yeast this is bone dry but jumpy, nutty and thoroughly refreshing. 


Overrated Wine Trend...

Here we come to the part of the discussion where I might alienate people. If this is the case, apologies. These are the things in the wine world that I'm 

Runner up: 2013 Hawkes Bay Wines

So much have been made of "the vintage of the century" for Hawkes Bay. Truth be told the wines are fantastic, but so are the 2014's (and if you are a Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay drinker - arguably better at times). There are certain powerful producers in HB who like to scream about how amazing every vintage is, maybe its because their customer bases are extremely traditional and are still obsessed about 'good' and 'great' vintages (these customers are, to be polite, 'aging out'). TBH I don't care about vintage any more. Yes, in the very best (and very worst) years wines are a little better or a little worse than usual but in 2015 this is far less important than producer, vineyard or designation. Heralding these vintages is overstated and overrated and while it may shift units of that vintage, overall it isn't helping you to sell wine, especially not to emerging consumers. 

Winner: Natural Wine

As I said in relation to Millton's fantastic Libiamo, there has been a lot of talk about both Natural Wine and Orange Wine. I want to congratulate Bob Campbell MW on his honesty in regards to his personal preferences when he weighed in on the subject. The argument itself is best summed up in this Guardian article. But briefly, Natural Wine can be challenging and at times can be faulty. This turns the wine establishment off as they have been taught that faulty = bad. Most of the time it does. But some of the most interesting wines I have tasted have had flaws. Wine, you see, can be more than the sum of its parts. I could go on, and on, and on hashing out each side of the arguement... but I guess thats why its the most overrated trend. 


Wine Trend...

Runner up: PET NAT

Petillant Natural aka PET NAT is a darling of the Natural Wine scene. Essentially these are lightly sparkling wines made from allowing a small amount of residual sugar / yeast to remain in a wine before bottling and then ferment out creating a light fizz. These are wines of the moment both figuratively and literally. They are made to drink now and also only last open a few hours. But the best are typically lower in alcohol, absolutely delicious, offer amazing value for money can be made with almost any variety. Pour me a glass now. Look out for wines from Kindeli, Cambridge Road

Winner: Colaboration Wines 

Collaborations have been a thing in beer for a while and there have also been some super high-profile ones in the wine world but these have been more about marketing and production logistics than the coming together of minds. More and more producers are coming together to create wines together. I think the best results occur here when producers with similar philosophies but from different regions come together, it can also work well when people from other parts of the trade or from outside of the trade (such as fashion houses) come together to make a wine. One of the best examples of this is salo / Leheny Gibson. salo are a Yarra Valley producer that makes a HB Syrah with the fruit from Bilancia - owned by Trinity Hill winemaker Warren Gibson and his wife (also an accomplished winemaker) Lorraine Gibson. They in turn release a Yarra Valley Chardonnay under the Leheny Gibson label which they describe thus: "our ‘side project’, showcasing wines from beyond our normal Hawke's Bay roots, wines from classic wine regions that are stretching the boundaries of style and quality….….oh, and some Olive Oil, maybe white wine vinegar….family projects!" These wines (and colab wines in general) are about sharing ideas and creating something bigger than one producer could do on their own - they also serve a marketing purpose... cross-exposing consumers to each others wine. This is real, honest marketing and it works. 


Up and coming producer...

Runner up: Colombo Wines

Mentioned in regards to their stella syrah, Colombo have burst on to the scene. The wines are consistently good, varietally pure and offer excellent value for money. They are also expressive, unique and have soul. Committed to their Martinborough vineyard Carolyn and Baptiste have also made Marlborough and Hawkes Bay wines. 

Winner: Don / Kindeli

Winemaker Alex Craighead (alongside his partner Josephina) is behind these wines and they are fantastic. Some are challenging (such as the Don Orange Pinot Gris and Kindeli 'La Zorra'). While priced similarly, Kindeli represents a more whimsical approach and Don a more serious, terroir expressive stance.  Alex is at the vanguard of Natural Wine in NZ and is an active ambassador both in NZ and abroad. They offer excellent value for money, are presented impeccably and are among the most food friendly, enjoyable wines I've seen this year. The first releases have been from Martinborough fruit but they also promise Nelson and HB wines in the near future. 


Producer of the year...

This the producer who I've found to put out consistently good, reliable, and some times exceptional wine. Everything has to be good and some has to be great. They also have to offer exceptional value. 

Runner up: Villa Maria

I might get lynched for saying this, but I love the wines of Villa Maria. Year on year, of all of the producers in NZ they are the most consistent at every level of the market. Each brand imprint has a separate identity that makes sense and the wines express this. The wines are commercial but they are everything that is good about commercial wine. From the $12 Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc to the $180 Esk Valley Terraces they guarantee to put smiles on faces, each time, every time. 

Winner: Black Estate

Simply put, the Black Estate wines are fantastic. They are pure, focused and express the personality of the vineyard, vintage and winemaker. They are approachable but also easily able to hold the attention of any serious wine drinker.  I thought the sweeter style riesling a more pure expression of site than the dryer recent vintages but they are one of the few producers where I would be happy to stand behind/list/drink any wine made by Black Estate.  


Best wine media...

Either online or in print (but also includes podcasts, videos...) these are the resources that I have found most rewarding this year... 

Runner up (Tie): Tim Atken MW and The Hosemaster of Wine

This is a tie because Ron Walsham (Hosemaster) does his best work on Atken's site. The site has a great depth of content and a good balance between tasting notes, commentary and opinion and has excellent, in depth regional reports and a diverse list of contributors (Tim - do you want a beer writer? You know you do!. The site is not behind a paywall which is a plus and the most enjoyable thing about it is that Atken allows all point of views and can play devils advocate such as in the two part series "In praise of natural wine" and "An antagonists view of natural wine" - both penned by Atken. The most enjoyable part of the site though is Ron Walsham's hilarious satyrical columns (there are more of these over on his blog, The Hosemaster of Wine). He is unafraid of firing shots over the bow's of the establishment as his recent furore with the Riedel Corporation attests. However my favourite of his recent pieces is this one, hamming the lovely Le Pan magazine.

"We are creating the world’s finest wine and lifestyle magazine for those who are clueless about actual style and desperately need to get a life. We curate only the best of the best whether it be wine, cuisine, luxury experience or goods — for one thing, the free samples are better that way, and, believe me, MWs are very picky about free samples. Our voice will be authoritative, sophisticated, educated and assured, except in the Chinese edition where it will be far more pedantic and condescending. Believe me, they like that. We edit out all the complicated wine stuff, and just tell them what all the billionaire Europeans and Americans are drinking. Really, we’re just fucking with them. You’re the audience we want. Because if you don’t read our English-language edition, none of the Chinese will believe anything we say! Let’s keep that between us, shall we?"

Winner: Punch Magazine

I've only discovered Punch recently but I have gone back and devoured lots of older articles. It is a drinks publication rather than one devoted to wine and as such brings a unique, fresh and engaging perspective. Among my favourite articles is "Reconsidering the Influence of the Wine Store" which delves into the touchy subject that while Somms and Winemakers get all the limelight, it is the retail buyers who have a lot of power, bemoaning their lack of (comparative) celebrity and celebrating the best of the best. By far and away the best article I have read all year is "Is Wine Developing Its Own Version of Nomcore":

"For a new generation of wine drinkers, seeking out esoteric and unusual wines became a way of establishing a different value system, one that ignored past status symbols of crus, points and high price tags. Buoyed by adventurous importers, retailers and sommeliers, an alternative wine canon emerged and evolved; cru Beaujolais and traditional Rioja became the gateway to Jura and orange wines.

But now that these producers and grapes have become somewhat commonplace, “cool” wine is at a crossroads. What began as a search for value in the undiscovered has, for some, become a transfer of value onto the wine’s obscurity itself—the difference between “this undiscovered wine is cool” and “this wine is cool because it’s undiscovered.” And it’s here, where maintaining the frontiers of the obscure-cool gets increasingly untenable, that wine begins to look more like the pre-normcore fashion world."


Wine of the year...

Simple... the best, most memorable wine I have tasted this year. 

Runner up: 2013 Trinity Hill Homage

Wow! Structured, elegant and masculine. This is an uncompromising wine and a truly great one. No longer 100% Gimlet Gravels fruit it bucks the trend and harks to a more traditional style of HB Syrah as even the more serious examples these days have forward fruit (and/or over the top wood spice). Its damn good. 

Winner: 2013 Millton Clos de Ste. Anne 'Le Bas' Chenin Blanc

This is far and away the hardest wine to pick. Picking the runner up was easier - which does not make much sense. But this wine is fantastic. Millton has always made amazing Chenin however this takes it to another level. Quite simply the finest NZ white wine I have ever tasted. And thats saying something. Bone dry with pure, driven acidity this wine is a stunning expression of Chenin that stands shoulder to shoulder with the worlds best. I just can't wait to taste it in 10 years. 


Next week... 2015 Beer in Review. 


Quotes from TimAtken.com and PunchDrink.com were used with permission.