Almost a year ago to the day I published a producer profile of Pegasus Bay, arguably the top producer in New Zealand’s Waipara, which included tasting notes on their stunning Chardonnay and Pinot Noir plus an aged sweet Riesling from my cellar. I recently spotted another of their wines for sale so snapped it up, their Sauvignon Semillon blend:
Pegasus Bay Sauvignon Semillon 2018
The pairing of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon is a staple of Bordeaux white wines – infact you could easily call it a White Bordeaux Blend as the counterpart to Cabernet / Merlot red blends. In the Graves, these white blends often have as much prestige as the reds, if not more, and of course Sauvignon and Semillon are the basis of Sauternes and other Bordelais sweeties. As temperatures have risen in Bordeaux, the higher acidity – and hence freshness – of Sauvignon has been at a premium, so the blend has moved decisively in favour of that variety.
Outside the Gironde, the Sauvignon/ Semillon blend has proved most successful in Western Australia’s Margaret River, a wine region founded on the premise that its climate was similar to that of Bordeaux. It has become such a mainstay of the region that few producers omit if from their portfolio.
Waipara’s temperate climate is suited for what I might call “cool+” climate varieties; those such as Riesling and Pinot Noir which really need a cap on temperatures, and those such as Chardonnay which are flexible and can be grown in a range of climates, albeit with differing styles.
Pegasus Bay’s Sauvignon and Semillon vines are over 30 years old and planted on poor fertility, free-draining soil and so have low yields. The old equation that low yields = high quality doesn’t always hold, but it does in this case. Concurrent freshness and ripeness are achieved thanks to the long Waipara growing season with warm days but cool nights.
The Pegasus Bay website’s tasting notes for this wine mention “a hint of struck match complexity” but to me this is a real understatement – I found it quite pronounced on opening the bottle, initially overwhelming the fruit. It also dominates the palate at this young age – and yes, it’s still a young wine as there is only one younger vintage released (2019) which probably hasn’t yet made its way up north from New Zealand. I found it far better integrated on the second day of tasting, where the reductive notes become a foil for the fruit rather than a blunt instrument that is constantly beating it up. If1 I were to buy another bottle I would either just lay it down for a few years or be better prepared and decant it for several hours before tasting.
This is not a cheap wine, but it compares favourably with Pessac-Léognan examples at twice the price – and it has a screwcap to seal2 the deal on longer ageing.
Stockists: O’Briens; The Corkscrew, Chatham St; wineonline.ie; Barnhill Stores; Pinto Wines, Drumcondra; Deveneys Dundrum, On The Grape Vine, Dalkey
When it comes to naming New Zealand’s wine regions, the significant region which is most often forgotten or overlooked is North Canterbury, close to the major city of Christchurch on the South Island. North Canterbury includes the sub-region of Waipara which is more often seen on wine labels (though not to be confused with Wairarapa which is at the bottom of the North Island and includes Martinborough). I’m not sure why Canterbury is overlooked – perhaps because it doesn’t specialise in Sauvignon Blanc? – but some great wines are made here.
Not too dissimilar to Marlborough which is further north on the South Island, Waipara is situated in the rain- (and wind-) shadow of the Southern Alps and is close to the sea, giving temperate summers with cool nights and dry autumns which allow grapes to achieve full phenolic ripeness as their own pace. The most important varieties here are Riesling and Pinot Noir, though other aromatic whites and Chardonnay also do well.
To show how the terms can be used interchangeably, note that the sign above mentions Waipara whereas the website banner states “Fine North Canterbury Wine” under “Pegasus Bay”
Background to Pegasus Bay
It started with a doctor reading a book. The doctor was Neurologist Ivan Donaldson and the book was one of Hugh Johnson’s wine books, “Wine”, given to him by his then girlfriend Christine. The book lit a fire within him; he journeyed round many of Europe’s well-established wine regions, and on his return he planted Canterbury’s first vines in 1976. This first vineyard was in Mountain View, just south west of Christchurch, and was very experimental in nature. Ivan managed to fit in his wine hobby in between hospital and private consulting work.
Almost a decade later, Ivan and Chris decided to make the jump from a hobby to a proper enterprise. By now they had four sons, so it was a combined family effort to plant vines in the Waipara Valley. They named their winery Pegasus Bay after the large bay running from the City of Canterbury up to the mouth of the Waipara River.1
The first vintage was 1991 which Ivan made in his garage. The family gradually expanded the winery, cellar door, restaurant and gardens. All four sons are now involved in the winery, with the eldest – Matthew, a Roseworthy graduate – being chief winemaker. As well as estate wines under the Pegasus Bay label the Donaldsons also make Main Divide wines from bought in fruit.
Pegasus Bay Wine Styles and Philosophy
In a nutshell, Pegasus bay wines have something of a Burgundian sensibility but they reflect Waipara and the vintage in which they are made. In a interview that Ed Donaldson gave for the Wine Zealand Project2 in 2016 he expounds the family’s philosophy:
So what drives us is – hopefully – making better wine all the time
One of the advantages [we have is that] my brother Matt’s taken over the winemaking so he has a lot of time to experiment, and to tweak, and to change, and see the wines age, and the vines getting some vine age, and just seeing what works and what doesn’t work, and continually trying to evolve and make better wine.
Our winemaking style is to be true to ourselves, not trying to emulate anything. We have a lot of respect for the old world and its wine styles. We as a family drink a lot of wine from all over the world but we’re not necessarily trying to emulate them, we’re trying to make the best example of what we think expresses the region and the season as best we can. Trying not to follow trends, we try to make the best wine we can and find a home for it.
We’ve been members of the Sustainable Winegrowers Programme pretty much since its inception, and we make wine as naturally as possible.
Pegasus Bay Wine Ranges
There are two main ranges, Estate and Reserve. The Estate wines are (obviously) made only with their own fruit, and although they are perhaps the junior wines in the Pegasus Bay portfolio they are not what you or I would call “entry level”, which has connotations of lower quality, simpler wines for drinking very young. Make no mistake, the Estate wines are seriously good.
The Reserve range is a significant step up again, in both quality and corresponding prices. This range includes two botrytis sweet wines; a Semillon Sauvignon blend reminiscent of Sauternes and a Riesling which evokes the Rhine. The Reserve wines are named with an operatic theme as Chris Donaldson is an opera devotee.
The Vengence range has just two experimental wines whose composition varies from year to year. They are totally different in style from the main two ranges; they are fun and quirky rather than being serious. They give the winemakers the opportunity to play around with different vineyard and winery choices that they couldn’t just jump into with the main ranges.
Reserve: Bel Canto Dry Riesling, Aria Late Picked Riesling, Virtuoso Chardonnay, Prima Donna Pinot Noir, Maestro Merlot/Malbec, Encore Noble Riesling, Finale Noble Semillon Sauvignon
Vergence: Vergence White (Semillon blend), Vergence Red (Pinot Noir)
Wines in bold are reviewed below
Pegasus Bay Chardonnay 2017
As with most of Pegasus Bay’s vines, this Chardonnay is harvested from vines which are mainly ungrafted. The vines now average 30 years old and are planted on rocky soils which are free draining and low in fertility. These facts all lead to lower yields but with concentrated flavours. The climate is warm, rather than hot, yet with cool nights, so the growing season is long.
I mentioned above that there’s a Burgundian sensibility to Pegasus Bay wines, but in the case of this Chardonnay the winemaking is definitely Burgundian in nature. Multiple passes were made to hand harvest the fruit at optimum ripeness. The grapes were whole bunch pressed then transferred to 500 litre oak barrels, 30% new and 70% used. Spontaneous fermentation took place in these puncheons and the young wine was left to mature on its lees over winter and spring. Malolactic fermentation started naturally into the summer months, with the winemaking team halting it based on regular tasting to get the balance between fresh malic and round lactic acids.
When poured this Chardonnay is a normal lemon colour. On the nose there are citrus fruits but they initially take a side seat to outstanding “struck-match” reductive notes. There are also soft yellow fruits and a stony mineral streak. The palate is magnificent, a really grown up Chardonnay that balances fruit, tanginess, minerality, freshness, texture and roundness. This is one of the most complete Chardonnays I’ve had the pleasure of trying in many years.
Stockists: Donnybrook Fair, Donnybrook; The Corkscrew, Chatham St.
Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2016
This 2016 pours a medium intensity ruby red, consistent across the glass. The nose has lots of fruit, more black than red; the black fruits appear at first (blackberry and black cherry) but gradually cede attention to red (red cherry and pomegranate). Enticing savoury notes and spice complete the olfactory picture. It’s a very sophisticated and complex nose that deserves – nay demands – frequent revisits.
The palate is savoury and fruity in taste. Those same black fruits come to the fore but with black liquorice and black olive counterpoints, Fine grained tannins and acidity provide a fantastic structure, but this is a supple and sappy wine, not austere.
The alcohol is little higher than we usually see in a Pinot Noir, but the 14.5% does not stick out at all when tasting. This is a well-balanced wine, albeit a powerful one. When it comes to food pairing, Pinot Noir is often matched with mid level meats such as veal or pork – and to be fair this would be excellent with charcuterie – but this has the weight and intensity to match well with game, lamb or even beef.
Stockists: 64 Wine, Glasthule; World Wide Wines, Waterford: The Corkscrew, Chatham St; Donnybrook Fair, Donnybrook; La Touche Wines, Greystones; D-Six, Harolds Cross
Pegasus Bay Encore Noble Riesling 2008
Pegasus Bay have four Rieslings in their portfolio, as befitting a top Waipara producer:
The Estate Riesling is produced every year
The Bel Canto (Reserve) Dry Riesling has a little botrytis and is made in two out of every three years, depending on vintage conditions
The Aria (Reserve) Late Picked Riesling is a late harvest style that often has a small proportion of Botryis grapes and is made roughly one on two years, vintage dependent
The Encore (Reserve) Noble Riesling is only made with fully botrytised berries, often requiring multiple passes, and of course when there are sufficient grapes in a particular vintage.
Only in very exceptional years such as 2008 and 2014 are all four styles made. The Riesling vines are on a rocky outcrop which has warm days but very cool nights, helping to maintain acidity and thus preserve freshness.
As the pure botrytis (and therefore sweetest) Riesling in their range, Pegasus Bay liken it in style to a Séléction de Grains Nobles (SGN) from Alsace or a Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) from Germany. When harvested the grapes are totally shrivelled and so produce a very small amount of juice – but such luscious juice! After clarification the juice is allowed to ferment naturally; when the yeast finishes its task there is plenty of residual sugar, though the precise figure is not published.
On the nose it’s instantly identifiable as Riesling, but with honey and tropical fruits to the fore. In addition to the pineapple, mango and grapefruit there are also hints of mushroom. The palate is beautiful but perhaps confounding for the uninitiated – it’s rich and sweet yet full of acidity, giving your palate a smorgasbord of experiences. The finish is amazingly long.
At 13 years of age this bottle has had plenty of development, possibly rounding off the acidity slightly while also tapering the apparent sweetness to some degree (the mechanism for which is not yet understood). It still has plenty of life left though – it could easily keep to the end of this decade.
RRP: €35 for 2016 vintage (375ml bottle)
Stockists: currently no retail stockists, but available in some restaurants
Source: own cellar
Other Pegasus Bay Wines available in Ireland
In addition to the three wines reviewed above there are three further Pegasus Bay wines available in Ireland
Sauvignon / Semillon: RRP €29, Stockists: Barnhill Stores, Dalkey; The Corkscrew; Jus De Vine, Portmarnock
Bel Canto Dry Riesling: RRP €35, currently no retail stockists, but available in some restaurants
Prima Donna Pinot Noir: RRP €75, Stockist: The Wine House, Trim
Frankly Wines and Pegasus Bay
Now, those who follow me on Instagram may realise that I live in the Dublin suburb of Glasnevin, also home to the National Botanic Gardens, the Irish Met office and the large Glasnevin cemetery. It was therefore a huge surprise when, while touring New Zealand on honeymoon, we suddenly realised that we were driving through Glasnevin, Canterbury. And where was our first stop? Pegasus Bay, of course!
1Ironically Pegasus Bay was originally known as “Cook’s Mistake” – I’m glad I didn’t find that out on my honeymoon!