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!
What Would Robin Hood Drink (WWRHD) if he were around today? What would make his men merry? I put it to you that he would enjoy the fine wines of SherwoodEstate and Ken Forrester!
These two fine producers make wines from several other varieties, but for comparative purposes I will review their equivalent Sauvignon Blancs:
Sherwood Estate Waipara Sauvignon Blanc 2018
One mistake many people make is too assume that all New Zealand Sauvignons are from Marlborough. Yes, the north east of the South Island is the biggest Sauvignon producing region and has become the ambassador for Kiwi wine, but Nelson (north west of the South Island), Wairarapa (south of the North Island) and Waipara (north of Canterbury on the South Island) also make some great examples.
In 1987 – still the early days of the modern NZ wine industry – Jill and Dayne Sherwood dived headlong into producing wine at West Melton, just west of Christchurch. The industry was in turmoil at the time, but they were successful enough to survive and outgrow their West Melton property. They then moved around an hour north into Waipara which was an area full of unrealised promise. With their drive and perseverance they turned Sherwood Estate into one of the largest independent New Zealand wineries.
The firm now has six different vineyard sites around Waipara including Glasnevin, named after a famous district of Dublin. Their wine offerings have also branched out (pun intended) to four different ranges plus two different sparklers. The Sherwood range wines “are premium, everyday wines, made in a ‘hands-off’ style with little interruption in the winery” and consist of five varietals:
The Sauvignon Blanc we have here is unoaked and made conventionally. The juice undergoes a cool fermentation for three weeks. The must is then left on the fine lees for three months which adds depth. The finished wine combines green (herbs, bell pepper, grass) and fruit (lime, lemon, grapefruit and passion fruit) notes. This zesty wine shows how good Sauvignon Blanc can be outside Marlborough.
Ken Forrester Stellenbosch Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2018
Ken Forrester is something of a legend in Stellenbosch and South Africa as a whole. He and his wife Teresa bought a derelict farm in 1993, though the property was created as far back as 1689.
All the pruning and harvesting work in the vineyard is done by hand for two reasons. Firstly, it allows the vineyard team to pay very close attention to detail for quality reasons. Secondly, it offers more employment for people in the local community.
There are currently four separate ranges which each have several blends and varietals:
Icon: The FMC (Chenin), The Gypsy, (Rhône blend), T Noble Late Harvest (Chenin)
Cellar door exclusives – Sparklehorse MCC, Three Halves (Rhône blend), Roussanne, Dirty Little Secret TWO (Natural Chenin)
The grapes for the Reserve Sauvignon come from three are sourced from 3 vineyard sites scattered across the coastal region: Stellenbosch, Elim and Darling. Some – though not all – are old vines, increasing concentration and depth of flavour. After fermentation the wine spends eight weeks on fine lees.
For many years I have regarded South African Sauvignons as being stylistically half way between Loire and NZ styles, but I think it’s time we (I) forgot the comparisons and just regard them as their own thing. This one has lots of green notes, but is not under-ripe; mangetout is then joined by some juicy stone fruit and the finish is long, crisp and clean. Unlike some other SA SBs I’ve tried, the alcohol is fairly restrained at 13.0%.
I love sweet wines, whether with dessert, instead of dessert, or at any time I fancy them. They can actually pair well with savoury dishes of many types, depending on their prominent flavours, richness, acidity and sugar levels. For example, late harvest Gewurztraminer from Alsace is amazing with foie gras, and off dry to medium wines often work well with exotic Asian fare.
There are several methods of making sweet wines, the simplest being to leave the grapes on the vine while they continue to produce sugars, and harvest them later. A further step is to allow noble rot (botrytis cinerea) to attack the grapes and dry them out, thereby concentrating the sugars. Other traditions involve sun or air drying to reduce water levels.
Whichever way is used, balance is the key, particularly the balance between sugar and acidity. This means that even lusciously sweet wines can avoid being cloying, which is usually a turn off.
Here are ten of the sweet wines which really impressed me in 2015:
I first tried a Berton wine from Coonawarra, my favourite red wine region of the world. It was perhaps a little less fruit forward than some from the area but had the most pronounced spearmint aromas that I’ve ever encountered in a wine (for the avoidance of doubt this is a positive for me!)
The Riverina area in the middle of New South Wales is an irrigated bulk wine producing region, and is where many of Australia’s inexpensive bottles (and boxes!) are produced. Due to humidity close to the major rivers it is also a source for excellent botrytis style stickies (as the locals call them), including the fabulous De Bortoli Noble One.
Semillon’s thin skins make it particularly susceptible to noble rot – which is why it is so successful in Sauternes and Barsac – and so it proves in Berton’s version. I’m not going to claim that this has the intensity of Noble One but it does a damned good impression – and at a far lower price. Amazing value for money!
9. Miguel Torres Vendimia Tardia “Nectaria” Botrytis Riesling 2009 (€19.99 (375ml) Sweeney’s of Glasnevin and Carry Out Off-Licence in Ongar, Dublin 15)
Familiarity with Spanish or another romance language reveals that this is a Late Harvest style, with the addition of Botrytis characters. It was one of the stand out wines of the Chilean Wine Fair – though being different in a sea of Sauvignon, Carmenère and Cabernet probably helped.
As you may or may not know, Miguel Torres wines are the Chilean outpost of the Spanish Torres family’s operations, with quality and value both prominent. The key to this wine is the streak of acidity cutting through the sweetness – the hallmark of a great Riesling dessert wine.
8. San Felice Vin Santo 2007 (€19.49 (375ml) O’Briens)
As someone who generally likes Italian wine and has a soft spot for sweet wines, I’ve nearly always been disappointed by Vin Santos I’ve tried. I don’t think my expectations were too high, it’s just that the oxidative (Sherry-like) notes dominated the other aspects of the wines.
This is different – perfectly balanced with lovely caramel and nut characters. It’s made from widely grown grapes Trebbiano Toscano (75%) and Malvasia del Chianti (25%) which aren’t generally known for their character, but it’s the wine-making process that makes the difference. Bunches of grapes are dried on mats to reduce water content then pressed as normal. After fermentation the wine is aged five years in French barriques then a further year in bottle. A real treat!
7. Le Must de Landiras Graves Supérieurs 2004 (Direct from Château)
White Graves – particularly those from the subregion of Pessac-Léognan – are in my opinion the most underappreciated of all Bordeaux wines. Even less commonly known are the sweeter wines from the area – and to be honest the average wine drinker would be hard pressed to know when there’s often no mention of sweetness on the bottle, they are just “expected to know” that “Graves Supérieures” indicated higher sugar rather than higher quality.
Being close to Sauternes shouldn’t make the production of sweet wines a surprise, but then few people carry a map around in their head when tasting!
Simply put, this is probably the best sweet Graves I’ve ever had. See this article for more details.
6. Longview Epitome Late Harvest Riesling 2013 (€16.99, O’Briens)
Riesling in Australia is nearly always bone dry and dessert wines usually use Semillon for late harvest styles or Rhône varieties for fortifieds, but when done well they can be sensational.
This was such a hit at the O’Briens Autumn Press Tasting that two other of my fellow wine writers picked it out for recommendation, namely Richie Magnier writing as The Motley Cru and Suzi Redmond writing for The Taste. Imagine the softness of honey with the fresh zip of lime at the same time – something of a riddle in your mouth, but so moreish!
In its home region of the Loire, Chenin Blanc comes in all different types of sweetness, with and without botrytis. Its natural acidity makes it a fine grape for producing balanced sweet wines.
David Trafford picks the Chenin grapes for his straw wine at the same time as those for his dry white, but then has the bunches dried outside for three weeks before pressing. After a very long fermentation (the yeast takes a long time to get going in such a high sugar environment) the wine is matured in barriques for two years.
I had the good fortune to try this delicious wine with David Trafford himself over dinner at Stanley’s Restaurant & Wine Bar – for a full report see here. Apricot and especially honey notes give away the Chenin origins, and layers of sweetness remain framed by fresh acidity.
4. Pegasus Bay Waipara “Encore” Noble Riesling 2008 (~£25 (375ml) The Wine Society
This is the gift that keeps on giving…I bought my wife a six pack of this wine a few years ago, as it was one we really enjoyed on our honeymoon tour of New Zealand, and she is so parsimonious that we haven’t finished them yet!
This is in a similar vein to the Epitome Riesling but has more botrytis character – giving a mushroom edge, which is much nicer than in sounds – and additional bottle age which has allowed more tangy, tropical fruit flavours to develop and resolve. A truly wonderful wine.
3. José Maria da Fonseca “Alambre” ® DO Moscatel de Setúbal 2008 (€6.45, Portugal)
I had been meaning to try a Moscatel de Setúbal since a former colleague from the area told me about it. A holiday to the Algarve provided the perfect opportunity, and I found this beauty in the small supermarket attached to the holiday complex we stayed in – at the ridiculous price of €6.45!
Moscatel / Muscat / Moscato is one of the chief grapes used for dessert wine around the Mediterranean – and can make very dull wines. This is by some margin the best I’ve tasted to date! I’m sure most people would swear that toffee had been mixed in, the toffee flavours are so demonstrative.
Tokaji is one of the great sweet wines of the world – in fact it’s one of the great wines of the world full stop. It’s usually a blend of a normal grapes and botrytised grapes in differing proportions, the actual blend being the main indicator of sweetness.
Apricot and marmalade are the first things which spring to mind on tasting this, though time has added toffee and caramel notes. This is the sort of wine that I would happily take instead of dessert pretty much any time!
1. Donnafugata Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria 2013 (Liberty, from good wine merchants)
I first came across this wine at Ely Wine Bar on my wife’s birthday a few years ago. After a filling starter and main course neither of us had room for dessert, but fancied something sweet; Ely is a treat for winelovers as it has an unrivaled selection of wines by the glass, so like a kid in a sweetshop I ordered a flight of different sweeties for us to try:
All four were lovely but it was the Ben Ryé which stood out.
At a later trade event put on by Liberty Wines, I noticed that this was one of their wines open for tasting. With a room full of hardened trade pros (and myself) it was amusing to notice how many people just dropped by the sweet and fortified for a drop of this!
When I’m hosting wine tastings, especially for less experienced tasters, I try my best to serve wines in related pairs to best illustrate the differences made by one particular factor.
For example, tasting a McLaren Vale GSM blend back to back with a Chateauneuf du Pape from the same year is more illuminating than comparing the later with a mature Barossa Shiraz.
And now I’m going to apply that principle to wine reviews – a series of articles where each covers two wines that have something in common, and most likely some point of difference. Compare and contrast is the order of the day – so make mine a double!
Two New Zealand Rieslings
As well as the runaway export leader Sauvignon Blanc, NZ is noted for its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. However, other aromatic varieties in addition to SB also perform well in many parts of the country – Pinot Gris, Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. Here are two that I recently enjoyed together, from places with similar (at first) looking names but actually on different islands.
Although the name wouldn’t seem out of place in Dublin, Paddy Borthwick is a fifth generation Kiwi farmer based in Gladstone at the heart of Wairarapa, close to Wellington. 90% of his produce is exported, including Sauvignon Blanc (amazingly tropical, mango and passion fruit) and Pinot Gris (to die for).
Fairly pale in colour, though not water white, this is unmistakably Riesling on the nose – very aromatic. There’s a sense of sweet fruit in the aromas, even though sugar isn’t supposed to be volatile (explain THAT, Mr WSET!)
The palate is tangy and fresh, with enticing flavours of grapefruit, ginger and exotic spices, lemon and lime – there’s striking acidity through the middle and a touch of sweetness, perfectly balanced. Although this was lovely to drink on it’s own it would really shine with East or mild-medium spiced South Asian food.
Pegasus Bay Waipara Encore Noble Riesling 2008 (~£25 375ml, The Wine Society)
Pegasus Bayis one of the standout producers of Waipara, part of the larger Canterbury wine region north west of Christchurch. They produce a wine range of wines from which it is difficult to choose a favourite. I particularly enjoyed the Chardonnay and several Rieslings when tasting at the cellar door in 2009.
The Noble in the name of the wine of course refers to noble rot, Botrytis cinerea, which is allowed to grow on grapes left late on the vine. This reduces the water content of the grapes, hence concentrating the sugars, and also adds complex flavours.
This 2008 is almost gold in colour, a combination of the sweetness, age and botrytis (here’s a reminder). It’s lusciously sweet, but not cloying; the residual sugar levels are high but balanced by the acidic streak running through the wine. Although now seven years old it’s still tangy, with rich flavours of peach,apricot and nectarine, plus some mushroom notes from the botrytis. Above all it’s an interesting wine!
Sweet wines are under-appreciated and undervalued. They are expensive to make and can show intensely concentrated aromas and flavours that make you savour every last single drop. As they are generally unfashionable at the moment they are great value for money!
So, any trends in my choices? Of course! Call me predictable if you like:
Alsace features highly – no surprise given that it’s one of my favourite wine regions in the world, and makes some fine sweet wines.
The majority are Late harvest and / or Noble Rot styles (see below) rather than using wines made using air dried harvested grapes, Icewine, fortifieds or wines sweetened after fermentation (e.g. German Süssreserve).
Domaine Bruno Sorg Pinot Gris Sélection de Grains Nobles 2007
Domaine Bruno Sorg in Eguisheim was one of the “must visit” places for our family trip to Alsace in 2013, one of the few we wanted to see again after visiting the year before. They produce the whole range of Alsace wines, from Crémant and basic (but great value) Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner, Grand Cru wines and Marc.
After tasting our way through most of the range, I’d decided on Pinot Blanc and a variety of Rieslings as the wines to buy for home. Almost as an afterthought we asked to try the Pinot Gris Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN), a dessert wine made from grapes affected by noble rot (which sounds only slightly better than the scientific name of botrytis cinerea), a fungus which dries out grapes and concentrates the flavours under certain favourable conditions. The German equivalent is Trockenbeerenauslese, thankfully known as TBA for short.
And it was pure, heavenly nectar. When we had finished our tasting samples we almost broke the glasses open to get at the last few drops inside. Thankfully the tasting room manager gave us a drop more while he packed our order. He did mention that the SGN is only produced in years where quantities are abundant, in the first place, so that they have enough left over from the grape quotas required to make the regular dry wines. Additionally, there needs to be significant humidity (e.g. through fog) so that botrytis is encouraged, but so much that it turns to grey rot which is undesirable.
At €57 for a half bottle it worked out at twenty times the price of a regular Pinot Blanc…but it was stunning, probably the best sweet wine I have ever tasted.
Pegasus Bay “Encore” Noble Riesling 2008*
Peg Bay’s vineyards are in the Waipara district of Canterbury, just north of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. As well as great Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, they do several different Rieslings: Bel Canto is dry and produced every year, Aria is a late harvest made roughly two in every three years, and Encore is a botrytis style only produced in exceptional years when the conditions are right.
The 2008 Encore is full of exotic and citrus fruit on the nose, with tones of mushroom from the the botrytis. It is fabulously concentrated on the palate, sweetly succulent and honeyed but balanced by fresh acidity which stops it from being cloying.
Oremus Tokaji 5 Puttonyos 2000
Long time readers might remember my Restaurant Review of Marco Pierre White Steakhouse & Grill, Dublin where I mentioned the production process for Tokaji. The bottle above which I saved until Christmas was getting deep in colour from bottle age, but the sugar levels from 5 Puttonyos and high acidity meant it was still in the spring of youth. It showed the classic apricot and mandarin flavours with hints of mushroom (weird, but not out of place) from the botrytis.
Oremus is owned by the Ribero del Duero house of Vega Sicilia – what a name to have behind you!
What’s in a name? Variations on the name Tokay have been used for several very different wines in different countries. Hold on to your hats, this can get very confusing…
Alsace Pinot Gris – before 1994 it was referred to as Tokay d’Alsace, thereafter Tokay Pinot Gris, but that name has also been prescribed since the 2007 vintage. Even in drier versions, this is a rich, oily wine.
Tocai Friulano, meaning Tocai from Friuli (near Venice in NE Italy) is a synonym of Sauvignon Vert, (sometimes called Sauvignonasse), a mutation of Sauvignon Blanc which is responsible for a lot of the substandard Chilean swill labelled as the latter. See also the Merlot / Carmenère labelling Snafu. What is it with the Chileans and grape names? Slovenia is just next door and has also had to relabel their Tocai, this time as Sauvignonasse.
Rutherglen Topaque, a fortified wine made from Bordeaux’s minor Muscadelle grape, used to be known as Tokay. Confusingly, Muscadelle planted in California is sometimes known as Sauvignon Vert
Hungarian Tokaji (Anglicised to Tokay) – the real deal!
Trimbach Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives 2001*
Vendange Tardive (VT) is the Alsace version of the German Spätlese, both meaning late harvest. From a technical point of view VT is actually a closer equivalent to Auslese, the next rung up on the Germanic ladder. As grapes continue to ripen on the vine their sugar content increases, meaning higher potential alcohol and thus a potentially sweeter wine, depending on when the winemaker stops fermentation.
This particular VT is suffixed with an s on each word – the plural often indicates that several passes have been made through the vineyard to pick the grapes when they are perfectly ripe. Trimbach is one of the biggest names in Alsace, noted for their excellent dry Rieslings, but they also produce excellent VTs and SGNs when conditions allow. Gewurztraminer is an excellent grape for making Vendange Tardive as it is naturally high in sugar.
Arthur Metz Gewurztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles 2007*
Arthur Metz is predominantly a Crémant d’Alsace specialist, but sometimes other bottlings are seen on the shelves – this was picked up at random from a French supermarché. This SGN is made in the Grand Cru Steinklotz, the most northerly of Alsace’s Grand Cru vineyards, which gives it a lighter texture than some other Gewurztraminer SGNs.
Domaine Engel Pinot Gris Sélection de Grains Noble 2010*
Labels have to be studied carefully in Alsace as there are many common family names among vintners, sometimes closely related and sometimes distant branches of the family tree. For example there are both Louis Sipp and Jean Sipp in Ribeauvillé plus Sipp Mack a few clicks away over the hill in Hunawihr.
Similarly, this is made by Domaine Fernand Engel et Fils of Rorschwihr rather than Domaine Engel Frères Christian & Hubert of Orschwiller – and it’s wonderful. Hopefully someday I will get to do a multiple Alsace family taste-off!
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This post is the first of several which encourage newcomers to wine or creatures of habit to try something a bit different from their usual drop.
It was prompted by a few requests from friends plus some of the twitter debates over the past few months or so, including whether wine expertise is bunkum or not. More precisely, one phrase often declared by novice wine drinkers is “I know what I like”, with the follow on (usually unspoken) being “I know what wine is best for me and I won’t try anything else”. Now, I’m not going to tell those people they are wrong (as such!) – I just want to give those that are hesitant to try something other than their favourite type a path which they could explore.
So firstly, why do people like Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc??
It’s crisp, fruity, fresh, widely available, consistent in quality and reasonably priced – it offers a lot of bang for the buck! In particular “Savvy” has more intense aromas and flavours than often found in white wine.
Of course I should declare an interest here and say that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is one of my favourite wine styles, though not every bottle. This article is also an excuse for me to post some of the photos I took on honeymoon in Marlborough in 2009!
So if you’re stuck with the same old bottle, week in week out, what should you do?
Step 1 – Buy A Better Brand
Nowadays most supermarkets will have a gondola end of Oyster Bay or even a made up label where excess production has been bought up at rock bottom prices and then vinified on the cheap. This came to a head when more vineyards came on stream at the same time as the Global Financial Crisis reduced demand for wine in New Zealand’s traditional markets.
Hopefully the glut is over, but there are still brands which are a notch above the bottom, even if they are mass-market.
Brancott Estate used to be called Montana but this caused confusion with American drinkers thinking it came from the US State of that name. Brancott’s everyday drinking Sauvignon Blanc is a great example, and it’s available nearly everywhere wine is sold in the UK and Ireland.
The other go-to label for me is Villa Maria, now sporting a new look for 2013. For many people in Ireland in the late 90s and early 00s this was a treat to look forward to at the weekend. Still privately owned, quality remains consistently good.
Step 2 – Pay More! (Trade Up)
Here I don’t mean pay more for the sake of it. While quality and price aren’t perfectly aligned, you often get what you pay for in New Zealand. There are lots of quality-conscious wineries in Marlborough, both large and small.
Cloudy Bay is the label that put the area and New Zealand as a whole on the wine map for international drinkers. It became New Zealand’s first “icon” wine, and for many years was only available on allocation. Although quality has wavered slightly over the years, especially as production volumes increased, it remains a great drop and is always the one to beat.
Villa Maria make a fine entry level SB, as mentioned above, but their black label Clifford Bay is on another plane entirely. Less immediately pungent but smoother and richer – it’s just sumptuous! In fact I like it so much that it was the white wine I chose to have served at my wedding.
Another well-regarded producer is Dog Point, founded by Ivan Sutherland & James Healy, the former viticulturist and oenologist respectively from Cloudy Bay. Their old boss Kevin Judd, who was the founding winemaker of Cloudy Bay, also left to set up his own firm Greywacke. For his first vintage he bought grapes and rented some winery space from Dog Point, but he moved on to purchasing his own vineyards and facilities.
Other Marlborough producers who are worth trading up to include Astrolabe (particularly their Awatere Valley), Stanley Estate (also from the Awatere Valley), Nautilus Estate, Saint Clair, Lawson’s Dry Hills, Mahi, Wither Hills and Mud House.
Step 3 – Same Again, But With A Twist!
One of the things many people like about Sauvignon Blanc is that it usually tastes fresh and hasn’t seen any oak, whether barrels or staves or oak chips in a teabag. This isn’t the only way of making Sauvignon Blanc, and some of the better Marlborough producers have been following the Sancerre (see next post) practice of either fermenting the must or maturing the wine in oak – or both. The amount of oak used really does vary, and for many wines only a proportion will be oaked, and perhaps with older rather than brand new barrels.
Great examples from Marlborough include Cloudy Bay Te Koko, Dog Point Section 94, Greywacke Wild Sauvignon, and the newly released Brancott Estate Chosen Rows. These wines will often be released a year or so after their unoaked stablemates.
Step 4 – Head Down The Road
In the eyes of many wine drinkers, Marlborough has become synonymous with New Zealand, particularly for Sauvignon Blanc. It does make up the vast majority of Sauvignon production, but if we do a tour of the rest of Aotearoa then we can find alternative expressions of the grape.
Firstly, to Nelson which is also in the north of the South Island. Sauvignons here are often more mellow and a bit weightier than Marlborough, so can be easier to match with food. The most prestigious producer is Judy & Tim Finn’s Neudorf, better known for their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Also check out Woollaston Estate (plus their sibling Tussock and Wingspan labels) and Greenhough.
Towards the east coast of the South Island, just above Christchurch, lies the up-and-coming area of Waipara (not to be confused with Wairarapa!) Waipara specialises in Pinot Noir and Riesling but does have some Sauvignon Blanc produced by Waipara Springs and Pegasus Bay under their Main Divide label.
Heading south west but keeping to the eastern side of the Southern Alps, we eventually reach Central Otago, the most southern of New Zealand’s established wine regions. “Central”, as it’s known for short, is Pinot heaven – the unique climate helps make powerful but supple Pinot Noir, primarily, but also Chardonnay, Riesling and some Sauvignon Blanc. The region actually has several sub-divisions, (with recommended producers): Bannockburn (Mount Difficulty, Carrick), Gibbston Valley (Gibbston Valley Winery, Peregrine, Chard Farm), Wanaka (Rippon) Cromwell Basin (Amisfield) and Bendigo (Misha’s Vineyard).
From Marlborough, taking the Inter-Islander ferry over the Cook Strait to Wellington then a short drive north east brings us to Martinborough, part of the larger Wairarapa region. Also celebrated for its Pinot Noirs, it has some fantastic Sauvignon Blanc producers in Ata Rangi, Palliser Estate, and Craggy Range (Te Muna Road). These can often be even more tropical than their counterparts in Marlborough.
Further north the long-established region of Hawke’s Bay, which includes the towns of Napier and Hastings, has a reputation built on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Some of these great producers (such as Trinity Hill, Mission Estate, CJ Pask) also make lovely, more gentle, Sauvignon Blancs.
I hope this has given you some ideas of what you could try as your first few steps out of your wine comfort zone. It’s always good to try new wines, you will hopefully expand your taste and find more types you like.