People often ask me how often I travel to the vineyards, to wine country. I think I always disappoint them when I tell them "rarely". The fact is, after living in San Francisco for 15 years and obsessively visiting almost every winery in northern California, I don't think I ever need to see another bladder press, crusher/de-stemmer or barrel room for as long as I live. I do miss the vineyard dogs who typically come racing up to the car as you creep slowly down the dusty entrance roads, trying not to kick up as much dust as possible. With their slobber covered tennis balls moving from side to side in their mouths and their ears laid back in the always familiar "come play with me" expression, I know that I'm in the right place. Life at the winery is always laid back and never hurried.
But that was then and now it's different. Now, winemakers come to me and that's just fine with me. Chatting with winemakers is the "real deal". There's no fluff, no pretense - just straight up wine talk. Stuff that would probably make most people bored out of their brain. As long as I've been doing this I still like to "feel" a winemaker. These are the guys who are so intimately involved in the process of crafting their wines that you can just feel the passion for what they're doing. I've had the great pleasure of meeting and hanging out with hundreds of winemakers.
So today it was a great pleasure to meet with Gordon Russell, the Senior Winemaker as Esk Valley Winery of Hawkes Bay, New Zealand.
Gordon couldn't have been more "down to earth" and comfortable talking about his wines. We started off with his Sauvignon Blanc which is a stunning example of a rare style of sauvignon blanc not frequently encountered in the Marlborough vineyards of New Zealand. The overt, aggressive grapefruit/citrus character of most Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is nowhere to be seen in this wine and that's just fine with me. This wine had more minerality, river stone and snap pea flavors to make me think of Pessac-Leognan wines. Gordon actually admitted to making a White Bordeaux styled sauvignon blanc for their own consumption - not for sale. While this Sauvignon Blanc is surely Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, it definitely suggests to me that there is some inspiration from Bordeaux.
Next up was a beautiful Chardonnay that is produced from grapes grown in the Hawkes Bay area. Using partial barrel fermentation with "neutral" oak and partial malo-lactic fermentation, this chardonnay exhibits pristine, pure fruit flavors and pleasant tongue teasing acidity. Sadly, chardonnays are being passed over these days, but this effort is worth checking out.
As nice as these two whites were, the show stopper for me was a red wine that was so nicely done I couldn't stop thinking about the wine long after Gordon had left. I see lots of Pinot Noir from New Zealand, but rarely have I tasted a Bordeaux-style red from this part of the world. Gordon described the unique vineyard site, the Gimblett Gravels vineyard parcels, that had very unique soils and drainage that favored Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec. This blend was striking on so many levels: there was a wonderful array of fruit flavors with each varietal seamlessly combining and creating a harmonious center to the wine; the tannins and structure of the wine were just firm enough, avoiding any drying astringency, and the finish on this wine was persistent, with long lingering notes suggesting grapes that were truly picked at perfect ripeness. All I can say is - Wow! You got to go out and get some.
Tech Sheet for Sauvignon Blanc
Tech Sheet for Chardonnay
Tech Sheet for Merlot - Cabernet Sauvignon - Malbec