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03.23.2013

Te Whare Ra, Marlborough, New Zealand: Current Releases

"I think if I hear 'wine must be such a great lifestyle' one more time," says Anna Flowerday, "I think I'm going to punch someone. A lot of people don't understand the crazy hours, the way that wine is such an all encompassing thing."

"It's not a lifestyle, it's a life" agrees her husband Jason, as they both dry off their well-worn hands and settle down into dusty chairs in the chilly and slightly ramshackle workroom-cum-enology lab that sits towards the back of their small winery, named Te Whare Ra. A team of two other workers continues racking wine while Anna and Jayce, as he seems to be known around these parts, spend a little time tasting with me and telling me their story. Their affable joint narrative, filled with point and counterpoint, suggests as much about how they work together in its tenor as in its facts.

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"I liked the name straightaway," suggests Anna, "and I liked the guy, too," she says, as I ask them to explain how two winemakers ended up married and making biodynamic wine under the oddly appropriate surname Flowerday. "It wasn't easy growing up," says Jason of the name, "I guess I'm lucky I was sort of a big kid."

Anna was raised in Australia's McLaren Vale, a fifth-generation winegrower who grew up knowing she'd work in the wine business, and eventually ended up working at Hardy's (for a time Australia's largest winery conglomerate) for some time. Jason was a third-generation viticulturalist who decided that rather than working for his family, he wanted to do something on his own. So he left New Zealand and went to work in Australia.

"I left New Zealand with a backpack," jokes Jason, "and I came back with a dog, a wife, and a container full of furniture."

While he was working in Australia, Hardy's bought the company that employed him, and he found himself bumping into a cute Australian on occasion who was in charge of the integration of his company.

"I guess, yes, I was dating my superior for a short period of time," admits Jason. And then after a somewhat pregnat pause, he adds, "Actually I think I still am dating my boss."

"We balance each other out," suggests Anna when she stops laughing. "He's more intuitive than I am. I'm more analytic. He pushes me out of my comfort zone, and I rein him in when he's got an idea that's way too crazy."

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"We complement each other well," agrees Jason, "especially on timing -- picking decisions, when to stop the ferment on the Pinot. We make better wine together than we did individually, because we give each other confidence and support."

"It's so nice to not have the decision just rest on me," says Anna. "We agonize over really small things, and it's nice to have someone to fall back on. Winemaking is so subjective, so it's nice to be a part of a team."

While they estimate that they agree about 95% of the time on winemaking decisions, they admit they have some disagreements about little things.

"We've got different opinions on cooperages," suggests Anna, "and we have more heated discussions about the marketing -- things like the color of the damn box -- than about anything else."

"The wine is the easy part of the relationship," laughs Jason.

"Mate, if we can survive two sets of twins in four years, we can survive anything," offers Anna with an aside to me: "It's mental torture!"

After falling in love, and presumably deciding what furniture to keep, the Flowerdays moved back to New Zealand in search of someplace to settle down and begin what they both agreed would be their life's work (apart from juggling four little girls).

In 2003 they got the remarkable opportunity to purchase 24 acres of some of Marlborough's oldest vines. They weren't in particularly great shape, but the Flowerdays didn't want a turn-key winery, they wanted something they could make their own.

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As one of the region's longest running small wineries, they have spent almost ten years doing just that. The property they purchased was already named Te Whare Ra, which is a transliteration of the Maori phrase "the house in the sun." The Flowerdays began by revitalizing the vineyards first with an organic regimen (they've been certified organic for some time) and more recently with a fairly thorough biodynamic approach, seasoned with a certain bit of rationality.

"I don't get caught up in the hoo-hah of it all," says Jason. "Sometimes what you really need is a balance of techniques rather than a whole philosophy."

Nonetheless, the Flowerdays employ a majority of biodynamic techniques in their farming (including, as their name makes so appropriate, the use of the biodynamic calendar). Their cover crops are carefully selected to promote both soil health and a healthy insect population. Like many New Zealand winegrowers, this includes a healthy dose of buckwheat in particular to attract parasitic wasps that feed on the larvae responsible for leaf roll virus.

Most prunings and the leftover pomace from winemaking are mulched back into the vineyards, along with a special manure that is the product of the winery's cow pat pits. These small composting pits, which are filled with cow manure (collected from the estate's small herd) and covered until the manure has transformed into a silky humus, seem to be more popular in the Marlborough region than the traditional buried cow horn stuffed with manure known as Preparation 500.

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The Flowerdays' winemaking approach includes a similar balance of traditional and more modern techniques. Even though they strive for a biodynamic approach in the cellar, they do use commercial yeasts for some of their wines.

"Yes, we inoculate some of our wines," says Anna. "It's actually something we feel strongly about. I get frustrated sometimes with this overriding sensibility that we need to use wild yeasts, yet they seem to mask the place in the wines. With our aromatic whites, we're trying to show something of the purity of our place, and we feel that a commercial yeast helps us do this best. Sulfur too. Adding no sulfur and having grubby wine isn't respectful of the purity of the grape you've just grown."

"I think too many people get caught up in the 'doing as little as possible' dogma," adds Jason. "Try not doing anything in your vineyard, and see where that gets you. We aren't hands-off, we're hands-on. It starts at pruning, and our gentle hands don't come off the wine until its in the bottle."

Having said that, the Flowerdays prefer to let their Pinot Noirs begin fermentation on their own, and add yeast if necessary to help the fermentation along. Punchdowns are usually limited to a bit of hand plunging during the pre-fermentation cold soak. None of the wines are fined, and sometimes the reds are bottled unfiltered if the lab tests suggest that's safe. Otherwise the reds and the whites get cross-flow filtered before bottling.

Te Whare Ra's white wines see a mix of destemming, whole cluster pressing, and variable skin contact during fermentation depending on the nature of the vintage and the wine. Most of the whites are made in steel, except for the Chardonnay, which is barrel fermented, and the reds see only a modicum of new oak barrels.

The estate's vineyards are planted to Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. They bottle each of these varieties separately, as well as producing an unusual (for New Zealand) field blend of their aromatic white varieties that they say was inspired by their love of the wines of Domaine Marcel Deiss in Alsace.

Te Whare Ra employs four people in addition to the family, which essentially means that Anna and Jason are both involved in every aspect of the business, as well as supplying much of the labor. Which, as far as I can tell, these two love with every fiber of their beings.

Spending a few hours with the Flowerdays demonstrated to me just how immersed these two were, both as individuals, and as a couple, in wine. I'm not sure whether it would be more appropriate to say that their small operation was an extension of their marriage, or vice versa, but either metaphor conveys the wine-soaked fabric of their lives.

"We don't make decisions based on financial sense," says Anna, "and the bank hasn't come and taken the keys off us yet, so we must be doing OK."

While the relatively humble winery facility might suggest they aren't getting rich, I'd say that they are doing more than just OK. The wines evince both the deep intimacy these two have with their vines, but also their prodigious talents as a couple. I have encountered only a few other portfolios of wine in New Zealand that are of such consistently high quality from start to finish.

And that based on tasting them on a leaf day, no less.

TASTING NOTES:
While many of these wines are tough to find for sale online, most are brought into both the US and the UK, so keep an eye peeled for them in your favorite shop.

2012 Te Whare Ra Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand
Near colorless in the glass, this wine smells of gooseberries and kiwi. In the mouth flavors of gooseberry and green herbs, some quite nettle-like, mix with a nice stony minerality. Great acidity keeps the wine bright and fresh with a crisp finish. Delicious and balanced. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $18.

2012 Te Whare Ra "D" Riesling, Marlborough, New Zealand
Near colorless in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and wet stones. In the mouth, wonderfully floral notes mix with deep wet stone and wet cement flavors that are quite compelling. A hint of pear fruit emerges on the mid palate. Gorgeous acidity and near perfect balance, this wine is incredibly easy to drink. Made from vines planted in 1979, the oldest Riesling vines in Marlborough. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9twr_pinot.jpg and 9.5. Cost: $19. click to buy.

2012 Te Whare Ra "M" Riesling, Marlborough, New Zealand
Basically colorless in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and white flowers. In the mouth a bright burst of mandarin orange juice mixes with other exotic citrus and some appley flesh. These fruit flavors are shot through with a deep wet stone character that is quite electrifying. Gorgeous balance and great acidity, and a lightly sweet complexion. 10.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20

2012 Te Whare Ra Pinot Gris, Marlborough, New Zealand
Palest blonde in the glass, almost colorless, this wine smells of pears and wet chalkboard with a hint of quince. In the mouth a core of wet stone flavor is tinged with ripe pear and a hint of quince paste and woody notes. Excellent acidity keeps the wine lively, and without a trace of sweetness, the wine has a nice crispness that makes it quite refreshing, but also a hint of a tannic grip to it that adds complexity. Definitely one of the better Kiwi Pinot Gris I've had. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $24.

2011 Te Whare Ra "Toru" White Blend, Marlborough, New Zealand
Near colorless in the glass, this wine smells of white peaches, white flowers, and wet stones. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful weight to it, silky and heavy on the tongue. Flavors of white peaches, jasmine, and wet stones coat the palate while great acidity keeps the wine bright and lithe in the mouth, despite its substantial textural heft. Lightly sweet, just barely more than off-dry, this wine is incredibly easy to drink. Toru means Three in Maori. A field blend of Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Riesling. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9 . Cost: $24.

2011 Te Whare Ra Gewurztraminer, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of lychee and orange blossoms. In the mouth slightly waxy flavors of orange peel, honey, lychee all have a gorgeous silky weight to them. Delicate acidity keeps the wine fresh and bright. There's a light tannic grip to the wine as well, that adds complexity, along with a faint hint of sweetness. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $26.

2011 Te Whare Ra Chardonnay, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of toasted sourdough, melted butter and lemon curd. In the mouth pastry cream and cold cream mix with lemon curd and lemon zest. There's a silky texture to the wine and a nice weight on the palate as the wine finishes with grapefruit pith and wet chalkboard. 33% new oak. Fully barrel fermented. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 9 . Cost: $26. click to buy.

2011 Te Whare Ra Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and forest floor. In the mouth deep stony flavors mix with raspberry and forest floor amidst a beautifully silky body. The fruit has a wonderful aromatic sweetness that has a balanced counterpoint in dusty tannins that seem welded to the darker, earthier notes of black tea and pine duff. Great acidity and lovely balance. 30% new French oak. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2010 Te Whare Ra Syrah, Marlborough, New Zealand
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of struck match and cassis and a hint of white pepper. In the mouth cassis and blackberry flavors have a remarkable smoky quality but a deep granitic stony depth that keeps the fruit almost aromatically driven rather than flavor driven, if that makes any sense -- as if you're tasting crushed rocks scented with blackberry and a hint of black pepper. Powdery tannins have real muscle. Excellent. Aged in 45% new French oak. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $30.

2012 Te Whare Ra Pinot Noir - Barrel Sample, Marlborough, New Zealand
Medium garnet in color this barrel sample smells of wet forest floor, forest berries, and hints of floral notes. In the mouth the wine is deep and stony, with low notes of cherry and raspberry and high notes of flowers and redcurrant. Suede-like tannins have a deft touch to them, and the stony quality pervades the finish. Excellent. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2012 Te Whare Ra Syrah - Barrel Sample, Marlborough, New Zealand
Medium purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of meaty cassis and blackberry. In the mouth the tannins are voluminous and pervasive, coating the mouth and enveloping tart flavors of cassis and blackberry mixed with deep stony wet cement and wet chalkboard. Impressive. Great acidity and length. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

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