Sometimes the true story of a winery is not found in its history, tracing back the ownership from generation to generation. The story of some wineries begins when someone decides to start afresh with the materials of the past, looking forward instead of back.
Rex Brooke-Taylor was certainly forward looking when he planted his Marlborough Vineyards in 1980 and 1981. An engineer from Wellington, Brooke-Taylor named his winery Framingham after his ancestral estate in East Anglia, and had the unusual foresight to plant Phylloxera-resistant rootstock in an era when many couldn't imagine the pest making it to New Zealand's shores. Fatefully, Brooke-Taylor also planted Riesling, and those vines are now the oldest Riesling vines in New Zealand.
Unfortunately, Brooke-Taylor was a bit too forward thinking, and overbuilt the winery, leading to an eventual cash crunch that forced the winery's sale. Sold to Wyndham in Australia, Framingham quickly became a trading card for some of the world's largest wine companies, changing hands several times before ending up in the portfolio of Sogrape Vinhos, the Portuguese wine company who own, among other things, Sandeman and Mateus.
The winery might have kept changing hands were it not for a quirky Englishman with a penchant for Riesling who found his way to Framingham in 2001 and knew a good thing when he saw it.
Dr. Andrew Hedley, known as "Doc" to his friends, was trained as a chemist and expected to spend most of his career in a lab doing serious and complex R&D production of small batches of synthesized chemicals and process research. "I know a lot about Bromines," says Hedley, who realized one day that he was spending a larger percentage of his (growing) salary on wine each year.
"I've always drunk wine at home," says Hedley. "Me dad was a design engineer and had to go to the Mosel and to Austria frequently, and used to take us on holidays to the Alps. I can remember him coming back from one trip and sitting down to tell me the Pradikat story, and I was fascinated and it stick with me."
"In my spare time I ended up reading a lot about wine," he continues "and started going to tastings, and it just kind of mushroomed from there."
After a solid career in England, Hedley and his wife decided they were looking for a change, and began flirting with the idea of moving to New Zealand. It dawned on Hedley that he might be able to get work in the wine industry.
"We were getting the weekly job section from Auckland sent over," says Hedley, "but I decided to also go to the London Wine Fair and see who I could meet."
There he connected with Alan Hoey, who was working for Yalumba at the time, but had contacts through his employer to New Zealand. "He gave me the name of a contact there," remembers Hedley, "but I waited and didn't call yet. A little while later my wife was reading the paper when she said, 'Hey, there's a job here you might be able to do.' It was a position as a lab manager for a contract winery."
The hiring manager was exactly the same guy that Howie had referred Hedley too. Not willing to spit in the eye of fate, Hedley applied by fax and phone.
"It was the only job in Marlborough I could possibly have done," says Hedley. "It was Christmas Eve in 1997 when they called and asked if I could start on January 6th."
Hedley flew out, and was followed a few weeks later by his wife Debra, who hurriedly packed up their belongings and shipped them out.
"I was thrown into the 1998 harvest with no idea about anything," recalls Hedley. "Chucked in at the deep end. I knew my way around a lab, and I had scientific rigor, and that was enough to let me survive."
Hedley stayed there for three and a half years, eventually earning the title of Technical Winemaker.
"Basically I was the guy who would come in and troubleshoot for people, look after certain areas of process," says Hedley. "But the title had the word 'winemaker' in it, and that's what eventually enabled me to move to Framingham. It's all about being at the right place at the right time and being able to land on your feet."
In 2003 Hedley took over as winemaker at Framingham without every having been solely responsible for a wine.
"I rallied from having no experience to figuring out when to pick things. Thankfully most of the wines turned out all right," says Hedley. "When I look back, it was really seat of the pants," he laughs. "Everything I've done, I learned by reading on the toilet, and there's a real element of truth in that."
Hedley, it turns out, happens to be good at dealing with the things that life throws him. In 2006, in the prime of his career, he was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. He waited on pins and needles for the biopsy results, and received the news he did not want to hear.
A few weeks later, the doctors had completely removed his larynx, disconnected his esophagus, and punched a permanent hole in his chest opening his lungs to the environment but allowing him to breathe. This scarily complex re-plumbing operation had dramatic consequences. Hedley must now speak using an electrolarynx, a small hand-held device that, when placed against the throat, allow him to generate speech tones, which he usually begins by "apologizing for sounding like a Dalek."
More alarmingly, this operation completely thwarted Hedley's ability to taste wine. "I had to find a new way to taste and smell wines," he admits. Unable to inhale or exhale, nor to easily produce the retro-nasal draft that accompanies the quite gurgling taste of a typical wine professional, Hedley must create a vacuum in his mouth using his cheeks, and carefully swallow.
"I take a lot more time to taste things these days," says Hedley, "and I get desensitized pretty quickly. When this all happened, I told the winery owners that if I couldn't figure out how to make it work, I'd certainly step aside, but so far so good."
"We've actually won more awards since I started having to smell wines this way," quips Hedley, who also gives great thanks to Sogrape for their willingness to not only trust him, but largely stay out of the way of day-to-day operations. "They don't interfere, and don't want to change something that isn't broken" he says.
In the face of adversity, Hedley has managed to not only continue working, but develop into a winemaker of considerable talent. Possessing a lifelong appreciation for Riesling and presiding over one of New Zealand's finest Riesling vineyards has allowed Hedley to prove, almost singlehandedly, that New Zealand can produce world-class Rieslings.
"I love Riesling, and I don't know exactly why," muses Hedley. "Maybe it was the influence of my dad, or our holidays, but it's just always been the most compelling grape for me. It gets under your skin and never goes away."
"Of course, it's also about that mineral tone and a real sense of place," continues Hedley, "and you also get to feel a bit rebellious championing something no one gives a shit about."
One of the reasons Hedley seems to be so good with the grape has to do with how much of it he drinks. Sitting by a river with some friends of Hedley's they day before I visited him, I was informed with somewhat wild-eyed stares that New Zealand didn't have enough Riesling for Hedley, so he had to start importing it himself.
In my experience, the more benchmark examples of a particular wine that a winemaker has tasted, the better they are at making it. Conversely, after tasting some particularly unimpressive version of an imported grape made into wine by some winemaker, I'm often unsurprised to learn how little experience the winemaker has tasting it.
Hedley can rattle off a who's who of top German and Austrian producers, and easily and fondly recalls favorite vintages and wines. He travels regularly to Germany and Austria, as well as to international conferences on Riesling all over the world. It's not hard to see how deeply in love Hedley is with Riesling, especially when he talks about the 2012 vintage.
"In 2012 we made the full Pradikat series, Spatlese through TBA," he beams. "That's the first time anyone has done that in New Zealand. Of course, we only have 200 bottles of the stuff, and we decided to label our TBA [Trockenbeerenauslese] just BA [Beerenauslese], but we did it."
Hedley's winemaking regimen varies. "I'm a paid lackey," he jokes. "If it was my winery, I wouldn't have to give a shit about the consumer. But we do have those 25 people around the world that buy our wines, so we have to take care of them and make sure they like the wines. So we do a mixture of wild yeast and inoculated ferments for our main wines."
"In the F-Series wines," he continues, "we don't have to worry what people think about volatile acidity and sulfides. There's more creeping luddite winemaking year after year around here." He grins.
For running a winery owned by an ostensibly conservative, corporate parent, Hedley manages a fairly non-interventionalist approach to most of the wines. Apart from that occasional use of commercial yeasts, he takes a decidedly low sulfur, old-oak, very little temperature control, and a low-alcohol approach to most of his wines.
He's also in the process of working with the estate's viticulturalist James Bowskill to convert the estate to organic, but suggests that they will probably stop short of paying for certification.
Putting some official stamp on the bottle isn't important to Hedley. "Organic is the right thing to do, so we're doing it, but I always want the first thing that people to encounter to be what's in the bottle," he says, "Then they can get the philosophy and the back story, and allay whatever fears they might have about us."
There's nothing to fear when it comes to Framingham wines.
"Except the name," says Hedley, "no one can pronounce it. It's dubious as to whether it's of any use to us at all."
Hedley presides over about 40 acres of vineyards, from which Framingham produces a bit more than 5000 cases of wine each year, the majority being Sauvignon Blanc, and a few other wines that are produced just under the Framingham name. The F-Series wines, which Hedley insists are not meant to be a reserve range, nor necessarily better, represent alternative treatments of the grape varieties in the core range, as well as wines that the vintage specifically allows Hedley to make. These are produced in tiny quantities, sometimes as little as a single barrel.
Strangely, given their quality, very few of the Framingham wines make it to the U.S. They are better represented in the UK market, however.
Should you come across a bottle, especially a slender tapering one with the word Riesling on the front, you can't possibly go wrong. Hedley is the acknowledged master of the grape in New Zealand, and he's really only just getting started. Just imagining what this guy will be capable of doing in 15 years thrills me to no end.
2012 Framingham Sauvignon Blanc, Wairay Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of gooseberry and green apple aromas. In the mouth the wine is quite silky and plush with flavors of gooseberry and green apple, with some underlying stoniness. A portion of barrel fermentation and malolactic fermentation has given the wine some weight in the mouth, and the acidity is somewhat softer than you might expect. But has pure flavors and a delicacy that some Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs don't have. 16,000 cases made. 13.0% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $16. click to buy.
2009 Framingham "F-Series" Sauvignon Blanc, Wairay Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones, cut grass, and cucumber. In the mouth, quite soft and silky textures, deliver deeply mineral flavors and green notes such as green apple, cucumber, and star fruit. The acidity is too soft for my tastes, and leaves the wine without enough bite, but the flavors are quite pleasing. Made in the natural style, without any sulfur additions except before bottling. 60% aged in steel, 40% aged in old oak. 1700 cases made. 14.0% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.
2005 Framingham Dry Riesling, Wairay Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light gold in the glass with a distinct greenish tinge, this wine smells of paraffin and wet stones with hints of citrus. In the mouth, exotic citrus zest and wet stones mix beautifully with smokier paraffin and diesel qualities. Quite pretty, delicate acidity keeps the wine bright and lifted on the palate, while a stony quality lingers in the finish. 700 cases made. This wine was made until the 2008 vintage, but this is the current release in 2013. Dry. 12.0% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2011 Framingham "F-Series Old Vine" Riesling, Wairay Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of ripe pears and apples with hints of citrus. In the mouth, the wine is quite beautifully textured, and juicy apple and pear flavors take on a mandarine orange quality as a deeper mineral quality creeps into the wine. Excellent filigreed acidity brightens the wine and makes for a wonderfully knit together package. Excellent finish. Dry. 13.0% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2011 Framingham "Classic" Riesling, Wairay Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey and lime zest. In the mouth, stony notes of green apple and lime zest mix with a hint of tonic water. A dry chalky quality lingers in the finish. Excellent acidity. Faintly sweet. 1800 cases made. 12.0% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.
2012 Framingham "Select" Riesling, Wairay Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey and golden apples. In the mouth, bright golden apple and mandarine orange flavors mix with a quite pure clover honey quality that is quite charming. Very nice stony minerality underlies the fruit. Lightly sweet, the wine hews quite nicely to its Spatlese designation. Nice finish. 8.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2012 Framingham "Noble" Riesling, Wairay Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Medium greenish-yellow in the glass, this wine smells of pure clover honey and a touch of canned mandarine oranges. In the mouth the wine is silky and sweet with flavors of honey, wet stones, and orange blossom water. Excellent acidity keeps the wine bright through the long finish. Perhaps not quite as complex as it could be, it is nonetheless damn tasty. Moderately sweet. 7.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2012 Framingham "F-Series Spatlese" Riesling, Wairay Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of star fruit and golden apples with hints of citrus peel. In the mouth, the wine has a wonderful lemon curd and bright mandarine orange quality that leans towards berry in its juiciness. Excellent acidity, this wine is broad and complex. Made similarly to the classic series Riesling, with the exception that there is some barrel fermentation in old oak, along with completely native yeast ferment. These have added some complexity and length to the wine that is quite compelling. Lightly sweet with a great finish. 8.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2012 Framingham "F-Series Auslese" Riesling, Wairay Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light to medium greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of mandarine oranges and marzipan with notes of honey. In the mouth, flavors of candied mandarine and honey have a wonderful brightness to them thanks to zippy acidity. Wonderful stony notes, combined with the acidity mean that this wine tastes only lightly sweet. Long finish. Only about 400 half bottles made. 8.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2012 Framingham "F-Series Beerenauslese" Riesling, Wairay Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Medium yellow-gold with hints of green, this wine smells of honey, candied orange peel, and marzipan. In the mouth the wine is voluminous on the palate, with flavors of honey, candied citrus, and white flowers. Quite pretty and floral, the wine lacks some of the acidity that would make it more dynamic in the mouth, but there is enough acid there to keep it from being syrupy. Lovely and long in the mouth, and aching for cheese. Very sweet. Only 200 bottles made. 7% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2012 Framingham Pinot Gris, Wairay Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of golden apples and hints of quince. In the mouth, flavors of quince, golden apples, cold cream and wet stones have a nice crispness to them. Delicate, lacy acidity is perhaps on the softer side, but it is enough to give this wine lift and brightness. A spicy quince flavor lingers on the front of the palate through the long finish. Quite pretty. 800 cases made. Slightly off-dry. 14.0% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2011 Framingham "F-Series" Viognier, Wairay Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light greenish gold in color, this wine smells of dried and fresh apricots. In the mouth, the wine has a bright zippy quality thanks to excellent acidity, and a pretty flavor profile of apricot, white peach, and orange peel. There's a nice stony note underneath all the fruit and honey. Beautifully textured thanks to about 30% of the wine being barrel fermented. 60 cases made. 14.0% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2012 Framingham Gewürztraminer, Wairay Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of rose petals and orange blossoms. In the mouth, the wine has a silky, weighty feel on the palate that conveys quite a sexy character. Flavors of rose petals, orange peel, and a hint of earth swirl in this silky purse of a wine. The acidity seems quite low, but that doesn't somehow matter for this wine, which lingers for a long time in the mouth with hints of ginger and lemongrass. Off-dry. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2009 Framingham "F-Series" Pinot Noir, Wairay Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of pretty cranberry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, cherry, cranberry and raspberry flavors have an intense brightness to them that makes the mouth water. These are welded to forest floor notes and a nice cedary brown sugar finish that lingers for a long time. Excellent acidity gives the wines lift and faint tannins add complexity to an overall fantastic package. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2011 Framingham Pinot Noir, Wairay Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light ruby in the glass with hints of purple, this wine smells of wonderfully bright forest berry aromas. In the mouth, wonderful cherry and raspberry flavors have a hint of caramelized brown sugar flavor mixed with a touch of cedar. Good acidity and very faint, almost imperceptible tannins linger through the finish along with a hint of earth. Quite pretty. 23% new oak. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.
2011 Framingham "F-Series" Pinot Noir, Wairay Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
Medium perfect ruby in the glass, this wine smells of beautifully earthy and woody notes on top of red fruit. There's even a hint of cocoa powder. In the mouth the wine is gorgeously bright with excellent acidity that lifts flavors of cherry, raspberry, and cranberry to dynamic and dancing heights. Faint tannins hang in the background and give some structure to the bright fruit, as does a deeper forest floor note that emerges on the finish along with hints of soy sauce. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
Taste and win, indeed.
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