2002 Esk Valley Reserve Bordeaux Blend, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

Like the rest of the world, at least those who venture beyond the section of the wine shelves marked “California” with any regularity, most of what I drink and have tried from New Zealand is Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. They are unquestionably the two varietals that have had the most success. I have also had some excellent Pinot Gris and Riesling from that area of the world, and have tried a Zinfandel, which was not that great, and a Syrah, which was decent and spoke of some potential, and a fair number of Merlots, which almost without exception were yucky, to use a technical term.

So this week when Wine Blogging Wednesday #17 rolled around, I thought I’d use it as an opportunity to check out something different from the Kiwis. I figured most people would grab a Pinot Noir, either because they’re easy to find or because they wouldn’t know to look farther afield, as it were, so I decided to get something else. So I stopped by my local Jug Shop, which has got a great selection from Down Under, and they recommended I give this little bottle a try.

Esk Valley Winery is one of Hawke’s Bay’s (and New Zealand’s) most sought after producers, primarily for their wine called the Terraces, an extremely limited, reserve, single vineyard wine produced only in the best years that may be New Zealand’s best analog to Penfold’s Grange. But Esk hasn’t always been such a premium producer. The winery was founded in 1933 under the name Glenvale by an Englishman named Robert Bird. Like many wineries at the time, most of what it produced were wines that would keep sailors happy: heavily fortified, sweeter wines that were good for cold nights on salty seas. The winery produced these wines up until the 1970s when it created a sub-brand called “Esk Valley” to make wines that resemble more of what we think of today from Hawkes Bay.

In the 1980s the winery went through several changes of ownership, including a bankruptcy, and eventually was purchased by its current owner George Fistonich, who renamed the entire estate Esk Valley, and under whose guidance the winery rose to prominence as one of the finest producers in Hawkes Bay. Fistonich also owns Villa Maria Winery.

Winemaking at Esk has been done for nearly 15 years by Gordon Russell, a self-taught winemaker who came to the business via a hearty appetite for food and wine along with gigs working in pubs and wine stores. His first job was what we refer to in the States as a cellar rat for a small winery in Auckland, NZ. He went on to work at Villa Maria, eventually reaching the position of Cellar Foreman before leaving to join Esk as an assistant winemaker in 1990 and head winemaker in 1993.

This wine is a combination of 56% Merlot, 24% Malbec, and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, all grown in the northernmost reaches of Hawkes Bay in an area known as the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District. (As an aside, this area is very interesting — sort of a commercially defined appellation that has no official recognition or governmental legitimacy, but one that is supported by the various winegrower members of the group). The grapes come from two different vineyards in this area, which were planted in 1990 and 1992 respectively, and which are farmed with strict reduced yields. After picking the grapes were totally destemmed and crushed into the winery’s traditional cement fermentation tanks (which have been in use for decades) where the cap was punched down by hand every six hours for several days for maximum extraction and color. The wine was aged in small French oak barrels for 21 months before being fined with egg whites and bottled unfiltered.

As a final note, can I just say how much pleasure I get from seeing a serious wine capped with a Stelvin (screwcap) closure? I think those folks who bemoan the loss of corks are nuts. I can give up the ceremony for knowing that my wine is not spoiled and being able to keep a reclosed bottle in the fridge a lot longer.

Tasting Notes:
Dark garnet in color with tinges of purple, this wine has a heady nose of dark chocolate, vanilla, espresso, tobacco and cherry aromas. Over the course of several hours, the rich espresso and tobacco notes come to prominence. In the mouth it is round and plush with light, well integrated tannins that sneak up towards the end of the finish. The primary flavors are of cool, rich chocolate covered cherry fruit, cola, tobacco, and some very light elements of wood in the finish. A well balanced, fairly sumptuous wine, that is made in a claret style — prettier rather than brooding and dark. The wine has good complexity and is certainly cellar worthy for several years.

Food Pairing:
This is a pretty lush wine that would be best contrasted with some savory, almost salty meat. Since we’re talking New Zealand here, why not this grilled leg of lamb with rosemary salt?

Overall Score: 9/9.5

How Much?: $39

This wine is available for purchase online.