With the clouds turning a peachy pink against the always-riveting-blue sky above Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, I found myself strolling around the grounds of Clearview Estate sampling bits of the region’s past. To celebrate the final evening of the few days that I and a few dozen other journalists, sommeliers, and wine buyers had spent immersed in the region, several producers grabbed a couple of older bottles from their cellars and offered them up for a leisurely tasting as the last rays of the day hit the cliffs of Cape Kidnappers above the gentle swells of the bay.
New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay certainly has a long history when it comes to winegrowing. It was the country’s first wine region, planted and harvested as far back as the 1850’s. The region blossomed in the earliest part of the 20th Century, and by 1920 there were several prominent wineries operating quite successfully including Mission Estate, Te Mata, and Vidal, all of whom are still in existence today.
The region’s modern winemaking history, like many historical regions, really goes back a few decades to the late Seventies when modern viticultural techniques, and global demand drove the shift from fortified wines to the dry red and white wines that have made the region famous today.
Wines from the Eighties are rare indeed, as are bottles from the early Nineties, but we had a couple of wines from the early Nineties, as well as some early 2000s on offer that evening for a tasting. The point of the tasting was not to provide a comprehensive window into the past, but merely to showcase some older wines to the extent that the wineries involved felt like doing so.
And those of us tasting were quite glad to partake. Some of the oldest wines were aging beautifully, effortless testaments to the quality of winemaking that has been going on in this region for several decades.
Few of these wines would be available today except as gifts carefully prized from the libraries of the wineries themselves, but I thought I’d share my notes on them anyway. I did manage to find a couple of the wines available in the US online.
2007 Easthope “The Gate Crasher” Sauvignon Blanc, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Palest gold, to the point of being nearly colorless, this wine smells of bright candied lemon and candle wax in a way that instantly and somewhat strangely recalls Semillon from Australia’s Barossa Valley. After this resinous beginning, flavors of honey, wintersweet blossom, and sunny lemon curd all dance over a bright base of stony minerality. Excellent acidity and a very unusual character. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2007 Ngatarawa Alwyn Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of roasted nuts, toasted bread and lemon curd. In the mouth delicate, lacy acidity brings flavors of lemon curd and candied lemon peel to life as the wine has almost a velvety, silky texture. Excellent, and aging quite well. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2007 Clearview Estate Endeavor Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of toasted nuts, toasted and buttered sourdough bread, and oak. In the mouth the wine has a very saline character with flavors of butter and wet stones mixing with nutty lemon curd and citrus juice. Big, brash, and over the top, this wine is made only when the proprietor feels it has been an exceptional year. First made in 1989, it has been only made 7 times in 25 years. It is always bottled only in magnum. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2007 Sacred Hill Rifleman’s Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of sweet pineapple and vanilla. In the mouth vanilla and floral flavors mix with pineapple and lemon. Unfortunately these rich flavors aren’t backed up by strong enough acidity so the wine ends up a bit flabby and tropical instead of bright. 14% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $40.
2005 CJ Pask Declaration Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of pineapple and cold cream. In the mouth flavors of pineapple and wet stones mix with cold cream, as notes of candied mango and orange rind emerge on the finish. Decent acidity and length. 13% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.
2002 Cornerstone Red Blend, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
An opaque ruby in the glass with brick red edges, this wine smells of sandalwood, cherry and cedar. In the mouth the wine is beautifully textured, with flavors of cedar and sandalwood wrapped around a still-lively core of cherry fruit. Notes of leather emerge along with fine grained tannins. Good acidity and lovely balance. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2002 Squawking Magpie Red Blend, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium to dark ruby in color, but still possessing some purple highlights, this wine smells of cherry and cedar. In the mouth, citrusy cherry flavors mix with sandalwood and leather. Nicely balanced, with a good finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2007 Alpha Domus Aviator Red Blend, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of green herbs, cherry and cedar. In the mouth cherry and tobacco notes mix with green herbs draped in fine grained tannins. Good acidity, decent length. A blend of 27% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 22% Cabernet Franc, and 18% Malbec. Aged for 17 months in 75% new French oak. 14% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2006 Unison Selection Red Blend, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and blackberry fruit. In the mouth the wine is equally earthy and woody, with an overpowering flavor of new oak and its associated vanilla signature, and drying tannins that seem to suck the moisture out of the mouth. Out of balance. 36% Syrah with the rest an even split between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5.
1998 Vidal Joseph Soler Cabernet Sauvignon, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
A cloudy dark ruby in color, this wine possesses a beautiful perfume of cherry, red apple skin and cedar, making me fall in love before I even put it in my mouth. On the palate the wine offers cherry and cedar flavors borne on a gorgeous velvety bed of powdery tannins. Notes of red apple skin and a hint of citrus brightness linger in the long finish. Outstanding, and demanding many further mouthfuls. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.
2007 Crossroads Elms Vineyard Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of struck match and blackberry fruit. In the mouth blackberry fruit is caressed by fine grained tannins as flavors of cassis and earth emerge from the darkness. Good acidity, great length, and a very smooth operator. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2002 Trinity Hill Homage – The Gimblett Red Blend, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark ruby in the glass this wine smells of cherry, earth, and green bell pepper. In the mouth, rich cherry flavors mix with green herbs on a bed of velvety tannins. Excellent, juicy acidity keeps the fruit lively while tobacco and nutty flavors emerge in the long finish. Wow. A blend of 50% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 25% Syrah. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
1998 Te Mata Coleraine Red Blend, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of graphite, cigar box, and cherry fruit. In the mouth a remarkably resonant and deep pencil lead character melds seamlessly with cherry, cedar, and tobacco notes, as earth and leather notes emerge towards the finish. Powdery tannins have a velvety voluminous quality to them, and are balanced by great acidity. Complex and deep. Fantastic. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.
2002 Stonecroft Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium to dark ruby in color, this wine smells of cherry and well worn leather. In the mouth cherry and leather seem dusted with spice and draped in a powdery, fine grained blanket of tannin. Excellent acidity keeps the fruit juicy and bright, while cedar and earth notes linger in the long finish. The wine is somewhat remarkable for its red fruit character, which is unusual for Syrah. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2005 Sacred Hill Helmsman Red Blend, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark ruby in color, this wine smells of cherry and tobacco. In the mouth cherry and wet earth flavors are wrapped in powdery tannins that seem to have a leathery flavor to them. Decent acidity but the finish comes up a bit short. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 14% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $40.
2007 Lime Rock Pinot Noir, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of sweet dried flowers, cranberry and cherries. In the mouth cherry and cranberry fruit mix with forest floor and cedar notes. The oak adds some silky vanilla notes but is reasonably well subsumed into the core of the wine. Excellent acidity and notes of raspberries on the finish. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2007 Mission Estate Jewelstone Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Opaque garnet in color, this wine smells of meaty mulberry fruit and cassis. In the mouth flavors of cherry, spice box and leather have an exotic quality to them. Powdery tannins coat the mouth but don’t get in the way of the bright, juicy fruit. Well balanced, with excellent acidity. Aged in 45% new oak.14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2005 Esk Valley Reserve Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of spicy pepper, floral notes, and a deeper cassis fruit. In the mouth a swirling constellation of flavors includes cherry, sandalwood, leather and earth all scented with a dusting of violets. Speaking of dusting, the gorgeously fine-grained tannins seem to float like dust motes through the mouth, providing a stage on which the juicy, delicious fruit and earth flavors get to dance. 14.5% alcohol. 100 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.