HILLERSDEN ESTATE PINOT NOIR MARLBOROUGH 2016

We have been selling New Zealand Pinot Noirs since the 1993 vintage, prior to which we had no idea they even made Pinot Noir in New Zealand.  A Pinot Noir-centric Oregon purveyor went there and hand carried back things like Ata Rangi and Te Mata, and our impression was that this was clearly the start of something significant.  In the roughly quarter century that followed, the Kiwis have established themselves as an important Pinot Noir option in this marketplace.

Back then few here had a clear idea of the appellations or general lay of the land, but certain consistent profiles became apparently.  Generally New Zealand Pinots are cooler customers and a bit more savory.  Sometimes they can be downright sharp and green, perhaps just a bit too ‘cool climate’ for a lot of people’s tastes.  But the best examples have a more pronounced fruit core and more rounded edges, but still present their fruit in a more restrained, lifted, cooler-edged manner.  It is the ones that hit that happy medium of bright mulberry and dark cherry fruit with enough palate tenderness to give them a broader audience that really present the most viable and distinctive options for Pinot fans.

The best examples play to that, and Hillersden is a new face for us that offers a great look at a wine that is reasonably outgoing yet at the same time distinctly New Zealand.  The mulberry, plum and dark cherry fruit has both mineral and savory spice underpinnings, but also possesses a suppler palate-feel and somewhat softer edges to really give a good reckoning of the place without one having to forgive a touch of shrillness far too many other NZ reds have.

The combination in the Hillersden Estate Pinot Noir Marlborough 2016 makes for a compelling drink and the price point is relatively easy on the pocketbook.  In other words, we may have found a new player moving forward but this example certainly delivers.  Their claim is that they are the only family-owned, single estate producer in Wairu.

We had never heard of this producer before but that may have to do with the fact that their history only goes back to 2015.  They are in the upper Wairu Valley, which is a bit further inland and a bit warmer than many of the other Marlborough sites.  This would certainly help make the wine fleshier while still preserving the brightness of the flavors.  Winemaker Adam Kubrock actually grew up in Walla Walla and made Syrah and other reds but became enchanted with the cool climate winemaking Down Under.  This Pinot sees 10 months in 25% new French oak and all of the fruit is farmed sustainably.

A ‘WILD’ BUY ON GREYWACKE’S 94 POINT SAUVIGNON ‘WILD’ 2016

We can recall nearly four decades ago when we started selling a then unheard of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand called Cloudy Bay.   It subsequently went on to establish quite a following for itself as well as spearhead the expansion of New Zealand wines in the U.S..  Some years later as we introduced a new Kiwi producer called Greywacke, named for the course-grained sandstone that made up the soils, we took great pains to make the connection between owner Kevin Judd and Cloudy Bay where he was winemaker for some two decades.

How times have changed.  We don’t think it would be unreasonable to suggest that, in serious wine circles, Greywacke currently enjoyed a stature equal to and probably greater than the iconic Cloudy Bay.  That’s what can happen when someone like Kevin can produce thrilling wines in a variety of varietals over the course of many vintages.  As usual, we have a variety of selections from this New Zealand superstar.  But today’s focus is on one wine in particular.

Greywacke produces two different Sauvignon Blancs.  Their ‘regular’ bottling is by no means ‘regular’, various versions of the Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc having enjoyed a consistent flow of media kudos.  There is also one that they refer to as Greywacke ‘Wild’ Sauvignon, which varies from the ‘regular’ by virtue of the fact that its fermentation is performed with entirely the natural yeasts that come on the grapes.   The fermentation typically happens a little slower and takes a little longer than with the industrial yeasts, but the results can be spectacular.

Such is the case with the Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc Wild Marlborough 2016. A rather complex, layered offering showing, it offers a whiff of the expected grapefruit and lime along with less ‘traditional’ flavors of dried stone fruits, pistachios, and a little fleck of honey.  The palate feel is a little more tactile that most Sauvignons and the wine itself impresses, though the little extra bottle age may certainly have been a contributor as well.

It was a critic’s choice as well, pulling down some rather impressive scores for the category.  The new ‘hard line’ Wine Spectator surprised with a 93 point score and notes, “Just gorgeous, this is vibrant, fragrant and generous, with honeysuckle, Key lime, lemongrass and fresh ginger notes that mingle with grapefruit and pear flavors. Impressive for the intensity, showing a smooth body, refreshing acidity and long, lingering finish.” It is clearly all of those things.

For us it was one of the most compelling Sauvignons we have tasted in quite a while.  James Suckling clearly liked it as much as we did with a 94 point score and comments, “his has all the complexity seen in great white wines with plenty of savory influence. Grilled nuts adorn biscuity and flinty lemon and grapefruit pith. The palate has punchy dried-peach and lemon flavors, as well as an appealing, very succulent and carefully layered texture. Drink now. Screw cap.”

What is perhaps a little bit of a surprise is that we picked this up as something of an end of vintage special and, as an added bonus, can whack a bit off the $32 list price as well…while it lasts.

A CUT ABOVE: PADDY BORTHWICK SAUVIGNON BLANC 2017

It has been a very long time since we first started working with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, way back in the mid-80s with a brand called Cloudy Bay.  Yes that Cloudy Bay.  It was an impressive vanguard for a category that was at the time virtually non-existent, and certainly made an impression on anyone who tried it.  It didn’t seem all that long before Cloudy became the standard of a category that pretty much exploded.  These days Kiwi Sauvignons are a significant group of wines in the marketplace and there are certainly scores if not hundreds of brands to choose from.

It would be fair to say that not every example is compelling.  Some are a bit vegetal, others a bit sweetish, and there is a wide range of styles in between.  It is also fair to say that there are plenty of pleasing choices to be had, to the point where consumers have a bit of confidence in the genre and buy them regularly.  That is more than can be said for some categories (like South Africa) that consistently need a push.  As difficult as we can be, we still find a wide variety of Kiwi efforts that we can recommend.  You want a good to very good, tasty, brisk, lively New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc?  We usually have several.

However while “good to very good” is no problem, ‘great’ is another matter entirely.   The great ones are not that hard to remember because, frankly, we haven’t had many that have performed at the highest level.  Some of those first Cloudy Bays were memorable enough to create a category where none existed before.  There has been the occasional Villa Maria specialty bottling that has played above the crowd.  One of our favorite memories in the category was the first Mount Nelson from the esteemed Marchese Lodovico Antinori of Ornellaia. Considering we’ve been working with these wines for three decades, the list of superstars is pretty short.

Our first encounter with the Paddy Borthwick Sauvignon Blanc 2017 from the Gladstone area of Wairarapa (southern end of the north island near the east coast) was one of those rare magical moments.  Paddy Borthwick came from a ranching family and went looking for a place to diversify their farming interests by growing premium wine grapes.  He got a degree from Australia’s Roseworthy College in 1985 and then, as they describe it, “embarked on a career spanning five countries and three continents before settling back into the Wairarapa.”  He and his father planted this vineyard in 1996.

The vines, now 8-16 years old, sit in deep, stony alluvial soils in a place that is one of the warmest areas of New Zealand (though still pretty cool) with the least rainfall.  The grapes are harvested and quickly moved to tank where they are slowed fermented with about five months of lees stirring.  Sustainable practices and minimal intervention (as you would expect with Sauvignon Blanc) are the watchwords here.  It probably didn’t hurt that 2017 was a ‘cracker’ of a vintage.

The intensely flavored palate shows pink grapefruit, melon, tropical and ripe passion fruit with an underlying hint of gooseberry, guava and lychee.  This is a wine with great balance, structure and intensity, with the kind of balance and power rare for the breed.  There were some nice notes from Wine Advocate’s Joe Czerwinski (91 points… ‘Nicely done’), but we suspect 3-4 months in the bottle or more (the notes are from Feb, 2018 but we have no idea when it was tasted) probably allowed more nuance to poke out.   We’re not just praising this one vis-à-vis other New Zealand Sauvignons, but truly believe this one can play in any arena.  That is not something we say about Kiwi Sauvignons very often, but this one is very special. At under $17 it’s a pretty smoking deal as well.