Hawke’s Bay is an area of New Zealand that is increasingly becoming known for its red blends as much as its whites. Gordon Russell, winemaker from Esk Valley, explains the peculiarities of the terroir and why he has only made 12 vintages of his tope cuvée The Terraces in 25 years.
Maori picked the site that The Terraces comes from as a perfect vantage point for growing crops. Now it is cropped with grapes and is producing a stunning world class red blend from Esk Valley
Gordon Russell, the senior winemaker at Esk Valley in New Zealand, likes to compare the 2013 and 2014 vintages in Hawke’s Bay to 2009 and 2010 in Bordeaux. Just as the acclaim for 2009 was followed by a vintage that many felt trumped it, so Russell believes that The Terraces 2013, from a so-called ‘vintage of a lifetime’, may have been followed by an even better one in 2014.
Russell, the fishing-mad and cricket-loving North Islander, was in London in late September to promote Esk Valley wines at a launch dinner for The Terraces 2014, laid on by the winery’s UK distributor, Hatch Mansfield. Four vintages of The Terraces, one of New Zealand’s great red wines, were uncorked to universal delight – the 1995, 2000, 2013 and 2014.
Esk Valley – the story so far
A bit of background, as provided by the genial Russell, on The Terraces’ history is worth knowing.
“Every day I drive into the property,” Russell told The Buyer, “I pass on the left hand side one hectare of Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc vines growing in a limestone hillside that was once occupied by Maori people for 600 years. The reason they lived there was aspect – 100% sunshine every day, amazing drainage, enough fertility to grow crops at the top of the hill and water at the bottom.”
“A lot of those reasons are why we grow vines on it. The vineyard was originally terraced in the 1940s and then foregone as it never yielded enough grapes. Then, in 1989 it was replanted, with a small first vintage in 1991, which was spicy and unique in the context of New Zealand wine at the time.”
The next vintage, 1992, was an ‘annus horribilis’ in Russell’s words.
“So the wine was not made that year,” he continued. “Suddenly a precedent was set – if the fruit was not good enough, we didn’t make the Terraces. Over the last 25 years, only 12 vintages have been made. But 2013, ’14, ’15 and ’16 have all been successful, partly as we are now dry-farmed but also as we’re organically farmed as well.”
“We’re seeing the returns thanks to the adoption of those practices. Man-hours involved in making this wine are ridiculous in the context of the whole Villa Maria group. Every year when I go up to the harvest debrief, it’s always the hand-harvesting costs that are top of the list by a significant margin. It’s always The Terraces – 50 people to pick four and half ton of grapes from 8am till 6pm. That’s just stupid.”
The other practice that makes The Terraces so special, and indeed gives it such a strong sense of place, is Russell’s decision, 15 years ago, to co-vinify all three varietals from it.
“I decided that rather than make three small ferments, I would co-ferment and bottle as a field blend,” he said. “I want you to taste nature and that site rather than my idea of what it should taste like. So it’s a wine very true to its vineyard origins. The notion of varieties is blurred.“
To be able to co-ferment three varieties with different ripening proclivities, Esk Valley prune at different, carefully selected times.
“The earlier you prune, the earlier you harvest,” Russell added. “The Cab Franc is pruned the moment it drops its leaves, and the Malbec not long before it comes back into leaf. The Malbec has dappled light on the bunches while the Cab Franc is 100% leaf-plucked, so we bring one forward, and slow down another. The Merlot tends to sit somewhere in the middle.”
Putting the Terraces to the taste test
Russell described 2013 as one of the great red wine years in Hawke’s Bay. Dry and warm, with cool nights, it provided really good acidity and freshness. Both 2013 and 2014 have fabulous fruit and concentration, but the latter is plusher with bigger tannins. Undoubtedly both will age gracefully, although like Bordeaux 2010s, the Terraces 2014 will reward longer cellaring. Certainly, the 1995 and 2000 versions of The Terraces showed how well these wines can age. Both were still relatively youthful, while being soft and rich with a backbone of well-integrated tannins. Whereas The Terraces 2013 saw 80 per cent new French oak, Russell felt the ’14 could take 100 per cent. It absorbs it effortlessly.
“We get softness and generosity from the quite high pH this vineyard gives,” Russell revealed. “We make between 250-330 cases per annum. The ’14 was the closest to one third Malbec, one third Merlot and one third Cab Franc there’s ever been. Other vintages have been closer to 40-5% Malbec, maybe 35% Merlot and the rest Cab Franc. In 2013, it was less Merlot and more Cab Franc for the first time ever.”
The rest of the Esk Valley range tasted showed very well. The five white wines – Riesling, Verdelho, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay – are all available in the UK through various independents at around £13, as are the impressive Pinot Noir 2015 (RRP £17) and Winemakers’ Reserve (Bordeaux Blend) 2013 for £25.