Marlborough and Wither Hills: serious wow factor

3 12 2010

The sun beats down as we set off around the vineyards with chief winemaker Ben Glover. I flush my mind of the previous night’s festivities and all talk of mankinis and animals beginning with ‘A’. Visiting journo and MW student (and all round brain) Rebecca Gibb asks all the tough questions, while I just look pretty and take pictures. First stop is roadside (above), looking over the majestic Rarangi Vineyard, a large vineyard based on uplifted seabed, with pea gravels and pockets of silt and clay. This is the jewel in the crown, providing Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and most importantly, Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is really at home here, with the single vineyards Rarangi bottling particularly impressive. Situated a couple of hundred metres from the sea, at the end of the Wairau Valley, and in an area where few other wineries fear to tread, Wither Hills’ Rarangi Vineyard survived its early years thanks to the hand watering of over 200,000 vines, while waiting for water rights go-ahead.

Rarangi is also home to a magical creature called a ‘Callum’ (every vineyard should have one!). After admiring the regenerated wetlands skirting the vineyard, we stumble through some bushes and into a clearing where our very own Callum was popping home-made pizzas into the wood-fired oven and lining up Rarangi Sauvignon Blancs from 2007/’08/’09 and ‘10. What a fantastic advert for the ageability of high quality Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, where acidity is the key.

The 2007 is sinewy with lemongrass, thyme, flint and a chalky back palate. Fresh as a daisy and with years of goodness ahead of it. The ’08 and ’09 come from warmer vintages and show tropical fruit over the apple, asparagus and nettles; the ’09 showing that same level of complexity as the ’07. All are compelling in the mouth, with the texture and profile coming from the acidity (they are unoaked). The 2010 is very slatey on the nose, like the 2007 and a herbal infusion on the palate, with savouriness and crunchy chalkiness. Complex and very interesting.

As a Riesling freak it is a pleasure to see a couple of single vineyard bottlings, even if the quantities made are so small as to make them cellar door only wines. The Kersley 2009 has classic slate and lime on the nose, with a refreshing palate of sweet fruit. It’s only 8g/l RS but seems very dry thanks to the high TA. Might have picked it as a Clare Riesling to be honest. The Rarangi 2009 is more rounded with riper, lusher, yellow fruit, with hints of honey, herbs and dashing lemon acidity. Again the acid profile is key to the success of Wither Hills Rieslings.

We journey 15 minutes back up the valley to the two prime Pinot Noir sites: Benmorven and Taylor River. As we pull up I notice some abandoned mountain bikes by the shed. No, not abandoned. Before I know it I have a helmet on and my stomach on fast spin cycle as we take hilly dirt tracks through the two vineyards. As I nonchalantly try not to plant face, Ben explains the character of the different sites. The Benmorven (to be certified organic in 2012) wines are more feminine, showing great succulence and acidity, whereas the Taylor River provides gutsier, denser, man wines. The glory of both is captured in the blended Wairau Valley bottling, while the single vineyard wines draw on the particular fruit deemed to be the ultimate expression of the character of that specific vineyard.

Later we head to a balcony high up in the beautiful cellar door building where the sun and the tasting line-up both dazzle. There are glasses, bottles, food and just the faintest whiff of a Callum in the air. There are some beautiful whites, from the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (intense, alive, green pea, mineral and straight line) all the way back to the 2003 vintage of the same wine (honey, richness, herby, palate weight, ripe acidity, like an old Aussie Semillon).

Things get really exciting with a Pinot line-up that included:

Pinot Noir 2001 – 100% Taylor River, “the wine Ben would turn gay for”, very complex, forest floor, cherry, tobacco, smoky chorizo, acidity delivers freshness and balance

Pinot Noir 2005 – masculine but with elegance (thanks to “two sheilas in the winery!”), strawberry, plum, tea leaf, ginger, linear finish, ’05 the vintage the vineyards came online structure-wise

Pinot Noir 2008 – super tight, primary fruit, cherries, raspberries and plenty of structure, texture leaves you wanting more

Pinot Noir 2007 – forest floor, hint of oak and of stalk, smoky hint too, funkiness, layers and balance

Benmorven Pinot Noir 2007 – finesse on nose, grainy, high quality French oak in there, alluring and soft with powdery fresh fruit, layers again

Taylor River Pinot Noir 2007 – more closed on nose, vanilla, plums and blackcurrant, a fruit wall, hint smoky bacon. Tonnes of structure, though tannins still soft and refined.

A quick rest and it’s back to the cellar door for the Battle of the Shirts. In the paisley corner, representing Wither Hills, it’s Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeen Glover. And in the Hawaiian corner, representing Mount Difficulty, it’s Maaaaaaaatt Dicey. Also time to catch up with a member of Bibendum’s foreign legion, Becky Potez, who helps the whole dinner pass off beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that my notes from the Chardonnay blending session the following morning are a bit patchy. I blame Ben, Becky, Callum, Maxine, Rebecca…in fact anyone who was there that night!

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