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Wine of the Week for week ending 12 August 2001
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Esk Valley Merlot Cabernet 2000
Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

New Zealand wine lovers are in for a treat, as the wave of new releases comes on to the market. As well as the new season's whites from the 2001 vintage, we can expect super reds and barrel-aged whites from the well-rated 2000 vintage, a vintage that matches the excellent '98 in quality as well as volume, we're told.

We saw the potential of Pinot Noir a couple of weeks ago with our first peek at the 2000 reds, including a very smart pinot from the Hawkes Bay region. Now there is further proof of the promise from the red wine capital of New Zealand, where, in the Bay View area north of Napier, Esk Valley winemaker Gordon Russell skilfully crafts his wines.

Label of Esk Merlot Cabernet 2000

I loved the Esk Valley Black Label Merlot Cabernet 2000, a blend of 59% merlot, 26% cabernet sauvignon, 8% cabernet franc and 7% malbec when I tasted it at a tasting last week.

It's a deep pink-ruby coloured wine that has the 'empty chocolate box' aroma so often associated with straight merlot, and well as a 'pretty' fragrance offered by the cabernet franc. There are ripe vibrant flavours in the mouth with layers of berry such as lifted raspberry, plum, a little blackberry, together with a chocolate richness, hints of leather, a touch of berry spice, ripe soft tannins, well integrated oak and a pleasing creamy texture. It seems like light easy drinking at first but you soon discover the underlying depth and oomph.

Gordon Russell, who is hosting the tasting, explains he loves making wines like this, he loves compiling the blend. He starts with the merlot, the heart of the wine. Then goes forward in palate by blending in the cabernet franc, then adds incremental amounts of cabernet sauvignon to build up the backbone and the palate. Lastly the malbec comes in handy for adding a deep colour and some spice.

It is a complex, interesting wine that will unfold well and a hint of what you will be tasting in the Reserve wine range, but at under half the price.

In contrast the Esk Valley Black Label Merlot 2000 is a densely coloured wine with a black-centred core and bright rims. It has intense plum and chocolate-box aromas with a creamy nuance. Big, bold flavours with spicy berries and plums, a concentrated ripe and dense richness and good tannin structure. A bit of a meaty wine in some respects - from the oak, perhaps and definitely not a quaffing wine. I found it just a little youthful and would like to see again in 6 months to let those flavours develop and the concentration unfold. But what fabulous potential.

Both wines were fermented in concrete open-top fermenters in separate parcels of the various vineyard sources and components. The components were kept separate while they were aging in French and American oak barriques for 11 months before blending took place.

The recommended retail is NZ$22.95 and the wines should be available almost everywhere.

We treated ourselves to a bottle of the Esk Valley Black Label Merlot Cabernet 2000 in the weekend. It was an excellent match to traditional Sunday dinner, a warming roast of beef.

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