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Wine of the Week for week ending 26 May 2002
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Matawhero Reserve Gewurztraminer 1999
Gisborne, New Zealand

Once upon a time there was a gewurztraminer in New Zealand that was so stunning it was an inspiration to others. It was the Matawhero Estate Gewurztraminer and the ethereal vinous nectars of the late 1970's inspired other would-be winemakers to seek cuttings from the Matawhero Estate vines in the hope that they too could make something as exquisite to drink. It became very much a wine with a cult following.

Matawhero's gewurztraminer was a wine that put New Zealand into the international wine arena. When most other winemakers were still adding water to their wine, the 1977 Matawhero Gewurztraminer was entered into a wine show in Paris with excellent results. The wine was 'discovered'. The 1978 vintage was of even higher standard. Everyone was drinking it, even the Queen.

But as fate would have it, fortunes change and Matawhero went through a bad patch in later years. Hatsch Kalberer was the winemaker through most of the eighties. Hatsch was from Switzerland and left Matawhero to join a Swiss compatriot who was starting up in Marlborough. Owner Denis Irwin was recovering from a car accident and lost faith somewhat with the way the wine industry in New Zealand was heading. Denis took over the winemaking and started experimenting with sulphur levels, which caused some of the wines to oxidise way before their time.

Fortunately the way is clear again and the quality of the past is once again showing in the wines.

The new star is the matawhero label Matawhero Reserve Gewurztraminer 1999; a burnished gold coloured wine with exquisite aromas of orange zest and spice. It is a rich full-bodied dry wine with enough age to have developed an ever so slightly toasty complexity even though the wine has seen no oak. Denis attributes this to the age of the vines. The flavour is soft and rounded with a touch of an oily coriander leaf flavour alongside the delicate fragrance of a Cecile Brunner rose. Spices such as cinnamon and whole cardamons emerge and linger on the full flavoured finish together with juicy orange and its zest.

I tried the wine the following day and noticed a slight viscosity and a toffee apple flavour that I hadn't noticed before, not at all to the detraction of the wine, however.

Matawhero Estate wines are made using natural yeasts and 100% fermentation. Matawhero's founder, Bill Irwin, basically introduced these winemaking techniques to New Zealand.

The young Matawhero whites all have good colour. Denis says this is because he rests the juice on the skins after crushing. No sulphur is added until just prior to bottling, which also allows the colour to develop. The gewurztraminer is fermented to dryness, which takes about 10 months. The wines are matured in tank and bottled about 18 months after harvest. They reach market when they are two years old.

I also like the bright yellow gold coloured Matawhero Estate Gewurztraminer 1999 and although not as richly fragrant on the nose as the Reserve wine it has that classic gewurztraminer muskiness. It's a vibrant lifted gewurz in the mouth, full and fleshy with a stone fruit richness, classic gewurztraminer spice and a long full-bodied finish with lingering orange and cinnamon. It's nicely developed for current drinking and good value for the price.

The difference between the Reserve Gewurztraminer (NZ$25) and the Estate Gewurztraminer (NZ$16) is in the blending. They are styles that are made for different markets. Although the wines may be initially selected in the vineyard, the final selection is made in the winery.

A little bit of history
Although gewurztraminer was listed as Roter Traminer in Frank Berrysmith's Register of Vines in 1964, it was virtually an unknown grape variety in New Zealand when Bill Irwin imported his own vines into New Zealand. After the mandatory quarantine period he ended up with 2 or 3 withered vines which he planted and propagated in his Matawhero vineyard. Bill also imported many other grapevine clones and corresponded regularly with the heads of UC Davis in California, CSIRO in Australia and Geisenheim in Germany. He was a crusader for virus-free vines and very much respected in the international community of grapegrowers.

The first Matawhero wines were produced in 1975. As the wines became known so did the demand for Matawhero vine material. The best material gradually became available and Matawhero gewurztraminer propagations were distributed along with Irwin's pinot noir and Mendoza clone chardonnay for early Marlborough and Martinborough plantings.

About the label
The Matawhero label depicts the historic Matawhero Church, which was built in the 1860's. It is the oldest building from the area. Originally a schoolroom it survived the Poverty Bay Massacre of 1868. It became a Church in 1872.

Where to buy the wines
Matawhero Estate does not have a website. They have a cellar door at the Riverpoint Road winery in Gisborne, ph. (06) 8688366. Negociants New Zealand are the distributors so e-mail them for stockists at - Matawhero wines may be found in very limited quantities, I'm told, on the East Coast of the USA.

>© Sue Courtney

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