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Wine of the Week for week ending 24 November 2002
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Esk Valley Black Label Verdelho 2002
Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

New Zealand winemakers are lucky. They live and work in a young country and the wine industry is even younger. There is plenty of opportunity to experiment with new regions, new grape varieties and new wine styles. Anything goes. There is simply no tradition to adhere to. And when something catches on, it is "look out world". Take Sauvignon Blanc, for example. Thirty years ago the only Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand was at the Te Kauwhata Research Station and in Bill Spence's Auckland vineyard. Now it is our most important white wine grape variety and grows happily throughout most of New Zealand.

Savvy winemakers are keen to experiment because there is very little history to say just what is right for our unique country.

Esk Valley winemaker, Gordon Russell, is one of those prepared to try something new. He did it with Malbec a few years ago and now it's the Portuguese grape variety, Verdelho. And the result is the Esk Valley Hawkes Bay Verdelho 2002, the first ever commercial release of this variety in New Zealand.

I came across the wine during the Easter break when we called into the Esk Valley winery. It was the last stop at the end of the weekend as we headed out of the Bay on our journey home. It was the midst of vintage and Gordon was excited. "You've got to try this", he said and climbed up a ladder to extract some wine from the top of the tank. He had stopped the fermentation and the liquid was sweet and thick. The fragrance coming out of the glass was deliciously appealing with the fruity yeasty scents. "It's Verdelho", he said.

Now, some 8 months later I'm sipping on the finished product and enjoying the taste that the preview promised. And as the night goes on it just gets better and better.

It's pale in colour with just the slightest hues of straw. It's an extremely fragrant wine with floral scents like ginger flower, fruit scents like pear and creamy yeasty scents that remind me of creaming soda. It's sweetish, or 'off-dry' if you like in the mouth with a luscious ripe fruit palate weight, which is not surprising considering there's 25 grams of residual sugar although there's enough acid there to keep it in balance.

The flavour is totally interesting and not knowing what New Zealand Verdelho is meant to taste like, I have made some comparisons. There's a lushness and spiciness like that of Gewurztraminer, a texture and richness like that of Pinot Gris and a citrus freshness like that of Riesling. (I'd hate to have to name it in a blind tasting situation). There's fleshy ripe juicy fruits, pears and nuts, then apple and tangelo flavours lingering on the finish.

85% of the wine was fermented in tank while the remainder was fermented in oak. The components were blended and bottled shortly after fermentation to retain the highly aromatic characters of the variety. The wine contains 13% alcohol by volume, which equates to 7.7 standard drinks in a 750ml bottle.

I have to say I like this wine very much. It's perfect for sipping on its own in the afternoon or late into the night as you work at the computer. However I did the right thing and attempted some food matching two nights in a row. The salmon fillet I cooked last night was rather earthy and strong in its flavour and didn't go so well with the wine, but the accompanying salad of thinly sliced cucumber and tomato with an olive and herb dressing was indeed a surprise as it matched so well. Then earlier tonight the takeaways from the local Thai restaurant, particularly the skewered chicken breast in a spicy peanut sauce, were an excellent match.

The wine may be hard to find, for just one hundred and something cases were made. I think, however, some fine wine stores may try to get their hands on it. Check out for further information.

© Sue Courtney

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