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Wine of the Week for week ending 17th August 2003
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Esk Valley Black Label Merlot 2002
Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

Gordon Russell, the Esk Valley winemaker is talking about the Hawkes Bay 2002 vintage. "It will go down as one of the great red wine vintages in Hawkes Bay", he says. But during the middle part of the growing season the outlook had not been that hopeful.

"The summer was atrocious. We had the worst February on record and the records show the lower heat summation figures ever. The fields were green and lush from the rain and the vines were still growing as the grapes started ripening", said Gordon.

Then as the month on the calendar changed so did the weather. After a wet, cool February, Hawkes Bay was to experience the driest and hottest March since records began. The grapes ripened quickly, perhaps too quickly. But rather than picking on normal parameters such as the sugar content in the grapes, the Esk Valley team decided to stall off picking and harvest on flavour. The grapes had to taste ripe, as well just looking ripe. The weather hung in there and the autumn was warm and dry, just a little rain around Easter time but not enough to scare people like Gordon and his team into a panic pick. The grapes held on and developed beautifully.

"2002 has produced big robust wines, hardly what one would expect from a cool climate", he said.

He rates 2002 as stylistically somewhere between 1998 and 2000. Personally, in general terms, I found the 1998 wines to be huge, rich and sometimes almost overpowering in their tannins although the Esk Valley Reserve Merlot Cabernet 1998 rates as one of my top wines from that vintage - it's the one I invested the money in anyway. But in general terms, on comparing 1998 to 2000, the latter vintage is the one I prefer. The wines have better integration of tannins and superb varietal flavours. They will be approachable sooner but still have the potential to live for a long time in the cellar.

So what would the 2002 from the bottle taste like? I would soon find out for on the table in front of me were the two Esk Valley Black Label reds. These are wines that are always consistent delivers of quality. These are wines that are affordable and are quickly snapped up by the wine buying public who know a good thing when they taste it.

The deep red Esk Valley Merlot Cabernet 2002 is oaky and slightly meaty with a chocolate creaminess on the nose but in the mouth the oak is not as dominant as the scent first suggested. The flavour is dominated by really ripe plummy fruit, ripe juicy, succulent fruit with a burst of cherries then creamy oak, a touch of chocolate and just a hint of mint. The cassis of the Cabernet lifts the wine and there are some spicy characters on the finish. The rich concentrated fruit flavours linger well. It's lighter in the palate - or make that less tannic - than the Black Label Merlot and such a user-friendly style. It's a blend of 60% merlot, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Malbec and carries 14% alcohol. I give it 4.5 stars.

Esk Valley Black Label Merlot 2002 is a deep crimson black with deep plummy scents backed up with dark spicy oak. Taste it and 'Wow!' such immense concentration of flavour with leather, liquorice, rich creamy oak and ripe spicy fruit so terrifically balanced. It fills the mouth and lingers with masses of cigar, plum and cherry - everything you would expect in a very good Merlot. And though there's heaps of tannins, it is so svelte and smooth. 14.5% alcohol. 5 stars easy. Such a gorgeous delicious wine, it has to be the Wine of the Week.

Both wines were aged in a combo of French and Amerian oak barriques for 12 months. Fortunately, with such good wines, the quantity is up there too. They come in the largest volumes that Esk Valley has ever had the opportunity to make them in. Still once the word gets around they won't last for long. Recommended retail is $22.95 per bottle.

If this is the calibre of the basic Esk Valley reds, we have to be in store for some pretty spectacular premium wine in the form of the 'Reserve' and the mind boggles to think of what the super premium 'Terraces' will taste like. I have some inkling though. At the Hawkes Bay 2002 Vintage review barrel tasting last October, the Esk Valley red was my favourite of the day. Was it from barrels selected for the Reserve or selected for the Terraces? I guess I will never know.

Find out more about Esk Valley Wines from

© Sue Courtney
10 August 2003

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