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Wine of the Week for week ending 14 September 2003
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Esk Valley 'The Terraces' 2002
Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

When the invitation came to write about New Zealand's luxury wines for an elite overseas magazine, there was little doubt in my mind as to which would top the list. Esk Valley The Terraces it would undoubtably be.

My experience with 'The Terraces goes back to 1991 and the first release. It was an awesome wine to my relatively inexperienced palate. We collected the wine for another whole year. None was made in 1993 and in 1994 the price became too rich for me. I should have persevered however, because the 1995 still rates as one of the finest Hawkes Bay wines I've ever tasted. The next two years Terraces was not made then came the incredible vintage of 1998 and a wine that was truly high score stuff. Again I didn't buy, mainly because I thought the Esk Valley Reserve label from that year offered just about as much for about 1/3rd the price. Once again in 1999 there was no Terraces although a special barrel of wine made from the Terraces fruit was offered at the Hawkes Bay Charity Wine Auction. The 2000 vintage followed - a wine I have not tasted. After a frost affected non-Terraces year in 2001, there is now the, as yet, unparalleled offering from 2002.

I do not usually write about wines that have not been released but in this case I've made an exception. For Esk Valley The Terraces 2002 has been previewed at tastings and the 'en primeur' release is due.

My experience with the wine began in the Terraces vineyard on Easter Monday of the vintage year. Terraces is a little steep little terraced vineyard in a hidden horse-shoe shaped valley barely visible from the road in the Esk Valley hills above Bayview. The vines are planted on the southern side, so of course face north. It's a warm little spot, perfect for growing and ripening the 2700 vines of Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Franc vines.

Gordon Russell was busy in the winery when we dropped in unexpectedly at the end of a long weekend in the Bay. But he was so excited about the way the Terraces grapes were shaping that he stopped what he was doing and took us in the vineyard to see them. I particularly wanted to see the Malbec and perhaps have a taste. I got my wish. The plump black grapes were delicious and tasted ripe to me. Gordon said they would hang a little longer to harness maximum flavour. So they hung for another five days before they were picked on April 6th.

Gordon's philosophy is to simplify the winemaking as much as possible so the wine is made in the vineyard, so to speak. Controlling the pruning time of the three varieties makes it possible for the grapes to reach optimum ripeness at the same time. Therefore they can be picked together. The fruit is harvested by hand into the picking bins and taken to the winery on the valley floor nearby. Regardless of variety, the grapes are fermented together in one of the 70-year-old open-topped concrete fermenters. Hand plunging is tedious but is gentle, so that's the way they go. After maceration and malolactic fermentation, the wine is aged in new French barriques.

I first saw a 2002 Esk Valley barrel sample at the Hawkes Bay vintage review held October last year. The fruit that time was from one of the company's Gimblett Gravels vineyards, a blend of Merlot Malbec and Caberenet Sauvignon, a wine destined for the 'Reserve' blend. It was my star wine of the review. Then a few weeks ago the standard 'Black Label' wines were released - the most powerful and concentrated I've seen from these labels.

Could it get any better? The answer is a resounding 'Yes', for when I tasted the Esk Valley Terraces 2002 a couple of weeks ago, it simply blew me away.

What struck me was its inky, opaque, intense purple-red colour, its opulence, spicy, toasted oak fragrance and its exuberance of fruit in the palate. It was rich and powerful with masses of flavour yet incredibly fine and smooth. Words failed me. It was without doubt the best New Zealand wine I had ever tasted.

I regained my composure and made some notes and enhanced them from subsequent tastings of this glorious wine, including in my own home away from the madding crowd and the influences of the aromas of a wine tasting room and the flavours of wine previously tasted. What I found was outstanding fruit on the nose, dark and toasty mocha-like oak, macerated cherry, juicy ripe plum and creamy black fruits, violets, liqueur-soaked fruitcake, fruitcake spices, liquorice, anise, nutmeg and pepper, cherry chocolate, leather, ripe, rich and finely structured tannins and a powerfully intense concentration. It's not a chewy wine, just super fine and elegant.

The question that needs to be answered is "How do you get some hands on this luxurious wine that could become legendary?"

The answer is "if you purchased Terraces from the 2000 vintage from the 'en primeur' offer of that wine, you will be contacted by Esk Valley and given first dibs to buy the new vintage wine". You lucky people will essentially become ''The Terraces Club'. If there is still wine to go around, the en primeur offer will be extended. 'En primeur' is likely to be around NZ$95 a bottle.

The wine will be delivered and released on 1 June 2004. Of course, once it goes into retail, expect to pay much more.

The Esk Valley website has the contact details.

Update 14th September
Eight days after opening my sample 'airline-size' screwcapped bottle of Terraces that I had to restrain myself and Neil from drinking in one session, it was still superb. The tannins were perhaps more significant, more crushed velvet-like tannins and the wine had become more savoury with leather and cigar more noticeable over from the sweet primary fruit, proving this wine has the structure to hold it for years and years to come. The layers of flavour were still there - the blackberry fruit was succulent, the chocolate of the Merlot had come more to the fore and the fruit cake spiciness enthralled the palate once again. Such a great finish, the mocha and red liquorice on the lifted smoky finish lingering long after the last drop was gone.

© Sue Courtney
7th & 14th September 2003

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