Gordon Russell, the Esk Valley winemaker awakens and looks out his window at the new dawning day. It is the 6th of April, 2002, and it is a fine, clear mid-autumn morning. But it is also rather cool. He checks his sophisticated weather monitoring system and is warned about a changing weather pattern predicted to arrive that afternoon. After two weeks of sunshine and record temperatures, a cold front from the south will bring clouds and probable rain to Hawkes Bay. Clouds on the horizon are already beginning to gather.
"Today is the day", he decides. Today the grapes will be harvested for his company's premier wine, Esk Valley 'The Terraces'.
The wine takes its name from the steep hillside terraced vineyard on the southern side of the natural horseshoe-shaped valley nestled in the hills at Bay View in the northern part of Hawkes Bay. The sun shines from the north and the terraced rows of low-yielding Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc grapevines are protected from prevailing winds.
The grapes have been measuring ripe sugar levels but in New Zealand's cool climate wine growing regions the best red wines are made from grapes that are physiologically as well as measurably ripe. So they are left to hang on the vines until the grape seeds and stalks, as well as the grapes themselves, lose all traces of green.
Gordon's philosophy is to simplify the winemaking as much as possible so the wine is "made in the vineyard", as the saying goes. Controlling the pruning time of the three varieties makes it possible for all the grapes to reach optimum ripeness at the same time. Therefore they can be harvested together and it only takes a day.
"Only the best, no bird peck, no raisins," Gordon tells the pickers. Bunch by bunch or berry by berry the grapes are harvested and all make it to the winery on the valley floor nearby, just before the rain starts to fall.
Regardless of variety the grapes are crushed together into one of the winery's 70-year-old open-topped concrete fermenters for fermentation and maceration. Hand plunging is tedious but gentle. Several days later the wine is pressed and transferred to new French oak barriques for malolactic fermentation and ageing. Just 11 barrels were made from the total production of 2700 tonnes in 2002.
Esk Valley 'The Terraces' is without doubt one of New Zealand's cult wines. It is not made every year, only in seasons when the quality meets criteria. Unfortunately there will never be enough to go around. Consequently the company does not push the wine but those 'in the know' pursue it.
The first release was in 1991. It was an awesome wine to my then relatively inexperienced palate. So was the 1992. I collected both these wines.
None was made in 1993 and in 1994 the price became too rich for me. I should have persevered however, because the 1995 rates amongst one of the finest Hawkes Bay wines I've ever tasted. In 1996 and 1997, The Terraces was not made.
Then came the incredible vintage of 1998 and a wine that was truly high score stuff. Once again in 1999 there was no wine earmarked for The Terraces label although a special barrel of wine made from the Terraces fruit was offered at the Hawkes Bay Charity Wine Auction. But the commercial offering from the Terraces Vineyard was a single variety Malbec.
The 2000 vintage followed and after a frost affected non-Terraces year in 2001, the 2002 was harvested.
Frost again affected the yield in 2003 with no Terraces produced. The Terraces was again produced in 2004, but at the time of writing that vintage is still under barrel.
So how does Esk Valley 'The Terraces' age? Gordon Russell decided it was time to find out. So with some trepidation and excitement he put up every single vintage in front of a privileged group of tasters. And I was there.
"This is a tasting of two halves," said Gordon, referring to a change in grape varieties and a change in winemaking philosophy after the 1994 vintage.
The Terraces vineyard was initially planted in 1989 with a hectare of vines made up of 50% Merlot, 25% Malbec, 15% Cabernet Franc and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. By 1994 it was evident that Cabernet Sauvignon struggled to ripen in even the hottest of years so after that vintage the Cabernet Sauvignon vines, which were on their own roots, were uprooted and replace with a new clone of Merlot. From 1995, The Terraces has comprised three varietals only.
In 1997 the vineyard was expanded with more Merlot and Malbec and today the plantings comprise 43% Malbec, 35% Merlot and 22% Cabernet Franc. Yields are kept low to ensure concentration.
In 1991 and since 1998 when The Terraces was made, the three varieties have been co-fermented in one of Esk Valley's original concrete fermenters - the fermenters a factor in the Esk Valley style.
Here are my notes on the wines….
Esk Valley 'The Terraces' 1991
Dark plummy red, amazing colour for its age - there are no purples but the core is dense to the pinky-red edge. And the flavour, awash with red fruits, cassis and plums with wonderful integration of fruit to oak, is amazing too. There's slightly grainy tannins and a savoury rusticity coming through on the earthy finish where the red fruits linger with cedary vanilla with a juicy aftertaste and a touch of red liquorice as it lingers. The Malbec is a key factor in the intensity of the youthful colour - a fantastic wine that seems much younger than its 14 years and still has plenty of life ahead of it.
12% alcohol. 150 cases made.
Esk Valley 'The Terraces' 1992
Fading dark red, a little more developed in its colour than the 1991. Savoury and closed on the nose with savoury oak and almost no primary fruit showing at all, at first, in the palate. It is soft and cedary with smooth, integrated tannins, a hint of chocolate, herbs de Provence and a succulent vinous sweetness coming forth on the long satisfying finish.. Herbs and liquorice linger. Looking good for the year and more akin to what a wine of this age should be tasting like.
1992 was a cool year with the summer was affected by cloud cover from the Mt Pinutabo eruption. Consequently there was no Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend and the wine comprises 40 % Merlot, 40% Malbec and 20% Cabernet Franc. It will probably not improve with further cellaring but should sit on this plateau for some time yet.
12.5% alcohol. 200 cases produced.
Esk Valley 'The Terraces' 1994
Fading dark red, similar to the '92 in colour with a mellow, cedary and faint liquorice aroma, it is savoury and earthy to the taste with barnyard, leather and tar, no primary fruit at all and a leafy, rustic finish with a cedary sweetness emerging as it lingers and an earthy, savoury aftertaste. Others say there is a 'Bordelaise character' to the wine but to me this is simply Brettanomyces. However people who love drinking Bordeaux will like this wine and although my least favourite wine of the line-up, this more I taste of it, the more I like it too.
A blend of 40% Merlot, 25% Malbec, 25% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon with 12.5% alcohol, I do not consider that this will improve with further cellaring. 250 cases produced.
Esk Valley 'The Terraces' 1995
The change of style becomes obvious, simply by looking at the colour. This is inky black-purple-red with crimson rims - very young and youthful looking. It's a rich, voluptuous smelling wine with cedary vanillin oak and blackberries jumping out of the glass. In the palate the juicy fruit is still primary with plum, blackberry and just a hint of cherry with rich succulent tannins, dark spices and nuances of chocolate on the long succulent finish. There's a spicy lift to the aftertaste with vanilla and black fruits lingering in the mouth and a herbal savouriness kicking in a while later and liquorice too. It's a big wine that is rich, intense, long and succulent but very complete. I rate it outstanding wine with years of life ahead of it.
Made from 45% Merlot, 35% Malbec and 20% Cabernet Franc it carries 13.5% alcohol and 270 cases were produced.
Esk Valley 'The Terraces' 1998
Similar to the 1995 in colour but much brighter. Youthful to the taste with sweet red and wild brambly fruit, creamy vanillin oak, chocolate and fruit cake spices with supple, juicy tannins and a long, spicy, cedary finish with a delicious vanillin cedar character than lingers with just a touch of liquorice. A ripe-fruited, spicy, sumptuous wine with seemingly beautifully integrated tannins that atone themselves so well to the massive fruit. Some of the other tasters said it will last for 20 years but I wonder if it will out last the 1995. Time will tell.
With a blend of 45% Malbec, 35% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc, this was the first of The Terraces to have a predominance of Malbec. It carries 14% alcohol and 300 cases were produced.
Esk Valley Reserve Malbec 1999
A deeply coloured red with crimson edges that are just starting to becoming a little diluted on the rim. An aromatic wine, earthy and savoury smelling with a floral intrigue and quite cedary in the palate with vanilla, tart red fruits, leather and a touch of tar. Overall very savoury with Malbec's hallmark meaty rusticity, an emerging fruit sweetness that lingers on the finish and a juicy succulence to the grainy tannins. A wine that improves in the glass to become better and better and better.
Esk Valley 'The Terraces' 2000
A deep, inky, youthful, purple-black with crimson pink edges heralds this totally erotic smelling wine that seduces with its biscuity oak, blackberries, cassis, chocolate and the faintest nuance of mint. In the mouth the seduction continues with its big though beautifully fine silky tannins, juicy black fruits, dark cedary oak, chocolate and tar and a fruit-filled aftertaste with plums and cherries and succulent oak. A wine of immense structure and finesse with fantastic balance, it just flows across the palate and is already deceptively easy to drink. I rate it outstanding.
After a cool, wet summer, the autumn was one of the hottest and driest ever. As the grapes were selectively harvested the percentage breakdown is estimated to be about 39% Malbec, 33% Merlot and 28% Cabernet Franc. It carries 13.5% alcohol and 250 cases were produced.
Esk Valley 'The Terraces' 2002
A shining blackberry colour that is totally opaque right to the edge of the purple crimson rims. This is completely different to the other wines with its seductive aromatics of rich oak, mocha, chocolate, liquorice, fruit cake spices, blackberry and other black fruits that follow through to the huge, plush, velvety-textured palate with sweet leather and tar. There's a myriad of spices with anise, cloves and a touch of pepper merging into the black chocolate, mocha, liquorice and tar with a floral nuance in the form of lavender and herbs. A juiciness lingers in the mouth long after the wine is swallowed and there is that faintest nuance of mint coming through on the aftertaste with an overlay of vanilla. A massive wine that is still so incredibly youthful - it has a long life ahead of it and will benefit from more cellaring at this stage.
A blend of 44% Malbec, 33% Merlot and 24% Cabernet Franc, it carries 14.9% alcohol and 270 cases were produced. It also sports a screwcap closure.
Esk Valley 'The Terraces' 2004 (tasted from barrel later, in the cellar)
A wine of the deepest colour with fantastic red berry fruit, red berries, creamy oak, chocolate and sumptuously rich tannins. It carries 14% alcohol and when it is bottled, 300 cases will be produced.
A truly incredible tasting that revealed exactly why Esk Valley 'The Terraces' is one of New Zealand's cult wines. To find out more and how you can obtain some of the 2004 when it is released, visit the Esk Valley website.
Copyright Sue Courtney