Syrah – the future of the Church?
|105 year old wineries are rare in NZ|
(A version of this article first appeared in a recent edition of Lattelife. I like the story of this winery – there is a real sense of history here. It also feels like a winery in flux, with lots of tinkering with varieties and methods. Good people too. I like that restlessness, and no question that it is working with the reds, with Syrah obviously the excitement variety. The whites – aside from Chardonnay – are going to take a little longer as they all seem to be works in progress. Actually, the biggest challenge for this winery’s white wines is how they fit in the scheme of Pernod Ricard’s NZ operations – with Stoneleigh and Brancott in the portfolio, Church Road need to differentiate away from Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris methinks).
Just a mention of the wine lights a spark in Chris Scott’s eyes. A spark – and a knowing smile – shared between all of the Church Road winery staff. They’re onto something you see, onto a ‘new’ variety that represents an exciting new chapter in the 105 year Church Road winery history.
The wine is a Syrah, a cool, juicy, spicy Syrah, grown in the old gravel riverbeds that New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay region is known for. What makes this wine, this ‘newish’ (for New Zealand) grape, so significant is just how much promise it shows.
Here in Australia we almost take Syrah (or Shiraz) for granted – it grows like a weed in our warm climes, and has done so for over 170 years. It is only in the last decade however that this most famous grape has carved a serious reputation in NZ, the plantings growing from just a single row in 1984 to a (still small, but significant) 300 hectares this year.
For Church Road winemaker Chris Scott, Syrah was originally just a dalliance – an experimental wine to keep the winemaking team on their toes. It took a big win (Champion Wine of Show at the 2008 NZ Wine Awards) for just the second ever Church Road Syrah to provoke a little interest, with the newly released 2010 Reserve Syrah the latest real head-turner.
What Syrah now represents is a third string to the Church Road bow – a third wine to compliment the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon blends that the winery is most famous for.
Indeed just focusing on Church road Syrah is ignoring how good the Cabernet blends are. The 2009 Church Road Reserve Cabernet Merlot ($36) is just the latest example of the fine, savoury, ‘are-you-sure-this-is-not-from-France’ styled medium bodied red that Hawke’s Bay does so well.
Given that New Zealand’s first commercial Cabernet Sauvignon was produced by Church Road in 1949, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Cabernet based wines look so good. As far back as the 1960s Kiwis were flocking to Church Road’s historic cellar door to purchase then winemaker Tom McDonald’s renowned red wines. Indeed the 1965 was once referred to as a ‘Baby Margaux’, which is perhaps of no surprise given that Tom had a serious penchant for Bordeaux.
Tom McDonald himself is still considered one of the pioneers of modern Hawke’s Bay winemaking, not only as a winemaker but as a show judge too. He was once the Chief Judge for the NZ wine showand is credited with the push towards varietal wines. His legacy reflected in just how strong the modern Hawke’s Bay wine industry is, with Tom celebrated via a wine named in honour of his 60 year reign at the Church Road winemaking helm.
|The Church Road Cuve department.|
The current release of this wine – affectionately labelled as ‘the TOM’ – is a 2007 Cabernet Merlot sourced exclusively from the famed Hawke’s Bay sub-region of Gimblett Gravels. Deliberately built firm, dry and structured, it is a long term wine with a serious level of tannin and power.
The only problem is that the, as yet unreleased, 2009 Church Road TOM Cabernet Merlot is better again (and worth waiting for) with a balance to suggest it will look magnificent in ten years time.
Now all we need is to convince the Church Road team that the Syrahs need to be imported here alongside the Cabernet Merlots…
(These were all tasted at the winery in August last year. When a price is quoted the wine is available in Australia).
Church Road Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Hawke’s Bay. NZ)
Grown at the Matapiro Vineyard, 40 mins from Napier, which sits at 300m above sea level. Fermentation for this started wild and was then finished off with inoculated with yeast to finish the ferment. This includes a little Sauvignon Gris which the Church Road team are starting to really like.
A decidedly more passionfruit passionfruit driven and less aromatic wine than the Marlborough style, though also well defined on the nose. Think more passionfruit and less herbs. A somewhat lean wine with greenish acidity if a generous middle. Slightly short but pleasant. Correct, if not quite cohesive. 16.3/20 87/100
Church Road Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Hawke’s Bay, NZ)
Grown at the Redstone Vineyard, which is located in the Ngatarawa triangle. This vineyard is marked by its shallow silt over red metal soils. The fruit for this was hand picked, whole bunch pressed and fermented wild in 20% new oak.
A worked style that carries its winemaking prominently, the fruit ripe and honeydew melon leaning, the oak and yeast sitting on top of that fruit. Dry finish looks a little raw but still clean and crisp. Less aggressive acidity would work wonders, though that texture is quite attractive. Good and should improve with more bottle age. 17.3/20 90/100+
Church Road Pinot Gris 2011 (Hawke’s Bay, NZ) $25.99
Produced largely from Matapiro fruit. Spends 3 months on lees post ferment. RS 11g/L. pH 3.58
Tinned Passionfruit, with some heavier fruit on the nose. Has genuinely varietal, lightly musky fruit some flab through the finish and a longish finish. Rich and full, if ultimately also blunt and bulky. Fair. 16.8/20 89/100
Church Road Reserve Viognier 2010 (Hawke’s Bay, NZ)
Redstone vineyard fruit. Includes an overnight cold soak in the presence of stems which may well amp up the richness even more. pH 3.99.
|It’s a big – and varied – range laid out this way|
Genuinely fat nose. Looks broad and wide. Very full and unctuous palate with low acid and a warmish finish. Clearly a valid attempt though not quite in the zone, looking ultimately a little overwrought and lacking freshness. 15.3/20 85/100
Church Road McDonald Series Verdelho 2011 (Hawke’s Bay, NZ)
The McDonald series wines are effectively trial lots, destined for cellar door release only. This particular wine comes from 1 tonne of fruit. Wild ferment in barrel (they love their barrels here at Church Road) though it is all old oak. This also went through malo.
Winemaking without fruit really. Obvious coconut oak. The palate is quite neutral and oak touched. Raw finish. Less varietal and more of an oddity that has texture but little in the way of flavour. 15/20 83/100
Church Road Chardonnay 2010 (Hawke’s Bay, NZ) $25.99
A 25,000 case blend and an important wine for Church Road. 70% French, 30% Hungarian oak with 31% new and the balance one and two year old oak used. 70% of this went through malo.
Almost tropical edge to the nose. Slightly overt oak edge, though apparently intended as part of the style. That melon oak is there, the acidity raw, but the slightly old school style certainly attractive. Good traditional style of full bodied Chardonnay that had me thinking of old school Hunter Chardonnay if anything, the style here very much in the big and plentiful style. Certainly a wine that has a place, if anything but modern. 16.5/20 88/100
Church Road Reserve Chardonnay 2009 (Hawke’s Bay, NZ)
This is effectively a barrel selection of the standard wine though after the 2010 this definitely looked ‘bigger’.
Quite a big, barrel driven style. Nutty, pepper and figs on the nose over a slightly sour, peachy palate. The style here is not lean and minerally but certainly has some refinement, if tempered with that weighty, hay-bales and butterscotch worked warm clime Chardonnay nose. Bottle age quite evident too. A bit big and rough. But old school joy. 16.9/20 89/100
Church Road Reserve Chardonnay 2010 (Hawke’s Bay, NZ) $36.99
What a contrast to try this beside the two Chardonnays above. A serious style shift evident with this wine, which I pointed out to winemaker Chris who agreed, believing this wine to be evident of the shift away from ‘old-school new-world Chardonnay’.
Considerably leaner and cleaner than the 09, the oak looks better integrated too. Happy to see more minerality and more freshness here the style balancing the generosity of oak and fruit with the acidity. Big step up, if cast in a weighty mould. Good example of the house style. 17.7/20 92/100
Church Road Tom Chardonnay 2009 (Hawke’s Bay, NZ) $90-$110
Forget the wine, how about the packaging! Sexy. This is a barrel selection of the best French oak barriques. Still a step back in time after the wine above.
Very sexy oak nose. Honeycomb richness. Top oak. Classic, full tilt honeyed nose, ripe fruit. Gummy, slightly obvious fruit, the acidity looks nice and clean though. Lots of oak and some sulphides driving this. Again it reminds me of a big Hunter style, if clearly classier than the Reserve. Nice oak, but so much of it. 17.5/20 91/100
Church Road Tom Chardonnay 2010 (Hawke’s Bay, NZ)
The right stuff! Step forward again with this barrel selected wine.
Much cleaner modern style. Rather lean and Chablis-inspired compared to other wines before it.. Looks neutral and lean and acid driven with sulphides carrying it through to a long finish. Proper carry and finish. Big step up with svelte lines and texture. Serious top end Chardonnay. Still raw oak through the finish. 18/20 93/100+
Church Road McDonald Series Marzemimo 2009 (Hawke’s Bay, NZ)
Marzemimo, from northern Italy, is an unusual choice for Hawke’s Bay and, indeed, this is the only wine of its kind in NZ. Super reductive so it need to be in cork, and is easily the ripest, darkest wine of this whole lineup. Intriguingly, it is the biggest selling red wine through the cellar door., where it sells for $NZ32. Fruit for this is grown at the Redstone vineyard. 13% Alc. pH 3.81. TA 5.41
Lovely raspberry coulis berry juiciness to this – blackberry and pepper. It’s an open and very honest berry nose which is quite a contrast to the palate, which is rustic, tannic and has a slight foxiness. It’s still a mid weight wine of fruit, if definitely a little wooly. The fruit of a Zin and with the slightly unripe, hardish tannins of some of the earlier picked examples. Has a place for anyone looking for juicy ripe fruit and should be very long lived. 16.5/20 88/100
Church Road McDonald Series Syrah 2010 (Hawke’s Bay, NZ)
A blend of Redstone vineyard and Church Pa fruit. Fermented in those big French oak cuves and then transferred to barrique. 5 weeks on skins. 17 months in oak. 14% alc. pH 3.78. TA 5.8
Really fragrant and pretty. Light and cinnamon driven. Lovely sandy sort of fragrance to it. Acid is a little high but has wonderful sandy tannin What a very pretty, very cool clime style this is! Love the tight, mid weight nature. Excellent juiciness but particularly a finesse to the fine, lovely tannins. Good stuff. Drink: now – 2015
Church Road Reserve Syrah 2010 (Hawke’s Bay, NZ)
A barrel selection of the McDonald series wine yet curiously looks like a very different beast all together – riper, fuller and more confected. Still very promising and stylish.
Deeper and more obvious oak than the McDonald series, this is much richer than the McDonald series. Quite high acid to finish. Lovely blackberry mid palate though also a little hammy. I’d love to see this with just a little more fruit weight. Very attractive wine though. Perhaps a bit fleshy and confected at the edges. 17.7/20 92/100
Church Road Merlot Cabernet 2009 Aus $25.99 (Hawke’s Bay, NZ)
50% Mer, 40% Cab, 8% Malbec, 2% Syrah. A blend of 22% Gimblett Gravels, 52% Redstone and 25% Havelock vineyard. New, 1 and 2 yr old French and Hungarian barriques. 30% new oak.
Sweet and juicy nose but just needs more flavour to match that alcohol and acidity.
Pulpy blackberry fruit sort of nose, if a bit skinny too. Greenish tannins, looks a little lean on the palate too. Raw finish. Certainly carries a definite blackberry juiciness, I just wish it didn’t finish so raw. 16.5/20 88/100
Church Road Reserve Cabernet Merlot 2009 Aus $36.99 (Hawke’s Bay, NZ)
All Gimblett Gravels and Redstone vineyard fruit. 50% new (French) oak and 20 months in barrel. 14.5% alc. pH 3.78. TA 5.7
Quite a bit more conventional here. Dusty, more curranty fruit, oak driven palate but nice and deep. Very solid example, with big and punchier flavours. A bold, full flavoured and superior structured wine with blackberry fruit aplenty. Proper firm tannins. I liked this muchly – great value too. 18/20 93/100
Church Road TOM Cabernet Merlot 2007 Aus $90-$110 (Hawke’s Bay, NZ)
100% Gimblett Gravels fruit. Sexiest packaging around. 71% new French oak. 15 months in barrel for each component and then a further 6 as a full blend. Pumped over a massive 3 times a day! 14.5% alc. TA 5.4g/L. pH 3.71.
Some secondary cedar if just a fraction heady. Perhaps lightly raisined flavours, though the texture and weight is very keen. Red berries meets slightly raisined fruit, a bit heavy through the back palate? Lovely texture silk, just don’t love the raisining quite as much. Lovely dark fruit firmness is excellent, even if the hint of dessication sits on the finish. Still top class regardless of that dryness. 18.5/94
Church Road TOM Cabernet Merlot 2009 (Hawke’s Bay, NZ)
62% Cabernet, 38% Merlot. Similar handling to the 07 apparently (I have no notes at hand) and all Gimblett Gravels fruit.
Lovely classic sort of style. Looks very composed, mulberry and some sweet fruit fatness. Juicy berries, youthful puppy fat, long and pretty flavours. So elegant compared to the 07! but with a boldness. A much more mid weight style, more fragrant and briary blackness. Just a little leafy thinness. Long and briary and like a modern classified growth Bordeaux.
Seriously composed, this has really perfect mid weight flavours, perhaps juicier and blacker but also deeper and firm. Classic blackness and flavour. Superb Hawke’s Bay red. 18.7/95+
(Note – I travelled to NZ as a guest of Church Road)