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edited by Sue Courtney
e-mail address: winetaster@clear.net.nz

Wine of the Week for week ending 30 May 2004
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Spencer Hill Coastal Ridge Chardonnay 2002
Nelson, New Zealand

I'm intrigued to see barrels on the front page on the Spencer Hill website because when I visited the winery in November 2002, there wasn't a barrel in sight. Instead I saw 'state of the art' stainless steel fermentation and maturation vats into which oak staves could be placed. The large capacity spindled tanks, which seemed like they were suspended mid air, could be rotated for automatic stirring of the yeast lees into the wine as it matured and a timer could be set for cyclic rotations, for example once every 8 hours for an hour each time. The long oak staves, which could be brand new or previously used French or American oak, of light, medium or dark toast, could be inserted or removed at will to control the introduction of oak flavour and tannins into the wine. It seemed so innovative and sensible to me.

Spencer Hill winemaker, Phil Jones, likes to combine the ultra modern with traditional techniques when it comes to making wine and it certainly seems to be working for him.

The Spencer Hill Coastal Ridge Chardonnay 2001, which never saw the inside of an oak barrel, was one of the best in the country, winning rave reviews and gold medals and trophies from almost everywhere. I had featured it as a Wine of the Week and it was an easy selection for inclusion in my Wines of the Year.

But would the successive vintages be as good? I certainly hoped so. The 2002 Spencer Hill Coastal Ridge Chardonnay was released in March and a sample I tasted I thought just gorgeous. But the bottle had been open two days when I got to taste it and the bottle owner said, "If you have to open a bottle 2 days before it is ready to drink, what is the good in that". So I decided to let my sample sit for a couple of months to settle from the trauma of travelling from Nelson in the South Island to my home in Auckland.

Last week a tasting of some exceptional New Zealand Chardonnays was on the agenda, the Spencer Hill Coastal Ridge Chardonnay 2002 amongst them. It was a blind tasting, but one I did at home so had plenty of time to muse over each wine. The wines were mostly brilliant and of nine wines I rated five of them gold medal standard. But the Spencer Hill Coastal Ridge Chardonnay 2002 came out on top, otherwise I wouldn’t be raving about it in this 'Wine of the Week' column.

You can read the notes for all the wines in a special feature on my Chardonnay page but I will repeat the Spencer Hill review here.

Spencer Hill Coastal Ridge Chardonnay 2002 Pale citrine gold, yeasty and intense on the nose with lemon and toffee, it is quite malty and buttery in the smooth, creamy textured palate. A huge wine with lovely mouthfeel and weight, quite surreal honeyed oak and ripe stonefruits, there is lots going on. Immensely mouthfilling becoming quite savoury and mealy on the finish with lovely toasty stonefruit flavours lingering. I thought this wine head and shoulders above the rest and it got my vote for 'Wine of the Tasting' with a score of 19/20. Neil agreed and placed this wine top too. The following day I thought 'even better now'. It had become quite caramelly with a butterscotch richness, a mealy complexity and some bright citrus juices interweaving with stonefruit. Toally delicious, complex and moreish. Another superstar for Spencer Hill.

Notes that came with the wine said the Clone 15 chardonnay from the stunning Coastal Ridge vineyard on a hill top north of Nelson city, had 12 months of medium toasted French oak and an additional 6 months on yeast lees before botting in November 2003. It carries 13.5% alcohol by volume, is closed with a 'twin-top' cork and costs $35 a bottle.

Wine barrel manufacturers and followers of tradition fiercely defend the barrel as the premium product for introducing oak flavour into wine but as we have seen with screwcap closures, innovation certainly doesn’t always produce an inferior product.

Barrel alternatives may be more common than one may think. In its 2001 barrel survey, Wine Business Monthly in the US found the 2/3rds of their respondents had used alternatives to the oak barrel at some stage. While they may be as simple as oak chips, they may also be as state-of-the-art as Spencer Hill's special tank.

© Sue Courtney
23 May 2004


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