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Wine of the Week for week ending 14 November 2004
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Esk Valley Chenin Blanc 2004
Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

"My mission is to change New Zealanders' perception of Chenin Blanc", said Esk Valley winemaker Gordon Russell at a lunch last week where the new release Esk Valley wines were on the table.

I wasn't even sure if New Zealanders had a perception of Chenin Blanc as it is definitely a grape variety that, in New Zealand, flies well below the radar.

While some clued up kiwi drinkers will know that Chenin Blanc is the grape that makes those wonderfully great and long-lived wines from Vouvray in the Loire Valley in France, most of the nation's wine drinkers wouldn’t. Even to find a Vouvray will be a tyre tread-wearing task as you can be sure it is a specialist wine store rather than a supermarket item. And when you do find one, you won't see Chenin Blanc on the label. You are more likely to find a Chenin Blanc in the South African Kaffé in Browns Bay (on Auckland's North Shore), but even then the wine might be labelled not as Chenin Blanc, but as 'Steen'.

So to change the perception you have to give the wine some presence.

The Esk Valley Chenin Blanc 2004 could quite possibly do it as it is one of the most deliciously fruity Chenins I've tried in a long time and certainly a change from previous vintages of Esk Valley Chenin Blanc where oak played a big role in the flavour.

"2004 was a high quality vintage in Hawkes Bay and when the grapes come in with so much flavour and intensity, to make it like a Chardonnay would be a crime," Gordon said. So oak was not part of the equation for this wine.

The fruit was sourced from a shingly river terrace vineyard at Moteo Pa, inland near Puketapu (on the Tutaekuri River), west of Napier. Gordon, with his passion for Chenin Blanc, had convinced the growers to plant it (and I'm betting now they are glad they did). He cool fermented the hand harvested fruit to ensure the intense fruit flavours that came from the vineyard were retained, then stopped the fermentation to leave some residual sugar behind to balance the grape's natural acidity. The wine spent some time on yeast lees, with stirring, before bottling. It carries 13.5% alcohol by volume and with just 4.7 grams per litre of residual sugar, it is technically dry.

The result is a wonderfully fragrant wine that smells like summer in a glass. A crisp, fresh, fruity wine filled with delicious fruit salad flavours with a nuance of strawberry and musk and a long juicy full-bodied finish.

It is sealed with a screwcap and with its natural acidity, I'd like to see this wine in 10 years time – I'm already imagining how it will have developed a honeyed complexity over rich luscious fruit. But drinking it now, slightly chilled on a hot summer's day, is nearing perfection.

But how do you give a wine like this the presence it needs when most of it is going to be exported to the UK? Those who visit Esk Valley will be able to buy it at the cellar door for about $18.95, or by mail order, but it won’t go on general retail sale in New Zealand, which is a pity.

There are a few followers of Chenin Blanc in New Zealand who, like Gordon Russell, believe in the potential of this variety . Producers of a table wine include Millton Vineyards in Gisborne, Margrain Vineyard in Martinborough and Forrest Estate in Marlborough. Chenin Blanc is also widely used in sparkling wines, one notable one being Lindauer Brut, the nation's most popular homegrown bubbly, while Okahu Estate and Lincoln Wines are amongst those who make a dessert wine style.

104 hectares of Chenin Blanc were in the ground in 2004, producing 1325 tonnes of grapes, which was exactly the same as the amount of Gewurztraminer produced. But while most Gewurz ends up in bottle, the surplus Chenin Blanc produced in NZ ends up in a cardboard box, blended with Muller-Thurgau and other grapes that have fallen from grace.

Gordon's mind is totally set on making Esk Valley Chenin Blanc a true leader of the fresh and fruity style. Good on you Gordon, but more for the local market, please.

Find out more from the Esk Valley website.

© Sue Courtney
7 November 2004

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