One of my personal highlights of the wine tasting year for the last three years has been the Hawkes Bay Vintage Review held each October. Wines are tasted six months after vintage for the wine media to assess just how good they are.
I enjoy these tastings very much and always write copious notes in the excellent vintage review booklet that the Hawkes Bay Winemakers compile to provide us with technical notes for each wine.
Some of the early drinking wines, like Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Rosé may already be released so my notes on those wines can be published straight away. But I make a decision at the time to publish only my notes on the market-bottled wines.
At the tasting I like to focus on the unfinished wines, the full-bodied whites such as Chardonnay and the Hawkes Bay reds and blends - predominantly cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. It's an educational experience and gives a writer a good understanding in the evolutional processes of a maturing wine.
This time I tasted the reds first thing in the morning, while they were fresh and before they had time to deteriorate in the bottle. And I was impressed. Most showed excellent fruit and good balance of fruit to tannins, but they had a lot more evolving to do.
But I didn't see any point in publishing the tasting notes of the wines at that stage of their life? Anything can happen from the time we see these samples pipetted straight from the barrel for our tasting - "the winewriters' cuvée", an American friend likes to call them - 'til the time the barrels are finally blended, optionally filtered, stabilised and bottled.
But you leave the tasting with a feel for the vintage. And 2004 was good. Very good.
And perhaps one of the best performers was Chardonnay. They showed impressive fruit concentration throughout - fruit in the melon, stonefruit spectrum nicely balanced to the youthful oak.
There were two chardonnays at the time that stood out head and shoulders, in my opinion, to the rest. They were the Clearview Reserve Chardonnay 2004 and the Sacred Hill Rifleman's Chardonnay 2004. Wines with incredible roundness and texture. And they couldn't come from more geographically and geologically different Hawkes Bay regions. The Clearview chardonnay is grown on the gravelly soils on the coast at Te Awanga where a cooling sea breeze influences the climate and the nights are generally warm. The Sacred Hill comes from the elevated, inland, Rifleman's Vineyard on the banks of the Dartmoor River where the soil is a combination of red metals and volcanic ash while the inland climate has hot days and cold nights.
At the post-tasting conference the topic of Chardonnay came up.
"Why isn't anyone hyping up Chardonnay at the moment?" asked one of my colleagues. He was referring to the fact the all the talk about Hawkes Bay was its reds, its reds and its reds. And that was little wonder as the delicious 2002's were still on the market
Jenny Dobson, winemaker for Te Awa, had an answer. "2003 was such a difficult vintage in terms of volume, so perhaps everyone is keeping quiet as they are virtually no volumes to speak of," she said.
Indeed, at the 2003 Hawkes Bay Vintage Review only six chardonnays had been put forward to the tasting, compared to 15 chardonnays in 2002 and 20 chardonnays in 2004. In the 2003 vintage growing season, frost had hit the vines at the critical flowering time in spring.
"You will see that Chardonnay will swing back into fashion," added Jenny, pointing out it was trending that way in Australia.
Then Tim Turvey, winemaker for Clearview Estate, piped up. "I always hype up Chardonnay," he said. "It is the King and Queen of grapes". He added that while it was also the best red wine vintage he had experienced in the last 15 years, he found it hard to choose between the chardonnay and his reds, as his best. "Both absolute screamers," he said.
I was looking forward to tasting the wines when they were released and the opportunity to taste the Clearview Chardonnay again was afforded thanks to samples sent from the winery. There were two Clearview Wines, the Clearview Reserve and the more affordable Clearview Beachhead Chardonnay 2004. They were placed in a blind line-up with twelve other chardonnay wines that had accumulated since my last chardonnay tasting. The Sacred Hill Rifleman's was not one of them.
Well I was not surprised that the Clearview Reserve Chardonnay 2004 was top wine of that tasting. And right behind it was the Clearview Beachhead Chardonnay 2004 while also performing terrifically were the Villa Maria Cellar Selection Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2004 and the Villa Maria Cellar Selection Marlborough Chardonnay 2004. I can't wait to see what the Villa Maria Reserves are like, based on the quality on these two lower-tiered Cellar Selections.
The delicious Clearview Reserve Chardonnay 2004 with its light golden colour, creamy, buttery aromas and full-bodied, creamy texture deserves to be hyped. It is mealy and savoury to the taste with excellent fruit concentration, sweet oak and a rich, spicy, mealy, leesy, smoky finish. It took a while to open up in the piddly tasting glass - the glass that sets an even field for all the wines being tasted - but it was worth the wait. The wine just got better and better, becoming more rounder and fuller, more rich and more complex, more vibrant while always seamless and smooth in its flow. It is one of those wines that is hard to describe because it is so beautifully integrated and very complete. Tim was right. It's a screamer.
Clearview Reserve Chardonnay 2004 carries 14.5% alcohol by volume. The grapes were harvested from 18-year old vines at the Clearview Vineyard and the free run juice was fermented in 95% new French oak and 5% American oak, then aged for 11 months with weekly lees stirring. It costs $35 per bottle ex-winery and is sealed with a cork.
The Clearview Beachhead Chardonnay 2004 also extols the quality of the vintage and pushed it sibling reserve wine to the max in the tasting. Light yellow gold in colour, rich and buttery smelling and mealy flavoured with lots of citrus and savoury oak, it is thick textured, like fruit juice syrup, with mouthfilling stone fruit flavours lingering on the spicy finish - an immediately appealing big oaky style with excellent fruit concentration and canned apricots on the aftertaste. According to the technical notes the fruit has been accentuated by partial stainless steel fermentation. It carries 14.5% alcohol by volume, is sealed with a screwcap and costs $22 per bottle from the winery. This has the Clearview hallmark of quality at a more affordable price.
Check out the company website at www.clearviewestate.co.nz.
© Sue Courtney
29 May 2005