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Wine of the Week for week ending 12 Jun 2005
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Matua Valley Ararimu Merlot Syrah Cabernet 2002
Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

Last week I spoke about the Hawkes Bay Vintage review, the event where wines are tasted six months after vintage. The inaugural event was held in 2002 and I made a report on that event in early 2003 (click here to read it ). 2002 in Hawkes Bay started out as an average season. It was calm and settled at springtime budburst but the summer was warm and wet without any real heat, which had the winegrowers a little worried for a while. But in mid-February the much needed sun and heat had arrived. Autumn was warm and dry, resulting in fantastic ripening weather. So in many instances the grapes could be picked on flavour rather than being hustled into the winery by constraints of the weather.

I also learnt a new term at that event - and that was 'Hawkes Bay Blends'.

When the Hawkes Bay winemakers starting growing Cabernet Sauvignon the great wines of Bordeaux were on their minds. It was easier to emulate their visions of this lauded French wine style when they started growing Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Merlot added a fleshiness in the mid-palate and softened the sometimes austere-on-its-own Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc added additional structure and sometimes an aromatic allure.

But when Syrah came onto the scene and started being used as one of the blending grapes, these were no longer wannabe Bordeaux styles. So the Hawkes Bay winemakers decided to call their blends - whatever they contained - simply 'Hawkes Bay blends'. And so they should be. After all, only wines grown in Bordeaux should be called 'Bordeaux'.

At the vintage review in October 2002, just over six months after the grapes were still grapes, this group of wines - the Merlots, the Cabernets and the Hawkes Bay blends - were the hardest group to look at given the age of their development. Most of the single varietals were dominated by oak and tannins. The 'blends' definitely had the edge - these wines were more uniform, the quality was good as a whole and there were one or two quite sumptuous wines already.

Well, we soon found out - when the wines were released - that the Hawkes Bay Chardonnays and blended reds were some of the best the country's drinkers had ever tasted.

And the reds are still being released.

One of those is the Matua Valley Ararimu Merlot Syrah Cabernet 2002. Interestingly Matua Valley didnít enter a blended red into the vintage review tasting. They entered a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Merlot and a Syrah as single varietals instead. They were all from the Matheson Vineyard - all from the source vineyard for this blend.

The resulting blend - 50% Merlot, 25% Syrah, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Malbec is a deliciously sumptuous wine.

Itís warm and appealing to the eye with its inky deep black-purple-red colour that has an opaque core and a translucency to the crimson rims. The rich aroma is an intriguing blend of vanilla and cassis over savoury spicy oak with a meaty nuance. And the dark, dusky taste is rather sumptuous. There's big oak and big tannins - though the tannins are velvety, sweet and succulent and beautifully attuned to the massive blackberry, plum and cherry fruit. An earthy savouriness with a hint of marmite comes through on the long suave finish and lingers with a spiciness that lifts the aftertaste. And if you look for it, there's dark-chocolate-coated raisins too. Altogether mouthfilling and delicious, perfect with a rare cut of sirloin and a hearty winter casserole made from rump steak with herbs, mushrooms and red wine.

At the 2002 Hawkes Bay vintage review, Syrah was the red wine star, the gorgeously ripe fruit of Matua Valley's Syrah definitely adding the x-factor to this particular blend.

Matua Valley Ararimu Merlot Syrah Cabernet 2002 carries 13.5% by alcohol, is sealed with a cork and costs about $50 a bottle.

Is it worth it? Yes! Of 19 New Zealand Merlots, Cabernets and blended reds that I tasted in a blind line-up in the weekend, this one was top. Undoubtably excellent cellaring potential too.

Matua Valley Ararimu is only produced in 'exceptional' years, according to Matua's glossy pamphlet. Recently I attended a vertical of the Ararimu reds, going back to the first vintage in 1991. Always made from the best fruit the company's vineyards can provide, the fruit was always sourced from Hawkes Bay except in 1993, when it came from the company's Waimauku vineyard in Auckland. The Dartmoor Estate was the source in 1991, 1994 and 1998, then the Matheson Vineyard took over as the prime sourcing site. Ararimu has always been Merlot dominant, except in 1993 and 2001, when Cabernet was the primary component. Syrah was added to the blend in 2002.

Tannins and concentration are the hallmark of these wines. The 1991 had wonderful fruit definition for a wine 14 years old when tasted. The 1993 was what I call an 'old-fashioned' New Zealand wine - reminding me of the past - but perhaps because so many of the older wines I knew actually came from Auckland fruit. The 1994 was drying out a tad. 1998 was as expected, a huge wine from a ripe vintage, but with some fading to the colour. From 2000 onwards (2000, 2001, 2002 and a barrel sample of 2003) the wines were brightly hued and youthful looking and all had a long way to go. Corey Hall, the winemaker, said "Look for more colour and fruit from the 2000 vintage onward", and it wasn't hard to find.

Check out the company website at

© Sue Courtney
6 Jun 2005

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