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Wine of the Week for week ending 5 Feb 2006
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Heron's Flight Dolcetto 2004
Matakana, New Zealand

Do we listen to the advice of our learned peers? Or do we know better, then find we have just re-invented the wheel? All too often, the latter happens. It happens in life, it happens in the work place and it happens with wine.

Take this piece of advice a now revered viticulturist gave to the wine growers of New Zealand.

"Graft your grape vines onto phylloxera resistant root stock."

The viticulturist was Romeo Bragato, who visited New Zealand in 1895 at the request of then Prime Minister, Richard Seddon, or King Dick as his supporters like to call him.

Bragato landed at the port of Bluff at the bottom of the South Island and made his way up the country to finish his tour in Auckland, where he found phylloxera-damaged grapevines. He later wrote a book which had detailed diagrams of how to graft grapevines onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock.

But 111 years later there are still reports of new infestations of phylloxera on ungrafted vines. We just donít learn.

Another piece of Bragato's advice I came across was some of the grape varieties he recommended after his tour. "Some of the suitable varieties for your country are Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Hermitage (Shiraz), Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Dolcetto," he wrote in his report.

Dolcetto. What is this Dolcetto? Most grape growers had probably never heard of it and after Bragato's departure, when an experimental vineyard was set up in Te Kauwhata, Dolcetto was not amongst the varieties. So why did Bragato suggest it?

Bragato is Croatian by birth and went to school not far from the Italian border. He later went to Venice where he studied at the new School of Viticulture and Oenology of Conegliano, which opened in 1876, just three years before he started there. Bragato got to intimately know all the classic Italian grape varieties, amongst which was Dolcetto, a native of the Piedmont region. He knew that it would be eminently suited to certain parts of New Zealand.

Dolcetto eventually did find its way to New Zealand as it is listed in the Register of Grapevine Varieties at the Te Kauwhata Horticultural Station in 1964. Perhaps Bragato imported it when he returned to New Zealand to take up the position of Government Viticulturist with the Department of Agriculture, based at Te Kauwhata, in 1902. Perhaps one of the later viticulturists imported it, which is more likely.

Did anyone actually take cuttings of that Dolcetto to plant it and make wine? I donít know.

Fast forward to the first year of the third millenium.

David Hoskins of Herons Flight Vineyard in Matakana was delighted with the wine his Italian-origin Sangiovese vines were producing. They had been planted as an experiment in 1994 as the popular traditional Bordeaux grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot - were not consistent producers in the Matakana climate. Sangiovese, however, didnít care what conditions the weather threw at it and the Bordeaux varieties were gradually replaced with this Italian gem. Now it was time to add another Italian vine to the mix - and that was Bragato's recommended Dolcetto. Today there are no traditional French varieties on the property - the only vines are the Italians, Sangiovese and Dolcetto.

The first commercial vintage of Dolcetto grapes at Heron's Flight took place on 27th March 2004, and I was there to help pick the grapes. Now, 22 months later, the wine has been released - and boy, it has been worth waiting for. It is not a rendition of the light, quaffable lunchtime style found everywhere from the seven sub-regions it is grown in its native Piedmont. It is much more akin to the rarer, more complex, more long-lived, barrel-aged style that some of the Piedmont producers, especially in the subregions of Alba and Dogliani, are producing.

Heron's Flight Dolcetto 2004 is opaque in colour with deep cherry red hues that are flushed with crimson and purple. It's opulent smelling with scents of cedary oak and wine macerated black cherries. In the palate the juicy sweetness of the Dolcetto grapes, as I remember eating them straight from the vine, is abundant but the natural fruit sweetness is balanced by savoury oak and a tarry, almost liquorice-like richness. The texture is creamy, the tannins are firm but not overpowering and the lingering finish is long and dry. As the wine lingers in the mouth a delicate floral flavour, that reminds me of some just opened blackberry flower petals that I ate in the Coromandel just before Christmas, emerges.

We matched this wine to two dishes. Firstly a rare-cooked porterhouse steak. I chose this dish as I was led to believe the tannins could be quite overpowering and rare meat is fabulous at cutting through tannins. However the tannins were not overpowering at all and thus the wine became more leathery when accompanied with the steak. The second dish met with much more approval. It was fillet boned out from the loin of lamb - or 'lamb back straps' as they are sometimes called. The lean pieces of lamb were marinated for about 45 minutes in olive oil, crushed garlic, lemon-scented thyme (as that is what I have in the garden) and ground black pepper. They were then cooked on a very hot BBQ plate for 2 minutes each side, then left to rest for about 5 minutes before being plated. This was a very good match indeed.

Heron's Flight Dolcetto 2004 carries 13.5% alcohol by volume and costs $33 a bottle from the vineyard. It's an impressive looking package with a mirror like finish to the silver on the silver and black label. Find out more from the Herons Flight website.

Heron's Flight Dolcetto 2004 is a stunning New Zealand debut for the variety and one that will attract interest for its potential from winemakers all over New Zealand. It just goes to show that Bragato was right, as has been proved time and time again in recent years. In hindsight we can say that more grape growers should have listened to his advice all those years ago.

For my Wine of the Week review of the Heron's Flight Sangiovese, click here.

Dolcetto grapes have also been grown in Nelson by Phil Jones of Tasman Bay. In 2004 he produced a Tasman Bay Rosť made from Pinotage and Dolcetto grapes.

Esk Valley Estate in Hawkes Bay plan to plant Dolcetto grapes on the flat land between the road and the winery building, at the base of the acclaimed Terraces vineyard.

© Sue Courtney
29 January 2006

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