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Wine of the Week for week ending 18 June 2006
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Unison 2004
Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

With the winter solstice fast approaching it seemed like a good time to have a good look at some robust red wines. And with the wine options competition also fast approaching, the team came round to join in a tasting of Bordeaux-styled wines. With wines served blind we were going to see if we could correctly identify the dominant grape variety as well as trying to identify where the grapes may have been grown.

But first there was the lesson, spurred on by the question, "What exactly are 'Bordeaux' styles?". What we mean by Bordeaux styles are wines made from the traditional grape varieties grown in Bordeaux, France. In NZ that means wines made with any, or some, or all of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Not many kiwi wines have all these grapes in the blend, however, perhaps just Stonyridge Larose from Waiheke Island (which wasn't in the tasting).

Bordeaux wines, especially the classed growths, were the benchmark for many New Zealand winegrowers of the eighties and nineties and until 1998, when Pinot Noir took over, the stellar Bordeaux variety Cabernet Sauvignon was the most planted red in the country. Pinot Noir, however, had been topping red grape production figures since 1995 and had never looked back. Poor old Cabernet Sauvignon was relegated to 3rd place in the year 2000, when Merlot surpassed it too.

While Pinot Noir may be the most popular red in the country, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot reign supreme in Hawkes Bay and for many producers, Bordeaux is still the Holy Grail . In this 'hot red' wine region, however, there is a new term and that is 'Hawkes Bay blends', as the Hawkes Bay take on the style may come with a twist, and that twist is usually a dollop or two of Syrah.

In the Wine Options competition, any question on grape variety always refers to the 'dominant' grape variety. So when the question, "Is this wine made from predominantly Bordeaux varieties, Burgundy varieties or Rhone varieties", a Hawkes Bay blend with that dollop of Syrah or two, will always fit into the Bordeaux category.

We had nine wines on the table - it was meant to be ten - but unfortunately due to a last minute no-show, the actual Bordeaux wine did not make the tasting. So there were six wines from Hawkes Bay, one from Martinborough, one from Coonawarra and one from Western Australia.

Good old Hawkes Bay - the wines easily filled my top three places, with Plantagenet Omrah Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($17.95) from Western Australia coming in fourth. Mouthfilling with plum-like fruit, liquorice, tar and fine grained tannins, now that I know its price it gets my top marks for the juiciest, user-friendly, commercial style.

Top wine of the tasting, and therefore Wine of the Week is Unison 2004, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah from the Gimblett Gravels wine growing district in Hawkes Bay. It's an intensely coloured wine, an opaque deep blackberry red in the centre of the bowl gradating to a vivid pinky crimson on the edges. On the nose it is full of polished smoky cedar with concentrated black fruit emanating from its depth. It's very tight in the palate, very tight and very dry but very powerful with its complex cedary flavours, plum and cherry fruit, a creamy backbone, firm acidity and a hint of tobacco as it lingers. The tannins are big, but beautifully fine grained and far more integrated than some of the other wines. It carries 14% alcohol by volume and as well as being the star wine in taste, it was definitely the star buy from Hawkes Bay with a recommended $28.00 retail price. It was also the most 'Bordeaux-like' of all the wines in the tasting.
Unison 2004 appears to have a cork closure but I was pleased to see, when the capsule was removed, that the closure was in fact a Diam - a reconstituted cork that has had super results on the Australian Wine Research Institute's closure survey. The Diam has proved so far, to be cork-taint free. How I wish I could find out that wines had Diam closures before I removed the capsule. I mean if I donít know I canít remove the capsule in the wine shop, can I? So given the choice of two similarly priced, similarly styled wines, one with a screwcap and one with what looks like a cork, a I will always pick the screwcapped wine just in case the cork-closed wine has a natural cork that has imparted cork taint into the wine.

Hot on the heels of the Unison was Sacred Hill Brokenstone Merlot 2004, a more boysenberry coloured wine - a reddish black colour that doesnít have the crimson intensity of the Unison. The aroma is smoky, sweet and jammy with hints of forest floor, and the flavour is opulent and seductive with ripe, Merlot-driven fruit, succulent, silky, cherry biscuit tannins, and a dark, smoky, black fruit finish. There's a touch of allspice as the beautifully rounded flavours linger and even a hint of chocolate. Sealed with a screwcap and carrying 14% alcohol by volume, this tasty offering clocks in at a hefty $59.95 per bottle.

As for the wine in third place, which is the last of the three wines I scored a gold medal 18.5 points to, it was theSacred Hill Helmsman Cabernet Merlot 2004, a similar coloured wine to the Brokenstone with perhaps a little more red. Sweet creamy oak and juicy red berry aromas fill the nose while the taste is full of ripe currant-like fruit and plums and tobacco with a hint of leather and firm ribena-like acidity supporting the fruit. The tannins are surprisingly smooth and rounded, surprising because when I tasted this at the Hawkes Bay Hot Red Roadshow a few weeks before, I found this wine's tannins quite overpowering. Today they seem so integrated and smooth in comparison, while the finish is long and creamy with a surge of crisp red berry fruit as it lingers. Like the Brokenstone, this is also sealed with a screwcap with 14% alcohol by volume and a hefty price tag of $59.95 a bottle.

Surprise wine of the tasting was the Alpha Domus 'The Navigator' 2000 from Hawkes Bay, a wine that we knew was somewhere in the tasting, but a wine we couldnít pick out by sight because its colour was still so youthful and intense. With its minty aroma and sweet flavour, we all picked this as Australian (wrong), but what a wine. It's garnering some lovely savoury flavours so if you have some in your cellar, you are in for a treat.

Also worth a mention is Te Mata Awatea Cabernet Merlot 2004. This had the most enticingly fragrant nose of all but despite its concentrated blackcurrant fruit, the tannins were utterly overpowering. It needs decanting at this stage of its life.

And lastly I'll mention the Alpha Domus The Aviator 2002, a big huge wine, concentrated and powerful with a ton of sweet fruit, cedary oak, good acidity and a smoky leathery finish. There's lots going on and it could evolve well, but personally I found the brettanomyces (yeast spoilage) character far too distracting. Yet for at least one other person, it was their wine of the tasting.

Did we learn much from this exercise. I'm not too sure. But it was sure fun finding out.

© Sue Courtney
12 June 2006

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