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Wine of the Week for week ending 4 February 2007
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Mills Reef Elspeth Merlot 1998
Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

How well does New Zealand red wine really age? Not just any red wine, but Hawkes Bay red in particular. Hawkes Bay, where merlot, rather than cabernet sauvignon, is king. Hawkes Bay, where syrah is the handsome prince, waiting patiently for its time to succeed the throne.

The answer was partially answered when the nice folks at Mills Reef put on a vertical tasting of the Elspeth merlot, cabernet merlot blend and syrah back to the 1998 vintage in conjunction with the release of the 2005 vintage Elspeth wines.

Elspeth is the designation that the Mills Reef wines carry when they are considered to be of exceptional quality. Grown on the rocks and gravel Mere Road vineyard, they are made from the best fruit harvested from the season and are given special attention in the winery. They are made from merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and syrah grapes, as single varietals and sometimes as blends, and when everything is perfect, all of the five varieties are blended together for the iconic Elspeth One.

The new release Elspeth wines are an indication of things to come. "These are wines made to be cellared," said winemaker Tim Preston, lamenting how hard it is to get people to cellar wines. A wine retailer had told him that most of his customers buy wines to drink that night. "Some people think cellaring is not drinking the wine the night they buy it, but waiting until he following weekend," he regaled

However, after tasting the new releases, I can see why some people are happy drinking the Elspeth wines when they buy them, because the wines are good. They are wines of texture and balance. "If they are not in balance when we bottle them, they never will be," said Tim. And of course they can be decanted. Check out the reviews on my blog - see the 30th Jan entry.

Aging wine in the cellar is not going to make wine 'better' but the wine will change as the fruit, the tannins and the oak interact with each other. Wines that are very tight on release become more approachable. Most often, the tannins soften and become more supple, the fruit mellows and bottle aged characters are introduced to the wine. But if the wines are cellared for too long, the fruit can drop out completely. Knowing when to open that bottle, before it starts heading down hill, is something everyone would like to know.

Important elements that have to be considered for cellaring wine are the quality of the wine to start with, the location of the cellar, the constant temperature of the cellar and the performance of the closure. If a cellar get too hot, a cork closure can dry out and let more air into the bottle than desired. The wines can oxidise and turn into vinegar.

Of course Mills Reef had cellared their wines in pristine conditions in the cool, consistent temperature of the Mills Reef winery. They were put in the cellar not long after bottling so they hadn’t even had to suffer a bottle shaking journey to another destination. So all that was of concern was the performance of the closure, in this case cork. And unfortunately, across the bottles opened, the performance was rather variable. There was no oxidation, just cork taint characters that ranged from marginal to obviously tainted. Fortunately for Mills Reef, they had backups. But how heartbreaking it would be for a consumer to have carefully cellared a wine, only to find it stuffed because the cork had not performed.

I was particularly interested in the 1998 vintage wines because 1998 was hyped, at the time, as the best vintage ever in the bay. Of course good vintages have followed but 1998 is the one people remember. The wines were served from magnums.

Mills Reef Elspeth Syrah 1998 was quite mellow but filled with lovely red cherry-like fruit, sweet oak, hints of red liquorice, anise and other aromatic spices with syrah's signature pepper emerging on the long, sultry finish. It had complexity but had lost the intensity and concentration of its youth. It was a wine you wouldn’t want strong food with, as the food would over power the wine.

Mills Reef Elspeth Cabernet Merlot 1998 was quite a dark horse - deep in colour and dark in flavour. I loved the chocolatey, almost liquerish aroma and the dark, savoury flavour with the former rich blackcurrant and plum fruit now well-integrated into the whole but showing its fruit sweetness on the finish. A well-structured wine with a slightly stinky character that many people will relate to the wines of Bordeaux.

But the epitome of what 1998 was all about was on resplendent display in the Mills Reef Elspeth Merlot 1998. Wow, what a wine. Still very tight in comparison to the other 1998's, this seemed so youthful with a deep red colour still tinged with crimson on the edged, wonderful structure and concentration in the palate and fruit that was still quite primary in many respects. Fruit flavours of cherry and plum integrate with creamy, chocolate oak and gorgeously smooth fine-grained tannins - all balanced to perfection - and there is still underlying acidity that indicates to me this wine is going to go on and on and on.

I always remember the saying, "There are no great wines, only great bottles." This was one of those great bottles and quite possibly there are many more great bottles of the Mills Reef Elspeth Merlot 1998. Of course, it has long sold out, but if you have some in your cellar, then have look at the bottle, look at the at fill level, and if you have more than one bottle, consider opening up one now. If it is as good as the one I tasted, you won't be disappointed.

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© Sue Courtney
29 Jan 2007

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