Itís hot in the Dartmoor valley 22 kilometres inland from the beach front in Napier city as the crow flies. I'm in Hawkes Bay back country with a few other people and we are well off the wine writer's beaten track, the vineyards in the Puketapu Valley and on the extensive Hawkes Bay plains well down the twisting road behind us. The car I'm a passenger in has just turned southwards, leaving the west-headed tar sealed road (it was going to run out of seal shortly anyway), and now I'm eating the dust that the car in front is unfurling in its wake.
We are in farming country but the paddocks are parched dry and devoid of stock.
We are driving into what seems like the middle of nowhere to see Sacred Hill's Rifleman's Vineyard. We round one last corner and stop at the end of the road where there is nothing but a picnic table and a barrier fence ahead of us. But when I look to my left I see rows and rows of lush green vines in the distance. They cover a large expanse of lightly undulating, almost flat terrain. There are a few cattle here too.
On a map (link below), it would look like we were on the northern bank of the Tutaekuri River, but the bank of the river is a long, long way below, with about 50 metres of cliff in between. Lucky the fence is there to act as a barrier, to stop anyone from falling over the edge.
The outcrops exposed in the cliff, as we look south east, reveal the secret to this vineyard's success. It is the 5 to 7 seven metre layer of 'red metals' gravel on top of the grey papa mudstone strata, the latter so prevalent all over the 'Bay. The red metals, bound together by volcanic ash, make this vineyard unique.
The Rifleman's Vineyard focuses on the production of premium chardonnay, the first of which was released in 1995. This is own rooted, Mendoza clone chardonnay and while new vines have been planted, it is the old vines on their own roots that produce the most intensely flavoured grapes. Winemaker Tony Bish makes the wine using 100% new oak with medium toasted barrels. But the fruit is so intense, the wine just eats the oak and it is not overt at all. Only the best barrels are selected for the final blend and the latest stunning result is the Sacred Hill Rifleman's Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2005.
What better place to taste the wine than in the vineyard where it was born. I take the glass I am offered with the anticipation of a taste sensation. I knew what I was getting as I had tried the wine just six days before - in a blind tasting. I described it as 'glorious'. It would have been last week's Wine of the Week, but I wanted to wait until I had been in the vineyard. It would make a better story.
Sacred Hill Rifleman's Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2005 is straw gold in colour with hints of grilled stonefruit and a delicately savoury, nutty scent from the barrel ferment. It's not overly expressive on the nose because it has been chilled but it tastes so deliciously creamy with fresh white peach and nectarine flavours that seamlessly integrate into the toasty savoury oak and hints of butterscotch that emerge and melt on the tongue. It's smooth and spicy with a silky texture, there's a lovely mouthfilling savouriness to the finish and a slightly saline minerality. Totally endowed with lemony, leesy, lactic flavours, it's like one of the great white Burgundies. Very tight now, but with so much finesse, itís a glorious wine that will benefit from a but more time.
It carries 14% alcohol by volume, is sealed with a screwcap and won't give you much change from $50. But I reckon if you want outstanding New Zealand chardonnay, then this is worth the price tag.
It was the occasion of Sacred Hill's 21st birthday, as mentioned in my
blog entry of February 20th,
so what better timing could there be for the the accolade this wine was bestowed with the following day, when it was announced that it was the Number One wine in Cuisine Magazine's annual New Zealand Chardonnay tasting. So there will be a number of places to try this wine over the next few weeks at wine stores that host Cuisine Top Ten tastings.
Meanwhile check out these web links for more information - the Sacred Hill website and the Wikimapia map showing location of Rifleman's Vineyard. It's centred under the cross hairs. Use the tool bars on the left of the map to zoom in or out.
© Sue Courtney
25 Feb 2007