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Wine of the Week for week ending 31 May 2009
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A vertical of Stonyridge Larose
Waiheke Island, New Zealand

There is a mystery to Stonyridge Larose, the pre-eminent red wine produced on Waiheke Island. Its reputation precedes it because many of us rarely get to taste it. It's an expensive drop - the upcoming 2008 vintage $100 on 'en primeur' (before release) to Stonyridge loyalty club members and then $220 on release at the cellar door. Tasting the current vintage at the cellar door is expensive though - and that's not factoring the cost of the ferry ticket to get you to the island and back.

Unlike Te Mata Estate that holds frequent vertical tastings of its flagship Coleraine for writers and the trade as well as for mail order customers, verticals of Larose are rare and if held by Stonyridge itself then invitations usually go only to the country's most lauded wine writers. "We held a vertical tasting in 2005 in Stephen's apartment for Bob Campbell MW and Michael Cooper," Stonyridge General Manager, David Jackson said - and then proceeded to read us their notes and scores. We didn't care about those - we wanted to taste the wines for ourselves and make our own assessments.

The idea was floated on the Auswine Discussion Forum - there's a decent community of kiwi winelovers that take part in this forum, let's face it - Australia is really part of our big back yard.

It was Craig of fame that was the catalyst for the vertical tasting after a discussion evolved about buying Stonyridge Larose 2008 en primeur. "I have been on the lookout for an event for a while, I never seem to hear about them if they do exist. We should get an interested party together and do it off our own back," he suggested.

A separate topic was started and after a great deal of online discussion, the date and venue was established with entry to the tasting a unique vintage of Stonyridge Larose with BYO glasses, recording devices and everything else.

We ended up with 12 bottles of Larose, the vintages being 1989, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007. We had hoped for more with three Stonyridge people in attendance, but they had seen the list and thought we had enough. They bought some Fallen Angel wines to divvy up between us after our vertical tasting, instead.

I offered to supply XL5's for everyone, this offer was ignored. Bring four glasses each was the instruction with Craig having extra glasses for pouring - he had drawn a measure line on each of them to ensure that with such an array of glasses, everyone received equal pours. So while most tasters only had four glasses, Neil and I had enough 'warts and all' XL5's for every wine and one Spiegelau Bordeaux glass, which we transferred each wine into, to taste. At the end of the tasting we combined the leftovers of the same numbered wine and covered that glass with gladwrap to try again the following day at home.

In the commentary below my notes are first and Neil's comments after the initials 'NC'.

Oak regimes in all the wines, except the 2004, appear in the Stonyridge as literature 90% French, 10% American and 70% new. The 2004 vintage was 90% new. The individual components are made separately and blended in September of the vintage year, after assessment. The wine spends over a year, all up, in oak.

First Flight

Stonyridge Larose Cabernet 1989 (13% alc)
74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec
This 20-year old Waiheke Island Cabernet predominant blend definitely set the scene for one of the most profound vertical tastings I've ever attended. The notes on the Stonyridge website (retrieved May 2009) say that this vintage was probably at its peak - well, we know there are no great wines, only great bottles, and the bottle of 1989 that was opened for our tasting was simply glorious. At its peak, I don't know. On a plateau at the top - maybe. Definitely not yet started the downhill slide. It was brick orange brown in colour with a vinous, savoury, sweet cake-like aroma. No discernible fruit but spicy cedary notes emerge with time in the glass. Delicious old wine flavours, silky, sultry, currant-like fruit with salted raisin notes coming through after an hour in the glass. Earthy, savoury yet sweet with incredible length. Exhilarating, penetrating, mellow and encompassing - I'd really like to have enjoyed a big glass of this gorgeous wine. For its age and for its mesmerising presence - and for being still beautiful the next day too. I rate it 19.5/20.
NC: Deep brownish brick. A little smoky. Quite savoury and sweet fruit. Full-bodied and quite powerful.

None of the wines that followed were at their peak, either, except perhaps the next one.

Stonyridge Larose Cabernet 1990 (13% alc)
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec
Dark brown red with intensity and depth. Stinky, compared to the 1989, herbal, much better in the bigger glass, but it still took a long time to open up. From a cooler year, aeration gets rid of the stink. Dry, drying, firm tannins, lovely red fruit connotations, raisiny fruit. Opens up with time in the glass. Lovely liquorice cedar notes, oak spice, old plum and cherry jam. Great vinous presence but quite mellow and now on its downhill slide.17/20
NC: A little orangy brown. Lightly fruity. Some blackberry still, sweet as well. Good savoury finish. Fine tannins.

Stonyridge Larose Cabernets 1991 (13% alc)
64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot, 3% Malbec, 4% Cabernet Franc - Hot dry season, reduced cropping levels
Similar colour to the 1989, bricking, raisin-colour. Woody, old wine, Bordeaux-like aromatics in the smaller glass. A bit of poo, too. In the big glass, even more leathery/Bretty. Some corkiness detected in the palate. Grainy gravelly tannins and a muddy, earthy depth. Like licking a muddy puddle after rain to quench thirst but all you're left with is a dry, dusty aftertaste - in this case with the vinous sweetness of wine-macerated raisins/ dried muscatels. Initially I thought the wine marginally corked but several of the others did not notice this at all - but it did become more obvious as the wine evolved in the glass - not so much on the nose but in the palate for me. It was a major disappointment of the tasting and not the wine's fault, I night add. The Stonyridge people said a wine of this vintage they had opened recently was bright and clean.
NC: Light red. Dull fruit aromas and taste. Corked, not badly, but noticeable on the nose and in the palate.

Stonyridge Larose Cabernets 1994 (13% alc)
65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 6% Malbec, 4% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot. A hot summer with small crops
Deep red, very youthful. Creamy oak, ripe cherry and currant fruit, voluptuous even in the small glass. Much more open and tantalising in the bigger glass with more anise showing. Gorgeous, cedary, youthful, Bordeaux-like intensity, pencil lead, blackcurrant, florals and spice. Firm tannin structure. Sweet finish yet the tannins are dry. Concentrated and powerful with liquorice, cassis, cedar - lots of complexity coming through. Becomes quite dusty and shows bottle development with time in the glass. Original notes say cellar 12 years, That was wrong. It was tasted fifteen years on from vintage with at least 10 years ahead of it still. Outstanding. 19/20.
NC: Deep maroon red. Sweet red fruits. Blackberry. Firm tannins. Very juicy and long. My pick of the first 4.

Wines in order of preference: 89, 94, 90, 91

Second Flight

Stonyridge Larose Cabernets 1996 (13% alc)
66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, 10% Malbec, 6% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot
Deep red with bricking tinges. Perfumed, old rose petal, becoming quite savoury with sweet smoky oak and just a hint of mint sauce. Lovely density to the texture with liquorice, spicy oak and a creamy, sultry, vinous fascination. Meaty and savoury with a French oak backbone and firm tannins with a succulent aura. Very juicy with hints of spice and liquorice. Becoming quite mellow, no real primary fruit - memories of blackcurrant and blackberry - and secondary bottle age characters with smoke and cigar box to the fore. Quite developed compared to the 1994. 18.5/20.
NC: Very deep red. A little watery on the rim. Smoky bacon. Floral, blackcurrant. Very grippy tannins. Juicy black fruit. A little jammy.

Stonyridge Larose Cabernets 1999 (13% alc)
50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot, 10% Malbec, 9% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot
Deep red, some purple highlights, starting to fade on the edges.. Big earthy savoury style- utterly complex and concentrated on the nose with a liquorice, red fruit and cedary oak fascination . Huge upfront tannin structure (yes, yes, yes) - tannins that seems to dissolve as the concentrated flavours take over but still assert their presence on the finish. This perfectly balanced wine opens up gorgeously in the glass and does it in such a sensual way with delicious winey flavours of ripe purple fruit and blackcurrant with an underlying cherry succulence and violets supported by the salty savouriness of rosemary with liquorice, vanilla, cedar and cigar box. Finish is powerful, mouthfilling, sweet fruited and long. The wine in the lineup with the most cellaring potential and still very primary 30 minutes in the glass. In fact still very primary the next day. 19.5/20.
NC: Lightish red. Sweet red fruit, strawberry. Quite rich and full-bodied. Bright fruit in the palate. Very good finish.

Stonyridge Larose 2000 (13.5% alc)
56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 10% Malbec, 7% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot
Deep purple red, intensely youthful. Dull on the nose, opens up with tobacco, leather, sweet tar, smoke, jammy cassis and dried herbs. There is a stylistic change, it seems. Salty savoury and spicy - a hint of marmite perhaps, Quite drying grainy tannins that seem to hover around the front of the mouth, leather, tar, roast beef, a hint of mint sauce, lifted red and purple fruit, plenty of underlying acidity - just spoiled a little for me by the abundant leather and of all the wines, seems a little short on the finish. Tasting the leftovers the next day, there a floral nuance introduced and it is altogether more fascinating, 17.5/20.
NC: Bright purple red. Savoury, blackcurrant. Firm meaty tannins. Bright fruit in the palate. Very good finish. My pick of flight 2.

Stonyridge Larose 2002 (13% alc)
51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Malbec, 11% Petit Verdot, 8% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc
Purple red, fading edges. Dusty on the nose with fine extract, hints of liquorice and concentrated fruit - there's a purity to the blackcurrant-like Cabernet fruit even though it smells like secondary bottle aged characters are taking over. Savoury to start - savoury, salty and meaty with fine silky tannin structure - then reveals its voluptuousness every which way. Smoky and cedary with tobacco, cassis, liquorice and spice. A brooding wine with a sweet meaty undercurrent and a mellow finish - concentrated, succulent and long. 18.5/20. A Wine of the Week in July 2005.
NC: Deep red. Smoky, toasty oak. Quite grippy tannins. Red fruits, a little jammy.

Wines in order of preference: 99, 96, 02, 00

Third Flight

Stonyridge Larose 2003 (13% alc)
44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Malbec, 21% Petit Verdot, 11% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc
Deep purple red. Big earthy leathery aroma becoming quite jammy sweet with vanillin oak, cherry and cassis. Remarkably soft and gentle in the palate. Succulent with plum and juicy blackberry and blackcurrant fruit, and cedary with cigar box and spice - seems to be the easiest to drink in the line-up by far, yet coming back to it the thick tannin undercurrent asserts concentration and power with the leather detected on the nose coming through again on the long, smoky finish. 18/20.
NC: Deep red. Savoury red berry. Big grippy tannins, juicy red blackberry and boysenberry. Long finish. My pick of the last flight.

Stonyridge Larose 2004 (13.5% alc)
51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Malbec, 15% Petit Verdot, 8% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc. Oak - 90% new, 90% French
Bright purple hue super dense in appearance. Initially overt tar and leather on the nose but with time in the glass the aroma becomes more tantalising with vanilla, cassis, cherry and floral scents - concentrated blackcurrant too. A big, rich, full, beefy, tannic style. Intense and concentrated with cassis, cedar, liquorice, leather and tar becoming quite floral with just a hint of mint on the finish. Definitely needs decanting because the tannins are initially quite distracting to the point of being unapproachable. But there is a finesse to the wine and then the tannins seem quite fine. Keeps getting better and better. 18/20.
NC: Dark blackberry red. Savoury red fruit. Very grippy tannins. Very juicy. Blackcurrant, boysenberry. Tarry.

Stonyridge Larose 2005 (13.5% alc)
44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Malbec, 15% Merlot, 15% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Franc
Purple red. Gorgeous, sweet oak scent - florals, cassis and hints of cigar. Big, rich, succulent style yet powerful, concentrated, meaty, savoury - lots of oak - sweet spicy oak. Beautifully fine tannin structure from the outset - tannins still have grip, yet have a great deal of finesse. Concentrated blackberry and blackcurrant fruit with preserved black cherry - lots of delicious liquorice and florals too. Amazingly decadent - you could drink this now without too much difficulty - but with the tannins asserting themselves again on the lingering smoky finish, it patently has a long future ahead of it too. 19.5/20.
NC: Deep purply red. Blackberry. Big and powerful. Huge tannin structure. Very long and juicy.

Stonyridge Larose 2007 (13.5% alc)
55% Cabernet Sauvignon 21% Malbec, 11% Merlot, 11% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc
Purple red, concentrated and dense. Spicy smelling with sweet smoky savoury oak, fruit cake cherry, cassis and a hint of tar - concentrated and intense. Seems bright and ready from the tantalising scent, but the huge tannin structure in the mouth makes it almost unapproachable right now. Rich, meaty, savoury, leathery and tarry, with nuances of cherry, plum and black currant jam becoming more succulent on the vanillin oak finish as the tannins dissolve. Floral with a hint of mint, too. The concentrated aftertaste is phenomenal. It has amazing potential but needs a long time. Decant. 18.5/20.
NC: Purply red. Even more tannins. Fatty, grippy. Savoury. cassis.

There was a vote at the end of the tasting by first and second favourite wines. I voted 2005 for 2 points, followed by 1999 for 1 point. Of course the 1989 was right there too but I had to make a decision then and there.
The 'top wine' accolade, when the votes were counted, went to Stonyridge Larose 2005. The next four wines in order, were 1999, 1994, 1989 and 2007.

What became clear about this tasting is that the initial Stonyridge cellaring recommendations were far below those achieved. Take the 1994, for example, with a cellaring recommendation of 12 years. Yet 15 years later, this wine is more youthful than mature. However you can forgive the people who made those initial estimations, because, in hindsight, how would they have known?

A tasting that will be long remembered and thanks must also go to Mike, aka Bick, for arranging the venue.

© Sue Courtney
24 May 2009

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