Lined up on the table were bottles of some of New Zealand's most rarest and most sought after wines, verticals of Dry River Pinot Noir and Dry River Pinot Gris.
It was a tasting to die for, well maybe not literally but definitely worth the hassle of the Auckland motorway system that was more like a carpark on this bitterly cold, wet, winter's day, a day that almost had the wines and Dr Neil McCallum stranded in Wellington.
But I wasn't complaining as I fought off the people who wanted to bribe me with hundreds to attend this invitation-only tasting in my place.
Dry River Pinot Gris has to be regarded as the country's benchmark for this grape variety. It is a wine that has received top ratings from critics in the past and this tasting showed why. It is rare wine in many respects – usually available only to mail order customers and sometimes limited in allocation to just 2 or 3 bottles per order.
Pinot Gris was one of the first grapes that Dr Neil McCallum grew on his Martinborough vineyard. In 1979 it was the first to be developed on the now famous Martinborough Terrace. Pinot Gris was planted along with Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc. When I interviewed Neil four years ago he said he had been introduced to the delights of Pinot Gris whilst undertaking a post doctorate in Nottingham. It was a grape with heritage and had been imported into New Zealand by the missionaries in the 1800's. It had also produced gold medal wines in the late 1970's. Dry River Pinot Gris holds a special place in the evolution of New Zealand wine.
Dry River Pinot Gris 1986
Bottle No. 1307. 12.9% alc.
Bright, golden, honey scented, floral, still good acidity and zest, lovely development with lingering broad apricot, harmonious, great length. I would be happy to have this in my cellar to open and enjoy now though I don’t think it will improve any more from cellaring. This first Pinot Gris for Dry River has the following statement on the label "A dry varietal, cellar at least one year". 18 years later, this is not a bad showing at all.
Dry River Pinot Gris 1989
Bottle No. 1362. 13.8% alc.
Deep gold. A little more tired. Honeyed, softer acidity with honeycomb zestiness, floral traits and apricots on the finish.
Dry River Pinot Gris 1991
Bottle No. 1120. 13.8% alc.
Earthy, mealy, hayfields, Chinese spices, lovely brightness of fruit, good viscosity, great mouthfeel, lovely creamed honeyed finish. Just gorgeous.
Dry River Pinot Gris 1992
Bottle No. 1256. 13.2% alc.
Cooler year, drier wine, the scents of mossy undergrowth – like the forest floor of pinot noir - good acidity with lime and quince jelly flavours, youthful, still developing, spicy with a mellow nutty finish. Honeyed flavours come through to linger with a limey earthiness. Excellent length.
Dry River Pinot Gris 1993
Bottle No. 1807. 13% alc.
Quite mellow, apricots, stonefruits, soft with subtle spice and a zesty citrus aftertaste, a little dry with dried apricot flavours as it lingers.
Dry River Pinot Gris 1994
Bottle No. 2996, 13.5% alc.
Lovely richness, lusciousness, spice, white flowers, broad and mouthfilling, zesty spice, hints of ginger, orange peel, Asian spices, sweet finish. A younger version of the 1992.
Dry River Pinot Gris 1995
Bottle No. 2768. 14% alc.
Youthful, nutty, pear drop, quite a different style, quite phenolic, leesy with honeyed spices on the finish. Young and tight, needs time to open up – an earthiness to the wine, I imagine it with oyster mushroom and Asian foods. Nutty finish. Not as generous in its flavour as the other wines and overall the most disappointing in the line up.
Dry River Pinot Gris 1996
Bottle No. 1052. 13.3% alc.
Well developed gold in colour. Wow, lovely fruit sweetness and concentration give a luscious, honeyed mouthfeel. Honey, flowers, Asian spices an earthy intrigue and a seam of citrus on the finish. I can imagine quince jelly with a squeeze of citrus heading into marmalade with just a touch of ginger. Amazing wine with a creamy texture and apricot comes into play on the finish. There is a botrytis influence. This was my favourite of the older wines.
Dry River Pinot Gris 1997
Not tasted – but there is a tasting note to come
Dry River Pinot Gris 1998
Bottle No. 1062. 13.5% alc.
Medium light gold in colour, creamy smelling with spicy aromatics but mellow, fat and leesy to the taste and showing slight oxidation. Not representative of how this wine should be.
Dry River Pinot Gris 1999
Medium light gold. Quite closed on the nose. Youthful, nutty, tight and grainy with a warm texture, ripe pear and apple flavours, quite neutral in some respects. This is a wine that needs to evolve as it fills out on the finish and reveals some lovely richness as it lingers, with dried apricots on the aftertaste.
Dry River Pinot Gris 2000
Bottle No. 1050. 13.5% alc.
A richer, brighter gold in colour than both the 1998 and 1999, this is immediately spicy with warm honey, a hint of lemon and an underlying oyster mushroom earthiness. A seemingly drier style it is at the Gewurz end of the Pinot Gris spectrum with Asian spices and a musky floral character that lingers. Terrific long term prospect.
Dry River 'Amaranth' Pinot Gris 2002
Bottle No. 3218. 13% alc.
Fantastic aromatics and a honeyed lusciousness that does not come from botrytis. Mandarin zest, lemon grass, Asian spices and the quintessential pear flavour that I tend to associate with Pinot Gris. It builds on the palate to a full textured, warm spicy finish. Fantastic potential, it may become like the 1991 with time.
Dry River Pinot Gris 2003
Bottle No. 1620. 13% alc.
Very youthful compared to the other but it has wonderfully spicy, floral aromatics and the mouthfilling flavours fill out with a terrific lusciousness and richness. Flowers, apples, pears, exotic spices and a warm honeyed finish, it is at the Gewurz end of the Pinot Gris spectrum. Very much the Alsace style with great potential for long term cellaring, though I could definitely drink and enjoy this now.
After this tasting it is easy to see why the Dry River Pinot Gris has become the benchmark for all other producers to aspire to. When Dry River produced that first 1986 Pinot Gris there were less than a handful of other producers that worked with the grape, Mission – where Dry River sourced their cuttings from – and Corbans. Now there are many producers but few are producing wines with the potential to evolve like the Dry River wines have proved, in this tasting, that they can. The 1986 and 1991 wines in particular are testimony to the longevity this wine style can achieve.
Dry River Pinot Noir
Dry River Pinot Noir 1989.
In some respects Dry River was a late comer to Pinot Noir, concentrating on the aromatic white varieties at first. When other players such as Ata Rangi and Martinborough Vineyards developed their vineyards and planted the Burgundy red, Neil McCallum planted rootstock and watched how the others fared. Then when Larry McKenna (Martinborough Vineyards) started winning gold medals, he field grafted the vines. The first full-fledged Dry River Pinot Noir was produced in 1989.
Bottle No. 1859. 13.6% alc.
Not much depth to the brick colour. A bit stinky at first, Burgundian 'old wine' earthy aromas, still holding in there. Later it shows rose petal fragrance on the nose. Musk, violets, strawberry, cherry, mushroom – a pretty wine, soft and ripe. The fruit does the talking. Quite intriguing with spice and floral notes on the finish. I could muse over this one, that is for sure. It dances on the palate with a delicate finesse. Drinking well now, it will not improve but may remain on this plateau for years.
Dry River Pinot Noir 1990.
Bottle No. 2041. 12.6% alc.
Medium depth. A little 'harder' than the 1989, spice, guava, herbs, and pinot intrigue, muddy with dry tannins, good vinosity and a spicy peppery lift to the stalky smoky finish. A little out of the league of the two lovely wines each side of it.
Dry River Pinot Noir 1991.
Bottle No. 4444. 12.6% alc.
Light, bricky coloured. Smoked mushroom on the nose with guava and cherry, an aroma that reminds me of Burgundy. Lovely richness and mouthfeel with vibrant cardamon and clove spices, deep concentrated dark savoury fruit and even touch of chocolate with lingering cherry. A beautiful wine. Remarkable for its age. Drinking beautifully now.
Dry River Pinot Noir 'Unfiltered' 1993.
Bottle No. 2708. 12.5% alc.
Not shown at the tasting, this was tasted later. Earthy 'old Burgundy' smell. Quite sweet fruit in palate with a leathery earthiness and grainy tannins. Savoury, smoky, forest floor with sweet cherry and guava fruit coming through on the ever so slightly chocolatey finish and as it lingers there is a hint of anise and liquorice. Drinking now, it hasn’t got to the stage of the 1989 yet.
Dry River Pinot Noir 1994
Bottle No. 1304. 13.5% alc.
Rich and deep in colour, it looks quite youthful with even a tinge of purple to the hue. A leathery profile characterises this rich and deep, hugely concentrated wine with a chocolatey cassis finish. The least 'pinot-like' wine in the line-up, it is still evolving. It has never been my favourite because of the leatheriness but it showed extremely well today. Fans of this wine will be delighted in its youthfulness and it won’t be hurt by more time in the cellar.
Dry River Pinot Noir 1995
- not tasted
Dry River Pinot Noir 1996
Bottle No. 6211. 14% alc.
Young, rich, spicy, powerful with great aromatics and a delicate underlying pinot character. Lovely spicy profile, rich intense purple fruits, velvety tannins and a chocolate finish. Still evolving.
Dry River Pinot Noir 1997
Bottle No. 1088. 13.5% alc.
Rhubarb and pepper on the aromatically spicy nose. Quite tight in the palate with firm tannins, red fruits, meaty (beef oxo) mushroomy flavours, lots of earthy intrigue and a lifted, spicy finish. Drinking nicely now.
Dry River Pinot Noir 1998
Bottle No. 6702. 12.5% alc.
A big wine, similar to the 1994 in some respects though not as intense in the colour. Earthy and leathery with a hint of iodine and lingering currant and black fruit flavours. Still developing.
Dry River 'Amaranth' Pinot Noir 1999.
Bottle No. 5892.13% alc.
Good depth of colour, youthful in its appearance. A lovely rich wine with sweet ripe, almost blackberryish fruit, smoky herbs, spices and an earthy richness. Lush, velvety and very long in its flavour. The 1999 has always been one of my favourites and I today I rate this outstanding. Drinking beautifully now it will continue to evolve for some years. Several former reviews of this wine cam be found on my Pinot Noir review pages.
Dry River Pinot Noir 2000
Bottle No. 2141. 13.5% alc.
Bright, a contrast to the 1999 with red fruits and cherries. Velvety textured, aromatic spices, anise, lovely oak sweetness, yeasty, creamy, very balanced, bright, showing very well today. Lovely integration, yet still preserving its youthfulness.
Dry River Pinot Noir 2001
Bottle No. 6954. 12.5% alc.
A little more richer in its sweet spicy earthy structure with the firm tannins quite dominant, it has just gone into a little tunnel at the moment as far as the fruit is concerned. It opens up with anise-like spice, sweet vanillin oak and aromatic herbs. Dark, rich, sensuous with chocolatey oak on the finish and terrific length.
Dry River Pinot Noir 2002
Bottle No. 8042. 13.5% alc.
Deep and youthful with anise, spicy oak, red and purple fruits, a lovely floral spicy complexity and big tannins though velvety in their texture, it is mouthfilling and delicious with fabulous length. Open it, decant it and drink with food at this stage. I rated this a Wine of the Week a few months ago and I would readily do so again. Click here to read my review.
What we can see here is that these are wines to age, they open up beautifully in the glass and develop excellently in the bottle. The concentration and flavour is quite incredible. I was particularly thrilled to taste the 1989 and the 1991. The 1999 still remains on the top tier I had placed it and the 2002 will be the next star.
Copyright Sue Courtney
Click here for the tasting notes from a vertical tasting of Dry River Gewurztraminer and Dry River Syrah held in March 2004.