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Godzone Rhône
A Tasting of Te Mata Estate's Syrah and Viognier Wines
© Sue Courtney
15 January 2006

Godzone is Kiwi for New Zealand. It's an abbreviation of "God's Own Country", a phrase popularised by Richard John Seddon, who was Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1893 until his death in 1906. These days, however, Godzone is the phrase that is commonly used. Godzone is the place where I live.

Could Godzone be the new Rhône? Certainly the Rhône varieties love this place, Syrah and Viognier in particular, especially in Hawkes Bay. Te Mata proved this is so when they recently put on a tasting of their contribution to Godzone's Rhône.

Syrah, Rhône's most famous grape variety, has been in New Zealand a long, long time. It was probably amongst the varieties that James Busby brought with him when he took up the post of British resident at Waitangi in 1833. Busby had travelled through France and Spain two years earlier and collected about 700 grapevines cuttings which arrived in Australia the following year. Most were planted at the Sydney Botanic Gardens and in the Hunter Valley. But Busby retained some of the cuttings for his own private use and undoubtably these were the cuttings he brought with him to New Zealand because on arrival he immediately established a grapevine nursery. The vines were bulked up enough by 1836 to plant a vineyard. Syrah, which may have originated from Tain l'Hermitage in the Rhône Valley, could quite possibly have been one of these cuttings. It's romantic to think so, anyway.

Syrah was eventually grown widely in New Zealand and reported as promising by Romeo Bragato when he visited the country in 1895, although the variety was popularly called 'Hermitage'. Syrah was grown in the Te Mata vineyards as early as 1903 and remained in production until at least 1964. However there were no vines that could be identified as Syrah when John Buck purchased Te Mata Estate in the mid-1970's.

In the mid-1980's Alan Limmer of Stonecroft Wines rescued a cutting of Syrah from the Te Kauwhata Viticultural Research, where Romeo Bragato took up the post of Government Viticulturist in 1902. Limmer bulked it up and ridded it of disease. The strain of Syrah would become known amongst the winegrowers as the Te Kauwhata clone.

In 1989, the year that the first Stonecroft Syrah was released, Te Mata Estate finally located a site that they thought would be ideal for growing Syrah. It was the Bullnose Vineyard in the Ngatarawa sub-district of Hawkes Bay, owned by Te Mata vineyard partners Michael Morris and Peter Cowley, who is also the winemaker. The car enthusiasts named their vineyard after the Morris-Cowley car (manufactured between 1913 and 1926), nicknamed Bullnose because of its distinctive radiator.

The Bullnose Vineyard was planted with the first commercial propagation of the Te Kauwhata clone in 1990 and the first Bullnose Syrah was produced from the 1992 vintage. This wine was part of the vertical tasting and it was pretty darn drinkable considering its age.

Until 2004, the Bullnose Syrah was produced exclusively from the original two acres of the Bullnose Vineyard planted with the Te Kauwhata clone. Now several new cones have been planted in the Bullnose Vineyard and 2004 sees the inclusion of clone 470 for the first time. The 2005 vintage will also incorporate clone 174.

The planting of Syrah led to Te Mata's interest in other Rhône varieties and the almost mythical Viognier was introduced to New Zealand by Te Mata Estate in 1992. It was a French clone, imported from UC Davis in California and after coming out of quarantine, it was planted at Te Mata's Woodthorpe vineyard in 1994. These plantings produced New Zealand's first commercial wine of the variety, the Te Mata Woodthorpe Viognier 1997.

Viognier has been attracting much attention in the last few years because in the 1960's, in its spiritual homeland in the northern Rhône appellations of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet, where it makes an ethereal, highly scented dry white, the plantings had dwindled to just 8 hectares in total. However it never reached extinction, instead it was rediscovered by winemakers looking to emulate the exquisite distinctive flavour of those delicate northern Rhône wines. The revival was under way. Today there is about 750 hectares of Viognier in the Rhône alone, and as well as in Condrieu and Chateau Grillet, it is grown in Côte-Rôtie where up to 20% Viognier is permitted to be blended with Syrah, and in the Vin de Pays (non-appellation) areas of the region.

Viognier plantings in New Zealand cover 55 hectares of land in 2005 and are expected to cover 128 hectares by 2008. Over half the plantings are in Hawkes Bay. Te Mata found Viognier to be a low vigour vine at Woodthorpe and in the first few years it was particularly low cropping. The grapes display a musky character quite late in the season and that appears quite suddenly. If picked unripe, the wine can exhibit unripe Sauvignon Blanc-like characters so they harvest late to avoid this, which means high alcohol and lowish acidity are the norm. The grapes are thick-skinned so are whole bunch pressed to avoid astringency in the wine with ageing on lees, usually in barrel, for 6 to 8 months to intensify the aromas and develop fatness, smoothness and length in the palate.

Syrah was also planted at the Woodthorpe Vineyard in 1999 and 2000, with the intention from the outset of combining it with a little Viognier, in the style of a Côte-Rôtie. The two grape varieties must be co-fermented, which means they must be picked at the same time and fermented on skins in the same tank. Trials took place in 2001 with encouraging results and the wine sold at the Hawkes Bay Winemakers Charity Wine Auction. In 2002, Te Mata released New Zealand's first syrah/viognier wine made from co-fermented grapes. It was the Te Mata Woodthorpe Syrah Viognier 2002.

With different tanks containing from none to 10% Viognier, Te Mata say they have gained a good feeling for the effect of Viognier in Syrah. As well as the colour being deeper, the aroma emphasises the red berry character of the Syrah while adding a perfumed nuance like orange blossom or orange zest. Viognier also alters the palate by making the wine quite juicy or silky.

* * * * * * * * * * * * Tasting Notes * * * * * * * * * * * *

Syrah

Te Mata Bullnose Syrah 1992
Hand harvested 22 April 1992. A cold November and December during flowering reduced yields. A sunny summer and a warm, fine autumn.
Tawny hues and mellow cedary aromas with no discernible fruit or spice, though there's a vinous sweetness to the fragrance. In the palate there's an appealing macerated cherry flavour with a hint of liquorice, mellow oak, orange zest on the finish and a mellow cedary earthy character as it lingers. The tannins are smooth and integrated. 12.5% alc.

Te Mata Bullnose Syrah 1996
Hand harvested 9 April 1996. Warm and dry during bud burst and flowering, wet in January and February with double the average of rain, with a warm autumn.
Fading in its tawny-red colour, this has an intriguing aroma that changes every time I smell it but the dominant scents are floral with oily herbs. The flavours are meaty, earthy and spicy with grippy, grainy tannins and a burst of chocolate on the tarry, savoury finish. It has a lovely fine structure and although not easily discernible as Syrah, it is a warm, ripe and very drinkable wine. 13.5% alc.

Te Mata Bullnose Syrah 1998
Hand harvested 24 March 1998. A drought season with vigorous early growth and large crop set. Thinning and drip irrigation resulted in wonderful fruit being harvested.
Deep garnet coloured with good density, aromas of spicy mellowed oak with a hint of old rose and a delicate infusion of bouquet garni. There's a richness to the flavour and texture with a hint of mint, plummy fruit, meaty oak, nutmeg and hints of Asian spices with only a suggestion of pepper that becomes more obvious on the spicy, leathery finish. Very long, very tasty and hanging in well. Very good. 13.5% alc.

Te Mata Bullnose Syrah 2000
Hand harvested 18-19 April, 2000. An extremely dry season with smaller than average berry size resulting in wines with intense flavours.
Deep, deep red. Fragrant, a little musky, spicy, cedary. Quite crisp with cracked berry fruit, herbs, lavender, spice. Lifted and fragrant with still youthful, biscuity tannins and a leathery note to the smoky finish. Very primary with lovely weight and elegance. 13% alc.

Te Mata Bullnose Syrah 2002
Hand harvested 16-20 April, 2002. A high quality growing season with an early, warm spring, a humid summer and a long, warm, dry autumn with magnificent end of season weather allowing grapes to be harvested at optimum flavour ripeness.
Black-red, dense and bold. Smoky, fragrant, slightly oily aromas, a little like the 1996, but far more primary with a hint of rose petal. Rich, lush, opulent flavours with beautifully structured silky tannins, a gorgeous array of anise and peppery spices, a meaty backbone and a long, fruity succulent finish, with lovely varietal definition of pepper and juicy plum and blackberry fruit as it lingers with liquorice coming through to linger on the aftertaste. Rich and concentrated and meaty! 14.5% alc.

Te Mata Bullnose Syrah 2004
Hand harvested 14-28 April, 2004. Normal budburst and a warm spring with even flowering, a hot, dry December and January and settled warm weather in March and April.
Very youthful, purple-hued crimson. Perfumed, musky. Still very young and tight with the vanilla oak playing a big part. Concentrated fruit, herbs de Provence and a lovely array of Syrah spice with a touch of orange pomander and a long, full-bodied, rich, concentrated finish. Give this a year or so and it will be stunning. 14% alc. RRP $45.

Viognier

Te Mata Woodthorpe Viognier 1997
Hand harvested on 19th April, 1997 and 100% stainless steel fermented. A drawn-out flowering period in the spring. February and most of March were warm and humid but autumn was dry and warm.
Unlabelled. Mellow smelling, floral, a bit like aged Semillon with that lemongrass meadow-flower character, then in the palate there's a soft woody character over honeyed white currants with good acidity that leaves a fresh citrus zest character to the fruity finish with the lemongrass emerging again to linger on the finish. An interesting wine, still drinkable and showing complexity with age. 13% alc.

Te Mata Woodthorpe Viognier 2001
Hand harvested on 9th April, 2001 and barrel-fermented. Reduced volumes due to the cool weather in November at flowering. Otherwise it was a normal growing season with clean crops of fully ripe grapes.
Apricots and musk on the nose with a spicy, mealy nuance and spice in the palate. Smooth, mellow, creamy textured and citrussy with gorgeous dried apricot flavours lingering and afterwards a suggestion of candied grapefruit peel on the nutty finish. Drinking very well now. 14% alc.

Te Mata Woodthorpe Viognier 2004
Hand harvested on 25th March, 2004 and barrel-fermented.
Fragrant, honeysuckle aromas with a hint of vanilla, and toasty flavours with an earthiness to the apricot and tropical fruits. Creamy textured with a full-bodied palate with good acidity on the finish and a musky floral note to the spicy aftertaste. Rich, bready and textural. Lots of acidity. 14.5% alc. RRP $29.

Syrah Viognier

Te Mata Woodthorpe Syrah/Viognier 2002
Hand harvested from 26 March to 5 April 2002.
It still has that leathery, earthy character that I've never liked in this wine and at last winemaker Peter Cowley admits that yes, there is some Brettanomyces* present. Other than this, it is earthy, savoury and funky with well defined anise and peppery spices and cherry and raisin fruit, dusty tannins and a rich, savoury, meaty finish. It reminds me a little of a big chunky pinot. 13.5% alc.

Te Mata Woodthorpe Syrah/Viognier 2003
Hand harvested from 17 April to 2 May 2003. A small crop year due to a cool frosty spring. With the exception of low crops for some varieties, Te Mata's growing season was quite normal in other respects with a dry summer.
A bright, clean, fragrantly spicy aroma with vanilla and a fruit cake richness behind it, and bright, fruit flavours with a touch of musk coming through the orange blossom, plums and cherries with nicely defined peppery spice, velvety tannins, a chocolatey richness emerging as it lingers. A wine that is quite intriguing as it evolves in the palate, with a delicious aftertaste. 13% alc.

Te Mata Woodthorpe Syrah/Viognier 2004
Hand harvested from 22-28 April 2004.
Delicate rose petal, apricot and cherry/chocolate aromas with an overlay of youthful cedary oak, slightly oily, cherry and chocolatey oak flavours with good varietal definition of peppery spice. Viognier (5%) seems more apparent in this wine and there's a musk and stonefruit character as the long smoky finish lingers with a fragrant, lifted aftertaste with a hint of fresh lavender. Juicy and flavoursome and already approachable. 13.5% alc. RRP $25.

*Brettanomyces, commonly referred to as Brett, is a yeast borne taint that can give impart a sweaty leather character to the wine. In small quantities it can add complexity but too much is simply too much.

These wines were tasted on 10th October 2005

Copyright Sue Courtney
January 2006


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