You say tomato, I say Te Mata

By | 19/07/2010

It seems to be mandatory when discussing Te Mata Estate to start by mentioning that they are New Zealand’s oldest winery and then to say they produce the illustrious, Bordeaux-like Coleraine. So that being out of the way, I can now comment on what really struck me at Te Mata’s recent Showcase 2010 tasting: the fact that they are part of that small group of producers which operate an inverse relationship between the quality of the wine they produce, and the amount of nonsense and hyperbole they spout promoting themselves. Te Mata True, it must help when the press are well-conditioned enough to do the job for you but Te Mata just seem to get on with making very good wine and don’t seem to feel the need to gush unending palaver about it. Of course, no one could accuse sales/marketing man and scion Nicholas Buck of being a shrinking violet and Peter Cowley is always good for a pithy, honest chat but, a rare thing these days, they also manage to get by without rafts of glossy nonsense, self-congratulatory back-patting advertising and gimmicky press releases.  Thank goodness for that.

The wines they do get on with producing are an interesting combination of fine tradition and understated innovation.  The flagship Coleraine and its understudy Awatea are very much Hawke’s Bay wines but have an elegant poise and almost unyielding character when young that sets them apart from many of their more immediately upfront regional counterparts. Presumably this is what also gives them their (proven) ability to age. The Elston Chardonnay is similar in style, in that I often find it slightly closed and almost disappointing in its first flush of youth, but after a few years in the bottle it just seems to get better and better. The fact this is a remark-worthy thing in high quality New Zealand wine speaks volumes.

Alongside the stately classics that have earned their places in most serious New Zealand wine collectors’ cellars is a selection of wines that shows willingness to experiment, a deep knowledge of the estate’s terroir and possibly also a bit of fun on the side for the Bucks and Cowley.   The barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc Cape Crest straddles both the tradition and innovation fences in being restrained, characterful and blossoming with time in bottle – but also amazing to think this wine first appeared in 1984 when sauvignon blanc was still just a blip on the New Zealand wine scene. Syrah made an appearance in 1992, long before it became the fashionable darling of the region, Viognier in 1998 (ditto) and Gamay Noir – well, a little bit of Beaujolais in Havelock North?

The Showcase tasting included smart new releases of Cape Crest (2009 – herbaceous yet creamy with lovely mineral length), Zara Viognier (2009 – redolent of apricots and honeysuckle with a pleasing slipperiness on the palate) and Elston (2008 – mealy and mineral, intense, taut and fine, delicious) but rather excitingly also offered the chance to compare the newly released 2008 vintage reds alongside the much-lauded 1998 vintage – a year that really put Hawke’s Bay reds on the map.  Peter Cowley outlined 1998 as the hottest, driest vintage on record, more akin to Barossa than typical Hawke’s Bay weather and noted that while it was a revelation for winemakers, many wines even in their youth were developed and could lack freshness to the fruit. I remember the excitement surrounding that vintage (no unripe cabernet!) but also the disappointment that followed with many wines quickly becoming blowsy and flabby, showing that we could indeed have too much of a good thing. By contrast, 2008’s heat and sun were average but conditions around vintage were perfect – a more typical vintage for Hawke’s Bay but when combined with an extra ten years’ experience has produced balanced, fresh wines that are generally more age-worthy.  The bold richness of the 1998s was very exciting at the time, but in many cases has failed to stay the distance (a lesson yet to be learned by some producers still chasing that over-ripe style?) so it was with anticipation that I viewed my line up of glasses – how would Te Mata’s carefully crafted reds have fared?

We began with the Bullnose Syrah – made with grapes from Michael Morris and Peter Cowley’s vineyard planted in 1990. The 2008 was a vivid red/purple colour with a soft blueberry, rose and white pepper nose followed by a spicy ripe palate, very fine and linear. The tannins were supple and there was a fabulous freshness to the wine, along with impressive length. A real baby but one I would look forward to seeing all grown up. In contrast to the 2008’s youth, the 1998 was brickish and had a delicious bottle-aged nose of tobacco, dried herbs, game meat and old leather. On the palate there was red fruit and spice, with a sweetness and olive/caramel complexity – the wine sat well in the glass and was attractive, but clearly at its peak and almost beginning to dry out just a little. I enjoyed the 1998 but would hedge a bet that the 2008 will look better in 10 years time.

On to Awatea, the 2008 blend is 44% cabernet sauvignon, 33% merlot, 16% cabernet franc and 7% petit verdot with 20 months in new and old French oak before blending, then a further 11 months in barrel before bottling. Dense garnet in colour with an enticing nose of herbal plums, cedar and spice and plenty of blackberries. Oak is apparent but finely integrated, tannins are ripe and supple, the palate is firm and dry, very lengthy. Restrained, yet nicely complex even at this early point in time.  Again, lovely freshness. And, interestingly, given the earlier comments on the vintage, I noted good freshness in the 1998 as well. This vintage Awatea was more dominated by cabernet sauvignon comprising 58% of the blend, the balance being 30% merlot and 12% cabernet franc. Brickish and dense, it offered plenty of secondary development with old leather, cigar box, graphite and a touch of mushroom but also some nice fruit, a sweet core and good length. Certainly at its peak but this time with life yet left thanks to the freshness, balance and fine structure of the wine.

So what would Coleraine bring?  The 1998 was a highly rated wine of its time and still enjoys success on the auction circuit. I drank my last bottles a few years back, more out of greed than necessity, so was intrigued to see what might have been had I exercised greater prudence.  First up was the 2008 (53% cabernet sauvignon, 28% merlot and 19% cabernet franc, similar élèvage to Awatea), again dense in colour – purple garnet hue. The nose is rather reticent but gives a delicious and surprisingly ethereal perfume as it opens up (cabernet franc’s influence?). The palate is ripe, firm, rather closed at this point, linear and focused with masses of ripe fruit, ripe tannin and very complex/integrated. A big wine but finely poised with impressive balance and length. Superb. And what of the 1998? Well, I did wish I had kept my bottles as while certainly developed, making for fascinating drinking now, it was also lively and fresh. A pretty nose of late season berries, dried herbs and tobacco, the palate had real warmth and richness, plenty of fruit and great length with lots of lingering spice.  Lovely secondary characters (leather, graphite, cooked berry and caramelized meat) and a well-structured firm palate showed a wine hitting its straps.  It continued to evolve well in the glass suggesting more enjoyment to come. (60% cabernet franc, 32% merlot and 8% cabernet franc.)

It was a pleasure to taste all the Te Mata wines on offer at the tasting, but particularly so the older wines, which one seldom sees and even less often gets to compare side by side with new releases.  I was struck by the shame of having to taste the wines in the contrived tasting setting (and that’s before even mentioning the stupendously awful glasses in which they were served – no fault of Te Mata’s I should add, though with wines like theirs they should have made more of a fuss) as these wines really deserve to have been savoured at length with some delicious food. But still, their charm was not lost and they rather deliciously illustrated why Te Mata is in the elite circle of New Zealand’s best producers, regardless of whether they bother trumpeting it themselves or not.

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