Knowing nothing of Ryan Nelsen, I was rather intrigued by this invitation and therefore also approached it as a relatively blank slate, though I must say still with some trepidation as generally anytime one sees a ‘celebrity’ or sports person’s name associated with wine, it is more about marketing and self-promotion than the actual stuff in the bottle.
Unfortunately we were unable to meet Nelsen as intended (his English Premier League team Queens Park Rangers had unexpectedly refused to release him for travel to NZ due to an injury concern) but he was ably represented by his business manager Hamish Miller and also by Jeff Poole of FWDC, with whom RN Wines is a 50% joint venture. They certainly conveyed the image of a rather self-effacing character and one who already has some connection with the industry via a sister and brother in law, a viticulturist and winemaker respectively (who presumably will have told him a Premier League income is a helpful starting point for any aspiring wine producer).
Nelsen is evidently pretty keen on wine and has already had previous forays into wine via the Premier League, producing his own label ‘Chairman’s Reserve’ from cleanskins while he was at the Blackburn Club, and also as RN Wines with Villa Maria-sourced wine. However, the genesis of the current incarnation is Nelsen deciding on a more committed approach and one with an eye to his future beyond football. No doubt a pragmatic eye too, as despite the louts-and-lager association of football, the money it is now awash with and the social aspirations of those associated has made wine sought after by players and fans alike and featured heavily at corporate hospitality level. Nelsen is presumably well placed to secure a solid UK market for his wines while still a current player. And he is clearly savvy enough to realise a label with his name on it is going to be better served by wines other than opportunistic cleanskin purchases, particularly if it is to be more than just the usual ‘sportsman’s wine’.
To this end, RN Wines has sourced contracted fruit from three highly-regarded producers (technically anonymous, though it’s not too difficult to work out their identities from the supplied tasting notes) with a view to long term relationships. They have input at both vineyard and winemaking level, and the idea is to craft wines in the style Nelsen likes to drink and that he (and one imagines Poole) feel will have solid commercial appeal. One supposes that having been based in Europe for some time might potentially have given Nelsen’s palate broad wine exposure too, and certainly the inaugural release of wines show a degree of elegance and restraint that bodes well.
The wines are labelled as RN Wines, with Nelsen’s name discreetly below the RN within a stylised crest that is meant to weave together the various facets if his life. Evidently he wasn’t keen at all to have the focus on his name (which again bodes well) but was talked out of this by Poole and Miller. While the label looks quite clean and sharp, the dominance of white space also veers ever so slightly towards cleanskin label style, though this could easily be improved by some embossing or texture in the paper. The regional and varietal designations are also tiny, which is probably not helpful when care has been taken to source grapes from regions with strong associations with those varieties, and also when you take into account people like me, who are not au fait with soccer stars.
But these are minor quibbles I have no doubt will be sorted (furious notes were being taken by management at the tasting). I was encouraged by the fact they have aligned themselves in the first instance with savvy producers who have good experience and reputations. They have rights to the fruit beyond the present vintages and the involvement at the viticultural and winemaking stages should allow them to continue to shape them in the style Nelsen has in mind. They’ve done their homework, and the inaugural release’s four wines do deliver their intent – nicely crafted, appealing wines with a degree of sophistication.
Of course, they now have to sell the stuff, but they have a good angle and the wines make good on the promises made to be “accessibly priced and to over-deliver on quality”. Not a bad start then. They have also been fairly conservative in volumes with between 100 and 750 cases of each wine produced for the current release. FWDC will obviously be the main point of sale but further distribution is planned and on premise is being targeted too.
So it is easy to be cynical about such enterprises, but in this case it appears the sportsman behind the label seems a genuine wine lover, has access to good industry contacts and has started small. So far, so good… The challenge is, as ever, to consistently deliver the goods in a crowded and evermore competitive marketplace but then Nelsen has a few advantages most don’t in that department, and which should at the very least open the doors. If he sticks to his knitting, keeps the wines’ quality good and is patient in building his brand, there’s no reason to think that RN Wines won’t have a justifiable place in New Zealand’s wine portfolio.
2011 RN Wines Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough $19.99
Sourced from the lower Wairau and Dillon’s Point sub-regions, and offering a classically Marlborough nose of bright, aromatic blackcurrant, passion fruit and lime with some red capsicum and gooseberry notes. Fresh, but subtle with it. The palate is pleasingly textural and offers a real stony, pithy texture alongside attractive lime, cut grass and passion fruit. Vivid and quite tangy, it is also elegant and very drinkable, stony and classic rather than the recently popular but rather OTT super tropical style.
2012 RN Wines Pinot Gris, Central Otago $19.99
Same producer and Cromwell basin fruit as the pinot noir, and handled to preserve fruit character plus a little lees contact for texture. The nose is very pretty, quite floral and plenty of very ripe pear, baked apple, white peach and some nutmeggy spice. The palate is lush and quite sweet, with lots of stonefruit and some spice and moderately firm acid. I found this a little too sweet, it could have done with a bit more acid and perhaps a drier, savoury edge to give a cleaner finish and stop it from being just a tad cloying but there’s no doubting it’s made in a popular style and overall it is well made with plenty of fruit intensity.
2011 RN Wines Chardonnay Hawke’s Bay $25.99
Quite a classic Chardonnay nose with creamy stonefruit, citrus and melon plus some bran biscuit and banana. Fresh, fruit driven but with some lovely oak and malo complexity too. Good texture and structure, this is a light-to-medium bodied style but with good concentration and balance. Elegant, with pleasing harmony between fruit and oak (30% new French) which adds complexity and structure while remaining firmly in the background. Looked good sitting in the glass over time, too.
2011 RN Wines Pinot Noir, Central Otago $29.99
Quite a lovely aromatic nose with bright cherry and light thyme & spice notes. Palate has cherries, raspberries and spice in a lighter-bodied style with a nice silkiness and ripe tannins, with good fruit concentration and balance. A pretty style that conveys the supple richness and lush fruit of Central Otago without straying at all into fruit bomb territory, this wine has a nice savoury element that gives it a more sophisticated edge too.