limestone hills in Waipara Valley and throughout North Canterbury
As any of you that know me personally or have been following my writing know, I am slow to form opinion when it comes to wine growers, winemakers, wine regions or styles, preferring to take a step-back-while-go-in-depth observational approach. This style of wine study and research works for me as I hunt around listening and observing a person, place, or wine-in-the-glass, letting the information come into view to reveal its own shape.
Listening to people I follow along what they say, listening for what beliefs, values, and other information must be true for them to say what they say, and listen in this way for a long time mapping them in my head before asking questions. I wait until enough of their personal landscape forms in my mind for me to see what questions I have – where I am missing information and need more insight to understand them, and if the implied views I hear from them are accurate to what they mean.
I do something similar with wine though the mapping happens differently there, less from what is said, of course, and more through something like the wine’s aesthetic shape and how it points to where it’s from and what it wants to be.
All of this is prelude to say, I feel as though I have a lot more study to do on North Canterbury wines before I can make more developed assertions about the region. In the meantime I have a range of observations from tastings through the place that make me curious to better understand the area’s big picture.
While there we did regional overview tastings beginning with a large tasting of wines from all over North Canterbury, then moving through a series of overview tastings focused on smaller subregions of the area. We homed in on Waipara and Waikari Valleys as well as Weka Pass and Banks Peninsula while there, on aromatics whites, then on Chardonnays, and finally on various reds.
The variation in quality through the tastings was significant. There was a broad range between top stand out wines and others that felt more timid, as if the people behind them were still discovering what it means to make wine in a more nascent way. There is also a very light, almost watery character to some of the wines from North Canterbury – though I am reluctant to use the word watery as it implies thinness in a way I don’t quite mean – that worked against its structure at times. There was also significant contrast in structural finesse among the wines that highlighted the importance not only of finding the right site but also of its necessary farming. Site quality is of course relevant to any region and some area’s are further into understanding how that shows up than others.
Overall my impression from the regional tastings of North Canterbury was that it feels relatively early in that process – as if there is potential for greatness there and people are still doing a bit of hopping about to find the sites that can bring it with the right farming.
The structural nature of the wines and that lighter character compels me at the same time. It’s something I feel drawn to keep an eye on and hopefully return to at a slower pace, walking sites that have shown themselves well with their growers to understand what has made them leap to the fore over others.
In some subzones it is clear limestone plays a role. There is high concentration of calcareous rock through sections of North Canterbury. Too much bi-carbonate from such stone throws vines into a growing crisis where they suffer deficiencies that upset their ability not only to grow but also ripen fruit. Such stone degraded into just enough clay, for example, however, and you get an exciting tension and palate stimulation unlike that possible from any other soil. That snap-snug-zip that forms in wines from such just-right edgy sites is why some growers hunt the edge of calcareous viability. In North Canterbury, Pyramid Valley is one of the prime examples of growers that sought to plant in exactly the right mix buying land loaded with limestone with a few midslopes of just the right mineral mix.
Following are some of my stand out wines from our tastings in North Canterbury. I look forward to keeping an eye on the place, and getting back there to have more time to slow down, listen and taste.
Pyramid Valley Chardonnay
Pyramid Valley Chardonnays from their home vineyard in Waikari Valley show a lovely range of expressions between wines. The estate bottlings are made from specific vineyards planted about their property based on extensive soil studies to find just the right mineral balance in the soils to support vines. While they make Pinot as well, there was greater consistency in quality vintage to vintage from the Chardonnay that I found pleasing. We were given the chance to taste their whites back to first bottlings from the property.
Lion’s Tooth offered a graceful expression of that lighter, delicate, almost watery (in a pleasing way) presence I saw in other wines of the region with lovely floral notes and a mix of fruits from citrus through stone all carried through a long mouth cleansing finish.
The Field of Fire brought power and concentration, coming in strong to the palate, in some vintages almost feral. It is a wine that would hold up to almost anything at the table without relying on imposed power to carry such strength of presence. To put that another way, it isn’t armor from the cellar that makes Field of Fire but an innate, sinewy tenacity to the fruit.
Incredibly, the two sites are within visual distance from each other on the Pyramid Valley property. While there are no doubt some contrasts in cellar approach, they are more than that a testament to how very specific and distinct a vineyard’s own voice can be.
One of the stand out Pinots of North Canterbury is no doubt Bell Hill in the Weka Pass. It’s a wine that’s generated a cult following from wine geeks and wine lovers world wide. We were able to taste multiple vintages of the wine and they share among them a sense of force and concentration that comes in strong at the front of the palate then spins into a long graceful finish. The 2013 offered poised generosity carrying lightly wild notes in a cultivated frame. It’s a combination that makes the wine memorable and intriguing.
Alan McCorkindale Sparkling Wines
Alan McCorkindale makes both still and sparkling wines from North Canterbury but it was his sparkling wines that grabbed my attention. We were able to taste them across a range of vintages, all focused on Chardonnay. The density, depth and concentration carried through a long, mouthwatering finish made the wines simultaneously rich and easily drinkable. The older vintages offered that lovely balance of aged character carrying dusty dried fruits and a long carriage of mouthwatering acidity.
Black Estate was my surprise stand out from the Waipara Valley of North Canterbury. I hadn’t heard of their wines prior to our visit but I’ve become an interested fan. (They also have an utterly genuine, kind winemaker, who was a pleasure to talk to.) We were able to sit down to enjoy a bottle of their Cabernet Franc over a picnic dinner (where I ate all the potatoes), which was the perfect setting for this wine. It carries friendly, while focused flavor in a refreshingly open weave that invests in freshness and length. The wine carried a snappy finish that avoids being high strung.
The wines from Black Estate were also a good reminder at the value of context. We tried them in the regional tastings and I had noticed their reds but at the same time in the midst of tasting a series of several ten wines I felt unable to properly assess them – I tend to avoid reviewing wines in walk around tastings, instead looking for stand outs I want to spend more time with later. Getting to return to the Cabernet Franc over dinner was the perfect solution. It was a delicious, nicely made wine to enjoy with friends.
For just a bit more on North Canterbury here are a few other posts on the region:
Photos from North Canterbury: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2017/02/15/photos-from-north-canterbury/
Adventures in Christchurch: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2017/02/16/adventures-in-christchurch/
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