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Geoff Kelly Wine Reviews
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Independent reviews of some local and imported wines available in New Zealand, including earlier vintages.
THE 2010 NEW ZEALAND RIESLING CHALLENGE


The 2010 New Zealand Riesling Challenge originated in Waipara and is a great idea,  particularly if it serves to stimulate more general appreciation of riesling,  as well as being a regional promotion for the Waipara district.  To this greater goal,  however,  the implementation of the Challenge leaves something to be desired,  as below.  Marketing riesling has been a challenge (with a small c) – for as long as I can remember,  producers and winewriters alike have been bewailing the lack of public interest in riesling,  as expressed by sales.  

There are several reasons for this,  apart from overly ambitious pricing:
#  Riesling is not very good with food (in general).  It is best drunk on its own,  but by and large New Zealand is not such a sophisticated wine country yet.  It is also pretty handy in the not-unrelated role of relaxing the cook,  in the kitchen,  before meals.  

#  Simple snobbery.  Riesling is best with some residual sweetness,  but again,  we are not yet such a sophisticated wine country as to be confident with such wines.  The truth is that while people declare they want dry white wine,  in fact in any kind of systematic survey,  they actually prefer subliminally sweet ones.  For example,  there are virtually no truly dry sauvignon blancs in New Zealand,  and winemakers and the industry generally pander to common taste by interpreting "dry" to mean up to 5 g / litre sugar,  and even 7.5 g / litre for riesling and related wines.  This is the principle difference between European white wines and New Zealand whites.

#  Winemaker intransigence (Pt 1):  Many people don't buy riesling because they have no idea how sweet the wine will be.  For various reasons some social,  consumers have talked themselves into not liking wines sweeter than their individual perception level for an imagined "dry".  So customers do not buy a bottle which may or may not offend their sensibilities,  or perhaps more importantly,  their guests'.  Despite repeated calls for clear labelling of sweetness by various people (below),  the number of winemakers who will conform to and use a simple standardised back-label bar-graph of sweetness for each wine (as pioneered by Westbrook in New Zealand) is few.

#  Winemaker intransigence (Pt 2):  Riesling needs age.  It is almost unpleasant in its first year or so.  Yet the number of winemakers who release riesling at six months from vintage is legion,  and the problem is exacerbated by foolishly-conditioned wine judges saying these raw and unpalatable (though technically clean) things are gold-medal wines.  It is long past time for riesling as a matter of course to be released some 18 – 24 months minimum after vintage.  A few leading producers already follow this principle – they deserve support.

So what does the New Zealand Riesling Challenge comprise ?  In the simplest terms,  51 tonnes of riesling grown in the Waipara district were all harvested on the same day,  and divided equally and shipped to 12 participating winemakers.  The idea was that each winemaker should make his or her own version of the best riesling they could from this fruit,  in any style they wished.  The wines therefore vary considerably in sweetness particularly.  Winemakers made about 250 cases each.  The wines were later judged,  within 8 months of vintage note,  and a winner for the "best" wine declared.  From the consumer's point of view,  this part of the exercise was flawed,  since as noted above,  winemaker judges may have quite different views about palatability and gold-medal-worthyness to consumers.  Finally,  the wines were packed as mixed dozens,  one of each wine,  and offered for sale.  This was a marvellous idea,  but rather shot itself in the foot by aiming to sell the wines at $299 the case.  A little more info about the Challenge can be found at their website:  www.rieslingchallenge.co.nz.

The site however is disappointing in being strong on self-praise and weak in actual information.  Where are the specs for the wines,  for example ?  More importantly,  where is the booklet in the case of wine,  telling us how each winemaker handled the fruit,  and what the final pH and RS for the wine is ?  As I unpacked the case increasingly puzzedly,  I could not believe this essential component was missing.  Surely the whole notion of the Challenge will only appeal to keen winelovers,  people who actively want some background and technical info on the individual wines.  The back labels in most cases provide little more than blah – the sweetness plot aside.

Another query would be that the fruit appears to have been picked at less than magical ripeness,  for reasons unknown,  so that did not get the wines off to a great start.  Note the website raises the possibility that the final wine need only be 85% the delivered grapes,  to qualify in terms of labelling requirements.  I would have thought this is rather against the spirit of the competition.  14.9% of beautiful fruit with a percentage of botrytis (for example) could transform the base fruit.

But the one great thing the first New Zealand Riesling Challenge has achieved is to add weight to the call for winemakers to provide a simple bar graph on the back label of each bottle,  which indicates what sweetness level you can expect.  This topic has received considerable consumer attention in America,  and the International Riesling Foundation has developed a pretty foolproof basis for slotting each wine onto a simple bar-graph.  There are no numbers on the label,   the sweetness is not defined in grams per litre from the customer's point of view,  as some (diabetics for example) might hope,  but it is a great start.  There are good reasons for not giving numbers,  for the perception of sweetness in riesling (or wine) is intimately entwined with the wine's acid and pH.  The Challenge site links to detailed info on this topic,  on the International Riesling Foundation’s website.  It is good:  www.drinkriesling.com/tastescale.  This whole idea is not new,  though:  Judy Finn at Neudorf tried to get the concept off the ground in 2009,  as documented on this website (Standardising wine sweetness ratings …(scroll down)...) and elsewhere,  but to judge from the shelves,  wineries pretty well refused to listen.  So let us hope this second initiative by the Challenge produces results.

A few words on the character of riesling.  At its best in a temperate climate riesling is floral,  fragrant,  supple,  sensuous and refreshing.  No variety reveals off-odours more dramatically than riesling,  notably in the days when cork was king.  But nowadays,  with screw caps,  temperate-climate riesling on bouquet must be pure,  it must speak of flower gardens and newly-mown hay (particularly sweet-vernal hay),  and of citrus blossom and delicate limezest,  with a touch of white stonefruits maybe.  It must be free of reduction in its various forms,  it tolerates very little VA and untoward esters,  and it must be free of taints.  In mouth these bouquet components meld into a need for delicacy,  yet not weakness,  a lack of phenolics,  and beautiful balance whether the wine be dryer or sweeter.  The variety cries out for some residual sweetness,  to fully display its charms.  In temperate-climate rieslings there should be thoughts of nectar,  augmented by botrytis in some seasons.  In drier climates even including Hawke's Bay,  but thinking mainly of Australia,  the floral and nectar (and botrytis) component can be harder to achieve.  Such wines may still be vanillin in lieu of floral,  and the lime / citrus quality may be more apparent,  adding another kind of charm.  Australians like dry riesling more than we do,  and the key need for success in these wines is a lack of phenolics,  and a lack of harshness from added acid.

The wines were presented in a free tasting at Wellington's Regional Wines & Spirits.  Organiser Alistair Morris had the brilliant idea of putting in a benchmark commercial German riesling from the Mosel,  which illuminated the whole topic greatly and showed how dramatically good New Zealand riesling in fact is,  again at the commercial level.  The wines are presented in my preferred / rank order.  I have not made good the lack of forethought by the organisers,  and written to each winemaker for detailed information on their wine.  Let us hope the next such event is better executed,  and the wines more realistically priced.

My goal is to repeat this tasting in 5 years or so,  and report on this set of wines with more appropriate age.






THE WINES REVIEWED:  RIESLING

2010  Loosen Brothers Riesling Dr L QbA
2010  The Riesling Challenge Ant McKenzie
2010  The Riesling Challenge Duncan Forsyth
2010  The Riesling Challenge John Forrest
2010  The Riesling Challenge Jules Taylor
2010  The Riesling Challenge Larry McKenna
2010  The Riesling Challenge Matt Dicey
  2010  The Riesling Challenge Matt Donaldson
2010  The Riesling Challenge Mike Brown
2010  The Riesling Challenge Patrick Materman
2010  The Riesling Challenge Paul Bourgeois
2010  The Riesling Challenge Simon McGeorge
2010  The Riesling Challenge Simon Waghorn
 

2010  The Riesling Challenge Larry McKenna   18  ()
Waipara,  North Canterbury,  New Zealand:  9%;  $ –    [ screwcap;  winemaker based at Escarpment Wines,  Martinborough;  price:  the wines were initially offered at $25 each in the dozen set,  but ended up at www.blackmarket.co.nz for $120 the set;  wine described as sweet (55 g/L) by winemaker,  and in the middle of Sweet by the bar-graph;  no other info ]
This is one of the two most deeply-hued wines,  clearly lemon,  a lovely colour.  Bouquet is slightly aromatic,  fragrant and nearly citrus-blossom floral,  with grapefruit notes,  attractive.  Palate is one of the most concentrated yet it is elegant,  lots of flavour yet a lack of phenolics / extraction,  beautifully long-flavoured on medium sweetness,  citrus and white nectarine.  Cellar 8 – 10 years.  GK 02/12

2010  The Riesling Challenge Simon Waghorn   17 ½ +  ()
Waipara,  North Canterbury,  New Zealand:  9.5%;  $ –    [ screwcap;  winemaker based at Astrolabe Wines,  Marlborough;  the wines were initially offered at $25 each in the dozen set,  but ended up at www.blackmarket.co.nz for $120 the set;  wine described as sumptuous by winemaker,  and at the lower end of Sweet by the bar-graph;  no other info ]
A good lemon colour,  like the McKenna.  Bouquet is subtler than the McKenna,  not aromatic,  clearly vanillin,  nearly a freesia floral note,  elegant.  Palate is lime and floral flavours,  a similar medium sweetness to the McKenna,  but slightly more tannic / phenolic in texture,  so it seems dryer.  Cellar 8 – 10 years.  GK 02/12

2010  The Riesling Challenge Jules Taylor   17 ½  ()
Waipara,  North Canterbury,  New Zealand:  11.5%;  $ –    [ screwcap;  winemaker based at Jules Taylor Wines,  Marlborough;  the wines were initially offered at $25 each in the dozen set,  but ended up at www.blackmarket.co.nz for $120 the set;  wine described as off-dry by winemaker,  and at the lower end of Medium-Sweet by the bar-graph;  no other info ]
A good lemon colour,  clearly above halfway in depth.  Bouquet is a little different here,  the wine very pure,  but only lightly varietal,  with more a sucrose-y nearly nectar hint.  Flavour is clearly riesling though,  some citrus and white nectarine,  more limezest and phenolics than the McKenna or the Waghorn,  the flavour building on medium sweetness.  Cellar 8 – 10 years.  GK 02/12

2010  The Riesling Challenge Matt Dicey   17 ½  ()
Waipara,  North Canterbury,  New Zealand:  12%;  $ –    [ screwcap;  winemaker based at Mt Difficulty Wines,  Central Otago;  price:  the wines were initially offered at $25 each in the dozen set,  but ended up at www.blackmarket.co.nz for $120 the set;  wine described as medium by winemaker,  and on the divide Medium-Dry / Medium-Sweet by the bar-graph;  no other info ]
Lemon-green,  below midway in depth.  Bouquet is subtle alongside the top wines,  but there is a little touch of excitement,  almost as if there were some botrytis.  There are delicate white clover flower qualities,  lightly varietal.  Palate is really finessed,  invisible phenolics,  a subtle wine hinting at the Mosel,  vanillin and freesia,  mineral,  tasting drier than its nearly medium sweetness.  Cellar 8 – 12 years.  GK 02/12

2010  The Riesling Challenge Patrick Materman   17 +  ()
Waipara,  North Canterbury,  New Zealand:  10.5%;  $ –    [ screwcap;  winemaker based at Pernod-Ricard,  Marlborough;  price:  the wines were initially offered at $25 each in the dozen set,  but ended up at www.blackmarket.co.nz for $120 the set;  wine described as balanced by winemaker,  and in the middle of Medium-Sweet by the bar-graph;  no other info ]
Lemon-green.  This is the odd-man-out in the pack,  the bouquet being clearly freesia floral and delicate,  very pure,  very varietal,  more Mosel (in a positive sense) than the actual Mosel in the field.  Palate doesn't quite follow through,  the wine being mineral (as in Saar / Ruwer),  seeming drier and shorter than the medium sweetness indicates.  I have a sneaking suspicion that in five years,  this might be much nearer the top of the bunch,  for it is surprisingly concentrated.  Cellar 8 – 12 years.  GK 02/12

2010  The Riesling Challenge Duncan Forsyth   16 ½ +  ()
Waipara,  North Canterbury,  New Zealand:  12.5%;  $ –    [ screwcap;  winemaker based at Mount Edward Wines,  Central Otago;  price:  the wines were initially offered at $25 each in the dozen set,  but ended up at www.blackmarket.co.nz for $120 the set;  wine described (indirectly) as dry by winemaker,  and in the middle of Dry by the bar-graph;  no other info ]
Lemon-green.  This is another light and delicate wine on bouquet,  subtler florals than freesia,  more linden blossom,  subtle citrus fruit.  Palate has a hard time competing with the higher-ranked wines because it is dry – the driest of this set,  I suspect – but the purity of the palely citrus and mineral fruit is attractive.  Terpenes show up a little on the tail,  giving an attractively hoppy finish.  Should gain complexity over 5 – 8 years in bottle,  then tail off.  GK 02/12

2010  The Riesling Challenge Mike Brown   16 ½ +  ()
Waipara,  North Canterbury,  New Zealand:  12%;  $ –    [ screwcap;  winemaker based at Golden Hills Estates,  Nelson;  price:  the wines were initially offered at $25 each in the dozen set,  but ended up at www.blackmarket.co.nz for $120 the set;  wine described as balanced by winemaker,  and on the dividing line between Medium-Dry and Medium-Sweet by the bar-graph;  no other info ]
Lemon-green.  A thread of reduction at this early stage of life quickly dissipates,  to show mainstream limezest riesling.  Palate picks up the limezest,  being aromatic and long-fruited in a medium finish.  It is a knife-edge whether the wine will show its phenolics with age,  or soften.  Interesting wine,  to cellar 5 – 8 years.  GK 02/12

2010  The Riesling Challenge Ant McKenzie   16 ½  ()
Waipara,  North Canterbury,  New Zealand:  12.4%;  $ –    [ screwcap;  winemaker based at Te Awa Wines,  Hawkes Bay;  the wines were initially offered at $25 each in the dozen set,  but ended up at www.blackmarket.co.nz for $120 the set;  wine described as balanced by winemaker,  and in the upper part of Medium-Dry by the bar-graph;  no other info ]
Lemon,  a hint of straw.  Bouquet and style are a bit different here,  a slightly more Australian kind of riesling with vanillin to the fore,  smelling quite concentrated.  Palate seems that way too,  almost fleshy,  plenty of flavour but not so clearly varietal,  quite phenolic,  medium-dry,  dryer and purer than the Forrest.  Cellar 5 – 8 years.  GK 02/12

2010  The Riesling Challenge John Forrest   16 +  ()
Waipara,  North Canterbury,  New Zealand:  12%;  $ –    [ screwcap;  winemaker based at Forrest Wines,  Marlborough;  price:  the wines were initially offered at $25 each in the dozen set,  but ended up at www.blackmarket.co.nz for $120 the set;  wine described as off-dry by winemaker,  and at the upper end of Medium-Dry by the bar-graph;  no other info ]
Lemon-green,  the palest wine.  Initial bouquet is marred by reduction,  making the wine excessively youthful and lacking in clear varietal character.  It has much more to say in mouth,  clearly varietal,  but tending coarsely-textured for riesling,  the phenolics showing on a medium finish.  Should marry up over 3 – 5 years,  and cellar longer,  but I doubt the wine will blossom.  Cellar 5 – 8 years.  GK 02/12

2010  The Riesling Challenge Simon McGeorge   16  ()
Waipara,  North Canterbury,  New Zealand:  12.8%;  $ –    [ screwcap;  winemaker based at Waipara Hills,  Waipara;  the wines were initially offered at $25 each in the dozen set,  but ended up at www.blackmarket.co.nz for $120 the set;  no sweetness indication given by winemaker,  at the lower end of Medium-Dry by the bar-graph;  no other info ]
Lemon-green,  not quite the shine of some.  Bouquet is vaguely varietal,  clean,  sucrosey.  Palate is in the same style,  vaguely vanillin,  fleshy,  inclining Australian,  lacking varietal precision,  medium-dry,  a little phenolic.  Should soften in cellar 3 – 6 years.  GK 02/12

2010  Loosen Brothers Riesling Dr L QbA   16  ()
Mosel Valley,  Germany:  8.5%;  $22   [ screwcap,  no hint of sweetness on label or website;  www.drloosen.com ]
Lemon.  There is quite a lot of bouquet,  and it is clearly varietal,  but the whole thing is clogged with cardboard / threshold sulphur notes.  This is a more traditional German approach,  surprising for a progressive maker such as Loosen.  Palate shows good fruit in one way,  medium-dry,  but is stalky and acid too,  tasting chaptalised and fleshy.  Lacks finish and purity.  Cellar 5 – 8 years,  maybe to clarify.  Reading overseas reviews of this wine tells you a lot about wine evaluation standards around the world.  This "benchmark" Mosel at the Qualitatswein level shows how good the unsung New Zealand rieslings are.  The pricing also shows the Challenge's original release price of $25 / bottle was unrealistic.  GK 02/12

2010  The Riesling Challenge Matt Donaldson   15 ½ +  ()
Waipara,  North Canterbury,  New Zealand:  10%;  $ –    [ screwcap;  winemaker based at Pegasus Bay Wines,  Waipara;  the wines were initially offered at $25 each in the dozen set,  but ended up at www.blackmarket.co.nz for $120 the set;  wine described as luscious by winemaker,  and in the middle of Medium-Sweet by the bar-graph;  the wine freeze-concentrated;  no other info ]
Lemon,  a bit of straw.  Bouquet is coarse in the company,  with an estery quality similar to some of the tutti-frutti yeasts so popular a few years ago.  It is fruity,  but not precise.  In mouth there is almost a plasticky taint in the fruit,  which is rich,  sweet,  yet stalky and acid,  lacking harmony.  Something of an ugly duckling at this stage,  of interest to see if it harmonises over 5 – 8 years in cellar.  GK 02/12

2010  The Riesling Challenge Paul Bourgeois   15  ()
Waipara,  North Canterbury,  New Zealand:  12.5%;  $ –    [ screwcap;  winemaker based at Spy Valley,  Marlborough;  the wines were initially offered at $25 each in the dozen set,  but ended up at www.blackmarket.co.nz for $120 the set;  wine described as dry by winemaker,  and in the middle of Dry by the bar-graph;  no other info ]
Lemon-green.  Bouquet is aromatic from trace VA,  vaguely varietal,  a little stalky.  Palate shows hints of limezest and vanillin,  but the stalky phenolics are obtrusive,  and made more apparent by the dryish finish.  Along with the Forsyth this is the driest wine in the set.  Dubious cellaring.  GK 2/12  GK 02/12