Conclusions from the Tasting:
Dry River is one of the highest-profile wineries in the Martinborough district. The goal of the tasting was to establish how the red wines of Dry River measure up, when tasted at an appropriate point in their maturity. The tasting was both fascinating, and it caused tasters to work quite hard.
Following quiet evaluation of the completely blind set of 12 wines, I asked (for each wine, still at the blind stage) which was the most favoured wine of the 12, the second favourite, and the least favoured. Two more questions followed: is this wine pinot noir, or is it syrah. On the latter question, for every wine, some tasters thought one, some the other. But by a narrow margin, for all 12 wines, each time the majority had the varietal decision correct. Great ! For a remarkable number of the wines, the numbers were close to 11 : 8 (irrespective of which way round)… illustrating the thought that had to go into making this decision.
The format adopted was to keep the vintages in pairs, to optimise the learning experience in a varietal sense, and the understanding of each vintage, but to vary the sequence, as to which variety led the pair. Finally at the end of the identification sequence, there were a summing-up pair of questions: in terms of how you experienced this Dry River tasting, how many felt the pinot noirs were the more impressive of the two varieties, answer four; and then likewise for syrah, 12. It was understandable that some couldn't quite decide.
My overall impression of the tasting is complex. One immediate thought is that nearly all the wines have good body and dry extract, so they satisfy on the richness front, something still lacking in too many New Zealand wines. But for his pinot noirs, I have long held the view that Neil McCallum deliberately over-ripened this grape, mistakenly seeking a winestyle outside the normal parameters for fine pinot noir. Burgundy remains the world yardstick for defining quality in pinot noir, like it or not. Notwithstanding that impression, in this tasting, the 2001 Dry River Pinot Noir was arguably the finest wine of the 12. It illustrated just what pinot noir can achieve in the Martinborough district. The 2005 will in due course also display some of that quality, but not so clearly. Looking back in the context of other vintages of the Dry River pinot noir, it is sad that McCallum in so many seasons wilfully frustrated the potential of his site to make fine pinot noir wines, in this over-ripening of the grapes. His laying of reflective mulch to increase light levels on the grapes underscores that. The French, the burgundy winemakers more specifically, are unanimous in abhorring sur-maturité, which robs the wine of florality, perfume, suppleness and charm – the essence of fine pinot noir. Neil simply did not want to hear that.
Conversely, for syrah, it stands to reason that since Martinborough is a marginal climate for achieving appropriate physiological maturity in syrah, if McCallum were to apply the same viticultural principles to ripening his syrah, then it should follow that his syrah wines would be better than an outside observer might predict for the district. In my view the tasting confirmed that, three syrah examples scoring 18 points or more (90, or more), compared with one-only pinot noir. The nett vote of the participants concurred, a clear majority ranking the syrahs as more successful in this tasting than the pinot noirs.
The top five wines of the tasting show more syrahs than pinot noirs. This reflected the conclusion of the group as a whole, that in this tasting, the Dry River Syrahs were better examples of their variety than the Pinot Noirs. From the left, 2005 Dry River Pinot Noir, a massive and backward wine, which may blossom in the next 15 years, 17.5; 1999 Dry River Syrah Arapoff, a light and fragrant cool-year Cote Rotie look-alike, in a sense confusable with pinot noir, 18; 2001 Dry River Syrah Arapoff, very similar to the 1999 but riper and more beautiful, 18 +; 2006 Dry River Syrah Lovat Amaranth, an extraordinary wine, deep, very rich and youthful, much more Hermitage than Cote Rotie, for the group the wine of the night, 18.5; and 2001 Dry River Pinot Noir, real pinot florals and suggestions of Cotes de Nuits aromatics, delightful, 18.5
Looking to the future, with a new owner and winemaker, there is now every possibility of Dry River Pinot Noir in fact achieving the quality Neil aspired to, and the district is capable of producing. For pinot noir in the Martinborough district specifically, global warming will make this more difficult to achieve in some seasons, but there is now the proven syrah to make in tandem, to fill the quality gap. It is noteworthy that Wilco Lam, the new winemaker, has removed the reflective mulch in the pinot noir vineyard, for example. For red wines therefore, Dry River is now a vineyard to monitor closely.
The vintages tasted:
The following presents first a summary of the characteristics of each of the vintages tasted, for Martinborough, plus a nett impression of which variety performed the best, in each year, for Dry River.
1999: Soils still dry from the 1998 warm and dry year, small crop but season again slightly warmer than usual, so fruit ripened well, the better wines very good. Presented as wines 3 (PN) and 4 (Sy), the syrah clearly ahead on both fresh charm and suppleness.
2000: A gentle spring, good flowering and set, coolish summer but dry warm autumn, producing a good-sized crop of beautifully balanced, fragrant wines, thought at the time to be the best yet. Presented as wines 1 (Sy) and 2 (PN), the syrah in the number one position to introduce the important concept of florality, for a pinot noir / syrah tasting. The pinot noir just ahead, the syrah a little cool.
2001: Though spring initially cold, as for 2000 a great flowering, good set, cool summer but again a near-perfect autumn gave a generous crop of Martinborough-at-its-best wines. Presented as wines 11 (Sy) and 12 (PN), virtually a draw, the pinot noir the best of its variety (in this set), the syrah nearly so.
2002: A wetter than usual season through to mid-March, when again the vintage quality picked up considerably, thanks to Martinborough's tendency to a fine and dry late autumn. Those who didn't crop-thin (which in many years is not needed in Martinborough) ran the risk of dilute wines. Presented as wines 7 (Sy) and 8 (PN), pinot noir the more favoured, but a modest coupling.
2005: A cold spring, poor flowering and set to start the season, then hot and dry January and February. A small crop of thick-skinned berries withstood March rains reasonably well, particularly where leaf-plucking practised, followed by a better April. Reds are aromatic, dry, and tanniny, cellar wines. Presented as wines 5 (Sy) and 6 (PN), the pinot noir ahead, the syrah a little cool, rather much white pepper.
2006: After several variously challenging seasons, 2006 gave a settled spring, good flowering and set, followed by a near-ideal summer and autumn. Reds showed classical varietal expression, coupled with better than average volume. Presented as wines 9 (PN) and 10 (Sy), the syrah ahead, a huge wine for the cellar, high tannins in both.
It is worth commenting that when the two varieties are evaluated strictly for the year, year by year, the pinot noir is the better of the two more years than the syrah. Yet in terms of nett quality impression, there are more good syrahs in this tasting than there are good pinot noirs. Wine evaluation is rarely simple / cut and dried.
Invitation and some background thoughts to the Library Tasting:
The question of who makes the finest Martinborough pinot noir is, naturally enough, a matter of some debate both in Martinborough, where debate is quiet and respectful, and amongst the broader wine community. Some have quite strong views on the issue. There are three front-runners, in alphabetical order Ata Rangi, Dry River, and Martinborough Vineyard, but now that Te Kairanga is under Foley stewardship (along with Martinborough Vineyard), Te Kairanga will soon be jostling for standing too. And Palliser Estate does not want to be left out, either, so Martinborough in its quiet way is an exciting place, wine-wise.
For many years, Dr Neil McCallum (PhD Oxford, then Chemistry Division, DSIR, founder of Dry River Wines in 1979, and one of the founding four wineries ie Ata Rangi, Chifney, Dry River and Martinborough Vineyard), was regarded as the leading New Zealand wine industry technical guru ... not least because of the erudite and sometimes lofty manner he could adopt with tiresome questioners.
In his heyday there was about Neil a certain conviction that his way of doing things is the right way ... an innate confidence which he shared with the late Dr John Middleton, of Mount Mary vineyard, Yarra Valley. Accordingly, in this country where the wine-writing fraternity is rather much inclined to take wine industry dicta as gospel, Neil was relatively easily able to convince both winewriters and the wine public that his wines and notably his pinot noir were definitive examples of their variety. There was the odd murmur of doubt, from those who sought their wine inspiration from further afield than New Zealand, but by and large, the reputation of Neil McCallum and Dry River stands firm even today. And this is so notwithstanding that Neil is no longer involved, and the vineyard as a whole is now owned (in a low-profile way) by the American Julian Robertson, also owner of Kauri Cliffs Lodge, Matauri Bay, and other lodges.
One of the features of the Dry River website in Neil's day was the column labelled: Musings. These make for interesting though sometimes hard reading. Amongst much else, they document Neil's conviction that: "Nevertheless, for fine wine, there is one common goal which all will strive for and that is the need for a long-lived wine to allow the development of the virtues and flavours of the classic varietal(s) in the bottle." Neil always emphasised his wines were built for the long haul.
This tasting will examine the extent to which the Dry River wines live up to that claim and intention. The tasting will also seek to establish a feeling for the quality of Dry River Pinot Noir, and Dry River Syrah (though there are no outside wines, to calibrate the exercise). This will be of acute interest, since Martinborough is a climate where in some years it is easy to over-ripen pinot noir. At the same time, it can be damnably difficult to coax syrah to perfect ripeness. Which variety therefore, in Neil’s hands, will turn out to be the most highly-rated by our tasters ?
The wines will be matched vintage for vintage, and presented blind. Cost at $75 for 12 wines is less than one bottle of the current vintage Dry River Pinot Noir, closer to one bottle of the Syrah.
Vineyard and Winery:
For the Dry River Pinot Noirs, planting started in the late 1970s, so by the time of our wines, there were contributing vines already 20 or more years age. Once established, the vines were not irrigated. Neil went through a phase of wanting enhanced ripening, with the spreading of reflective ‘mulch’ to increase effective insolation. Clones were based on 10/5 and Abel, plus others. Information on the way Neil did things was always scarce, but in general cropping rates were very low by traditional New Zealand standards, more around the French figure of 5 tonnes / ha ( 2 t/ac) ...and in some years less, for Martinborough is windy at flowering, and set is often low. There tended to be around 10 days cold soak, with some variation on 20% whole bunches in the ferment. Cuvaison was around 15 days, followed by elevation 12 – 15 months in French oak mostly barriques, around 20% new, sometimes up to 30%.
There is less information available for the Dry River Syrahs, but it is reasonable to assume that the above picture for pinot noir substantially applies to syrah too. In some years the ratio of new oak, also barriques, was up to 30%. It has been harder to achieve ideal ripeness in syrah, and the alcohols in some years are lower.
I particularly appreciated Oliver Masters and Helen Masters, sequentially winemakers at the nearby Ata Rangi Vineyard for the timespan of our Dry River wines, making available their impressions of recent Martinborough vintages.
Cooper, M. 2000 – 2008: successive years, Michael Cooper’s Buyers Guide to New Zealand Wines. Hodder Moa Beckett, pages vary from 360 to 528. Note the year shown on the spine is the one after the publication date.
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW, subscription needed for reviews.
THE WINES REVIEWED:
Neil was particularly careful about cork quality, so we had a clean run, re TCA. Values given in the first $ slot are wine-searcher current values, where available. The original release price where known follows in the ‘admin’ section for each wine. Auction prices locally remain buoyant for Dry River wines in general, and the Pinot Noir particularly. For example in the March 2019 Webb’s (Auckland) sale the average realisation for Dry River Pinot Noir was c.$100 per bottle, including fees. The reviews below give my conclusions on how each wine tasted, including how well each one displayed appropriate varietal attributes. There is brief reference to how the group reacted to the wine, too.
Colour is ruby and garnet, the lightest wine of the 12, just, a delightful and appropriate colour for pinot noir. Bouquet stands out in the 12, as being far and away the most varietal and complex in the set, and importantly, one with no caveats. There are clear red rose and cherry-pie (Heliotropium) florals, on red cherry fruit browning somewhat now, plus a clear aromatic piquancy pointing to the Cote de Nuits, very exciting. Palate shows good fruit weight, supple, one of the few not overloaded with tannin, the whole wine warmly varietal, and stimulating throughout. Aftertaste is long, gradually a little tannin appearing. It is great to see a wine from this era exactly fulfilling Neil’s hopes for his pinot noir, at a time when I was being hard on them. This wine is at a peak now, but no great hurry, will hold some years. Six tasters rated this their top wine of the set, and one second place. In the preferred variety of the vintage coupling, both the pinot noir and the syrah are remarkable wines, both could be gold-medal level, but in this assessment I have the pinot noir fractionally ahead. GK 05/19
Ruby, nearly carmine still, and velvet, far and away the deepest wine, extraordinary. Bouquet is amazing too, in a district where syrah is at its limits. There are dusky dianthus and darkest rose florals on tanniny cassis, and clear pepper, all black. Palate is wondrously rich, clear cassis and darkest plum, velvety grape tannins bolstered by invisible oak, the flavour fresh and youthful, still primary, again, extraordinary. The whole wine style is Hermitage, the only hint of qualification being a tell-tale thread of acid. Tasters liked this wine, six first places, four second, clearly the wine of the night, and almost total agreement it was syrah. In the best for the vintage comparison, the pinot didn't have a chance. This is one of Martinborough's greatest wines, so far. It will cellar another 20 years. GK 05/19
Lovely ruby and velvet, very much younger than the 2001 Pinot Noir, above midway in depth. Bouquet is extraordinary among the syrahs, showing clear varietal definition at a nearly perfect level of physiological maturity, quiet florals hinting at wallflowers and pink roses, dark berry which is nearly cassis-like, and beautiful peppery spice which is much more black then white. Oak is invisible on bouquet. Palate is attractive but not quite so perfect, some red fruits in the cassis, just a hint of white pepper in the black, but the whole wine supple and refreshing, total Cote Rotie in style, but of a slightly cool year. Tasters liked this wine, three first places, three second, but some confusion as to whether pinot noir or syrah, syrah winning. In the better variety for the year, a close second to the 2001 Pinot Noir, but both beautiful wines. Will cellar 5 – 10 years yet. GK 05/19
Ruby, much fresher but only faintly deeper than the 1999 Pinot Noir. This bouquet has clear florals, both dianthus and pale rose-like aromas, nearly a hint of pepper but hard to decide if black or white, and a superb ratio of berry to oak. Palate is gorgeous, delicate yet not light, beautiful ripeness and length, silky texture, all faintly cooler and more subtle than the 2001. Again it is total Cote Rotie in style. Three people rated it their second-favourite wine. Tasters found it particularly hard to decide if this wine was pinot noir or syrah, the latter winning by one vote. In the comparison for the year, the syrah wins hands down. Beautifully mature, but will cellar some years. GK 05/19
Ruby and velvet, the second deepest wine in the set, deeper than the 2005 Syrah, not a usual colour for pinot noir. Notwithstanding, the bouquet is clean, pure, fruit dominant, and gradually over hours and days reveals more of itself. There are dusky florals, and darkest cherry fruit, and again, like the 2001 but much less so, just a hint of the aromatic charm of the Cote de Nuits, as in a dark burgundy like the 2002 Clos de Tart. Palate is deep, rich, initially opened seeming massive, but with extended air becoming more and more like the 2001, some charm creeping in, in a furry-tannins way. This truly is a New Zealand pinot noir to put aside with the backward 2005 burgundies, to examine in another 10 years. It is a pity McCallum used only 44 – 46 mm corks over the years, but their quality is good. Cellar 5 – 15 years. On the night this wine was too reserved, only one second-place vote. In the vintage comparison with the 2005 Syrah, the pinot noir dramatically the better. GK 05/19
Garnet and ruby, still glowing, the second lightest wine, and the oldest in appearance, but good. Bouquet is not quite so convincing and varietal here, but it is clean, mellow, fragrant, and doesn't smell as old as it looks. It is pleasantly autumnal, the browning fruit hard to characterise. Palate has a lightness and suppleness to it which is attractive, the tannin load a little high, and just a trace of stalk in the tannins, the nett impression varietal. This wine is nearer full maturity than most. No ratings as to favourites, and one of the wines where tasters found it hard to decide which variety. In the ‘which variety is the better for the year’ contest, the pinot noir ahead. Will hold a few years yet. GK 05/19
Garnet and ruby, also among the oldest, in the middle for depth. This wine opens up more in the ‘expected’ Dry River River Pinot Noir style, clear sur-maturité notes, raisiny hinting at baked now, dark fruit qualities, yet clean and fragrant. Palate is reminiscent of some of the big wines of the ‘60s in South Australia, heaps of quantitative fruit but verging on malty in character, and not much varietal charm. In its velvety tannin structure, you could however work out it is pinot noir. Somewhere within this fruit a hint of stalk detracts, seeming almost incongruous. It is however a big rich wine, which will give uncritical pleasure with appropriate food. Three people rated it their top wine, and one second-place. Four least places, though. Tasters were clear it was pinot noir. In the varietal stakes, clearly it was better than the 2002 Syrah. Tastes fully mature, but will hold for a few years yet (in a cool climate). GK 05/19
Ruby and garnet, the third to lightest wine. You had to work at the bouquet of this wine, for it to reveal light hints of florals, red more than black fruits, and some pepper much more white than black. Palate continues this modest style, beautifully clean, but red fruits only, a little more white pepper apparent now with thoughts of stalks – just a trace – and a refreshing winey finish. This is about at full maturity, but will hold. Tasters did not have this wine among their favourites. Since it was placed number one in the lineup, its task was more to introduce the concept of florality / fragrance, which in this tasting is particularly relevant for both varieties. In the contest for the year, the 2000 Pinot Noir has more to say about pinot noir than this wine does about syrah. Will hold a year or two yet. GK 05/19
Ruby and garnet, below midway in depth. The bouquet is unusual for pinot noir in this wine, there being nearly a cassis note, on good dark berry, but then a roti undertone. It smells rich. The palate does not capture the best side of the bouquet however, being rich but tending wooden, with a heavy tannin load, raisiny flavours, and almost a hint of coffee on the later taste. I thought it much too over-ripe and big for quality in pinot noir. Tasters however liked the wine a good deal more than me, three top places and five seconds. In the varietal stakes it is clearly second to the extraordinary 2006 Syrah. Cellar 5 – 10 years, maybe to improve when the wine crusts. GK 05/19
Ruby and some garnet, fractionally above midway in depth. Bouquet is clean, fragrant in a light way, hard to be sure if it is floral, leafy or stalky, on red fruits only, plus white pepper. The wines of upland Les Collines Rhodaniennes immediately sprang to mind. Palate emphasises that thought, red fruits only, white pepper, stalks, but the tannins nicely controlled, in its cool style. This wine makes evident the very different physiological ripenesses achieved by the grapes pinot noir and syrah, one tending over-ripe, the other under-ripe, in a year like this in Martinborough. Interesting wine, but not so appealing, one second place. In the choice for the year, I thought the pinot noir ahead, but I suspect the group differed. Probably fully mature now, the wine lacking the constitution to cellar much longer. GK 05/19
Garnet and ruby, younger than the 2000 Pinot Noir, just below midway in depth (for the 12). There is quite a volume of bouquet, but it is over-ripe, malty and biscuitty, almost going on leathery, the fruit well-browning now. In mouth the wine is texturally rich pinot noir, but the flavours again are raisiny, baked and severely over-ripe, no florals, no varietal charm. Oak comes in on the tanniny finish, so the nett impression is like rich brown raisin (not sultana) fruitcake. No votes for favourites. In the vintage comparison, second to the 1999 Syrah. Fully mature, but will hold in its style for some time. Unless by some not-apparent chance this wine has suffered oxidation from a defective cork (to close inspection, it appeared perfect), this 1999 has not fulfilled the promise of its Amaranth classification, as varietal pinot noir. Many people will find it very pleasant as rich red wine with a roast dinner, however. GK 05/19
Ruby and garnet, some velvet, the third deepest wine. There is something untoward in this wine (or this bottle), almost a hint of methoxypyrazines, and nasturtium flowers, in a light, not expressive, bouquet. It is not that there is no fruit on bouquet, but that it is almost totally neutral. Palate is better, hints of red and darker berries, but some cardboard too, some stalks to the tail, even a hint of cigarette ash-tray (as in old Marlborough cabernet sauvignon) plus cardboard to the tannic finish. Strange. Two people rated this wine their second-favourite, but five had it their least of the 12. It doesn't look unduly old or tired, but it is hard to see it improving. Cellar another five years maybe, in case this is an unhappy bottle. GK 05/19