In 2001, New Zealand hosted an international pinot noir celebration in Wellington. During a panel discussion on the merits, or otherwise, of local pinot noir, an international guest commented that New Zealand pinot noir didn’t seem to improve with age. “If New Zealand pinot noir wants to be taken seriously it must be capable of improving with bottle-age,” they said.
At that time there wasn’t a mass of evidence to support or refute that criticism.
I asked Warren Gibson, chief winemaker at Trinity Hill and joint owner/winemaker (with his wife Lorraine Leheny) of Bilancia about New Zealand red wine’s age-ability in general. Trinity Hill’s flagship wine is Homage Syrah while Bilancia’s top wine is La Collina Syrah. Both wines are built for the long haul.
An ability to age starts in the vineyard said Gibson. “Some remarkable wines have been made from young fruit, but vine age does promote ageing potential, if you can keep the vines healthy,” he explained. He added that an ability to age well added value to red wine.
Gibson credited screwcaps for increasing the longevity of reds and for allowing more positive bottle development. Trinity Hill first produced Homage in 2002 and the winery has always used a cork closure. Bilancia La Collina has been sealed with a screwcap since 2009.
What are Hawke’s Bay’s most age-worthy vintages? “My favourite is 2002 followed by 2014 then 2013 and 2009. 2004 and 2010 were top vintages for syrah, but not for cabernet sauvignon-based wines,” Gibson said.
I spoke to Te Mata Estate winemaker, Peter Cowley, who had just tasted 32 vintages of their top red, Coleraine, back to the first vintage in 1982. “Coleraine is not a big, showy red,” Cowley said. “It’s pleasurable to drink when young but is a better wine at three to eight years of age. There wasn’t a single dud in the 32-year vertical of Coleraine. The early years are now very refined and ethereal wines – perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but I love them.” Cowley’s top five vintages of Coleraine over 15 years old are 1990, 1991, 1995, 1998 and 2000.
Warmer vintages from 1998 have improved Coleraine’s quality and age-ability. “We’ve had days of up to 37°C since then which, together with vine age, have helped us make better and more long-lived red wines,” he explains. “I love drinking 10-15-year-old Hawke’s Bay cabernet/merlot blends. They have a sense of place together with a fruit-based aromatic quality and refined tannins that make them a real pleasure to drink.”
Lastly, I talked to Ata Rangi head winemaker, Helen Masters, who has been making spectacular and long-lived Martinborough pinot noir since 2003. “Cellaring potential is very important if you want your wines to be compared with great examples from around the world,” said Masters. “When we only had young vines we needed to extract more tannins from the skins to give wines enough structure to age well but as the vines have got older we now use gentler extraction methods. Vine age also allows us to pick at lower sugar levels. Our oldest vines are 38 years old but the average is 24-25 years.”
Masters explained that she is not trying to get her pinot noir to age longer but she does work hard at getting it to age better. “I like perfume and spice,” she said. “I want fruit quality that gives harmony and is integrated rather than savoury and fresh. I want my wine to be ‘evolved’ rather than just ‘older’.”
A recent triangular taste comparison of pinot noir sealed with cork and screwcap showed a clear preference for the wines under screwcap, which were brighter with more fruit character and had a stronger presence than those under cork, which were more evolved and savoury with an umami-like character.
What’s the optimum drinking window for Ata Rangi Pinot Noir? “Most people love fruit expression – eight to 14 years from vintage is a nice window,” Masters states.
While the best red wines from 20 years ago, such as 1998 Te Mata Estate Coleraine, have aged well it’s clear to me that the current wines are likely to age better and for longer without necessarily compromising their appeal as young wines.