The New and the Good
Man O War, NZ's most unusual winery
Waiheke Island might not be New Zealand's best known wine region – that would be Marlborough, birthplace of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc – but it might be the most unusual. Located off north Island, near Auckland, it boasts a beautiful and varied topography, a mixture of soil types and no fewer than 29 wineries, though wine wasn't made on the island in any quantity until the mid 1990s.
The best known of these by far is Man O'War, so called because when Captain Cook first laid eyes on Waiheke Island he reckoned its numerous, sturdy trees would be ideal for making masts for his fleet. The wines are pretty familiar to wine-lovers here - the UK and the US are Man O' War's most important markets – and have built up a loyal customer base for being very different from the New Zealand mainstream. Want a typical citrussy, cats-pee Sauvignon Blanc? You won't find it here. Some nice smoky Pinot Noir? Dream on: they don't make any (yet). Like a full throttle, yet still subtle Syrah, the type that a few years ago many thought New Zealand wasn't capable of producing? Well, you've come to the right place. And if you like wines who names recall the British Empire's days of naval supremacy – Dreadnought, Ironclad and of course, Man O War – this is the winery for you.
Sitting down to lunch with winemaker Duncan McTavish, whose work at Man O'War has established him as one of New Zealand's most impressive producers, I realised that jet lag and a daunting number of events planned for the following days hadn't dimmed his enthusiasm.
A lot of things about Man O War are unusual – the fact it gets its grapes from 76 sometimes tiny vineyard plots spread over 150 acres, the fact his team have to get a boat across to nearby Ponui Island to harvest his Pinot Gris (rough conditions can make this a challenge) and the fact that his team treat each of the vineyards individually.
Over the past 20-odd years, Man O War has grown production to some 265,000 bottles a year and 18 different wines, although the core range – 25% of production is Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon, 25% Syrah, 25% Bordeaux red blend varietals and 25% Pinot Gris/Chardonnay – brings this down to 6/7 wines, divided into a white label estate range and a black label flagship range.
“Our aim is to be thought provoking; we want to make bold wines that reflect the soils and the varietal but we don't necessarily want to make wines that the market wants and feels happy with,” he says.
And so it was with the first two wines we tried, the Estate Waiheke Island SB 2014 and the Gravestone 2013, both Sauvignon Blanc with a notable splash of Semillon to give structure and support (10% and 25% respectively). No fan of Sauvignon Blanc, I approached these with trepidation but I needn't have; these were probably the best NZ SB's I have ever tasted, intensely aromatic and fruity on the nose, with lots of green pepper and herb on the palate. These are surprisingly big wines – 14% - well-structured, with smooth tannins, and intensely moreish; and although the Gravestone was three years old, it remains intensely fresh and fruit-forward.
As was the next wine, the Valhalla Chardonnay 2014, highly expressive, almost oxidative in style, with all the full savoury elements of this variety pushed to the forefront and using grapes grown in clay and volcanic soil. McTavish says he can't make enough of this wine and I can see why – as its Viking name suggests this is a delicious barrel fermented Chardonnay that takes no prisoners.
The Exiled Pinot Gris (2012) is a reference to (who else) Napoleon and his final place of exile, St Helena, and is made from the St Helena clone grown on Ponui Island. This is a rich and luscious Alsace style of Pinot Gris, surprisingly sweet because of the addition of late harvest fruit fermented separately but with lots of depth, courtesy of the barrel ageing, which makes this wine a keeper.
And the reds? The white label Cabernet Franc/Merlot/Malbec 2013 is decent and well-made, whilst the black label Ironclad – a sturdy, redoubtable wine that is Cab Franc dominant (45%) but actually has all the Bordeaux varietals – is a deliciously powerful and structured wine that will benefit from quite a few more years in bottle, though is great now.
It was the other two, Rhone-inspired reds though, that really got my attention: the impressive, full-on 100% Syrah Dreadnought 2013, smoky and peaty but with lots of dark berry fruit supporting the 15% alcohol. The star of the lunch for me though was Man O'War's newest wine, the Bellerophon – named after, yes, another Royal Navy ship, this one saw service in the Napoleonic War. The wine is a blend of Syrah and Viognier (just 4%) and this 2014 vintage is just the second, but McTavish hasn't put a foot wrong; the Viognier has softened the Syrah and helped produce a stylish wine, with lots of white pepper, liquorice and spice on the palate that makes an excellent addition to the usual Man O War line up. The volcanic soil in which the grapes for this wine were grown have probably reinforced this wines complexity, which grew more apparent over the course of the lunch.
“The reception to this wine has been really good, and to be honest, I'm almost surprised how good this is tasting now, considering its relative youth,” says McTavish.
Much the same could be said for all McTavish's wines. These are sommelier wines and at prices ranging from around £18 to £37, are hardly for everyday drinking. But for an insight of how far NZ wine-making has come in recent years, there's no better place to look.
Tasting the New Douro
So what's new about the Douro, Portugal's best regarded wine region?
Quite a lot actually. A visit there this summer, after an absence of maybe five years, revealed infrastructure that has benefited massively from EU and government investment; travelling from Porto to Pinhao now takes just one and a half hours, against the two and a half I recall. The New Douro has increasing numbers of spa and boutique hotels (check out Six Senses or Quinta do Vallado) and tourism has hit the big time, with Americans, Chinese and Japanese all enjoying the region's much-improved restaurant offering.
Most important though, are the changes that have swept through wine-making, which were evident at this year's New Douro Tasting in London in early November. Over the past 20 years, producers have been massively investing in table wine and downplaying the port production that was once the defining thing about the Douro: for most, port now accounts for a small fraction of production, with the best producers focusing on quality and leaving bulk production to the big names. Douro reds are now understandably the most sought after in Portugal, with renowned wine-makers from other regions now boosting production there (Quinta dos Murcas from Esporao in the Alentejo is a good example, with their Assobio now recognised as one of the region's best quality entry-mid level wines). And producers that once focused on the typical Douro blend (Touriga Nacional blended with Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz etc) are now making great field blends that can utilise any number of local varieties, often from very old vines, to remarkable effect).
But there's another revolution taking place in white wine, previously an also ran here. Producers are now prioritising production of high quality, mineral wines using the local white varieties including Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, Rabitago and Viosinho and many excellent examples were at this tasting.
So out of so many excellent producers – this truly is a region where badly made wines are increasingly hard to find - which wineries best represent the New Douro?
It would be impossible not to mention the eclectic boundary-pushing Dirk Niepoort, so I won't try other than to say that this man seems incapable of making a boring wine. Both his main whites – Redoma and the barrel Redoma Reserva Branco 2015 - are fine examples of the New Douro white, open and expressive, the red a blend of 40 varieties, whilst his red Batuta 2014, a high-end field blend, is complex and inviting, reflecting both the meticulous wine-making and the complex schist soils of the estate.
Quinta do Vallado is probably best known for its typical Douro blends Vallado Douro white and red, but its Reserva Field Blend 2014 and its inexpensive, newly launched, organic Vallado Douro Superior 2014 are both much more interesting and well worth seeking out. However for me, the Vallado Prima 2014 was the star white of the tasting: made from 100% Moscatel, this dry wine appears almost sweet on first taste, but is remarkably mineral and complex. Outstanding.
From the Upper Douro, the wines offered by Quinta do Vale Meão are dark, tannic and complex and none the worse for that. Winemaker Francisco Olzabal has done a fantastic job making real terroir wine from the varied soils here, and his Meandro White and Red are both well worth checking out. For richness and complexity, seek out his rich, layered and complex Monte Meão Touriga Nacional 2013.
Quinta de la Rosa is one of the most scenically located wineries on the Douro but its wines have been long been underrated, despite being amongst the first Douro producers to make the shift towards focusing on table wines. With production now at around 250,000 bottles there is more opportunity to see what progress has been made. Three whites are produced here, but the oaked La Rosa Reserva White 2015, a blend of 60% Viosinho and 40% other local white varieties gives an idea of how far white wines have progressed in this region.
It would be impossible to write about the Douro without mention of Symington Family Estates so I won't try. Their Altano white 2015 and Organic red 2014 remain amongst the best value, high quality “entry level” wines from the region whilst at the other end of the price scale, Quinta do Vesuvio 2014 and its younger but no less impressive brother Pombal do Vesuvio 2014 (retailing for around £54 and £25 respectively) show just how stunning New Douro wines can be. Little wonder the Douro is now described as one of the world's most exciting wine regions.