Andrew Hedley gives us a critique of pure Marlborough Riesling
Vineyard and site.
We have old vines (old for NZ anyway), now around 28-30 years old, planted on a good vineyard site, the company owned estate around the winery. We have 20 acres of Riesling and we only use estate grown fruit for our Riesling wines. That means we have full control of viticulture. Our soils are very stony and well drained. They are geologically young, (generally) consisting of hand sized boulders and gravels of greywacke, (a sedimentary, hard, grey sandstone and mudstone mix containing quartz and feldspar) which most of the mountains are composed of around here, that have been deposited by the river along with some silt as its course has meandered over the years. The fact that they are light and well drained also means that they tend to be warm and have good ripening potential. Light soils with lots of rock in them are I think good for imparting delicacy and minerality in Riesling, soils with more clay in them I think give more power and weight. I like my Rieslings delicate and mineral.
We crop quite low compared to the average NZ winery, every year. We do a lot of work by hand in the vineyard, whether it be crop thinning or leaf plucking. We go for brutal exposure, near 100%. This gives an open canopy with free circulation of air, reducing humidity around the grapes and therefore lessening disease pressure, eg mildew, botrytis. It also lets light onto the bunches, this increases the terpenoid flavour compound production in the grapes, and also increases the amount of bound flavour compounds that are released during bottle age rather than fermentation.
Harvesting and processing
We do increasingly more hand harvesting in Riesling, enabling us to do quality selection on the vine, leaving green fruit behind to ripen more and choosing either botrytis free bunches or botrytis affected bunches depending on the style of wines we are harvesting for. Of course, some harvesting is still done by machine. All hand picked fruit is bunch pressed, meaning no skin contact and very little phenolic pick up from the grapes. Juices from bunch pressed fruit are taut and crystalline, and give really elegant wines which respond well to bottle age. Our pressing program is relatively long and slow with long hold times at very low pressures, giving slow extraction of juice with very little phenolic pick up - we use the same cycle for bunch press and machine harvested fruit. Wines undergo a relatively long elevage for NZ with bottling usually in November or December following harvest, i.e. about 8 months.
Styles and Commitment
We make 4 different styles of Riesling - Dry, halbtrocken (Classic), Select (low alcohol Spätlese) and Noble (sweet, botrytis affected). That means we don’t have to make just one wine in any particular style of one wine in a halfway house type style. I think the main thing that has enabled us to have a little bit of success is COMMITMENT to the variety and its diverse interpretation. No matter what Riesling lovers may think, it’s a hard variety to sell and we haven’t taken an easy route of making a commercial wine hoping to get sales. All our Riesling wines are not particularly commercial, they are tightly wound, firmly structured and designed to age as best they can. Things like releasing a 3 or 4 year old dry Riesling into the market (like we do) are not particularly commercially sound, especially in the new world and with a variety that is still little understood.
So, I hope some of the above gives a picture of where we stand and what helps us to be consistent.
I can’t say we were one of the first to take Riesling seriously in NZ, our Framingham label only started in 1994 with 3 wines - however they were all Rieslings. Previously the grapes went to Grove Mill and Stoneleigh under contract. It is true to say that our Riesling plantings are some of the oldest in Marlborough, but there may be one or two a couple of years older. Of course, the first to plant and the first to take seriously are two different things. Companies like Dry River, Neudorf and Pegasus Bay could probably claim to be the first. As far as I know though (I’ve only been here since 2001), we were one of the pioneers of crop thinning for Riesling in Marlborough, if not NZ, so you could probably say at least that we are far from Johnny-Come-Latelies with Riesling!
The future potential for NZ Riesling I think is really bright. There is a vibrant community of Riesling producers doing great things, melding great flavours and textures to great natural acidity, especially in the south island but also in Wairarapa and even as far north as Gisborne. I often think its a little frustrating to see the amount of press Australia gets for Riesling, considering most of the wines made there are Riesling-in-a-single-dimension (i.e. dry and slightly/very austere) with very little deviation from that (though there are a few daring producers in Australia making Riesling with - shock horror - some residual sugar in them, eg Frogmore Creek). I’m not slagging off Australia by the way, they have some lovely Rieslings coming from there and some magnificent Riesling ambassadors, but there (to me at least) isn’t the diversity of styles, approaches and terroir-driven wines that we have over here. The problems come for NZ overseas in that most distributors around the world want a Marlborough SB and a Pinot Noir (usually from Central Otago!), but after that the ground becomes more sparsely populated with some of the things we do very well over here, so it becomes a well kept secret. So, I see the role for NZ Riesling producers (or at least Framingham anyway) as not to bring people to Riesling per se, but to bring NZ Riesling in it’s regional diversity to people who either love or would like to love Riesling but don’t realise what can be done down here. We are all such small producers (bar the big boys of course) and it’s still a difficult sell as I said, however we definitely deserve a place at the table as a community of producers already serious about Riesling.
Towards the end of this vintage, we spent an afternoon with Cornelius Donnhoff (yes, the son of that Donnhoff) who comes over to work harvest with Giesens (for a break as he said!). It was great to just talk Riesling with one of the world’s best for the afternoon and taste through a lot of different things. Most of the European producers who come through either the winery or cellar door, while they don’t have anything to be nervous about, seem to really enjoy the diversity on offer down here. That’s a pretty good endorsement to me.