Note: This is the first in an occasional series. Back when I reviewed them I set aside a few wines to taste when they are more mature. From time to time I'll report on wines from the cellar [that I hadn't gotten around to yet].
Blame it on New Zealand’s cool climate, which challenges late-ripening varieties like Cabernet and Merlot to get fully ripe.
Fortunately, a few escaped my green bean flavor detector and got pretty good ratings. I recently opened a few of those bottles.
What did the better ones have in common? Warmer regions help to get the grapes ripe, for starters. It’s also a plus if the vineyard had good northern exposure (toward the sun in the Southern Hemisphere). And if there are plenty of stones in the soil to absorb heat and radiate it after the sun goes down, even better. I always thought Hawkes Bay’s gravelly soils, now known as the Gimblett Gravels district, could have a shot at getting consistently good wines.
The two wines I brought up from the cellar come from vineyards on the gravels. Plus, they are from one of the warmest vintages New Zealand has experienced.
Sileni Merlot-Cabernet 1998 used grapes grown in the winery’s estate vineyards on gravelly soils littered with stones. When I tasted the blend of 75 percent Merlot, 15 percent Cabernet Franc and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon in 2000, I called it “Lean and chewy up front, turning supple,” and I found no vegetal character in it. I liked the “earthy, coffee-scented blackberry and spice flavors that linger on the finish,” and gave it 87 points. It cost $32 when released.
I suggested then that it be consumed by 2005, but today it’s still pretty firm with tannins and the black cherry and coffee flavors make their presence felt more than the gamy note poking through in the background. It has an open texture that invites food. I would give it about the same rating as before.
Mills Reef Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot Hawkes Bay Elspeth 1998 used 78 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 22 percent Merlot grapes, all from the winery’s Mere Road Vineyard, also on the gravels. “Bright and distinctive for its coffee-scented berry and mint flavors,” I wrote then of the $30 wine, “which linger nicely on the slightly chewy finish. Has appealing balance and length.” I gave it 89 points.
Although I expected it to be at its best from 2002 through 2006, this too has held on nicely. Even better, it has become smooth and polished, very supple and inviting in texture. It shows pretty red fruits and spice, with an earthy tone that suggests roasted meat in the background. Lithe and easy to drink, it is most appealing for the texture and the way the finish lingers, finally hinting at rosemary along with red cherry in the end. But it still doesn’t get over the bar for me into the 90-point range.
Both wines have the mouthwatering acidity that’s typical of New Zealand, even in a warm vintage like 1998, making them welcome table companions because the fruit and other flavors have enough warmth to them to balance. I still think New Zealand does much better with Pinot Noir (mainly in Martinborough, Malborough and Otago) and Hawkes Bay’s best variety is Syrah. The Cabernets and Merlots need a warm vintage to get into the very good range.
Dennis D Bishop — Shelby Twp., MI, USA — December 3, 2008 2:47pm ET
Fred Brown — December 3, 2008 8:43pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 4, 2008 11:13am ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento,CA — December 4, 2008 6:47pm ET
Fred Brown — December 4, 2008 9:38pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 4, 2008 11:57pm ET
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