At Doubtless Bay Wine Company our Syrah project is still in its infancy.

Our approach, while reflecting our very different soil and climate, is drawn from inspiration based on the wines of the Northern Rhone.  In particular, what marks these wines for us is their propensity to display elegance with power, and also to age with grace.

We search for our own styles in harmony with these ideals. The variation of the seasons and our small size means that our wines may also vary markedly.  This does not change the ideals. We also grow a small amount of viognier for possible blending with the syrah – not out of any sense of obligation; merely to be able to try and to see what happens.

As part of the search we believe in tasting a wide range of examples from the region that is the source of inspiration.  This week we have undertaken a review of a range of aged wines from Cote Rotie.  Drawn from vintages between 1995 and 1998 they are therefore 12 to 15 years old. Not all are from “classic” vintages as that would not have given a particularly meaningful comparison. 

Much has been written of the shifting styles of wine over the last few decades.  Stylistically the producers we have tried range from the more traditional to the modern, from quite small to relatively large (in Rhone terms).

The Wines

Domaine Jasmin, Cote Rotie 1995. Almost mistakeable for a more mature Burgundy (with Rhone hints). Delicate fading florals and hints of meat; nothing feral but really rather elegant.  Some length but remaining tannins meant the finish was starting to dry out.

Domaine Gilles Barge Cote Rotie Cuvee du Plessy 1997. Typically the lighter and more elegant of the two Barge cuvees.  This was not the ripest of years, with some slightly herbal overtones and lack of warmth, but overall holding up well and an engaging, enjoyable drink. Meat, bacon  & smoke followed by a soft, quite full savoury (not specifically brett) palate.  Finishes almost on a sweet note. Tannin less marked than the Jasmin.

Rene Rostaing Cote Rotie 1998. The Cuvee Classique ( 100% Syrah) as it is now named  is sometimes in the shadow of Rostaing’s la Landonne and Cote Blonde cuvees.  Slightly darker than the 1st two wines but with very similar meaty smoky & liquorice notes. Fuller on the palate, less elegant than the earlier wines, but nevertheless lovely balance and a nice long finish.

Marcel Ogier Cote Rotie La Belle Helene 1997.  Ogier’s super cuvee is markedly different from the earlier wines.  Distinctly darker in colour it displays real vinous power and intensity.  There are robust notes of meat and smoky bacon, and hints of bretty characters at levels that add complexity.  However, overlaying all these, the nose is quite dominated by the strong odour of volatile acidity at levels that don’t simply dissipate with a few minutes in the glass. This impression follows through to the palate – for all its full roundness in the mid palate, this is dominated by the impression of a wine falling apart.  The potential was there to see, making this so much more disappointing.

E. Guigal Cote Rotie Chateau d’Ampuis 1995.  This was the first vintage of Guigal’s mid range Cote Rotie, slotted in between the Brune et Blonde and the three “La la” super cuvees.  In keeping with the modern Guigal style, a certain oakiness is still noticeable on the nose and palate, sometimes competing with the more classic Syrah notes of meat & bacon fat. Soft with mid weight palate, it has a lithe quality about it with tannins dissipating. Nice finish. Enjoyable, without being a stand out.

The process of aging of the Cote Rotie wines is particularly interesting.  Wines that were quite different when young seeming to converge somewhat with age?  The typical pepper characters of their youths have diminished.  The most modern in style, the most dense and the wine that once looked to have the power to age well, the Ogier La Belle Helene 1997, was ironically the only wine not to have made the distance. It was also the most expensive at the time of purchase (and cellared in identical conditions to the other wines).

A couple of days later I wanted to test some of my thoughts with a completely contrasting wine – Montes Folly (Apalta Valley, Chile) 2001.  This was the second vintage of this single vineyard wine, planted on incredibly steep slopes  in this arm of the Colchagua Valley in Chile.

The wine was very dark, much more so than any of the Cote Rotie wines.  Quite brooding at first, with dark fruits still very much present, then on opening up it tended to meaty & leather characters, eventually giving way to some very distinctive liquorice flavours on the nose and palate.  The palate was still reasonable fresh, very full and round, with a little heat at the back (no surprise at 14.5%) but not offputting; a long finish. A classy wine with every suggestion of plenty of life ahead.

If alcohol levels were a factor among the Cote Roties it is not altogether clear.  The range of alcohol levels (per the labels) was from 12.5% to 13%; nothing outrageous or unusual for the region.  From our point of view these are alcohol levels quite consistent with what we expect when our Northland syrah is at the point of physiological ripeness.  The Chilean syrah was clearly from a riper New World slant on the grape, with the peppery characters in the background that were completely missing from the aged French examples, despite there being only 3-6 years between them.

While I wondered if the process of seeking the extra concentration used in the Ogier Belle Helene had been a factor in raising its susceptibility to VA, there was no hint of this fault in the Montes at all.

Food for thought.

All done.  Everything was picked over three days, finishing with the cabernets and petit verdot.  Safely in the vats.  2010 finished 11 days ahead of 2009 and I have no doubts was riper in every respect.  We thought 2009 was our best to date, thanks to a dry March/April period that helped to finish things off. 

Of course that simply can’t beat a Northland drought year (driest season since 1974 according to my neighbour’s records – I will provide a little data analysis in another post).  I have previously mentioned our experiences with a freak frost in September.  This reduced crop levels to some degree, depending on the variety.  Throw in the dry conditions, including the need to drop fruit from many younger vines that were really struggling, and the result was  a smaller crop than we would have liked but small bunches with small highly flavoured berries, ripe skins and pips.  Typically for us the brix levels are such that we will end up with moderate but not high alcohol levels (we rarely exceed 13% for any wines we are happy to say), while acid levels mean that the wines will retain freshness since while dry it was not an especially hot summer.

To have to wait to see how things turn out seems almost cruel!  But then there is 2011 to think about.  The planning begins, other wines will need to be bottled and the whole process keeps on going.  Not to forget the selling bit!

Many thanks to the picking team from Karikari Estate (who, I should add, have also had a fantastic, if small, season).

Picking for 2010 will commence next week.  Our picking isn’t necessarily a long exercise, but although it will occur just ahead of last year in terms of timing, the fantastic season means that ripeness is well ahead.  We have been able to be patient and wait, ignoring the odd shower last night, for example, because the skins are in great condition.  The pips and stalks are there, acids about right (not too high or too low), and flavours as good as I have tasted.

Now the dry weather and cooler nights mean that the vines are convinced it is autumn and sugar production is tailing off.  The outlook for the next week is still fine, but this time next week we should have all but our cabernet fermenting away.  It won’t be far behind.

Still crossing fingers, touching wood, and pretending I am completely relaxed.

The last week has been among the most telling of the season for someone wandering through the vineyard sampling grapes.

The first thing to note has been that we have had another 15mm of rain.  Not enough to worry about but given that the nights are cooler now and the daytime temperature peaks a little lower (although the last week off started with some warm days), there has been a little more sustenance for the struggling younger vines.

For a paranoid winegrower looking for signs of ripeness, this has been a big week.  Brix levels have been moving up (Merlot approaching 22 brix, Cabernet and Syrah 21 brix, Sangiovese over 20).  Leaf levels still mostly healthy.

The most exciting thing has been tasting the grapes.  Pips are colouring up well for most varieties – esp Merlot and Sangiovese (such a pity we have so little this year as this variety has never looked so good), with Cabernet and Syrah clearly evolving from a week before and on their way.  And better still skins are thick and much riper, less astringent, although for cabernet this is not going to be a light tannin year.  Unsurprisingly berries are at the small end of the spectrum so that skin to juice ratios will be high – hence the importance of getting those tannins adequately ripe.  There are still plenty of acids, but not jarringly so.

And, just as critically, the taste of pyrazines (think green capsicums) has vanished overnight from the cabernets and petit verdot (the latter incredibly sweet tiny berries that will be blended with the cabernet sauvignon).

Fingers remain clenched in a crossed position and eyes glued to the radar.

I have checked over the vineyard again in the last few days.  Right now everything is looking optimistic for the vintage, and overall the ripening process looks almost two weeks ahead of normal for early March.

Key observation is low disease pressure and surprisingly low bird damage (they will still, after all, try and find ways into the nets however well I think I have sealed them off – and this year, thanks to the drought, I am told they are hungrier than ever).  The older vines, with established roots, are maintaining good levels of healthy leaf and so the engines are in place to keep the ripening process going.  Younger vines less so, with much smaller crop loads (for those I have left the grapes on).

Overall the ripening process looks uncannily even, with frost affected varieties producing small later crops that are behaving more like the late varieties.  Leading the way in terms of brix levels and skin development is the merlot at just under 21 brix.  The cabernets & syrah are both just coming up to 20 brix, while sangiovese is 19.5 and petit verdot 18.5.  I estimate that they are putting on between 1.5 to 2 brix per week at the moment, but more important for me is to keep an eye on the pips, skins and flavours which are certainly needing more time.  The question is how much time do they need and how long do we have?

Right now the weather is staying kind.  The rain that was forecast for last weekend wouldn’t have been more than 5mm, and everything was dry in no time.  The outlook for the next 10 days is more of the same – mostly fine, dry and sunny.  Warmer this week, then low 20s next week with a big anticyclone parked in the Tasman Sea to the west of the country.  Southerlies usually bring our driest conditions.

Glued to the weather sites for the foreseeable future!

Vintage 2010 started on Easter Sunday, 2009.  At least that is when the clean up began from vintage 2009 (with which we are particularly happy!) and the first real planning for the following season began in earnest.

Now, as we count down to vintage, we can reflect on what has been a long and very unusual year in many ways indeed.  While we made good progress during winter pruning (a job that grows as our younger vines start to get their roots more established each year) we thought we were well set when we had a short series of frosts right at the end of July. In fact, in the so-called “winterless north”, we have been known to have chardonnay budburst as early as July, only to experience a rare August frost. Our site is slightly more protected than most in the area, keeping it warmer when the wind is blowing (but reducing the strength of the sea breezes), yet a little cooler at nights. 

In any case, you may therefore imagine how we felt when we were hit by a sharp frost on the 5th of September, when several varieties were already growing shoots vigourously.  Worst affected were our chardonnay, sangiovese, viognier plus pockets of cabernet franc and merlot. These have suffered reduced, late and often uneven fruit sets.

Paradoxically (especially considering the season to come) the late frost seems to have been good for our cabernet sauvignon and syrah, resulting in more even budding and fruit set than can sometimes be the case.

Our winter and early spring of 2009 was also a lot wetter than usual, keeping the water table high to the benefit of early season growth.  As spring progressed, dry but windy and cool from October, the typical spring pattern prevailed: the water table drops fast and, as so often, we are in effective drought by December.

Only this year was even drier than normal.  Very little rain at all after early October meant that by December we had to get the irrigation on the save already stressed younger vines.  Our older vines with well established roots were fine, although canopies have been more restrained as a result of less water.

The pattern of the summer was set.  January was dry as well; and February the same, marked by a procession of warm, sunny days.  Northland is still very much in drought mode!  What few rain events we have had have been limited drops of a few millimetres, with the wind and warmth drying things up rapidly. 

There have been positives: the bunches are small and relatively even, the berries are tiny, spray requirements have been drastically reduced.  Veraison came on us fast in January, and ripening appears surprisingly even across all varieties.

So now we continue to hope, watch the weather forecasts paranoically, and wait for the right time to pick.

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