Tasting Report: Wines of New Zealand 2017

As was the case with 2016’s releases, New Zealand continues to slowly drift away from the classic “New Zealand style” of blowing wines out with tropical fruit and replacing it with a complex array of characteristics. You’ll find NZ wines today showing off a variety of styles that focus on everything from herbal notes to florals to earthier elements, both in whites and reds.

NZ’s finest winemakers descended on San Francisco recently, and we tasted a number of bottlings. Brief tasting notes, as always, follow.

Tasting Report: 2017 New Zealand Wine Fair

2016 Astrolabe Province Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / B+ / simple, with brisk acidity
2015 Astrolabe Province Pinot Gris Marlborough / B+ / mild, some peach notes
2013 Astrolabe Taihoa Sauvignon Blanc Kekerengu Coast / B+ / very aromatic, dense body with long legs
2012 Astrolabe Wrekin Vineyard Chenin Blanc Southern Valleys / B / big briny character, high acidity, lots of sea spray
2016 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / A- / fresh, melon and tropical fruit – classic NZ
2013 Cloudy Bay Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / B / huge body, very fruity, some mushroom notes
2014 Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir Marlborough / B+ / cherry and dried fruit, mixed berries; some beefy notes
2014 Cloudy Bay Te Wahi Pinot Noir Central Otago / A / dense, licorice and cloves, some chocolate
2016 Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Martinborough / A- / tropical heavy, with some honey; long finish
2013 Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard Pinot Noir Martinborough / A- / a touch of earth; beautiful and silky body
2013 Craggy Range “Le Sol” Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Syrah Hawke’s Bay / B+ / bold, heavy graphite and roasted meats; racy but also gently fruity at times
2013 Craggy Range “Sophia” Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Merlot Blend / A- / very spicy, aromatic with violets and baking spices
2015 Crown Range Cellar Drowsy Fish Riesling Canterbury / B+ / semi-sweet, honey and some earthiness
2014 Crown Range Cellar Stolen Heart Merlot Malbec Hawke’s Bay / B+ / very dry, with mineral notes and dried fruit
2013 Giesen Wines The Fuder Clayvin Chardonnay Marlborough / B+ / bold, California style, slightly meaty, buttery body
2013 Giesen Wines The Fuder Matthews Lane Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / A- / green apple, some touger undercurrents, bold body
2013 Giesen Wines Single Vineyard Selection Clayvin Pinot Noir Marlborough / A / rich, Russian River style, orange peel and blackberry
2012 Giesen Wines Single Vineyard Selection Brookby Road Pinot Noir Marlborough / B+ / acidic edge, also earthy, some baking spice
2013 Giesen Wines Single Vineyard Selection Ridge Block Pinot Noir Marlborough / B / minty and funky, Burgundian at times
2013 Giesen Wines The August Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / B+ / bold structure and big body, some camphor
2013 Giesen Wines The Brothers Pinot Noir Marlborough / B+ / gentle, expressive and fruity
2014 Giesen Wines Pinot Noir Marlborough / B- / quite jammy, some green notes
2016 Giesen Wines Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / B+ / fresh and simple, fruit-forward
2016 Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / B+ / slightly sweeter style, more floral
2014 Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / B+ / a little funky, exotic with some meat character
2013 Greywacke Chardonnay Marlborough / B+ / bold fruit, acidic and slightly flabby on the finish
2016 Grey’s Peak Sauvignon Blanc Waipara / A- / fresh, apple and mineral notes; soft acidity with lots of lemon notes
2015 Grey’s Peak Pinot Noir Waipara / B- / thin, short finish
2015 Rockburn Wines Devil’s Staircase Pinot Gris Central Otago / A- / very acidic, lots of minerals, peaches
2014 Mt. Beautiful Pinot Noir North Canterbury / B / chewy, some flab; lightly spicy
2015 Mt. Beautiful Chardonnay North Canterbury / B / classic new world whie, modest oak and vanilla notes
2015 Mt. Beautiful Riesling North Canterbury / A / really fresh, surprisingly pretty with light florals, honey, and spice
2014 Mohua Wines Pinot Noir Central Otago / A- / brighter acid, fresh fruit
2013 Peregrine Wines Pinot Noir Central Otago / A- / fresh, lightly fruity, long finish
2016 Nautilus Estate Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / B / tropical fruit dialed back a bit; a touch meaty on the finish
2014 Nautilus Estate Clay Hills Vineyard Pinot Noir Marlborough / B+ / understated, fresh cherry, strawberries; herbal finish
2016 Spy Valley Wines Sauvignon Blanc Wairau Valley Marlborough / B / iconic tropical character, bold fruit
2014 Spy Valley Wines Pinot Noir Southern Valleys Marlborough / B+ / bold and fruit forward, chewy finish
2015 Spy Valley Wines Envoy Johnson Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Waihopai Valley Marlborough / A- / aged 11 months in neutral oak, softening the acids; silky
2016 Tohu Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Awatere Valliey Marlborough / A- / fresh, citrus and peach notes; acidic with gentle florals
2013 Tohu Single Vineyard Pinot Noir Awatere Valliey Marlborough / A- / bright acids, lots of cherry; earthy underpinnings; a great value
2015 Vinultra Little Beauty Pinot Noir Southern Valleys Marlborough / A- / a subtext of earth, loaded with fruit
2014 Vinultra Little Beauty Black Edition Pinot Noir Southern Valleys Marlborough / A- / very similar to the above, with a slight graphite note
2014 Vinultra Pounamu Pinot Noir Southern Valleys Marlborough / A- / expressive fruit, strawberry focused
2016 Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / B / a touch bitter, lightly tropical
2015 Whitehaven Greg Sauvignon Blanc Awatere Valley Marlborough / A / pretty, with florals and a finish of fruit; none of the above bitterness at all
2016 Whitehaven Hidden Barrel Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough / B+ / hand-picked and foot-stomped; wild and funky, lots of rancio on the nose, but lush and approachable on the palate
2014 Whitehaven Pinot Noir Marlborough / B+ / earthy with meaty overtones; understated fruit

Review: Dry Town Vodka and Gin

So the guys that made your cell phone case started their own distillery! Curt and Nancy Richardson were the innovators behind the OtterBox. Recently they started a microdistillery in Fort Collins, Colorado. The distillery is called Old Elk Distillery, and their first products out the door are a vodka and gin, both released under the Dry Town label. (Bourbons and a bourbon cream are coming soon.) Greg Metze, formerly of MGP, is consulting with the company.

We tasted both releases. Thoughts follow.

Dry Town Vodka – This is distilled on site from a four-grain mash of corn, rye, wheat, and malted barley. Heavily vanilla and marshmallow notes invade the nose, almost chocolaty at time. The palate isn’t much more nuanced, offering more heavily sweetened flavors on the tongue, plus notes of mashed banana, before a rather harsh finish abruptly arrives. 80 proof. C+ / $28

Dry Town Gin – This gin is made with a base of Dry Town Vodka, re-distilled “with 10 fresh botanicals through an 18-hour soak and vapor extraction: Juniper, orris root, orange, lime, angelica root, black pepper, ginger, lemongrass, French verveine [lemon verbena], and sage.” That’s a lot of citrus-focused botanicals, and all of that fruit pairs well with the sweet core provided by the vodka, giving it a nose that mixes fresh lemon and herbs. The higher abv of the gin is also a boon on the palate, which is much more brisk than the vodka, and offers a blend of juniper, lemon, and a smattering of herbal sage and rosemary notes. The balance leans toward the sweet side, but on the whole, this is a much more fully realized — and somewhat unique — expression of gin. 92 proof. B+ / $30


Review: Bruichladdich The Laddie Ten (2017), Port Charlotte 10 Years Old (2017), Octomore 10 (2017), and Black Art 5.1

With Jim McEwan out and Adam Hannett in as master distiller, Bruichladdich hasn’t taken its foot off the gas even for a second. This summer the company hits the ground with three new ten year old whiskies — all revivals of earlier limited editions — plus a new release of Black Art, Hannett’s first stab at this mysterious (intentionally) vatting of very rare whiskies.

Thoughts on the quartet follow.

Bruichladdich The Laddie Ten Second Limited Edition 10 Years Old (2017) – The Laddie Ten is becoming a classic of younger single malts, and now a second limited edition is arriving. Distilled in 2006, this release is a 10 year old just like the first, and is made again from unpeated barley, and the whisky is aged in a mixture of bourbon, sherry, and French wine casks. Departures from the first edition are evident from the start. The second edition is quite a bit more cereal-focused on the nose than the original, with orange-scented barley and light mushroom notes wafting in and out. The palate is a bit sweeter than the nose would cue you off to, with a distinct chocolate character and notes of Honeycomb cereal. The finish is lively and sherry-heavy, with a nagging echo of dried mushrooms. It’s not as essential a whisky as the original Laddie Ten, but it remains worthwhile and is still not a bad value. 100 proof. B+ / $58

Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Second Limited Edition 10 Years Old (2017) – Another round with the 10 year old Port Charlotte. Made from 100% Scottish barley, and aged in a mix of first-fill bourbon, sherry, tempranillo, and French wine casks. Peated to a moderately heavy 40ppm. Sweet orange and some strawberry interplay nicely with the smoky, salty nose. This leads to a palate of dried fruit, sultry smoked bacon notes, and hints of camphor. It’s a fine dram, but as Islay goes, it’s not overwhelmingly well balanced and not all that special. Not my favorite whisky in this batch, but nothing I’d spit out, of course. 100 proof. B / $62

Bruichladdich Octomore 10 Years Old (2017) – You’ll need to look at the fine print to determine that this is from the 2017 edition, but no matter. This release is a 100% Scottish barley edition, aged in full-term bourbon casks (60%) and full-term grenache blanc casks (40%). Peating level is 167ppm. Fans of the Octomores of yesteryear will find this a familiar old friend. The extra age (typical Octomore is about 5 or 6 years old) doesn’t really change this spirit much at all; though perhaps it does serve to better integrate the raw peat with more interesting aromatics, including roasted meats, camphor, and Asian spices. On the palate, the smokiness and sweet notes are integrated well, giving the whisky the impression of a smoky rendition of sweet Sauternes, studded with orange zest and the essence of honey-baked ham. As always, this is fun stuff, though I think some of the younger Octomores are more interesting. 114.6 proof. B+ / $200

Bruichladdich Black Art 5.1 – 24 years old, unpeated. Hannett’s stab at Black Art, per Bruichladdich, plays down the wine barrel influence, which was always a big thing with McEwan and which was effective at keeping drinkers guessing about each whisky’s makeup. I’ve always felt Black Art was a mixed bag, and despite the change in leadership this expression is no different, though the distillery is right that the wine influence is played down. In its stead, the nose offers austerity in the form of wood oil, walnut shells, roasted game, and some dried cherry fruit. The palate offers a respite from some of the wood and meat with light notes of white flowers (I’d wager dry white wine casks play some role here), dried pineapple, plum, golden raisins, and some gentle baking spice notes. The finish is surprisingly malty, with some briny elements. It’s a departure for Black Art, to be sure, and yet it still manages to be weird and, at times, hard to embrace. 96.8 proof. B / $350 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]


Tasting the Wines of Orin Swift’s Locations Series – Spain, France, Italy

Orin Swift is best known for domestic wines like The Prisoner, but the company has gotten a taste for the international with its Locations series, a unique set of wines that got their start back in 2008.

In a recent tasting, winemaker Dave Phinney outlined the inspiration for this increasingly large series of wines, each of which bears nothing on the label except a letter or two: Each is inspired by a country code sticker like you see on automobiles, and each denotes the place of origin of the wine within.

Note however that these aren’t hyper-targeted regions but rather entire countries or, in the U.S., states. Grapes can come from anywhere in those boundaries, and as you’ll see in the tasting notes below, all of the wines in the Locations series are mutts produced from fruit sourced from literally all over the country or region in question.

As well, the wines are nonvintage, though the back labels do carry a number indicating the place of the wine in the series. These are all from the fourth release.

Let’s dive in…

NV Locations “E” (Spain Red Blend) E4 4th Release – A blend of Grenache, Tempranillo, Monastrell, and Carignan, sourced from Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja, and Ribera del Duero. Fruit-forward, and not immediately Spanish in character, the wine offers distinct chocolate notes and cinnamon, before evoking some black pepper notes atop a core of red berries and rhubarb. Much friendlier than the more austere regions in that list would indicate; ready to drink now. B / $14

NV Locations “F” (France Red Blend) F4 4th Release – A blend of Grenache, Syrah, and assorted Bordeaux varietals from the regions of Rhone, Roussillon, and Bordeaux. This wine is also quite fruit-forward, but it takes a caramel spin rather than a chocolate one. Some vanilla builds alongside plenty of fresh red fruit as the modest finish grows, which ends the session with notes of violets and currants. B / $14

NV Locations “I” (Italy Red Blend) I4 4th Release – Probably the least iconically regional (a typical Italian wine would be seemingly be heavily based on Sangiovese), this is a blend of Negroamaro and Nero d’Avola from Puglia combined with Barbera from Piemonte in the North. That said, it’s the most well-structured of the wines, with dense graphite and licorice notes complementing a tough tannic core. Currants and plum work their way through the weeds, as does the herbaciousness driven by the Barbera. Nicely balanced and worthwhile. B+ / $15


Review: Bushmills Red Bush Irish Whiskey

For its latest trick, Bushmills is taking things as old-school as they get. Bushmills Red Bush is a NAS variant of the classic Irish whiskey, one that is aged exclusively in first-fill, medium-charred, ex-bourbon casks. Bushmills Original (aka Original Bush) is aged in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks. If you’re familiar with Black Bush and are curious what the difference is, that whiskey is aged exclusively in sherry barrels.

Like all expressions of Bushmills, Red Bush is 100% malted barley and is triple distilled. The use of nothing but American bourbon casks, according to the distillery, is meant to position the whiskey as something that bourbon fans new to Irish will find approachable.

The results are pretty much in line with expectations. The nose finds lots of toasty grains, butterscotch, walnuts, and hints of buttered popcorn — many aromas similar to what you’d expect to see in a bourbon, but more mellowed by the softer barley mash. The palate largely follows suit, though there are some initial citrus notes here that come unexpectedly, leading the way to notes of well-browned toast and chewy blondies, along with some furniture polish. The finish is marred by a bit of rubbery band-aid character and a sharpness that is at odds with the soothing front half of the experience, but on the whole the whiskey is at least worthwhile as a departure from the usual.

80 proof.

B / $22 / bushmills.com

Review: 2015 Hahn SLH Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

New releases from Hahn and its upscale SLH line of wines, both made with grapes sourced from its estate in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

These both represent a bit of a premium over the standard Hahn bottlings, but as you’ll see, they’re worth it.

2015 Hahn SLH Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highands – A thinner wine, particularly on the barely-there nose, but the initially watery body eventually builds to offer some bolder notes of licorice, charred wood, roasted meats, and savory spices. The finish is earthier and meatier than I’d like, but that does help it to pair better with a bolder meal than most pinot noirs. B / $20

2015 Hahn SLH Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands – Oak and butter on top of oak and butter, pumped up beyond imagination. Hahn can so often be a model of restraint, but for 2015 someone threw open the throttle and just let everything fly. Well, some mild lemon notes notwithstanding, the blowout of vanilla and brown butter simply destroy any hope of nuance. B- / $20