The first Church Road vineyards were planted in 1897, making this one of the oldest wineries in New Zealand. Senior winemaker Chris Scott passed through Wellington a few weeks ago as part of a national roadshow to unveil the new look for the Church Road and Church Road Reserve wines. These new labels for the premium quality wines have helped to modernise the brand.
Not only did the roadshow serve as an opportunity to see the new look of the brand and to taste the range, it was also an opportunity to learn a whole lot about the history of Church Road. Starting with the more recent history of Chris himself who has been Senior Winemaker at Church Road since 2005, before that he was Assistant Winemaker since 2002 and then general dog’s body for seven years before that. Over the decades he has been involved with checking that what’s grown on their range of vineyards is more specialised, to ensure the right grapes are in the right soil and the right micro-climate.
The Church Road brand is comprised of four tiers, at each tier if the quality of the grapes produced does not warrant or maintain the expected quality of the wines, then no wines are produced. Because wines are only made when the fruit warrant it, release dates are set a long way out to help introduce some fat into the financials to assist with a poor vintage. The wines being able to age so well is a real bonus to this approach. At the entry level is the Church Road Estate range, wines bottled under this label are varietally correct and pure. Next is the McDonald range making elegant wines with high juice solids and wild fermentations. The Grand Reserve range follows with wines that are richer and riper with a higher percentage of new oak used. These wines are not as luxurious as the McDonalds but are more structures. At the very top of the pyramid sits the Tom range, these premium wines are made only in very good vintages. This tasting covers all four tiers.
McDonald Sauvignon Gris 2012
Sauvignon Gris is a clonal mutation of Sauvignon Blanc. At Church Road Sauvignon Gris grapes are grown on the Matawhero vineyard that sits above sea level. The slightly elevated altitude provides a cooler site that supports more aromatic wines than are found on the plains. This difference is important as Sauvignon Gris is a naturally less aromatic variety. The resulting wine has a clear, pale lemon colour that’s clear to the rim with good legs. Made using a cool ferment in stainless steel vats you find characteristic herbaceous notes on the nose, paired with pronounced aromas of citrus zest. The wine was produced with some skin contact helping to give it a richly textured, full-ish body, with a fresh, clean palate and a round, soft acidity. The wine is finished off with notes of apple, pear and lemon.
Grand Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2011
Grapes for the Grand Reserve Sauvignon Blanc are grown on red metal soils in the warmer Bridge Pa region at lower altitude than the Matawhero vineyard. These differences in soil and altitude help to give the wine a riper expression with a rich texture, made in the style of a Bordeaux Blanc rather than being your typical New Zealand Sauv. The wine is made with 100% wild fermentation in French oak, 25% new. Care is taken to hand pick the grapes in whole bunches. The style of wine you find here is similar to the Fume Blanc trends that were seen in the early days of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. On the nose there’s obvious oak along with a bit of green apple and vanilla with a nutty, smoky quality. Pronounced flavour intensity with subtle acidity, light body and a medium finish. The wine is still overtly Sauv with notes of lime, floral and passionfruit but this is a richer kind of Sauv. A great alternative for Chardonnay lovers and Sauv haters.
McDonald series Chardonnay 2012
The McDonald Chardonnay is a fruit-forward wine. It’s a flinty, tight and lean example of a Chardonnay with 25% new oak ferment – veering towards Chablis in style. The nose is youthful and shy with notes of apple and citrus. The palate has obvious oak and vanilla having been fermented in large oak cuvée rather than the smaller barriques. Overall the wine is nice enough, fresh and fragrant, the result of having been made in a cool year. The wine is hand harvested, picked in whole bunches, pressed to barrel undergoing wild fermentation and 100% malolactic fermentation with medium acidity and medium body.
Grand Reserve Chardonnay 2012
As with the previous wine, the grapes are hand harvested, whole bunch picked and pressed to bottle. This time around though, the wine is fermented in barriques with 40% new oak resulting in a richer, rounder wine. The nose is a little shy with flinty, steely notes, bits of green apple skins and just a touch of oak. The wine is very textural, full bodied with medium acidity and medium finish. Due to the added richness the wine isn’t as fresh or fragrant as the previous one, and yet of all the Chardonnays on offer, I was most enamoured with this one.
Tom Chardonnay 2010
2010 was a cool year with a wet summer and a glorious autumn with warm, dry days. These conditions resulted in a rich and opulent wine with a clear, pale gold colour. Where the typical free run juice measures 600L/tonne, the Tom free run measures 250L/tonne, made through individual barrel selection. The Tom Chardonnay is made from the free-est of the free run. The nose is developing with a clear, pale gold colour. It’s full bodied and elegant with soft acidity and a smooth finish. The wine is dominated by oak and texture with obvious age-ability and a savoury gunflint character. On the whole this wine has much riper savoury flavours and a richer texture with not as much fresh fruitiness. I would be keen to taste this wine again in a few years.
Grand Reserve Viognier 2010
This one is much sweeter than expected with a clear, pale gold colouring. It’s not as austere as some other cool climate Viogniers might be. Chris talked about the presence of dried apricot flavours on the vine, which when it was showing let the winemaker know that it was the right to pick the grapes. That apricot influence follows from the vine to the nose and onto the palate. For their Viognier the grapes are handpicked, although not as whole bunches. The must is soaked for 15 hours on their skins and the wine undergoes a wild barrel fermentation before malolactic fermentation, both a more common Old World aromatic treatment than a New World one. With this kind of treatment you might expect the wine to be stripped of its fruit character, instead what you get is the exact opposite – you get a wine with a pronounced aromatic profile. The wine is off dry with crisp acidity, rich body and a medium finish. The nose is youthful for its age and there is an oily, salty, grape character with an interesting texture. The dried fruit character is emphasized on the finish.
Pinot Gris 2013
Pinot Gris sits as part of the Hawke’s Bay Estate range, this one specifically is the first wine of the 2013 vintage to be released. Pinot Gris as a ripe, fruit-forward style can be a challenging grape to grow as the aromatics develop late and care has to be taken to not end up with an overly acidic wine. When picked late you get wines like this one, with a youthful nose that has vibrantly-aromatic, perfumed notes. The palate is off-dry with just a slight sweetness to it, high alcohol and medium body. Fermentation was stopped artificially. Tart acidity with a bitter, oily finish, the wine is quite fruity and floral on both the nose and the palate. This is quite a cheery example of a Pinot Gris.
McDonald Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
The McDonald Cabernet Sauvignon follows traditionelle Bordeaux style wine making with a longer maceration. The nose on this one is youthful and a touch shy. The 2011 vintage was wetter but warm and produced a wine with a good fragrance and rocky, earthy, steely characteristics. The palate has drying tannins and notes of sour cherry. This wine is big, rich and full with medium acidity and a green herbaceousness. The wine is slightly thin but retains a good structure and earthy complexity. The wine is built to age and it only starts to show its best four to five years after the vintage date.
As a general rule, Church Road uses cork only on their top-end reds. The McDonald series is all under screwcap. Grand Reserve and Tom are under cork. The exception to the rule is the Marzemino, which has a tendency to go reductive under screwcap and so it is under cork. By all accounts Church Road are the only ones in New Zealand making Marzemino commercially. Marzemino is a grape native to Trentino, a mountainous region in Italy. It’s a soft red grape with thick skins that’s resistant to rot. The nose is developing with a great clear, medium ruby colour. The nose has coffee and nutty notes along with very fresh and fragrant red fruit. The palate has plenty more red fruit, coffee and chocolate. As with all the reds made by Church Road this one is unfiltered. The wine is dry with soft, round tannins, fresh acidity, medium body and a longish finish. It’s a popular wine at the cellar door with its bright red colour, rich fragrant nose and it’s exotic name.
McDonald Syrah 2010
2010 was a cool, dry harvest, these conditions have helped produce a wine that’s clear, medium ruby, rich and fragrant with notes of white pepper, red fruit and red berries. This wine is a real crowd pleaser as the wine is very approachable with plenty of ripe fruit. This wine is exactly what you would expect from a Hawke’s Bay Syrah. This wine comes with high tannins, sharp acidity, white pepper and red fruit with an earthy finish. It’s full bodied with good structure. Both the 2010 McDonald Syrah and the 2011 Grand Reserve Syrah are grown on the red metal soils, there’s no Gimblett Gravels fruit. This wine is not subtle, but it is easy to like.
Grand Reserve Syrah 2011
2011 was the warmest, wettest harvest, the result is a wine that’s less fruit forward, far more restrained and heavy on the pepper. This is the exact opposite of the 2010 Syrah that was just looked at. There is some red fruit on the nose of the wine but it’s mostly pepper. The palate is the same, this time with white blending with the black pepper. There are notes of cloves and a savoury character with ripe tannins and soft acidity. This is a dry, full bodied wine, it’s richly savoury, elegantly fragrant and ultimately it’s just terribly interesting. The wine wraps up with a long finish.
Tom Cabernet/Merlot 2009
This is the recently released Godfather of the Church Road range, the Tom Cabernet/Merlot is a 58% Cabernet Sauvignon dominant blend. This wine is produced through differential pickings and shows plenty of rich, red fruit that’s youthful, clean, clear and fleshy on both the nose and the palate. With ripe, silky tannins and fresh acidity this is a dry style wine with a long finish and a high flavour intensity. The grapes are grown in a low vigour area where production is best suited to the quality Grand Reserve and Tom labels. For the Tom Cabernet/Merlot blend there’s a woodsy character coming through. The wine is well-structured with an interesting complexity. It’s quite a single-focused wine that’s big on tannins, with a touch of the barnyard to it and a nice balance. It’s a beauty of a wine, but it’s still just a baby. I would want to try it again in 10 years. After the recently released 2009, 2013 is the next vintage for this wine.