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Esk Valley, New Zealand

by Tom Cannavan, 09/2008

   It's exactly eight years since I first profiled winemaker Gordon Russell and the wines of his Esk Valley estate in Hawke's Bay on New Zealand's North Island in a Meet the Winemakers feature. Gordon makes one of New Zealand's few 'cult' red wines in the shape of The Terraces, a terrific Bordeaux blend, but the whole portfolio from this estate is very good. That's not surprising in that Esk Valley is part of the Villa Maria group, which does a great job in making consistently good wines.

Many of Esk Valley's vines are planted on shingle close to the beach , with others on sandy river terraces further inland. This gives Gordon not only various soils to work with, but a variety of climatic conditions.

I recently tasted through the current releases of Esk Valley's 'Black Label' range, on sale mostly though independent wine merchants. Esk Valley is perhaps best known for its red wines, though the range of whites is very good too.

See all Esk Valley stockists on wine-searcher.com

whites

Esk Valley Riesling 2005
This Riesling is interesting, in that it is the current release on the market, yet is from the 2005 vintage so has a fair bit of age under its belt. That has helped accentuate a certain Paraffin waxiness on the nose, with all sorts of mineral and citrus aromas mixing in a heady cocktail. On the palate this is just off-dry in a Kabinett style (10.5% alcohol) with vivid lime and red apple fruit coming through with sweetness and a certain ripeness, but the picture nicely balanced by a big core of lemon pith acidity. Finishing with a bit of bite, this is well balanced and a banker for Thai or other aromatic Oriental cuisines. Around £9.00, see all stockists on wine-searcher.com

Esk Valley Chenin Blanc 2007
This has a really pristine, fresh nose with crisp, cool apple fruit and a sense of glassy precision. On the palate it shimmers with sharp, fresh-squeezed apple and lemon-juice cut and sharpness, with just enough textural weight and hints of burgeoning sweetness to soften the edges. Acidity is very keen and adds to the lingering clarity of the finish. Very nice this and a touch more elegant than the 2005. £8.69, See all stockists on wine-searcher.com.

Esk Valley Pinot Gris 2007
A blend from three Hawke's Bay Vineyards, all situated near the coast in warm sites, this wine certainly has good ripeness, with a suggestion of pineapple and exotic mango fruit on the nose, as well as honey and a cool, bright pear fruit core. On the palate there's a hint of sweetness here and certainly a touch of residual sugar to soften the palate, but with a fairly broad texture, a touch of spice and a decisive core of grapefruit pith acidity this stays focused and appealing into the finish. Very good. Around £9.00, see all stockists on wine-searcher.com

Esk Valley Verdelho 2007
Verdelho is a Portuguese variety most commonly found in the driest styles of Madeira wines, but it is quite widely planted in Australia where it makes aromatic, dry whites. Less common are New Zealand examples, but this one from the hot Hawke's Bay area on the North Island is a notable exception. The nose has quite powerful, leesy notes of pear skin and straw, with waxy lemon rind and just a hint of toast. On the palate there's a mouth-filling rush of ripe, sweet-edged tropical fruit, with nectarine and melon flavours, and a broad, citrus acidity in the finish. I found this just a touch phenolic, and for me it would need food. Around £9.00, see all stockists on wine-searcher.com

reds

Esk Valley Pinot Noir 2006
Hawke's Bay is not renowned for Pinot Noir, but Esk Valley are confident that their vineyard for this wine, an inland site on an old river terrace, gives good results. Aged for 11 months in French oak, the colour is a soft ruby red, with a nose displaying lots of rhubarb, beetroot and herbal character, with some sweet strawberry and red plum fruit coming through and a touch of smokiness. On the palate this is a fairly lean and spicy style of Pinot, with medium body and quite a racy character. The acidity is keen, and with some charry wood notes coming through, I find it slightly less well-knit that it might be. It has good Pinot character and is fresh and food-friendly however. Around £10, Fine & Rare Wines and other independents. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com

Esk Valley Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec 2006
Gordon Russell, winemaker at Esk Valley in Hawke's Bay, makes some very nice white wines including a 2005 Riesling that's available at time of writing. But it is his red wines that really impress, culminating in 'The Terraces', one of New Zealand's most prized 'icon wines'. At a much more reasonable price of around £10, this Bordeaux blend spent 12 months in oak barriques and comes in a screwcapped bottle (as does everything from the estate). The nose is beautifully creamy and composed, with a svelte, thick layer of black fruit and a hint of violet. There's just a background touch of woodsmoke and chocolate adding depth. On the palate this is structured and savoury, with quite chunky, grippy tannins that are plummy and dense. Acidity is good too, giving a keen edge to the blackcurrant and black cherry fruit character. A little of that spice and smoky quality fills out the finish, in a concentrated and powerful wine, yet one that has some elegance and freshness too. Around £10, Fine & Rare Wines and other independents. Around £10, see all stockists on wine-searcher.com