A Pinot Noir Master Class
with Montana (Brancott), Gibbston Valley and Wither Hills

© Sue Courtney - text and photos

The scene is the Centra Hotel in the centre of Auckland City, New Zealand. It's a wet and blustery early Spring day. What could be better then being warm and snug inside while sipping on some of New Zealand's best Pinot Noir? I can't think of anything better myself, so that's what I'm doing.

It is the occasion of the Montana Wines tasting of their impressive portfolio. Impressive because as well as their own in-house brands, which include the labels Montana, Brancott, Church Road, Corbans, Stoneleigh, Saints and Longridge, they distribute top quality local and international agency wines within New Zealand.

Montana Wines is New Zealand's largest wine producer, with grapes growing on almost 3000 hectares of company-owned vineyards (c. 2002). Their harvest averages about one third of New Zealand's total while its products account for an estimated 57 percent of the local market share and 49 percent of export bottled wine.

But all great things start small. Montana's beginnings date back to 1944 when Dalmatian immigrant Ivan Yukich started selling the wine he had made from his half-acre of grapes on the slopes of Auckland's Waitakere Ranges. He named his place "Montana," the translation of the Croatian "mountain." With the enthusiasm of his sons, Frank and Maté, a company was formed.

Frank and Maté blazed a trail of expansion and with the help of investors bought grapevine land in Waikato, Gisborne and Hawkes Bay before a courageous move in 1973 to plant large tracts of land with grapevines in Marlborough's Wairau Valley at Brancott.

By this time Montana Wines was a listed public company and with corporate ownership becoming more dominant, the Yukich connection was finally severed in 1977.

With a connection to Seagrams, the wines started to be distributed in the United States. However, the brand name was changed to Brancott, the name of the first Marlborough vineyard, to avoid confusion with the state of Montana.

In August 2001 the company became a wholly-owned subsidiary of liquor giant, Allied-Domecq.

Wine makers
From left to right: Brent Marris, Grant Taylor and Patrick Materman.
Two of Montana Wines distribution agencies are Gibbston Valley Wines from Central Otago and Wither Hills from Marlborough. Both producers are known for their superb Pinot Noirs. So with the winemakers present for the portfolio tasting, it was the perfect excuse to hold a Pinot Noir Master Class.

Winemakers Patrick Materman of Montana, Grant Taylor of Gibbston Valley and Brent Marris of Wither Hills are to present their Pinot Noir wines from the 2000 and 2001 vintages.

I grab a seat in the front row. Tape recorder is at the ready. "What are you doing here? You know all this stuff," says Brent Marris jokingly. Later he asks me for a copy of the tape because some interesting points came out of the seminar. I get him a copy and he promises to provide me with a transcript but it still hasn't arrived. I have to do it myself.

I taste the wines as the winemakers talk.

Patrick Materman talks about the growth of Pinot Noir within Montana. Although Pinot Noir vines have recently been planted in Waipara about 260 kilometres south of Marlborough, those vines are not yet producing.

Brancott Estate
The new block of Pinot Noir at the southern end of Brancott Estate, harvest time, April 2002.
Pinot Noir is currently taken exlusively from Marlborough and prior to 1996, all the resources were for bubbles. Then in 1996, 600 cases of still red Pinot Noir were produced from three vineyard blocks on Fairhall Estate. The results were good so Kaituna Estate, just north-west of Renwick, was developed expressly for Pinot Noir production but they grow sauvignon blanc there too.

With the purchase of Corbans in late 2000, Montana was able to incorporate grapes grown on the stony river gravels from the 2001 vintage.

Now a new block has been developed at the southern end of Brancott Estate and on the eastern side of the Estate on a north east facing slope, a terraced Pinot Noir vineyard has been planted. A small first vintage crop came off these two blocks in 2002.

Patrick explains that the Wairau Valley is only 12km wide. The northern side of the valley, where the Kaituna Estate and Stoneleigh vineyards are, is the wetter side of the valley. Here the vineyards are close to the Wairau River and the soils are mostly composed of glacial derived river gravels. Crossing the valley from north to south, the soils become more clay-rich, with gravel or shingle fans close to the rivers in the tributary river valleys. The clays give more tannin and structure to the wines while the grapes from the river gravels are more fruit driven with sweeter softer tannins.

Map of Marlborough
A map of Marlborough with the vineyard sites referred to in the text.

I'm sniffing the wines and find they both have lovely floral nuances and I visualise the tiny berries from one of Montana's new vineyards that I helped to pick at harvest time (story here).

The Montana Reserve Marlborough Pinot Noir 2000 has a hint of lavender joining the savoury aroma together with stewed tamarillo and chocolate. This is a vibrant, lifted wine with good underlying structure, lovely development and flavour, I like the cherry and tamarillo fruit and pretty spice while the oak is integrated and creamy and the chocolate richness comes out on the finish. This wine, that shows more colour development than the 2001, is drinking terrifically well right now.

Montana Reserve Marlborough Pinot Noir 2001 is much more perfumed than the 2000 with an exciting spice and musk character - definitely the scent of old English roses - that join the bright cherry fruit. There is more upfront cherry and spice flavour, a richer tannin structure and creamy mellow oak. The finish is delicate yet long. Yes, the tannins are bigger and the colour is more youthful. Patrick explained the variation in the wines is climate derived. The 2000 vintage in Marlborough was a classic season with a long summer and a cool autumn with an extended ripening period, the kind of season that typifies New Zealand wine, the cool nights keeping the acid levels up.

2001 was a hot dry summer and water was trucked in for irrigation. The young vines struggled a little and this shows a little in the wine with its higher harsher tannins. Pinot Noir is an expressive wine that shows its faults so the winemakers managed the ferment to minimise the tannins in the final blend.

I finish the wines as Patrick finishes his talk and think 'these have to be the best value Pinot Noir wines in New Zealand'. They retail around the NZ$25, but are often found as supermarket 'specials'and I've occasionally picked the wine up for as low as NZ$18 a bottle.

Gibbston Valley
An aerial shot of the Gibbston Valley winery complex and home vineyards.
Gibbston Valley
The Gibbston Valley winery and cellar door is in a prime location in Central Otago on the main highway an easy drive from Queenstown, the tourist capital of New Zealand. It has been said that Gibbston Valley is one of the most popular winery stops anywhere in the country. Attractions include the 76 metre wine cave carved out of schist, the restaurant and wine tasting facilities, the wine shop and the adjacent cheesery, while AJ Hackett's Bungy Jump over the Kawerau River is close by.

Grapes were first planted here in 1981 and the first commercial wines were released from the 1987 vintage. Pinot Noir has been on the menu from the outset and is now firmly established as their leading grape variety.

Grant Taylor, the winemaker at Gibbston Valley since 1993, is a Pinot Noir specialist and his list of achievements is long. His most illustrious achievement, however, would have to be winning the supreme Pinot Noir accolade, "Champion Pinot Noir of the World" for the Gibbston Valley Reserve Pinot Noir 2000 at the 2001 UK International Wine Challenge.

Today, however, the Gibbston Valley Central Otago Pinot Noir is being tasted. This is the middle wine in the Gibbston Valley tier, with the much lauded Gibbston Valley Reserve above it and the enjoyable quaffer and restaurant favourite, the Gold River label, below it.

Central Otago
A map of Central Otago with the sub-regions referred to in the text.
Grant tells us we are truly tasting Central Otago in these wines as they both are an equal blend of grapes sourced from four of the district's sub-regions, these being Gibbston Valley, Wanaka, Bannockburn and Bendigo. The sub-regions differ in soil types, aspect and climate, and climate, especially, is extreme.

The Gibbston Valley and Wanaka sites are cooler while Bannockburn is warmer and the Bendigo site is warmer than anywhere else in the district. "Perhaps it is too warm for Pinot. We are planting Syrah there to see how it does," said Grant.

He reiterates what Patrick said in that Pinot Noir is a sensitive variety. It reacts to and can show the character of the soil and the vagaries of the climate in the wine.

The vines for the 2000 vintage experienced cool weather at flowering and consequently the crop was light, yielding 3.5 - 3.75 tonne a hectare. It rained about a month before harvest and there was variability in the ripeness of the grapes and higher sugar levels.

In comparison 2001 was a good season throughout and yields were high. Even with dropping fruit they brought in 7.5 - 8 tonne a hectare. The autumn was long and dry and there was more consistency of ripeness.

The Gibbston Valley Central Otago Pinot Noir 2000 shows more development in colour and aromas of concentrated cherry are supported by subtle oak. "Dry spice, dusty notes," says Grant. I like the earthy nose and the flavours in the mouth that are more cherry than tamarillo. "Coarse and chunky" says Grant but I like the 'chunky' character in this wine. I like the tamarillo and musk characters. "Long drawn out flavours with weight and concentration of fruit and tannins on the finish" says Grant. I agree. It's long and flavoursome with a delicious depth. There are hints of mushrooms on the finish too.

In comparison the Gibbston Valley Central Otago Pinot Noir 2001 is grape garnet in colour in the dim light of the seminar room. There is plenty of lifted spice in the fragrance. And in the mouth it seems much riper. There's lovely violet, rose and musk with classic cherry and plum fruit, which is balanced terrifically to the toasty oak. Grant says it is not as concentrated as the 2000 but he likes the balance of the wine with its ripe fruit, better length and heavy toasted oak. I find it quite delicious.

Gibbston Valley Central Otago Pinot Noir retails for NZ$39 at the cellar door and up to about $48 a bottle at fine wine outlets.

Wither Hills
Wither Hills was born from a passion for wine. Brent Marris was only 12 years old when his father John became the first contract grape grower in Marlborough and consequently Brent's first wine industry job was as a vineyard labourer during the school holidays. He loved it and decided to make wine his career.

Wither Hills was established in 1992 by John and Brent Marris and the label made its debut in 1994. Pinot Noir very soon became the focus. Brent is fastidious about producing wines of exceptional quality and "Champion Wine of the Show" at the Air New Zealand Wine awards for the 1998 Wither Hills Pinot Noir is just one of the many exceptional endorsements his wines have received. Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay is also outstanding.

In September 2002, The Marris's were made an offer they couldn't refuse and the company was sold to Lion Nathan for a record NZ$52million.

As Patrick Materman gave such a great insight into Marlborough's Wairau Valley and the climatic variations of the vintages we are tasting, Brent decided to concentrate on telling us specifically about Wither Hills. I am looking forward to hearing of the developments since my visits there in November 2000 and January 2002.

Wither Hills
Vines in the Wither Hills vineyard with the Wither Hills in the background.
The Wither Hills Vineyard is right up against the Wither Hills range on the southern side of the Wairau valley. It's quite dry here especially on the hills themselves, which are prone to fire in prolonged drought situations. But the vineyard is on the valley floor away from the danger of cigarette-flicking pyromaniacs who tramp the hills.

The vineyard currently comprises 200 acres of grapes on a shingle fan and as the vineyard is traversed from east to west the soil profile changes from the river deposited shingles, to shingles and silt, to a clay-based soil. "This makes it interesting from a winemaking point of view," says Brent.

As far as viticulture is concerned, each shoot is thinned to one bunch, which Brent feels gives uniformity of flavour throughout the vineyard site.

The wines currently show the influence of young vines. As vines get older, perhaps in 4-5 years time, Brent will separate the clay-grown and the shingle-grown grapes to make 2 or 3 individual wines. But right now he is learning so much about his vineyard and everything goes in together. He wants to make wines that are round, soft and voluptuous with subtle tannins and fruit on the mid palate, wines that drink well when young but have the ability to age.

And he is excited about his new winery. "When a winemaker designs a winery and is able to have everything he wants, it's like a small kid with his toys," says Brent.

Brent is making big volumes and doesn't want to compromise on quality at all so imports a team of specialist pinot producers from Oregon to assist at vintage.

The wine matures in a variety of fine-grained French barrels of differing toasty levels for 14 months in total. The maturing wine remains on the malolactic fermentation and yeast lees for 9 to 10 months. He wants the wines to pick up feral funky characters, to develop a velvety silky texture and to emit a beautiful seamlessness and concentration.

"People drink reds with their eyes," says Brent, hence his pinots are a darker colour than Montana's.

The Wither Hills Pinot Noir 2000 is an oaky tarry wine with a colour quite similar though perhaps a little denser than the 2001. Violets and lavender fragrances emerge. There's an army of strawberry, cherry and plum fruits, lots of savoury characters and well supporting delicately spicy oak. It's quite a lifted wine with funky velvety tannins and a hint of cherry chocolate. I think it is nice to taste the lighter strawberry flavours coming through and I just love the seam of citrus that lifts the finish as the flavours linger for ages.

The Wither Hills Pinot Noir 2001 shows more youthful brightness to the colour and overall it is a more delicate wine, or perhaps it just simply has more finesse. It seems less oaky on the nose than the 2000 and lets the perfume of fruit, spice and savoury characters come through and titillate the senses. The lovely fruit profile holds well in the palate to be joined by a violet musky character and reasonably firm chocolatey tannins. It seems hotter than all the other pinots tasted at the seminar and is ready to drink now but I think it will also age well.

I mention to Brent my inability to individually discern the fruit characters as I could with the other wines. 'Confused fruit' he says. But after letting the wine sit in the glass for a while I find terrific primary fruit characters of cherry, apple and plums. This is a very ripe wine with terrific spice and savoury notes, emerging chocolate and a lovely nuance of citrus on the finish. In fact, the creamy chocolate characters become more obvious the longer one sips on it.

Wither Hills Pinot Noir retails in New Zealand for NZ$39 a bottle on mail order up to about NZ$48 a bottle in retail.

It was an excellent seminar but the speakers had almost gone over time. It was time to put glasses down and leave.

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Footnote: Since the Masterclass, the Wither Hills Pinot Noir 2001 has won the coveted title of Champion Pinot Noir at the Royal Hobart Wine Show in Tasmania, Australia. This is the most sought after Pinot Noir trophy for Australasian winemakers. The prize includes a trip for two to Burgundy. This year's trophy couldn't have gone to a better person. Congratulations Brent Marris. You're on a roll!

© Sue Courtney, Jan. 22, 2003

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