NZ Listener Columns
  • Wairarapa wine from the early 20th century is mellow and pleasurable, even after all these years.

    Issue 3952 1st March 2016

    The oldest New Zealand wine ever tasted, Lansdowne Claret 1903, was poured and savoured on February 10 in the dining room at ­Brancepeth, one of Wairarapa’s grand old homesteads.
    This rarest of reds was crafted by William Beetham, heir to the 22,662ha Wairarapa property, who had earlier spent several years in France, where he married Marie Zelie Hermance Frere. In 1883, Beetham planted a tiny vineyard at his Masterton townhouse. Nine years later, he planted 1.2ha at Lansdowne vineyard, principally in three classic French varieties: pinot noir, pinot meunier and syrah.
    During his national vineyard tour in 1895, viticulturist Romeo Bragato visited the Beethams and reported tasting a six-year-old syrah of “prime quality”. Lansdowne’s output reached 1850 gallons (8410 litres) of wine in 1897, but following the prohibitionists’ victory in Masterton in 1908, the vineyard was uprooted.
    In 1985, Beetham’s descendants broached two bottles of Lansdowne Claret 1903. Geoff Kelly reported in the National Business Review that one was “oxidised, with varnish overtones, but still drinkable”, and the other was “alive and well … with amazing fruit, body and freshness for the age”.
    In 2007, prominent businessman and sports administrator Paul Collins paid $14,000 for a bottle of ­Lansdowne Claret 1903 at the Te Omanga Hospice Charity Wine Auction. His intention was to display it in his cellar: “I would have thought its quality would be very questionable, so I don’t intend to find out [whether it’s okay to drink].”
    Last November, I had the truly memorable experience of tasting (and drinking a glass or two) of the wine with Ed Beetham, the current custodian of Brancepeth. The bottle was unlabelled, like all the other samples over the decades, but a loose label on the shelf in the cellar indicates 1903.
    Amber-hued, with lots of sediment, it reminded me of a dry sherry, although lighter in body. The flavours were of tea, dried fruits, spices and nuts. Faded and mellow, but alive, it still gives pleasure.
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