2019 Best Buys

BEST WHITE WINE BUY OF THE YEAR

Thornbury Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2018

$14.50

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When I tasted this wine for the first time in August, I thought: what a steal! ‘A high-impact style,’ I jotted down. ‘Richly aromatic, it is very fresh, punchy and ripely herbaceous, with good intensity of passionfruit/lime flavours, and a crisp, dry finish.’ Then I saw its recommended retail price – $14.50.

Of the four-star (silver-medal standard) Sauvignon Blancs I taste, most sit on the shelves in the $20 to $25 range. If you hunt around, you can certainly find good, four-star bottlings in the sub-$20 category. But under $15? Some retailers have even marked this wine down to as low as $12.99.

Other wine commentators, including Auckland-based Bob Campbell and Nelson-based Neil Hodgson, have given this wine four stars. The judges at the country’s largest wine competition, the New Zealand International Wine Show, went one better in October, awarding it a gold medal.

‘Packed with classic citrus, passionfruit sorbet flavours, alongside fresh snow peas and zesty lime,’ is how winemaker Simon Fell describes his bargain. ‘Crisp, crunchy and delicious, with a satisfying length of flavour.’

Fell, winemaker at Thornbury since 2006, has also produced wine in such places as Western Australia, Chile, California and Bordeaux. In his Thornbury role, he is rumoured to be the envy of his colleagues at Villa Maria, because every vintage he gets to fashion a diverse array of wines from all around New Zealand – from Gisborne Chardonnay to Central Otago Pinot Noir.

Thornbury, founded by Steve Bird, was purchased by Villa Maria in 2005, to boost its vineyard holdings in Marlborough. Since then, the brand has been expanded and in August the wines were released under new labels, featuring a vineyard landscape and a pic of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and winemaking, performing a little jig.

Offering magnetic value, Thornbury Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2018 is a blend of grapes grown 53 per cent in the Wairau Valley, ‘which provides richness and weight’, and 47 per cent in the cooler Awatere Valley, ‘famous for its finesse and minerality’. Cool-fermented with cultured yeasts in stainless steel tanks, the wine was matured on its yeast lees, ‘to lend extra texture and weight’, and bottled with 13 per cent alcohol, crisp, mouth-watering acidity, and a dry (3.88 grams/litre of residual sugar) finish.

When it comes to producing high-quality wine at low, low prices, it obviously pays to have access to Villa Maria’s vast array of company-owned and growers’ sites around the country. Economy of scale is a major advantage, and Fell admits that ‘we use lots of whizz-bang technology to make sure our Sauvignon Blanc is treated carefully to extract all those pure, punchy flavours it’s famous for’.

Enjoy this incisive, pure Sauvignon Blanc with seafood, white meats and salads, now and during 2019. At under $15, it’s better than many wines priced ten dollars higher.

BEST RED WINE BUY OF THE YEAR

Esk Valley Gimblett Gravels Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec 2017

$16 – $20

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A wine of excellent, four-and-a-half-star quality, on sale widely at a very modest, three-star price: that’s how I see the Best Red Wine Buy of the Year, the latest vintage of a long-term favourite from Hawke’s Bay.

Others, such as the prominent Auckland-based retailer Fine Wine Delivery Co., agree. ‘Every year we taste this Esk Valley wine and every year we ask ourselves [rhetorically]: “Is this the most under-priced red wine in New Zealand?” 2017 continues the trend and is another incredibly sophisticated wine from winemaker Gordon Russell, a reminder of why his winemaking colleagues at Villa Maria [which owns Esk Valley] refer to him as Mr Merlot.’

The 2017 vintage of this popular red is a blend of Merlot (49 per cent), Malbec (26 per cent), Cabernet Sauvignon (19 per cent) and Cabernet Franc (6 per cent), matured for a year in French oak barriques (10 per cent new). This is the first time that Cabernet Sauvignon has been relegated to third place in the varietal mix, behind Malbec, although that nearly happened in 2014.

What’s so good about it? More muscular and concentrated than you would expect in its price category, it is a mouthfilling, fleshy and savoury red, with strong, ripe, plummy, berryish, spicy flavours, showing good complexity, and a very well-rounded, harmonious finish.

In Hawke’s Bay, the favourably warm, dry summer of 2016–17 was followed by a miserable autumn. ‘Harvest was very wet,’ acknowledged one of the region’s leading winemakers, ‘but we had a fantastic summer. Reds were a mixed bag, with pretty good Merlot from the Gimblett Gravels.’

Grown in stony, free-draining, low-vigour soils, the grapes were de-stemmed to a mix of open-topped concrete and static fermenters and inoculated with selected yeast strains. The ferments were hand-plunged, to extract tannin and colour from the skins, and after their post-ferment maceration on skins, the various batches were pressed to barrel and tank for their secondary, malolactic fermentation. The wine was then matured for a year in French oak barriques (10 per cent new).

Setting aside the technical details, this is a delicious red. Gordon Russell describes it as ‘a fragrant, complex, medium-bodied Gimblett Gravels blend. Densely coloured, it has a bouquet of dark cherry, tobacco and cedar, while the palate is of high quality, with supple tannins.’

I’d usually expect to pay around $30 for a Gimblett Gravels red of this standard, but its ‘normal’ price is about $20 and some retailers are promoting it at $15.99. Esk Valley recommend drinking it from now to 2022, with most meat and game dishes, especially lamb.

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