It is funny how the great characters of the wine world can be responsible for wines of the greatest character. In the case of Gordon Russell, Senior Winemaker at Esk Valley in the Hawkes Bay (seen above, with John Caro on his left), there is a paradox or two in the way the man becomes represented in the wine.
To confirm such matters there is nothing like a visitation, which Gordon kindly gave us the other day. In typically engaging form he delivered what was certainly one of our most appreciated wine events of the calendar: even for Gordon it was a rare occasion to taste a flight of seven vintages of his top wine, the Terraces (or Heipipi as it is now also called, named after the ancient, midden-laden Pa site that occupies the top of the hill).
Long one of the country’s most highly valued reds (currently $167 per bottle), the Terraces vineyard from which the label gets its name has become a kind of hallowed ground in New Zealand wine. It is located on a beautiful coastal amphitheatre of unique terraces that date back to the 1940s, when the owner of what was then called Glenvale planted there some of the earlier grapes in Hawkes Bay.
This microclimate is unusually warm and wet for Hawkes Bay — slightly more like Gisborne, Gordon reckons — and with all that North-facing exposure, this helps to produce the consistent ripeness we associate with “Grand Cru”-type sites. And those who might be concerned about humidity, what is also unique about this particular spot is the constant sea breezes and the free-draining, seashell-filled limestone soils, with their magic ability to keep the fruit and roots dry and healthy under almost any conditions.
The wine showed superbly under labels going back to 1995 — yes, twenty three years! While this focused and fine-boned wine reflected its maker well, there was an interesting play between those things about the wine (and the man) that were variously classical and/or eccentric in nature. It was Gordon’s individual perspective that allowed him to invest in grapes that were otherwise unheard of, like their Verdelho white (which is delicious but remains almost unique in New Zealand) and, more significantly, the Malbec that forms the heart and flesh of the famous Terraces. Needless to say, this too is unique: while Malbec has been a minor presence in New Zealand, and has even seen a recent rise, there are few if any super-premium Kiwi blends in which Malbec plays the major part.
On the other hand, the part played by the Malbec is unusually elegant — restrained and classical, perhaps. That said, there is no model for what the term classical might mean for this lush and fairly bright-fruited grape, which aside from Argentina is now hardly used in Bordeaux and, in France’s South West, finds expression in more gutsy and rustic aspects. A common tasting note for the Terraces reds might be paraphrased as a gently penetrating purity of dark red fruit. These long and resonant palates were beautiful young, while showing themselves a superb platform for development in cellar. (This elegant development was proved by the older vintages, 1995 and 1998, which simply showed a little more dried fruit). Such was this fruit harmony and focus that the finishes only occasionally received a dusting — and then only a gentle one — in nuanced refrains of rusty and spicy earth.
Among these wines was the 2013 vintage of the Hillside, a fairly new label created as a destination for fruit that is of very high quality, but which for some reason does not make it under the supreme Terraces label. Tasting a little more forward than the others — and also dominated by Merlot in this blend — the Hillside offered plump red fruit with themes of dusty leather and toast that felt more distinctly Bordeaux in character.
Gordon seems to have hit a chord with both his wines and his approach, as we had no end of great feedback about the tasting. From a winemaker with an engaging combination of long-settled knowledge and willingness to embrace the new, it was perhaps no surprise that the wines were themselves a paradox. Juicy yet perfectly judged, succulent yet subtly serious — if there is grandeur here then there is humility as well. For like some of the world’s best wines, the Terraces justify their immense value by a sheer purity of fruit — and the pure sense of place which that conveys, vintage after vintage.