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Can Bad Dirt Become Great Dirt?

Great Dirt, the new designation for Esk Valley’s premium wine collection is made from special vineyard sites, each telling a story of “their place” in the bottle. A place where soil and grape marry to create wines of uniqueness and unquestionable quality. Most have been utilised in our Reserve bottlings for two decades or more, but there was an exception.

If we step back in time to November 2007, we find two large excavators on the hilltop above The Terraces Vineyard creating a flat north facing plateau and five narrow terraces snaking their way east to west across the steepest of slopes. This was the realisation of many years conjecture and planning. Here at the former gates of the historic Heipipi Pa, where for many years scrubby thorny trees had competed with gorse and blackberry, lay the foundations for a new vineyard. With its panoramic views to the north, all day sun and frost free nature, it seemed perfect.  As did its limestone based soils.

By now The Terraces had cemented its place in New Zealand wine folklore and we had an opportunity to add to its very limited production. Although tempting, after much deliberation it was decided to maintain its integrity and plant this new extension as a different vineyard. But what to plant? Below in the Terraces Vineyard, plantings of Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Franc had proven their suitability to the site. Little known however and only to those who worked on site were fifty Syrah vines planted as a trial many years prior. These two small rows that split the driveway and the boundary fence led a tough life, being starved of moisture by neighbouring pines and under constant attack from birds. However year in and year out they would yield a small crop shared by our vintage EIT winemaking students whose studies demanded they make a fortified wine.  What better than a Terraces Vineyard Syrah Port? Often picked under light from the car headlights after a long day in the winery, this small plot would inevitably yield a meagre but special parcel of grapes.

And so it was that when the new vineyard was planted it was Syrah that went into the ground. The vines had been propagated from The Cornerstone Vineyard, long our source of premium Syrah and itself only one generation removed from Alan Limmer’s Heritage Syrah block at Stonecroft in Mere Road. Hopes were high that this was going to be a wine of comparable quality to the Terraces whose vines sat the other side of the driveway.

To finally have wine in bottle from the 2019 vintage is the fulfilment of what turned out to be a decade’s worth of perseverance and heartbreak. I of course had lived in hope as this had been my idea, but the vines excessive vigour, unusually long canes and huge bunches of grapes of mixed ripeness prone to rot proved very challenging. So much so that there was a groundswell around me to top graft or replant to another variety. However, vineyards are all about balance and with great relief my aspirations were finally realised with the 2019 growing season.  Now dry farmed the vines yielded a small crop of perfectly ripened, intensely flavoured grapes. Had bad dirt finally become Great Dirt, is such a thing possible?

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The proof of course would be found in the wine. We already understood the peculiarities of wine from the site. Its high pH, pale colour, and flavours of strawberry, rose petal and grilled meat were a direct and intriguing contrast to our gravel based Gimblett Gravel bottlings. What we ultimately needed was a quality growing season to finally capture its true glory. We’d seen glimpses in the more challenging 2017 and 2018 harvests but here in 2019 it finally came to fruition. I fermented the wine in a single concrete vat with wild yeasts and whole clusters, and aged it in old large format barrels to allow the vineyard to shine, and shine it does. The result is a wine of true personality, uniqueness and haunting beauty. A wine like no other. A wine that showcases all that Great Dirt represents as well as a Great relief. What’s also pleasing is that the wine from the 2020 and 2021 vintages currently in barrel will also be bottled as The Hillside Great Dirt Syrah. Can Bad Dirt become Great Dirt? it would seem so.

The Esk Valley Great Dirt Collection Hillside Syrah 2019 can be ordered from our online store.

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