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Gordon Russell: A Special Tasting

THE TERRACES 1991 – 2018

Laid out on the table before me were 12 glasses, each with a sample of Esk Valley’s The Terraces stretching back to the inaugural 1991 vintage.  I had sourced the wines from the Esk Valley wine library where they had laid undisturbed since their release.

Cameron Douglas MS (Master Sommelier) and leading New Zealand wine authority had been commissioned by Decanter Magazine UK, to write a feature on this vineyard. This was to be a very rare and privileged opportunity. A liquid story of a breathtaking site seen through the lens of 12 unique seasons, each invoking memories of endeavour, heartbreak and ultimately triumph.  The evolution from a newly planted and unknown hillside vineyard to a collection of gnarly old vines firmly established as one of the great vineyards of New Zealand. My role would be to talk through the wines, explain the subtleties of the vintage, the evolution of the vineyard and the wines, and to reacquaint myself with many wines I rarely now get to taste. 

The glass on the left was the 1991, that small first harvest, in fact so small it was a co ferment and a forerunner to what was to follow.  Now autumnal, browning, elegant and so pretty. It was followed by the 1992 vintage, the year Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines greyed over the summer skies, likewise at the end of its life, but the first signs of the vineyard’s character still showing through. Next the 1995, always a star and it certainly didn’t disappoint today. Dense in colour and texture this is a quality wine whose star hasn’t diminished. Remarkably Bay View had the best of the Hawkes Bay summer that drought filled year which allowed us to harvest before the cyclones that beset the later days of the harvest. The 1998 Hawkes Bay harvest for those old enough to remember will always be seen as the benchmark Hawkes Bay vintage.  The year in which you couldn’t go wrong, and so it proved. The wine was still primary in colour, rich across the palate and if desired plenty of life left in it.  The vineyard is singing now and the next vintage we had chosen to show the 2002, seemed like the 1998 on steroids. I still have vivid memories of a cool and wet summer giving little hope for a quality harvest which turned around when March and April set new records for being the hottest and driest on record.  The green lush landscape became parched and grapes ripened quickly to unheard of sugar levels.  Our take on Napa? This vintage coincided with a return to the single day harvest of 1991 which would now become a feature of all subsequent wines. The goal to capture the true personality of the vineyard would now lie with vineyard and not the winery. After the 2002, the 2004 seemed reserved.  A cool but dry harvest the wine is restrained, a complex medlay of red fruit, earth and dried herbs. The 2006 dark and rich, tobacco, warm bricks. It seems in a good place now.

A big jump forward to the 2013. The label now gracing the name Heipipi, the name of the Maori Pa which sat atop the vineyard for 400 years.  The vineyard by now is 24 years old and not only co-fermented but dry farmed and managed undervine without the help of weedspray, instead relying on sheep and manual labour. What a wine! Black and arguably the most concentrated of the entire lineup. Its soft and generous but at its core a blast of concentrated dark fruit, suggesting decades of cellaring are on offer. Could this be the best of them all? Maybe, but the 2014 would like to dispute that claim, for here is another wine of monumental concentration. Smoke, black fruits jam and grippy tannins.  Less refined than the previous wine but none the less a very serious world class wine. The 2015 and 2016 although different seem restrained after the 2013 and 2014.  The 2015 dark and very spicy, the Malbec showing through, elegant and deserving of time in the cellar.  The 2016 a cooler and wetter harvest, almost pinotesque. Soft of the earth, undergrowth, red berries with a generosity on the palate derived from its unfined and unfiltered production. Lastly the 2018.  The first from our new concrete fermenters. Brambly, very fruity, an elegant take on the vineyard.  Chewy and youthful with lots in reserve. A wine recently awarded 95 points by Wine Advocate, arguably the most recognized fine wine magazine in the world.

Once it was over Cameron and I chatted and both felt we could see a thread in the wines, a sense of place.  This had been an amazing opportunity not only for Cameron but also for myself as this had been a glimpse across my wine making career, leaving me with a growing sense of pride. As for scoring? I would have given them all 100 points knowing what had been involved in their upbringing. It’s a good thing I’m not writing the article.

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