Tasting Log – Eighteen Vintages of Stonyridge
By Cameron Douglas MS
Waiheke Island, in the Hauraki Gulf of Auckland, is arguably one of our most well known wine producing sub-regions. Whenever visiting wine experts arrive from overseas to commence their exploration of New Zealand with a stay at ‘ours’, you can bet the first item on their wish list will be this special place. The impact of annual weather patterns plays an important role in the viticulture, with generally lower summer rainfalls and warmer temperatures during the critical ripening season. This simple, but important, attribute has allowed Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot and more recently with Petit Verdot and Malbec to consistently fully ripen on many vineyard sites across the island.
One of the star wineries on Waiheke Island is Stonyridge - founded in 1982 by Steve White.
Steve and his then winemaking partner Dr. John McLeod teamed up in 1984 and together produced the first vintage at Stonyridge in 1985. The project nearly didn’t eventuate at all – convincing a bank to lend money in the early 1980s to establish a vineyard and winery on an Island was no easy task. It wasn’t until Dr. Richard Smart was appointed as head government Viticulturist that the message about the potential for wine on Waiheke was voiced loudly - thankfully the banks listened.
The soils at Stonyridge have quite low-fertility – based upon Waitemata clay and fractured with magnesium, manganese, and iron oxides. These are in fact important attributes for winegrowing, in particular influencing photosynthesis. The soil profile at Stonyridge is a key factor in much of the complexity and ‘terroir’ characteristics that the wines display. Organically managed, the only additions to the soils are natural-ground limestone and homemade seaweed ‘tea’.
The third vintage, 1987 Larose, catapulted Stonyridge to national and later international fame. In fact 1987 was once hailed as the greatest red wine ever made in New Zealand, says Steve (it is also part of the tasting line-up that inspired this article, and my notes on how it’s drinking currently appear below). Waiheke Island and its potential for fine wine growing very quickly became of great interest to many other vin-entrepreneurs and much has been grown, enjoyed and written about ‘Waihitian’ wine ever since.
In 1992 when the TV3 evening ‘Nightline’ Programme was airing, one of its more notorious hosts, the lively Belinda Todd, decided it needed a weekly wine commentator to liven things further: she called on a good friend, Grahame “Haggie” Haggart to fill the bill, exploring the wine scene throughout New Zealand. Haggie was a writer on the New Zealand section of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book so his thoughts and ideas about the quality of New Zealand wine were well respected. (They still are, but Haggie’s story is a long and special one that would take more space than currently allocated to tell).
Back in 1992, one of Haggie’s wine journeys took him to Waiheke Island where he tasted and “was astounded at the quality and potential” of the Stonyridge wines. He struck a deal with Steve on that day for a three case a year allocation that is still honoured.
Fast forward in time: having built a sizable collection of Stonyridge Larose and with a significant birthday imminent, Haggie decided it was time to share his wines with some friends and other passionate Stonyridge supporters. With good mate Gavin Hubble from Hancocks they planned a vertical tasting. A couple of years later all the key people were available and in town at the same time. The guest list was made up mainly of close friends of Haggie’s and Steve’s, as well as some Stonyridge and Hancocks New Zealand staff, the latter providing the venue, glassware and hospitality.
As the evening was centred around the eighteen Stonyridge Larose wines, Steve was able to give some great commentary on the vintage conditions and special stories surrounding the wines with David Jackson (the Stonyridge Manager) adding some great anecdotal reminders of significant world and local events that happened in the year each wine was made.
As a guest of Haggie’s at this prestigious event I am in the fortunate position of being able to share my thoughts on these wines with you. Many of you will have Stonyridge wines on your wine list or in your private collections, and while you can do research for a best estimate of when these wines are ready for drinking, I’d like to give my impressions as an additional confirmation. The overall message from me is going to be along the lines of ‘wait, so many vintages are still maturing and so wonderfully well too’.
With about twenty nine guests, several bottles of the each vintage were opened. There was (understandably) some bottle variation, and ullage in older vintages - this is to be expected at a tasting of this nature. All Larose wines are cork closed.
The first flight of nine wines, proved to me to be the more complex and interesting - they demonstrated how well Larose could age when well cellared – and also reinforced that Bordeaux blends can require significant integration time. This isn’t to say that the second flight of wines wasn’t fabulous, but they stood out as being way more youthful, tight, and very much at the beginning of their development as fine wine. Haggie and Steve both touched on the fact that at Stonyridge they are continually experimenting and trying fresh approaches. The wines of 2001 to 2009 reflect this philosophy and are very sophisticated expressions.
The first flight began with the 1987. As Haggie had insufficient quantity of this for the tasting, half the wine came direct from Stonyridge library stock. At 24 years of age it had some brown tones, but a blood red core and garnet hues throughout gave me confidence in its condition. On the nose the wine is well integrated and in fact quite masculine at first - then a heady almost feminine story unfolded - and showed more as the wine relaxed more in glass. The palate reminded me of sweet aged meats, old Blackberry pie, crunchy pastry, powdered bark tannins and rich earthiness. Overall - a wine in great balance with dusty, toasty tannins, fine mealy edges, coffee and mocha notes and a long finish. This has now become a ‘drink now’ wine, and if you have some stashed away – share it soon and enjoy one of the best wines of the decade.
The 1993 (and all the remaining seventeen vintages) was fully from Haggie’s personal collection. This wine had a blood red appearance - yet quite youthful looking at the core. On the nose a whiff of roasted green pepper, then emerged a sweet and gentle integration of chocolate, cassis, plum, raisin and seductive oak. The palate was equally interesting - enjoying a plateau - showing signs of leather, baking spices, hints of cedar, toasted driftwood, roses pressed between the pages of a leather-bound Bible, and a wonderful long finish. This wine will continue to reward for the next 3 to 5 years.
If you can secure a bottle of the 1994 Larose you will encounter a very special wine. On the nose old leather, dark red fruits especially Doris plums and Blackberry fruits. A complete wine in both bouquet and structure - violets, cassis and again leather. There was also a more feminine and gentle side that can be easily missed if you don’t give this wine a chance to show – the Riedel stemware at the tasting assisted in capturing this aspect. This wine finishes with dark berries, baking spices, well integrated with quite a long finish. If you have some of the 1994 on your wine list I would encourage more sales over the next 2 to 3 years - decant for service and ensure that you have Bordeaux stemware to enjoy the complexities this wine has to offer. Incidentally you may notice a black stripe on the label of this vintage. Sadly Dr. John McLeod died in 1994 and as a remembrance to him Steve added this special reminder.
The 1995 was at first a very fruity wine, quite chunky in fact but a gentler sniff reveals a much more subtle side – dark roses playing with crushed dried leaves, woody with specific barrel/cooper characteristics showing. On the palate this example has a slightly brown sugar edge/flavour, tannins were rich and velvety and integral to the personality - finishing very powdery. This was an absolutely delicious wine, but very specific - perhaps a wine for discussion alongside a fillet of Venison with olive tapenade.
The 1996 was quite a different wine, dark red centre, not that youthful looking but attractive all the same. On the nose a dramatic, enticing and striking wine: big and powerful - a V12, a Harley Davidson: leather, spices, black fruits, fragrant with Ceylon tea; lots of oak. On the palate - dry, rich, powerful, chocolatey, fruity and youthful, although integrating still there is much to be discovered from this wine in years to come - Wow! a keeper for at least a half dozen years yet.
The 1997 had a big powerful fruity aroma with a cool minty note that preceded a very fruity profile with wild berries (perhaps a little more Malbec in the blend), Graham cracker terroir undertones and developing complexity. On the palate a dry, warm and fruity example, however a small doughnut mid-palate suggests a slightly more challenging year or perhaps some bottle variation? The Graham cracker note on the nose seemed more like toasted oats now on the palate, very enjoyable. The fruit driven tannins showed a hallmark powdery side that added a layer of complexity and finish.
1998: Steve White pointed out that this was a challenging year because it was so wet - challenging in the vineyard and therefore challenging in the winery. The wine however is a hallmark vintage for Stonyridge: on the nose violets, cassis, blackberry and dark red fruits, tar and sweet meats, chilli chocolate. On the palate - dry and formidable; a fine balance with great structure, hallmark powdery tannins packed with flavour and fruit driven. This wine is drinking superbly now and will continue to reward for at least five years to come. It was actually one of my favourites of the tasting.
1999: My first thought about this wine was that it had a Bordeaux–like bouquet: pencil shavings, black fruits and cassis, and gravelly earth notes. A touch of bottle variation noted with the other tasters around the room - however my example began to unfold with a good swirl of the glass. This is a wine for decanting and serving with food so that the tannins can be tamed and the true character of the wine revealed.
The last vintage in this flight was the 2000. I felt I had come home again to classic a classic Larose: leather, meat, black fruits and fruitcake. On the palate powdery tannins, again fruit driven and concentrated, rich and spicy with plenty of oak and the signature they bring to this wine demonstrates the understanding of the fruit and amazing potential inherent at the Stonyridge site.
The second flight of wines included 2001 through to 2009. Every vintage demonstrated a powerful concentration. The vintage I found particularly jaw-dropping is the 2008: Zut Alors! Smoky, toasty, cassis and fine gravel, burnt rose, pronounced oak. The palate in contrast is gentle with elegance, Grammy award-winning tannins, a wine yet to release its full potential - in fact it reminds me of a Chateau Laffite I once had - just outstanding! This wine scored 94 Parker points: I think that was on the conservative side - it's worth 98. Hold on to it if you have some.
Steve emphasised that Stonyridge wines are specifically designed to be enjoyed with food – so after some pretty extensive tannin build-up from the first flight of wines I appreciated the cheeses and cold meats on offer.
Stonyridge Larose is a Bordeaux style wine being a blend of five varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc) and has consistently been one of New Zealand's most sought after wines for the last 20+ years. The Larose consistently stands out in any competition it is shown in - it is sold mainly En Primeur and quickly sells out each year - a worthy investment.
Due to the generosity of a dear friend, I was able to experience an unprecedented insight into the development of the wines through the years as a representation of what can be achieved if you hold on to a dream.