21 December 2008

Te Awa’s Outrageous and Opulent Pinotage

Outrageous and opulent -- a taste feast. That is the Pinotage promise on Te Awa's restaurant wine list and who could resist it? The winery adds that ‘this is a statement Pinotage in the world of conformity and mediocrity’.

Never one for conformity, we had a glass of 2005 Pinotage poured while we pondered what meal to order. There was some confusion as we discussed our choices. When the waitress took the first food order it sounded interesting but I couldn’t find it listed on my menu and after swapping menus the reason became clear. We had been given similar but different choices.

Similar problems with the wine. The first glass was showed a wine whose fruit was masked by tannins and had a green stalkiness. I couldn’t detect any obvious fault and wondered if the bottle had been opened too long but I was assured it had been opened that very day. I sloped off to the tasting counter to taste another glass but that was the same. The wine was not undrinkable, just not very forthcoming.

Another glass was poured with the meal, this time from a new bottle and it was like a different wine. Fruit forward with restrained tannins. A softly sweet bouquet and a rather classy firm wine. It was a like a car revving its engines while the brakes were on. You could just taste a hint of galumphing Pinotage flavours wanting to burst forth but they were kept firmly in check.

As to the reason for the difference in the wines; the winery suggested either the heat of the day (it was very hot) affected the wine or it was affected by TCA. This had occurred to me, because at low levels TCA suppresses fruit flavours, which is why I went to the tasting counter to taste another sample. I didn’t then know that when a wine is ordered by the glass at TeAwa wait staff take an opened bottle from the tasting counter to pour at the table then return it. So when I went to try another glass I was in fact tasting from the very same bottle. We’re pretty sensitive to TCA and didn’t detect it in the wine.

Te Awa Estate is in Hawkes Bay (you’ve probably guessed by now that I am in New Zealand) and its vineyards are planted on the famous Gimblett Gravels. The gravels formed the bed of the wide Ngaruroro river that flowed over here until 1867 when an earthquake lifted the land and the river diverted. The ground consists of metres of flat oval grey gravel stones with pockets of sand, soil and silt all deposited by the river over aeons.

TeAwa, whose name is derived from Te Awa o te atua which means 'River of God' in Maori, has seven 300 metre long rows of Pinotage, about 2,100 vines planted in 1994 in an area unsuitable for Pinot Noir. Jenny Dobson made the 2005 and all TeAwa’s previous vintages and she has a real soft spot for Pinotage. Unfortunately Jenny’s time at TeAwa came to an abrupt end earlier this year (she is now at nearby Unison Vineyard) and it will be interesting to see what her successor will make of this non-conformist variety.

“Pinotage is our cult wine which has devoted followers,” they told me at the winery. But they have no plans to plant any more. They’re keeping it a cult.

This is one of the Pinotage rows at Te Awa. You can see the Gimblett Gravel stones under the wines and see that they’ve cleared the canopy to expose the young green grapes to sunlight and air. If you’re visiting TeAwa and want to see these Pinotage vine the rows are about halfway along on the left of the driveway, just after a small gap. They are rows numbered 456 to 662.

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