Black harvest (New Zealand, pt. 42)

[waipara dusk](The original version, with more photos, is here.)

Acid redux

After our ridiculously indulgent visit to Pegasus Bay, the thought of more wine – or worse, food – serves to make us both a little nauseous. Yet we must rally, somehow, for we’ve a long-promised appointment. After a proto-nap back at the alpaca farm, we’re once again rolling north through the Waipara’s undulating hills and valleys. But the roiling in my stomach isn’t solely due to the aftereffects of lunch.

Three years earlier, during our first visit to New Zealand, I’d criticized a pinot noir from Black Estate as being internationalized and woody. While planning our current jaunt, the wine’s U.S. importer (who was doing us a lot of favors otherwise) had brought up the review, claiming that I’d missed the call. He suggested a retaste. I agreed.

The retaste, however, soon became an invitation to the winemaker’s home. To this I agreed as well, but with trepidation. What if I still didn’t like the wines? I’ve no problem being honest about wine quality, but there’s a level of inconsideration and rudeness which I’m unwilling to cross, and that line is drawn a lot more closely when I’m someone’s houseguest. I considered backing out, but resolved to just suck it up and go. After all, how bad could it be?

Black and white

Russell Black is, like most Kiwis, relaxed and affable. It helps us relax in turn…at least a little bit…as he welcomes us into his beautiful home, which is a gorgeous melding of local and Asian themes. The latter is, no doubt, the influence of his wife Kumiko. She’s a chef of some repute, or at least she was at some point in the past, and she’s as charming as her husband.

But mine are not the only worries this evening, nor are they even the most important ones. Kumiko is unwell (though we don’t find out just how unwell until after our visit; no doubt she prefers it that way), and as of our arrival, the exact plans for the evening are still in flux…dinner chez Black, dinner at some unidentified restaurant, or just a tasting and conversation. It turns out that Kumiko is preparing a small meal (which turns out to be three fabulous courses led by delicious cuts of venison), and in the meantime we’re going to taste verticals of the winery’s two bottlings.

We sit at a wooden table on the patio watching the sun’s last rays drift across the valley, which shades everything in dramatic dark greens and blues. Russell arrives with his arms full of bottles, and we dive right into the tasting while he spools out an occasional bit of background.

The chardonnays are from estate-owned vineyards, planted mostly to the Mendoza clone. This surprises me (less so after I taste the wines), but Russell insists “I actually love it,” noting that “if you get the Mendoza ripe, it can make a really nice wine.” (There’s a little clone 222 as well.) However, the chardonnay’s future is bleak no matter which clone is under discussion. 2004 featured frost, a wet flowering, spray damage, hail and beetles, and 2005 was another bad year…though for different reasons…which is leading him to consider giving up the vineyard (in search of another or to concentrate on pinot noir, he doesn’t say).

Black Estate 2004 Chardonnay (Waipara) – Just bottled (in March 2005), showing minerals and stone fruit, wet grapefruit and a watery finish. The wine is overly-restrained…balanced and elegant, but just not very “there.” Post-bottling shock is a possibility, but there needs to be more to this wine.

Black Estate 2003 Chardonnay (Waipara) – Creamier than the ’04, with grapefruit, orange and ripe apple studded with clove and nutmeg. The finish is lithe and mineral-infused. It’s a better wine than the ’04 in almost every respect, but it’s still somewhat indistinct and submissive.

Black Estate 2002 Chardonnay (Waipara) – A shy nose, leading to a very creamy plate that – at long last – shows some filling-out and expansiveness. The finish is a little odd, though, as if it’s hesitant to carry through on its promises. The best of the bunch, but still…

The chardonnays show a good continuity of style – terroir, winemaking, or whatever – but that style just isn’t interesting enough. Is the problem an overly-aggressive filter? Weak fruit? Or just tentative winemaking? It’s hard to say, but it might not matter.

Peaked pinot

From there, we move on to pinot noirs. Russell explains that these, like all their wines, are from vines on their own roots; there’s no phylloxera in the Waipara. And there’s a change in the works, as the wines – previously made by Mark Rattray – are now under the tutelage of Muddy Water’s winemaker and vineyard manager. It’s too early to tell if that change is going to be significant.

Black Estate 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample) (Waipara) – Red cherry with maraschino accents and plum. Some bitterness on the finish.

Black Estate 2003 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Corked.

Black Estate 2003 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Ripe strawberry with minor green notes. Still moderately tight. There’s light tannin and a zingy, almost tingly mouthfeel. Decent raw materials that never really come together, and that green note is worrisome.

Black Estate 2002 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Slightly sweaty and horsy, with roasted raspberries and a powdery texture. This seems to be maturing rather quickly, and in a fairly odd fashion.

Black Estate 2001 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Balanced, with dark red fruit and gravel. The finish is elegant and pretty, though there’s eventually a drying element. Most of this wine’s qualities are exhibited around its exterior, as there’s a definite flattening on the midpalate. Good, but it’s fading quickly.

Black Estate 2000 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Rocks and sweat, with strawberry seeds dominated a shy nose. The palate is earth and sand, and it turns softly pretty on the finish. However, this is a very insubstantial wine.

Black Estate 1999 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – More balanced and fuller than anything I’ve yet tasted, with soft red fruit that feels like cotton candy in the mouth (without the sweetness), earth and moderately-light, seed-like tannin. This is maturing nicely, and it’s by far the class of the lineup.

Unfortunately, these wines show a general decline from oldest to youngest, which doesn’t bode well for their future. Again, one wonders at the reasons, though a clue may be derived from a conversation we have about screwcaps (on the heels of the corked 2003). Russell has no interest in making the closure switch that so many of his compatriots are making, claiming, “I don’t want to be a leader, I’m fine with being a follower.” And while that’s not an indefensible position to take when the subject is seal composition, the wines themselves also express that philosophy.

Darkness falls

We sip a few of the wines over dinner (they do improve – marginally – with food, but in a highly submissive fashion; the whites do better than the reds), listening to fascinating tales from Russell & Kumiko’s past. They’ve been everywhere, and done everything, and their lives are rich tapestries of texture and complexity. As we eat, the sun slips behind the central mountain ranges and the darkening sky lights up in striated fire. It’s an awe-inspiring sunset.

…but it’s a sunset tinged with mourning, and a sadly symbolic one as well. Black Estate produced no wine in 2005, and 2004 may have been the winery’s last vintage. For there was a much greater loss in 2005: Kumiko lost her long battle with cancer, not too many months after our visit. Some vintages are more difficult than others…and sometimes, no matter how beloved the vines, the vineyard can’t be saved.

Disclosures: wine, dinner, and two gift bottles provided for free. A gift of Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 3 is given in return.

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