Day with a diva
Home on the road at Pegasus Bay
by Thor Iverson
Were Matt Donaldson not the very embodiment of equanimity, he’d be impatiently tapping his foot. As it is, he’s standing in the tasting room at Pegasus Bay, jacket already donned, waiting for us to arrive. He’s headed north to Marlborough to check on some grapes, and we’ve delayed his departure. But it’s not our fault. There was a house in the way.
We’d left our fuzzy habitation on time, looking forward to a relatively quick jaunt up Route 1 into the heart of the Waipara. But approaching a large junction near Amberley, we slowed, then stopped, faced with a rather unusual obstruction. A truck carrying a subsection of a prefab home was stopped right in the middle of the intersection. Or, more accurately, the truck and the house were both in the intersection, but the house was no longer carried by the truck. Shattered ropes and chains were everywhere. It was going to be an interesting cleanup. Thankfully, police were on the scene – just how many can there be in sedate Amberley? – and soon got traffic moving again.
Informed of this, Matt almost looks as if he’d like to detour south to check out the domicilic carnage. Nonetheless, after a quick greeting, he’s out the door, leaving us with his partner and co-winemaker Lynnette Hudson. The shape of her morning thus far is clear: grape-stained work pants and dark purple fingertips, the signs of a working winemaker. She’s clearly been hard at it until our arrival. But the balance of her day will be much, much different.
Lynnette grabs several armfuls of bottles and ushers us upstairs for an interesting tasting, one marked by a series of micro-verticals. While we taste, she spins her and the estate’s winemaking philosophies, which are even more Francophile than on our previous visit. They’ve moved, especially with the top of the line “Prima Donna” pinot noir, from regional and national eminence to something approaching world-class, and they’ve done it by emphasizing restraint and beauty over a sheer power that seems too easy to achieve in the area.
We begin our tasting with riesling, a grape that is a major focus of the portfolio, but one that is not (by critics and certain consumers) as universally admired as the pinots. Some attribute this deficiency to site, but I wonder if it might not instead be a question of finding the wine’s ideal balance. Rieslings come at all levels of sweetness and intensity, of course, and some regions and sites seem more suited for certain styles than others. Pegasus Bay’s successes with riesling seem to increase in proportion to their retention of residual sugar, a trend which is (in part) natural due to advancing ripeness, but is also helped by their grapes’ ability to retain a glacial core of acidity despite escalating hangtimes, something that is not achievable in all terroirs.
In any case, the basic rieslings are fermented cool with inoculated yeast, and bottled relatively early. Lynnette says that both the 2002 and 2003 were full of botrytis and desiccation, with ’03 a little warmer than the vintages on either side of it, leading to a little more “flesh” in the whites from that vintage. As for 2004, December rainfall was at its highest level since 1860, which was paired with the lowest temperatures since the end of World War II. An unfortunate combination. January and February followed “astonishingly hot,” with warm nights, which caused even more damage to already overstressed vines. It was a bizarre vintage that required a great deal of attention throughout the growing season and in the cellar. 2005 looks to be no less difficult, with very poor flowering and precious little fruit (about 30% of normal).
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 Riesling (Waipara) – Seemingly sweeter than the ’04 (though only apparently so due to decreased acidity), showing stone fruit and pear. It’s a little more obvious than the vintages on either side.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2002 Riesling (Waipara) – Just starting to show the first signs of aged-riesling creaminess, with sweet lemon-lime, spiced honey thick with aromatic flowers, and a very long, silky texture. This is delicious.
Moving on to the most famous grape of New Zealand (which here is regularly blended with sémillon), Lynnette professes to be seeking more of a Loire Valley, Sancerre-influenced style, rather than the boisterous chile pepper/tropical fruit festivals that are so common elsewhere in the country. The grapes are not destemmed, and after fermentation the sauvignon blanc rests on its gross lees for six to eight months, with some stirring to induce the complexing benefits of autolysis. Semillon is barrel-fermented and enzymed during settling, as apparently its fruit can otherwise be overly coarse. Malo is not induced, as a rule. The goal is a textural richness not often found in Kiwi versions of these wines, and a byproduct seems to be a true ageability that eludes almost everyone else (except those already consciously working from the white Bordeaux model).
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon (Waipara) – Grassy, with mixed green elements. Peas and a flat wall of vegetables linger on the finish, which is shorter than I’d like.
One tank of the 2002 was naturally fermented – the first time it had been allowed in this wine – and it struggled to finish. The wine also underwent malolactic fermentation, which changed the texture somewhat dramatically.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2002 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon (Waipara) – Fetid hay, grass and tart green apple. Creamier and much more interesting than the ’04.
The chardonnays at Pegasus Bay are undergoing a transition, which is perhaps an artifact of both Matt and Lynnette’s experiences in Burgundy. The grapes are crushed but not destemmed, leaving lots of solids that go straight into the tank, but not given enough time to fully settle. Instead, they’re moved very quickly to barrel, where the must is inoculated (the sugar is apparently difficult to fully ferment with native yeasts) and then moved to 25-30% French oak.
2004 was a vintage that experienced very late malos, which had been arrested about halfway to completion by the addition of sulfur. The wines are traditionally notable for an overabundance of phenolics; Lynnette explains “New Zealand has so much upfront fruitiness, so we’re trying to do everything possibly to increase complexity.” And the results are beginning to show. “This is the first time ever that I’m happy with the complexity of the chardonnay.”
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Chardonnay (barrel sample) (Waipara) – Undergoing cold-stabilization, and recently fined with milk and bentonite. It shows fruit and spice, with good acid and a longish finish. It’s so highly marked by the aforementioned techniques right now that it’s a little hard to assess.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2002 Chardonnay (Waipara) – Rich stone fruit and spiced vanilla, with a sweeter-seeming palate than the ’04. Hudson identifies “sweet corn,” which encompasses both the aroma and texture. Quite nice.
2003 was a good year for pinot, with even and consistent ripening. The winery mimics a post-fermentation maceration technique practiced in Burgundy (3-4 days in 2003, two weeks in 2004); as with the chardonnay, this is designed to move the wine away from upfront fruit while gaining length and structure. Another result is that wines tend to be lighter, overall, which seems to be a goal of Lynnette’s. Grapes are destemmed, and the percentage of whole berries has been increased. Lynnette explains that pinot noir tannin tends to reside more in the seeds than the skins; the lighter color that leads to some practicing lengthy extractions “breaks” the seeds and leads to an unwelcome surplus of tannin.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Medium-bodied strawberry and walnut with raspberry and apple-crisp acidity. This is definitely more “Burgundian” than some recent vintages, and it’s delicious and appealing in its youthful fashion.
2001 was another good year with nice, even ripening and a lingering autumn. The pinot from that year represented mostly the older, early-planted clones, while from 2003 onward newer Dijon clones have been a component of the blend. Inevitably, these clonal elements present different flavor profiles, with the Burgundian specimens providing more vibrancy in the red fruit spectrum (though not as many intact berries at harvest), better (not a synonym for darker) color, and more cohesiveness. From 10/5 comes a mix of ripe and unripe fruit and chunkier tannins, plus obvious strength, but without as much poise or elegance. Both clones are being pressed off sooner than in the past, and spend an average of sixteen months in oak…40% new French, and the rest a blend of one-, two-, and three-year old barrels…with natural malolactic fermentation allowed to occur in the spring.
(I must say, for the record, that my barrel-tasting experience is that the older clones are currently showing more red fruit than the younger Dijon clones, but I expect that will change with vine age; certainly the finished bottlings have taken a definite turn away from broodingly dark fruit..)
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2001 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Corked.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2001 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Darker than the ’03, with strawberry seeds, dark plum and cherry. There’s a slightly soupy cast to the finish, and the tannin edges towards the green, but it’s still a pleasant wine.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, West Block, 10/5 clone) (Waipara) – Plum, black cherry and juicy, vivid red cherry. These were whole berries, allowed a chilled pre-fermentation maceration and resting on the skins for two weeks, with a natural fermentation, twice-daily punchdowns, and pumping.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, West Block, 10/5 clone, just pumped over) (Waipara) – Soupier and bigger, with a darker brow and more tannin (obviously).
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, 114 clone) (Waipara) – Graphite-textured tannin and dark blackberry fruit. Slightly coarse, but deliciously so. This is a Dijon clone that’s popular in Burgundy, but (as of yet) one that hasn’t produced much of interest in the Pegasus Bay vineyards. Perhaps with time.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, 113 clone) (Waipara) – Chocolate and elegant dark plum, blackberry and blueberry. Long. Very fruit-dominated.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, UC Davis clone 6) (Waipara) – Fatter than other samples, showing medium- to full-bodied blueberry, spiced chocolate and vanilla. Perhaps it’s just particularly amenable to its aging vessel, because it does appear to be soaking up more wood aromatics than the other clones.
Into the dark
2003 was a good year for Bordeaux varieties in the Waipara, according to Lynnette, and the qualitative focus is moving towards merlot and malbec rather than the harder-edged cabernets.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon (Waipara) – Just bottled. Chewy black-and-blueberry with a dense, tannic, forceful palate and a medium-length finish. Quite good now, but its real strengths will come with age. This was just bottled, after spending 18 months in barrels (10-15% of them new).
“Maestro” is a semi-Bordeaux-styled blend produced in exceptional years. It’s a barrel (rather than vineyard) selection that’s given two years in wood (20% new) and additional bottle age before release.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2001 “Maestro” Merlot/Malbec (Waipara) – Blueberry and baked earth studded with walnuts, plus dark plum. The structure is just gorgeous, with ripe tannin and fine wood integration, though chocolate and vanilla do stand out a bit at this stage. The finish is ripe, showing oven-roasted blueberry, boysenberry and apple fading into a lovely, drying finish. Balanced and really, really good, with an excellent future.
Unlike the rare “Maestro” and “Prima Donna” bottlings, the late-harvest “Aria” riesling is made most years. In 2004, however, there are two selections: a regular “Aria” and an ultra-dried, botrytis-ridden bottling (picked on June 25th) that does not yet have a name. Keeping with patriarch Ivan Donaldson’s operatic theme, I suggest “Diva”…Lynnette agrees that it’s a favored possibility, but unfortunately the label is already in use. (Eventually, the wine will be called “Encore.”)
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 “Aria” Riesling (Waipara) – Pineapple, sweet lemon and a crisp, elegant, drying finish of medium length. This should be better in a few years, but it’s quite primary now.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 “Encore” Riesling (Waipara) – Very intense, with crystallized peach, quince and apricot. It’s exquisitely sweet, but balanced by sharp, crisp acidity, and finishes long and poised. Beautiful, ageable, and a true masterwork.
Botrytized, late-harvest chardonnay – which is, despite chardonnay’s worldwide ubiquity, somewhat of a rarity in bottle – is, to the extent possible, left out of the regular chardonnay, then separately crushed by foot, soaked and barrel fermented. 2003’s dried berries “didn’t give us a lot of juice,” but there is most certainly new wood employed during the process.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 “Finale” Chardonnay (Waipara) – Just bottled. Silky-textured, showing spiced citrus, peach and apple pie. The finish is clean and crisp with acidity. Terrific.
But wine isn’t the only thing at which Pegasus Bay excels. The recent recipient of Cuisine magazine’s “Best Casual Restaurant” award can be a tough reservation, even for a weekday lunch. It pays to be in the company of the winemaker!
After an arduous barrel tasting, we’re assembled at an outdoor table, while Lynnette pulls a few more bottles (as if we really need more wine) to show with food. And what food! Lynnette is largely a vegetarian (though she has certain weaknesses) and professes to be not all that hungry, so rather than order from the menu we just let the staff bring us a selection of marvelous small bites. One course that stands out in memory in a sinfully rich soup of creamed leeks, potatoes and goat cheese, but in truth everything is outstanding. While we eat, we continue to converse about wine, travel, the failings of French coffee and French marketing, exchange a bit of gossip about other New Zealand winemakers, and just generally have a great time.
Despite her initial protestations of gustatory parsimony, Lynnette suddenly turns all girly and orders both an extravagant cheese platter and an assortment of desserts to finish off the meal. What is it about women and dessert? We’re stuffed to the gills…in fact, we’ve been full to bursting for a good long while…but we nonetheless manage to steal a few bites here and there, including a taste of what she asserts are some of the very few truly high-quality cheeses made in the country.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 1999 Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc (Waipara) – Shy at first, with ripe melon and apple skin finally emerging, crisped and sharpened by acidity. This has matured nicely, and is probably ready to go.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 “Prima Donna” Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Black and red cherries, then strawberry and plum with soft, graphite-textured tannin. This wine is pure elegance and refinement, lithe and gorgeous as it caresses the palate, with a stupendous finish. Unbelievably good, and unquestionably one of the best pinots in all of New Zealand.
As the meal draws to a close and we say our farewells, we realize that we’ve been here for a little over six hours. Six hours! Our plans for a casual drop-in tastings elsewhere in the Waipara are now completely moot. But we can’t think of many more satisfying ways to spend a day, and even Lynnette seems to have enjoyed herself.
By the Bay
The wines at this property, already terrific on a previous visit and in many subsequent tastings Stateside, have moved from strength to greater strength. The improvements to the Burgundian palette of grapes are obvious, and everything in the portfolio shows signs of a little extra refinement, a soupçon more delicacy, and a persistent yearning for ever-escalating quality. The latter is the finest compliment one can pay to a winery, and it is one that Pegasus Bay richly deserves. Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. These are tremendous wines.
Though the next time we visit, we’ll remember to skip breakfast. And to avoid immobile homes.
Disclosures: a rather extravagant lunch is provided for free, and we receive a discount on wine purchases.
Copyright © Thor Iverson.