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Iconoclast dismissed

Isn't pinot noir all about tannin?

by Thor Iverson

Shake, bottle & roll

This morning, there was an earthquake. Not a very big one – 6.4 or so – but enough to wake Theresa with middle-of-the-night accusations of bed-shaking. For my part, it’s something rattling upstairs that shakes me to consciousness, and I spend a few fruitless minutes checking for prowlers before finally coming back to bed, blissfully (as yet) unaware of the cause of our disruption.

On any other day like today, an earthquake probably would have been the most shocking thing to happen to us; the most jarring event amongst an otherwise peaceful procession of winery visits and beautiful drives through the viticultural Nelson countryside. But that’s any other day. As an unsettling force that rattles the foundations and disrupts the perspective, an earthquake’s got nothing on Glover’s.

Birds of a feather

On our first attempt at finding Glover’s, we go roaring right past the winery. In retrospect, we never should have turned around. Not that our experience is so horrible – it’s decidedly not – but of all the times that our arrival has somehow put a winemaker or staff member out, this one seems to be the worst.

David Glover is standing in front of us, virtually bathing in his own sweat…a perspiration that continues to bead atop his forehead from a dozen pore-sized springs. His clothes are soaked through, he’s a little dirty (the ever-persistent curse of the working winemaker who’s also in the ad hoc hospitality business), and he’s holding something. A wrench, a hammer, a cudgel...I’m a little too edgy to be sure, because alongside the sweat and the bludgeoning instrument, he’s got a decidedly wild-eyed look to him. When he finally speaks, he’s just about as short as the ever-polite Kiwis can bring themselves to be.

“Yes?” Clipped and laden with impatient meaning, yet delivered through that slightly psychotic smile.

“Um…we have an…uh…appointment?” A blank stare. “Uh, um, Russell called?” I’ve reached that point where every phrase is uttered as a tentative question. Better to avoid any appearance of aggression.

Slight dawning.

“Right. Well…” He looks to the side, at something we can’t quite see.

“You’re in the middle of something. We can come back another time.”

A sigh, then more of that disturbing grimace masquerading as a smile. “If you don’t mind waiting for a bit…”

“No, no, not at all. But if you want us to come back…?” Silence. “Um, is there…uh…anything we can do to help?”

That finally breaks the tension. The crazed smile disappears, replaced by a frustrated twisting at both edges of his mouth, his brow, and perhaps even his nose. “Broken pump. Chardonnay’s coming tomorrow, and...” A pause, another sigh. “I’ll be right back.” He leaves the way he came, sweat spraying as he turns. From behind a wall comes a cacophony of clanging, pounding, and scatological imprecations.

And then, a bird flies right between our heads.

Having recovered from the initial shock and this subsequent avian assault, I look around. This place is a mess. Not dirty, exactly, but supremely cluttered…and not in a predictable way, either. It’s fairly open-air, and nature has long-since intruded (or has been welcomed with open shutters) wherever it could. Hence, I suppose, the bird, which appears to be nesting somewhere in the vicinity of the picnic table. There are bottles everywhere – hundreds of them, easily – and it appears that almost none of them are labeled, though long rolls of labels sit atop boxes and tables. Many of the bottles are also well-coated with dust, and appear to have thoroughly different levels of wine within. (Random ullage? Inconsistent non-mechanized fills? I’m guessing the latter.) A cat sleeps where the tasting table would usually be, blissfully indifferent to wine, noise, bird, and two bewildered visitors.

Napa, this is not.

The pounding finally stops after a deafening tattoo of clangs, and Glover once more reappears, casually nursing a thumb. “Well, that’s going nowhere. What would you like to taste?”

Again, I look around, vainly searching for a bottle with something identifiable about it. It appears I’ve approximately five choices: clean white, dusty white, dusty and darker-colored white, clean red, and dusty red. I am completely at a loss. “Uh…whatever you’d like to pour me.”

Glover nods, and starts rooting amongst a forest of opened and recorked bottles, none of them with an identifiable label. I look back at Theresa, slightly panicked…and it’s then that I notice Glover’s license plate. It’s a vanity job, and it reads: “TANNIN.”

Isn’t this Nelson? Where they grow riesling, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer, pinot gris, and pinot noir? And his license plate advertises his love of tannin?

Oh, this is going to be fun

Stir not thy cup of bitterness

The cat rolls over, snorts, and begins his newly-positioned sleep. Glover returns with a pair of glasses, pouring a murky concoction into each. The slightly evil grin returns.

Glover’s 2001 Pinot Noir Front Block (Nelson) – Tannic. Tannic. Aside from the license plate, we’d been warned by others, so we can’t claim to be completely unprepared. But this much tannin in an otherwise helpless pinot noir is still shocking, no matter how prepped one feels. It’s got waves of acidity to match its tannin, too, with stringy bark, walnut, dirt and gravel making up virtually the entire palate. The finish is – big surprise – bitter. And sour. And…oh, never mind. You get the picture.

I’m baffled as to the purpose behind making wine in this fashion, though I’m not of a mind to say anything confrontational to Glover. I’m not here to say, I’m here to listen and taste. It doesn’t matter, anyway, because pretty much everyone has the same reaction I’m having, and Glover is ready. “Tannic enough for ya’?” I nod, somewhere between bemused and befuddled, as I search for a place to spit. He indicates a nearby, and partially indoor, bed of flowers. Well, sure, why not?

Glover’s 2001 Pinot Noir Back Block (Nelson) – The difference between this and the Front Block is allegedly a matter of slope. Whatever the change, it’s for the better, with a richer, riper fruit core that is, nonetheless, still pummeled into near-oblivion by chewy, nutty tannin and a dirt-filled, bitter finish. It will probably age longer than the other, though to what end I can’t imagine. I don’t “get” this wine either, though I fail to “get” it somewhat less than the previous version.

It turns out, upon later inquiry, that Glover’s fame (some might say infamy, though it’d be meant somewhat affectionately) is based on a long-ago series of initial-effort pinots that have aged beautifully, all out of proportion to the supposedly “better” pinots of the region. Could it be that he’s stumbled upon the secret recipe? For if there’s one thing that New Zealand pinot lacks, it’s a convincing argument for Burgundian levels of complexity with age. But I find it hard to believe that there’s any recipe aside from the stumbling itself. These wines are simply out of balance, lacking the interior fruit and character to support the sort of aging necessitated by such harsh dry extract, and while they will probably last for damned-near ever, I don’t see them ever turning into swans. The early successes must have been happy accidents. Right? Right??

[glover in mapua]
Wouldn’t it be interesting if I were wrong?

Glover’s 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon (Moutere) – Chunky blackberry with rosemary. Very, very tannic, but the raw materials here are much more supportive of this kind of structure, and there’s something approaching what anyone (other than Mr. Glover) might consider balance.

Glover is openly dismissive of most of his country’s viticultural output, calling it ‘gutless beginner wine,’ and I can’t help but think of the clearly ageable, but so much more elegant and supple, pinots at places like Felton Road, or the larger-boned but still balanced versions at places like Pegasus Bay and Carrick. Even granted that pinot noir can be made in this fashion, is it really the best use of the grape? Not in my opinion. The cabernet, on the other hand, almost seems to work…though the very notion of Nelson cabernet is practically absurd on the face of it. (Even Glover acknowledges this.) Still, I can’t help but think of Hätsch Kalberer’s work at Fromm just across the hills in Marlborough, where things like syrah and malbec are brought to ripe, structured permanence in a region that mostly struggles to get even its lightest pinots properly ripe. The wines of Fromm (and most certainly their pinots) are much, much more complete than these wines, but they’re both highly structured, and both reflective of a certain type of thinking…one that values structure and extraction more than almost any of their oenological compatriots. In any case, Glover does express an appreciation for Kalberer when I vocalize my musings.

Glover’s 2003 “Dry” Riesling (Moutere) – From Kahurangi Estate’s grapes. Those things get around, don’t they? In any case, despite the iconoclasm, this is a much better interpretation than anything from the source winery, with massive minerality unfortunately muffled by reduction, white pepper, and salt. Sharp and quite “wet”-tasting (by which I suppose I mean juicily acidic), this clearly needs time. The wine would appear to have a potentially good future, but I do worry that once all the sheathing is eroded by time, the core will be too severe for its own good. However, that’s a pure guess. Maybe this is (or rather, will be) terrific. I just can’t tell.

Glover’s 2002 “Late Harvest” Riesling (Richmond) – Strikingly mineral-driven, salty, and almost smoky, with a good balance between sweet and dry. The finish is a bit shorter than one might like, but nothing to panic about.

Glover’s 1997 “Late Harvest” Riesling (Richmond) – Creamy and definitely entering its mature phase, with thick minerality and salted lemon. I can’t decide if this is more like an ultra-dense (but old-style, not powerfully sweet and overripe as in the modern idiom) spätlese or…I don’t know, perhaps a Rheingau halbtrocken auslese. What I do know is that it’s big, crystalline, and thoroughly delicious. I’ve had many quality New Zealand rieslings – some I’d even call “better” – but I’ve never had one quite like this.

Glover’s 2003 Riesling “Icewine” (Moutere) – A flat nose of sweet, simple apple. Short and disappointing. Given the originality shown elsewhere in this lineup, I expected this most idiosyncratic of wines to be better. Alas, it’s not.

A label playing field

Glover has gone back, a few times, to resume his pounding and grunt-inducing wrenching while we taste and I scribble long, baffled notes punctuated by occasional swats at a passing black fly. He returns just in time for me to inquire about purchasing something. There’s no price list, of course – unless the cat’s sleeping on it – and no apparent organization to the stock. Again with the fun…

Not really knowing what to say about the harsh reds, I ask if it’s possible to purchase one of the terrific late-harvest rieslings from ’97. Glover’s eyebrow twitches, then he nods.

Can do.” It’s such an oddly-emphasized phrase, with unusual (but entirely native) grammar plus a sing-song cadence that I can never quite get out of my head; based on current evidence it will stick with me until the end of my days.

Except, that is, for the first few minutes after its utterance. Glover is hunting around the bottles, searching for God-knows-what, and I’m starting to wonder what I’ve caused. Even the cat raises a sleepy head and takes an interest. Finally, he (Glover, not the cat) settles on a bottle with a thick coating of dust. A little more rooting about produces a thinning roll of labels. He affixes one to the bottle, then hand-seals a capsule to the top.

“Um…how much?”

He pauses, then appears to invent a price out of the thinnest air. It’s absurdly low…not even $20 American. I feel almost guilty as I hand over a paltry wad of cash.

“Well,” I say, as we prepare to leave him to his exertions. “Good luck with that pump.”

He grunts, returning to his travail with a slowly escalating volume of expletives.


As I reread this narrative, I realize that Glover and his wines come off as cranky and somewhat absurd. That’s unfair, though it’s unquestionable that events, on their face, serve to support that notion. On a different day, I’m sure Glover is most welcoming (and to be frank, I’d like to hear his philosophy in a little more detail, so I could at least attempt to comprehend it). And given the obviously low-impact winemaking going on here, on a different day the wines could be a lot more yielding. Certainly I’ve very little foundation on which to base an opinion of these wines, unless tannat is the new model for pinot noir. What’s more, they do have their fans and their supporters, and it is entirely possible – even if unlikely – that I’m missing some cultish boat of oenological brilliance. But after much thought, I come to the conclusion that the best word to describe Glover’s wines is “extraordinary.” Because despite modern usage, that word doesn’t necessarily have to be pure positivism. It can instead mean what its component parts mean: “extra-ordinary.” Surely, for Glover, a better appellation could never be invented.

Photos ©Glover’s Vineyard.

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Copyright © Thor Iverson.