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Faith, less charity

And absolutely no hope

by Thor Iverson

Though it’s bright and sunny outside, we’re in a dimly-lit room. Shadows are everywhere. There’s a sepulchral quiet in the air. And I’m beginning to wonder if we’re ever going to taste any wine.

Jenny Wheeler, the sales and marketing director for Greenhough (Patons Rd., RD 1, Hope), is talking to us. Everything she says sounds understated, but the low volume is deceptive; there are some strong opinions being expressed here. We ease into our conversation by commiserating over the problematic 2005 season, which is not going any better at Greenhough than it is elsewhere. Maybe this is the wrong way to start.

This is one of the older wineries in the region, with ten acres of vines dating back to the seventies plus another thirty acres of newer vineyards. Wheeler explains that they don’t buy contract fruit, but instead enter into arrangements with landowners; which, to me, seems to be hair-splitting, but no matter. Available grapes include chardonnay, sauvignon blanc (all purchased, though Wheeler notes that they own some as-yet-unplanted land), pinot blanc, and pinot noir.

There are two different labels here. One yellow, which reflects pan-Nelson fruit, and one white, which indicates grapes sourced from the centerpiece Hope Vineyard, planted to pinot noir, chardonnay, and riesling. And as for the ubiquitous pinot gris, the increasingly tedious bane of New Zealand viticulture? No. In fact, Wheeler hates it. Pinot blanc draws the attention instead, though apparently with a too-dry 2003 and a too-sweet 2004, they’re still trying to find the correct balance.

The winery’s vineyards sit on an ancient riverbed. At a one-meter depth there’s clay, but the soil in general is free-draining with 200 million year-old fossils throughout. In terms of climate, the area is windier than the Moutere Hills, which dries the aftereffects of rain and inhibits botrytis. This ever-present wind, notes Wheeler, “is nicer for vines than people.” The effects of the soil and climate are a brighter style of fruit that what Wheeler identifies as the “stewed, over-hung” fruit on the Moutere clay plains; she find their fruit more akin to that from the Central Otago than much of the rest of Nelson. (Based on my tastings, this is a difficult assertion to support.)

Wheeler also blames commentators for “slowing the advance” of New Zealand reds by praising “big, brutish wines that are bad expressions of pinot.” She doesn’t like wines designed to win shows, and thinks that the biggest problem with pinot noir in New Zealand is high alcohol. (And that the second biggest is the rapidly escalating price of the top-quality bottlings.) This only half-matches my experience. While I agree that many wines are pushed too far, underripeness – though on the decline – is still a problem essentially coequal with overt heat. Wheeler agrees that cheaper pinot here used to be “foul,” but thinks that quality is improving. Part of the improvement at Greenhough is moving to lower-vigor clones and rootstocks, and also higher-density plantings, while at the same time halving the number of canes per plant.

Grapes are hand-harvested (except for sauvignon blanc), fermentations are accomplished with a mixture of indigenous and inoculated yeasts, and there’s a little new wood (20-25% French oak) for the Hope Pinot Noir, less for the Hope Chardonnay. This is reasonably low-intervention winemaking, in other words, and will mostly stand or fall on the quality of the fruit.

And then…at long last…we get to taste some wine. It’s like a miracle!

Greenhough 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Nelson) – Gooseberry, white plum, and perhaps some quartz underneath. Though the wine is quite ripe, it remains clean and crisp, showing its acidity in layers of grapefruit and lemon, which persist through a strong, balanced finish. This is an unusually solid sauvignon, with character too rarely found from the grape in these parts, despite its worldwide fame.

Greenhough 2004 “Dry” Riesling (Nelson) – A dusty sand road, bordered on two sides with dull, unpolished iron. Balanced (6 grams residual sugar) but overly light, and it flattens on the finish. Kind of tedious.

Greenhough 2004 Chardonnay (Nelson) – Fig, clove, ripe peach, apricot, white nectarine, and an exotic, almost boisterous aroma of dried, then baked, flowers. Soft, with a lush and luxurious texture on the finish. Not my style, but it’s a very good wine.

Greenhough 2004 Pinot Noir (Nelson) – Chewy. Strawberry, walnut, a blend of bitter and milk chocolates, plus waves of spicy cinnamon on the finish. It’s elegant, but closes down rather rapidly. This might be better in a few years, but it’s disappointing now.

…and that’s it. It’s an uneven group of wines, but then that largely reflects the inconsistencies of the 2004 vintage. We don’t get to taste the flagship Hope Vineyard wines. I pause, wondering if I should ask, but something in Wheeler’s manner suggests that it would be a vain request.

And so, we walk out. Into the sun.

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Copyright © Thor Iverson.