The reputation of New Zealand's Marlborough region no longer rests on the shoulders of sauvignon blanc.
Andrew Hedley makes wine in Marlborough, the New Zealand region famous for sauvignon blanc.
But as the chief winemaker of Framingham winery, one of the region's quietest achievers, Hedley is making his fame in riesling - in many styles and levels of sweetness, from dry all the way up to trockenbeerenauslese.
At the Frankland Estate International Riesling Tasting, a two-day session with some of the greatest rieslings of Germany, Austria, Canada, France, the US and Australia, the audience broke into spontaneous applause for one of Hedley's wines - the only wine to receive that level of approbation. The wine was 2011 F-Series Riesling Auslese. It was extraordinarily good. Guest panellist Jancis Robinson described it as a terrific wine.
Hedley's F-Series wines have a neck label that discloses the number of bottles made. Hedley happened to be in the audience. ''Only 400 half-bottles? Why so few?'' He responded: ''We don't want to burden the market with more than it wants,'' or words to that effect, which brought slightly incredulous laughter.
Hedley has been able to make this kind of wine before - in 2009 and 2008 - which I've tasted. But the 2011 range is gobsmacking. Apart from the raft of dry wines from staples sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, gewurztraminer, pinot gris and pinot noir, in 2011, Framingham produced a welter of botrytis-affected sweet wines from riesling, gewurztraminer and pinot gris.
In keeping with German and Alsace traditions, he uses the designations of those places to show the wines' sweetness levels. Hence, the rieslings ascend from dry, classic (off-dry), kabinett and select (spatlese style) to noble, auslese, beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese. The pinot gris and gewurztraminer sweet wines are labelled VT (which stands for vendange tardive) and SGN (for Selection des Grains Nobles). The wines are universally stunning.
In the early 1980s, Rex Brooke-Taylor, a Wellington entrepreneur, bought 17 hectares of land in Marlborough's original Wairau Valley and began planting vines. He named it Framingham after his family's ancestral home near Norwich in England. The early vintages' grapes were sold but the first Framingham wines were released in 1994. A winery was built in 1997. Framingham was owned by multinational drinks company Pernod Ricard between 2004 and 2007, then was bought by the leading Portuguese winemaker, Sogrape. Although Sogrape is most famous for Mateus Rose´, one of the world's biggest brands, it's proving to be a benevolent owner, according to Hedley. It is also family-owned.
Hedley is not a trained oenologist: born in Gateshead in northern England, he trained and worked in organic chemistry before his passion for riesling drew him to New Zealand and to Framingham. He's completed 13 vintages in Marlborough. He is certain not having been educated as a winemaker gives him a different perspective on wine, which he sees as more an advantage than a disadvantage. I wouldn't doubt it.
I've been impressed by Framingham wines before but they are little known in Australia. Part of the reason seems to be that when Framingham was owned by Pernod Ricard, nothing was done to promote the wines. At the time, New Zealand wine was starting to carve its indelible highway across the ditch but the Framingham brand was dying from neglect. Now, it has appointed World Wine Estates as its NSW and Victorian agent and we're likely to see more.
Hedley is an interesting character. Following surgery for cancer of the throat in 2006, he speaks through an electronic device that makes him sound rather like an oenological Stephen Hawking. But he can still smell and taste sufficiently well to not only do his job as chief winemaker but do it exceptionally well.
Framingham's latest crop of super-sweet late-harvest 2011 rieslings received scores of 96, 97 and 99 from writer Bob Campbell in the latest issue of Gourmet Traveller WINE. My own assessment was almost as generous.
The 2011 trockenbeerenauslese ($45 a half-bottle) is sensational, with concentration and lusciousness that compare with the best German examples, while the beerenauslese (also $45) and noble riesling ($33) are only a shade behind it.
The 2011 SGN gewurztraminer is another standout, extremely luscious and complex in its honey and glace-pear aromas. These are super-sweet teaspoon wines - but perhaps the most user-friendly of the great stickies are the two 2011 VT wines, gewurztraminer and pinot gris. They aren't overpoweringly sweet and are more readily available. They contain 150 grams and 160 grams a litre of residual sugar, respectively, compared with 295 grams for the TBA. They both come in 500-millilitre bottles and cost $45. These are wonderfully complex, deliciously luscious drinks to serve with cheeses (especially creamy blues) or with not-too-sweet desserts, or before dinner with pate.
Seriously great wines and, as soon as the world discovers them, I feel sure Andrew Hedley will no longer have to apologise for increasing his bottling run just a little.
Framingham wine stockists include Ultimo Wine Centre, Annandale Cellars and Five Way Cellars Paddington.
Tastings by Huon Hooke
TOWER GUARD CHANGES
There was shock in the Hunter Valley when popular winemaker Samantha Connew was retrenched from Tower Estate recently but she has two winemaking gigs lined up for the 2012 vintage. She's now working at Margan wines in the Hunter before going to Bay of Fires in Tasmania. Connew, and her assistant, Chloe Parkinson, were retrenched after Tower management decided to save money by having its wines contract made at Monarch. Having made that decision, Tower then discovered its licence prohibited the move as the wine must be made on its own premises. Former Tower assistant winemaker Jeff Byrne, now at Audrey Wilkinson, was approached and agreed to take charge at Tower. He will continue to work for Audrey Wilkinson, which is owned by the Agnew family. Meanwhile, Tower Estate will be receiving only Hunter fruit this year, instead of buying grapes from various regions. ''We have a lot of wine in the warehouse,'' says a candid chief executive of Tower Estate, Matt Cowley. ''The 2012 crush will be about half what we usually do.'' Tower Estate was set up in 1999 by a syndicate headed by the late Len Evans. Its philosophy was to take small amounts of top-class grapes from the regions where the varieties grew best, such as Adelaide Hills sauvignon blanc, Clare riesling, Tasmanian pinot noir and Coonawarra cabernet, as well as Hunter semillon, chardonnay and shiraz. ''With the economic situation we're under now, it's not feasible,'' Cowley says. ''Up to now we've followed the Evans philosophy but it's a very expensive way to make wine and I don't think anyone is doing that any more.'' Tower will increase its emphasis on single-vineyard wines while focusing on the Hunter, with wines from Cowley's vineyard Hillside.
DREDGE STOKING FIRES
At Tasmania's Bay of Fires, which lost its chief winemaker Fran Austin last year, a very capable former Petaluma winemaker has taken charge: assistant Peter Dredge. Austin and her family have bought the old Delamere vineyard at Pipers Brook. They are reviving the vineyard and have released two 2010 pinot noirs under a redesigned Delamere label.
Best's Great Western winemaker Adam Wadewitz (pictured) has crossed the highway to work for ''the opposition'' - Seppelt, the only other winery in the tiny hamlet of Great Western, Victoria. Best's, one of Australia's finest family-owned wineries, has appointed Justin Purser to take over the reins, working under owner Viv Thomson and his son, the managing director and vineyard manager, Ben. Purser is an exciting change for Best's; he has valuable overseas experience from Domaine de Montille in Burgundy, Giacomo Brezza in Piedmont and Peregrine in Central Otago. Wadewitz, who worked at Best's for six years, moves from one great producer of old-vine cool-climate western Victorian shiraz to another. Seppelt Great Western reds are among the jewels in the Treasury Wine group's crown. Originally a historic Barossa Valley name, today's Seppelt has just one winery and focuses only on Victorian table wines.
BEST OF BIODYNAMICS
Macedon Ranges winery Cobaw Ridge is the latest, and fifth, Australian producer to be admitted to the elite Return to Terroir group, founded by Loire Valley biodynamic guru Nicolas Joly. Cobaw Ridge has been certified organic since 2009 and biodynamic (level two) since last year. See biodynamy.com.