James Rowan tasting the barrels at West Brook Winery Auckland, September 2013
And so it came to pass that I returned once more to the winery that is closest to my heart in New Zealand…a return which involved a morning and long afternoon of intensive sampling, laughter, learning and eventually lurching. What wines! What fun! What a gem in the Kiwi wine firmament this amazing little Auckland winery is.
There’s a reason why I have such a soft spot for West Brook, – when I arrived in NZ it was the first winery I visited properly. It is the result of more than 70 years and four generations of hard work in the pursuit of wine excellence by the Ivicevich family – a boutique winery where compromise is avoided and detail is everything. Within about a week of arriving I was invited, nay dragged, down to the estate by their extraordinary winemaker James Rowan to sample the wonders of Ararimu Valley Road. We spent a couple of hours buzzing about from tank to barrel to bottle, James’ pace never letting up as he explained his winemaking philosophy, the tricks of his trade…it was a hell of a morning, an absolute privilege, and a time of wonder when I realised the sheer joy of living in a winemaking region.
When I returned with Auckland wine luminary Nastajia Bourke a couple of weeks ago to check out the 2013s, we were treated to a whole day of nuances, the nuts and bolts of a New Zealand vintage simmering away in quiet wood and steel, the first aromatic delights of a great year already in bottle, squealing and gurgling in the very first flush of youth, while their bigger Chardonnay and red brothers lay dormant in the womb of the winery under the careful supervision of James and his excellent team.
On arrival James ushered us up to his laboratory – the sense of being in the presence of a Roald Dahl/Wonka like figure was never far away as James tweaked and checked his lab toys and talked to us about the chemistry of winemaking – it all made me very thirsty indeed, so what a delight it was to kick off the day with the 2013 Riesling bottled just the day before (10th Sept) – (11% abv with residual sugar of 14g/l) – it is going to be a classic: honeycomb and grapefruit, this has settled down and fattened up considerably since I tried a tank sample at Wine Circle not so long ago. Candied lemon, great balance…mouthwatering and very moreish. We followed that up with a look at the 2013 Gewurztraminer – a hip flask sample just ready for bottling. Freshness and light abounded – hyper gentle with wisps of lychee and ginger. No soapiness at all – a lifted, racy, graceful Gewurz with great length and mineral freshness. We were ready to hit the floor…
First up was the 2013 Pinot Gris, a wine with two distinct Pinot Gris components, one with a ripe custard cream, pear and mascarpone richness and softness (85.2% of the blend), the other with a distinct CO2 spritz, fennel and prickly minerality…the “pea under the mattress” as Nastajia put it. James described this blending technique as “playing in the shadows”…nudging and tweaking the palate for balance and structure. It was a fascinating lesson.
Before hitting the barrels, James showed us some fizz – we blind tasted an utterly delicious 90% Cabernet Franc 10% Chardonnay Waimauku blend…lush red fruit, lively and floral, but cramant in character…less fizz imparting a creaminess that was so more-ish, reminding me of Mumm’s famous example. However, while that was a great fun wine, the 100% Waimauku Pinot Noir fizz was altogether more serious – phenolic with a leesy grip, it is but a babe and will need plenty of time but it is so full of promise. A brave wine, but no better man than the bearded one to make it!
The afternoon was spent sampling the barrels, hearing how old oak barrels define texture in a wine but allow the purity of the fruit to sing while new oak defines the texture and flavour…across barrel after barrel we tasted the differences, the components that would be put together and polished in to Westbrook’s fabulous Chardonnays…different levels of toasting (charring), barrels from different forests in France…all of these things created the flavourscape James will ultimately use to blend the finished product, a product that is invariably West Brook and pure Kiwi – gently oaked, toasty, with pure fruit expression and incredible focus and elegance.
The soundtrack to our tasting was magnificent, blaring out from the sound system and keeping the barrels happy – Canned Heat, The Lovin Spoonful…and a spot of late 70s colour…James remarked that he had wanted to install a disco ball in the winery for ages – I think he should…and the 2014 vintage at West Brook could be done on Roller Skates with everyone sporting an afro…instantly becoming the coolest winery on earth…
The Pinot Noirs tasted like an exercise in multi-track recording. Whereas a studio engineer will use fade, echo and other techniques to build the flesh and bones of a recording, so James works with different clones, different expressions of Pinot Noir…a core of wine seasoned and enhanced by layer after layer of interesting components as barrel after barrel is added to the blend – perhaps a bright cherry pie and rose petal splash of Pinot Noir followed by some brooding, more serious gear from another block. The energy required, the nuanced approach of the winemaker is amazing – there is a school of thought that insists minimal intervention on the part of the winemaker is a good thing, but by shaping nature in to particular building blocks and components through the use of oak, stainless steel, malolactic fermentation to varying degrees, and other techniques which don’t compromise the integrity of the fruit, I think that the end result is incredibly satisfying, as you will be able to discover by checking out these wonderful , finished, wines for yourself soon.
We ended the day in high spirits, with James showing us a vertical of four older vintages of his signature grape variety – Riesling. All of them were superb, the 2007 did it for me – its oily, layered fatness and racy acidity hit the spot and freshened me up for a foray in to the nearby Auckland night. The library Chardonnays were no less awesome – the collective memory not only of the soil and weather of this land encapsulated, but also the quiet stories that took place in barrels here at West Brook many years ago.