The wines this week come from Waiheke Island, about a half-hour ferry ride from New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland. My first trip to the island was almost three decades ago, to help with harvest.
At the time Waiheke only had three vineyards. Now it has more than two dozen and is known locally as the “island of wine”.
The first vines at Obsidian Vineyard were planted in 1993, with the aim of producing a great Bordeaux-style red. This remains the focus but other grape varieties have been introduced, to reflect consumers’ changing tastes.
After he bought the vineyard site Lindsay Spilman started reading about the island’s history. Spilman discovered that Maori tribes living in Onetangi, close to the vineyard, treasured the semi-precious rock obsidian. They used it to make weapons and jewellery.
Obsidian is a dark natural glass formed by the cooling of molten lava. Because it is hard and brittle it produces very sharp edges when it fractures. It has been used as scalpel blades for surgery.
Spilman decided obsidian was a good name for his vineyard, even though the stone is not found on the island (though it can be found on neighbouring islands in the Hauraki Gulf).
I tasted a trio of his wines. All exhibit a precision and elegance. The 2012 Obsidian chardonnay offers vibrant aromas of grapefruit, peach and lime mixed with notes of butter and biscuit.
During winemaking the fruit was gently whole bunch pressed and then put into tanks where it settled overnight before being put into barrels to ferment, using indigenous yeast. It was aged on lees with occasional battonage for 10 months.
Battonage is the process of stirring the lees to increase the complexity of the wine. The longer a wine stays on lees, the more it tastes of bread and brioche. This is an elegant wine that has a distinctive edge, if you will forgive the pun.
The Obsidian, a Bordeaux-style blend, is the vineyard’s flagship wine. The 2008 edition consists of cabernet sauvignon (38 per cent), merlot (30 per cent), cabernet franc (14 per cent), petit verdot (12 per cent) with the balance malbec. The grapes came from a single vineyard at Onetangi. They are dry-grown – that is they receive no irrigation – on sheltered coastal hillsides, and the wine aged in French barriques for a year.
The quality of the tannins and the elegance of the structure are the first things that strike one when smelling the wine, along with the intensity of the ripe fruit. Flavours of ripe blackberry and cassis surround the tongue and linger for a good time.
Even when tasted at five years of age this wine still needs time to unfold. Like a classic Bordeaux wine, it should be kept for at least a decade to let it evolve. It is an example of the rewards of patience, to quote from the marketing material from the great Australian wine company, Penfolds.
This version of The Obsidian won a silver medal at last year’s International Wine Challenge in London. Michael Cooper in his guide to buying New Zealand wine gave it five stars, his top rating.
Everything is serious about this wine, from the quality of the cork and bottle to the elegance of the label. It left quite a large amount of sediment in the glass. The fact I drank the entire bottle, to reach the sediment, is a testament to the wine’s quality.
It also suggests the wine was not overly fined – a process that removes much of the sediment – meaning the winemaker intended this to be a wine that develops as it is cellared. In the case of long storage on the bottle’s side, the sediment aligns along the side of the bottle. It can be quite beautiful to observe after the bottle is emptied.
A colleague who tasted The Obsidian with me said it was classy and expensive, with a classic combination of oak and blackcurrant. She thought it very smooth on the palate, perfectly balanced, with very elegant texture.
Later I tasted the 2009 Obsidian syrah in a hotel in Oslo in Norway, after hand-carrying a single bottle. I was forced to say in a cheap pension, with narrow beds and poor heating – the kind of place that makes travel a pain.
My hotel did not supply glasses in the room. When I asked they gave me a beer glass. Drinking this syrah from a beer glass detracted from the wine’s natural aromas and it took a while to give its best.
Finally the nose displayed aromas of cassis, plum and spice, encased in soft tannins. This wine reflects a trend away from Bordeaux blends on Waiheke Island towards more Rhone-style wines. It is a blend of 97.5 per cent syrah with the balance viognier, matured for 10 months in French oak barriques, of which 40 per cent were new.
Gentle tannins surround the fruit flavours and give it a silky finish. Sadly, this wine is sold out, but the 2010 is available. Obsidian wines, if you will forgive the pun, are at the cutting edge of new styles on Waiheke Island.