The lofty aims of the Ham family, who in 1990 established their 20 ha vineyard in the ‘Triangle' area of the western Heretaunga Plains in Hawke's Bay, can be seen in their flagship (or flag-plane?) ‘AD The Aviator' label. Made only in the very best years, ‘The Aviator' is a small production wine that shows the best attributes of the redmetal soils and the qualities they imbue in the Bordeaux varietals that are planted there. The Ham family, with considerable horticultural experience have ensured quality material, and their philosophy of having elegant but complex wines that can be appreciated by all wine lovers has been achieved in this wine, first made in 1996, through to the new release 2009.
At a tasting of every ‘Aviator' wine made, proprietor Paul Ham and winemaker Kate Galloway explained their approach of expressing the vineyard and terroir, with an emphasis on maximising the positive ripeness qualities of the fruit, and the care taken in avoiding expressing the harsher, herbal characters that suggest any form of immaturity. I agreed with their conclusions that a vineyard and wine personality was evident, despite the different vintage characteristics and the involvement of different winemakers, Grant Edmonds making the 1996, with Evert Nijzink following, then with Kate Galloway from 2002. Following are my notes on the wines Alpha Domus tasted at this full vertical of ‘The Aviator'.
Alpha Domus ‘AD The Aviator' 2009 – 1996
This part of the tasting was divided into two flights, the first with the new release 2009 ‘Aviator' alongside two comparative, similarly styled wines served blind to place the ‘Aviator' in perspective. The Alpha Domus ‘AD The Aviator' Hawke's Bay 2009 (18.5+/20), a blend of 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 18% Malbec and 18% Cabernet Franc, given a cold soak, basket-pressed and barrel fermented, to 14.0% alc., with 17 months aging in French oak, 75% new, is dark, deep, ruby-red colour with a hint of garnet on edge. Full and deep on bouquet with ripe dark plum aromas, this is complexed by notes of liquorice and spices, tobacco and earth, along with some herb elements. The palate is rich and fleshy, with sweetly ripe, dark berry and plum flavours lifted with an array of exotic spices, cedar and oak, all supported by fine-grained and supple tannins, with fresh acidity. A lovely, already accessible wine that will develop well over the next 8-12 years. Next was the Te Mata ‘Coleraine' Hawke's Bay 2009 (18.5/20), very deep, purple hued colour and youthful in appearance. This has a fine, tight, perfumed nose of aromatic dark red berry fruits, red floral lift and blackcurrants infused with herb notes. Tight, elegant and refined. The fine-grained tannin structure is the feature on the palate, with concentrated blackcurrant and herb flavours alongside oak notes. Attractive sweet fruit nuances emerge. This had only been opened minutes before tasting, and all agreed this would show more with air-time. Sleek and tight at this stage, though. Next was the Ch. Rauzan-Segla Margaux 2007 (16.5+/20), a 2eme Cru, 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot wine. Deepish ruby-red with garnet hues, this has a full, savoury, herb and cedar nose marked by strong animal brettanomyces aromas. Dry and full on palate, the savoury animal brettanomyces flavours predominate, with drying tannins featuring throughout the line. The structure is reasonably fine-grained, and the wine is a fulsome one in presence. This will become drier over time.
The next flight saw the previous releases of ‘The Aviator' presented from younger to oldest. The Alpha Domus ‘AD The Aviator' Hawke's Bay 2007 (18.5/20), a blend of 36.4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27.3% Cabernet Franc, 22.7% Merlot and 13.6% Malbec, given a cold soak and barrel-fermented to 14.0% alc., with 17 months aging in 75% new French oak. This is dark, deep, ruby-red in colour and has a fine, fresh, but densely packed nose of dark plum and berry fruits with cinnamon spice notes and perfumed lift. A very fine-featured, firm and tightly concentrated palate carries ripe dark plum, liquorice, dark red berry and black pepper fruit flavours. The wine is beginning to soften, and the acidity is moderately expressed. The wine has a sustained finish of ripe plum and cedary oak nuances. This still has youthful, primary perfumes, but is just starting to soften. It will drink well over the next 8-10 years. Following was the Alpha Domus ‘AD The Aviator' Hawke's Bay 2002 (17.0-/20), 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and 18% Malbec, given a cold soak and barrel-fermented to 14.0% alc., with 23 months maturation in 75% new French oak. Deep-hearted ruby-garnet red in colour, this has a densely concentrated nose with dark plum, earth and gamey brettanomyces showing. Full-bodied and with good concentration, this is firmly constructed. The ripe dark plum and earthy flavours sit alongside meaty, game-like brettanomyces notes, complex in expression, but with a dry grainy, grippy palate. Drink this with hearty red meat dishes over the next 5 years. The third in the flight was the Alpha Domus ‘AD The Aviator' Hawke's Bay 2000 (18.0/20), 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and 15% Malbec, given a pre-ferment soak and barrel-fermented to 14.0% alc., the wine spending 23 months in 90% new French oak. Bright, full, dark ruby-red in colour, very youthful in appearance, this has a complex nose with a savoury amalgam of currant fruit, earth, dried herbs and subtle spicing. On palate, this shows fresh, blackcurranty Cabernet Sauvignon fruit, dark plum from the Merlot and Malbec, along with complex layers of game meats, dried herbs. The tannins are fine and provide a dry, tight structure, underlined by good acidity. This is fresh and showing Caberrnet varietal traits, and beginning to develop secondary nuances. This has elegance and dry finesse. Drink over the next 7-9 years. The Alpha Domus ‘AD The Aviator' Hawke's Bay 1999 (17.5/20) is a blend of 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc and 12% Malbec, fermented in traditional open fermenters to 12.8% alc., the wine aged 23 months in French barriques. Dark, deep, ruby-red with garnet hues to the colour, this has an attractive harmonious and integrated bouquet with stylish secondary and tertiary complex earthy, dried herb and autumnal aromatics. Quite elegant on palate, this is a smaller-scale wine with restrained flavours of dark plums intermingling with herbs, earth, cedar and spices. The tannins are fine and provide a dryness to the mouthfeel. This will keep another 5+ years easily. From an extremely hot and dry vintage, the Alpha Domus ‘AD The Aviator' Hawke's Bay 1998 (19.0-/20) is a blend of 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc and 14% Malbec, given a cold soak and fermented to 13.5% alc., the wine then aged 22 months in 75% new French oak barrels. Dark, deep, ruby-garnet colour, this has a rich, ripe and harmonious nose of dark plums, blackcurrants, mint and eucalypt, with spice and herb nuances, still showing freshness and subtle secondary earthy notes underlining the bouquet. A powerful, full-bodied and densely concentrated wine on palate, this combines a robust structure with lively fruit expression. Black berry and plummy fruits with earth and cedar and with layers unfolding. This will continue to develop another 6-9+ years. The final wine in the flight was the first ‘Aviator' made. The Alpha Domus ‘AD The Aviator' Hawke's Bay 1996 (18.5+/20) is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec, the wine aged for 14 months in new oak. Very dark, deep, garnet-hued ruby-red in colour, this has a mature bouquet of complex, savoury-spicy dark plum aromas with tertiary bramble, earth and dried herb aromatics, all interwoven and harmoniously expressed. Still lush and sweet on palate, this is full-bodied and mouthfilling with rounded textures framing complex bramble, dried herb, meaty flavours that are complemented with notes of spice and cedar. Drinking on its plateau, this will continue to be enjoyable for another 4-5 years.
‘The Aviator‘ does indeed have a similarity across vintages and with different winemakers involved. The estate fruit from the Maraekakaho Road site has been the source for all of the wines. The redmetal soils seem to give a softer core compared to other similarly built reds from Hawke's Bay, but this matches the sweet, spicy and exotic flavours of the varietal mix and oaking. The wine develops an extra element of fleshiness with some bottle age, and the Cabernet Sauvignon component comes through eventually, and in a positive way, without any green and unripe expression. The earlier accessibility and interest has its advantages for the drinker, but the wine has the ability to keep a decade and a half easily. No wonder it has made many friends and can therefore be counted as an extremely successful Hawke's Bay flagship wine.
A Selection of New and Current Release Alpha Domus Wines
Although he vertical tasting of ‘The Aviator' was the feature of the event, a number of new and current release wines were offered for tasting. The company has three ranges, the top being the ‘AD' range made when the quality is considered exceptional. The premium tier is labelled ‘Alpha Domus' the name inspired by the first name of the five Ham family members who established the company – parents Anthonius and Leonarda, and sons Paulus, Henrikus and Anthonius. Domus is Latin for house. The ‘Pilot' range is the value range showing varietal character and approachability. Here are my notes on these wines. The Pilot by Alpha Domus Hawke's Bay Rose 2011 (16.0/20) made from 92% Merlot and 8% Syrah was made by the addition of Syrah for colour, the wine cool-fermented to 13.0% alc. and 2.0 g/L rs. Very pale pink with a hint of youthful purple to the colour, this is very tight with fine, light perfumes of red berry fruits and a touch of fresh herbs. Dry with light strawberry and stonefruit flavours, this has delicacy and a light-textured palate that carries a thread of grip adding to the dry, refreshing nature. This should soften to reveal a little more sweetness of fruit over the next year. The Alpha Domus ‘The Wingwalker' Hawke's Bay Viognier 2010 (17.5-/20) is barrel fermented to 14.0% with some indigenous yeast and lees stirring, the wine with 3.5 g/L rs. Full, even, pale straw-yellow colour, this has a clear-cut bouquet of classical apricot and jasmine florals, with purity. Dry to taste, this is crisp and cool, being tightly bound with a crisp, steely and sleek mouthfeel, and vibrant flavours of apricots, ripe yellow stonefruits and exotic florals. The wine has excellent vibrancy from good acidity. The Alpha Domus ‘Barrique Fermented' Hawke's Bay Chardonnay 2010 (17.0/20) has a pale straw yellow colour, and a tightly bound nose of white stonefruits and minerals, with some flinty lees work providing interest. Dry and elegant in size, this has flavours of ripe stonefruits, citrus, florals and minerals. A fresh, crisp wine, this has finesse and subtle oak and flinty elements adding layers within. Clones 6, 15 and Mendoza fully-barrel fermented in 90% French and 10% European oak to 13.5% alc., the wine aged 9 months in oak. A most interesting wine, the Alpha Domus ‘The Aviatrix' Hawke's Bay 2010 (17.5+/20) is a blend of 55% Sauvignon Blanc, 19% Chardonnay, 18% Viognier and 7% Semillon, the Sauvignon fermented in tank, the remainder in French oak barriques to 13.5% alc. and 4.5 g/L rs. Straw-yellow with hints of green to the colour, this has a subtle, restrained nose with delicate herb and white floral elements, the wine fresh and youthful. Dry to taste, the apricotty Viognier flavours predominate, the other varieties providing some textural line and vinous presence. The wine has delicacy and nuance, and a long, sustained finish. The only other red presented was the Alpha Domus ‘The Barnstormer' Hawke's Bay Syrah 2010 (18.0+/20), very dark, deep, purple-hued red in colour, this has a soft, gently presented bouquet of perfumed violetty florals and black pepper with notes of ripe dark plums. Fine textured with supple tannins, this has concentrated flavours of black berry and plummy fruits, with an attractive floral lift, along with flavours of black pepper and exotic spices. Oaking is very sensitive. This is accessible now, but will keep 5-6+ years. Destemmed fruit given a short cold soak and fermented to 13.5% alc., the wine aged 10 months in French oak barriques. The final wine was the Alpha Domus ‘AD Noble Selection' Hawke's Bay 2011 (18.5+/20), 100% Semillon with full botrytis infection picked at 46 Brix, barrel-fermented to 10.0% alc. and 220 g/L rs with a TA of 10.4 g/L. This has a light golden-straw-colour with a pale edge and a very fine, cutting bouquet of honey and lime marmalade, plenty of talc botrytis and fresh tropical fruits along with subtle, spicy oak. Very rich and sweet on palate, this has great cut and freshness from the racy acidity, balancing the lusciousness from the tropical fruit, honied botrytis and spicy, nutty oak. This will keep 8-10 years and match decadent creamy, caramel-flavoured deseerts. (375 ml)