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Tasting Reviews

Lansdowne ‘Claret’ 1903 – Tasting New Zealand’s Oldest Wine


If there was any wine that shows the interwoven relationships between wine, history, the land, culture and society, then the 1903 Lansdowne ‘Claret’ must be it. Wine writer John Saker, Wairarapa identity Liz Pollock and the Beetham family organised a tasting of the Lansdowne ‘Claret’ from the 1903 vintage, made by the Beetham forebears, William and Hermance, for a number of New Zealand wine media and international wine professionals. The tasting was held in the dining room of ‘Brancepeth’ the historical Beetham family homestead, situated some 20 km outside of Masterton in the Wairarapa. All those attending the tasting were struck by the connections the wine had with life in the past and now.

John Saker - tasting organiser and wine writer

The 1903 Lansdowne ‘Claret’ lays claim to being the oldest surviving wine in New Zealand, made from grapes grown by William and Hermance Beetham from their ‘Lansdowne’ vineyard on the outskirts of what is modern day Masterton. There are several dozen bottles of the wine in the cellar at Brancepeth. Bottles have been opened by the Beetham family previously, most notably just over 30 years ago in 1985, at a tasting with Wellington wine writer Geoff Kelly, and John Comerford, wine judge at the time. Geoff’s report can be seen by clicking here.

Liz Pollock - tasting organiser and Wairarapa supporter

Brancepeth Wine and the ‘Lansdowne’ Vineyard
The Beethams are reputed to have grown grapes near the homestead on their Brancepeth Station property, but these vines did not last, however they gave the Beethams confidence to further their efforts with vines. They established a vineyard at ‘Lansdowne’ where they grew Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Syrah, cuttings probably sourced from Mission in Hawke’s Bay, from 1890 to about 1908, the first vintage being in 1895. William’s wife Hermance, a Frenchwoman, is said to be the drive behind the growing and making of the wine. Although William Beetham was a steadfast diary keeper, there are no surviving written records about the wine. Their wine growing and making ceased due to prohibition and probably also to the effects of phylloxera.

There is today a winegrowing operation on the Masterton land that the Beethams originally grew grapes. Derek Hagar and his family established Lansdowne Estate in 2002 planting Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Syrah. The 2.4 ha of vines are approximately the same size as the Beetham plantings. It took 7 years for the Hagars to get a commercial harvest, with their first release being the 2009 vintage. The wines are made by Karl Johner of Johner Estate, nearby in Gladstone. The 2010 Pinot Noir won the Bouchard Finlayson Trophy at the 2014 IWSC. The question is often posed: Is there any similarity between the Hagar wine of today and the Beetham wine of over a century ago?

Brancepeth Homestead

Brancepeth Station and Homestead
The Brancepeth estate is truly a treasure, and the homestead is a reminder of the success of the Beetham family who took up land in the Wairarapa in 1856. The Beethams formed a partnership with the Williams family in 1864 which enabled expansion. In its heyday the station was one of the country’s largest sheep stations covering some 31,000 ha. It employed 300 people and had a permanent population of over 100. The estate started as a whare, built in 1856 and during its construction, a wild boar emerged from the bush. ‘Brancepeth’ is the name for ‘Brawns (boars) Path’. What is the homestead nowadays was originally built in 1858 with gables added in 1886 and the first buildings demolished in 1905 to be rebuilt in its present form.

The homestead is a unique place to visit to obtain a glimpse of pastoral life in New Zealand in the past. The Beethams have retained as much of the originality of the homestead and outbuildings as possible. The buildings have the original fittings and equipment of the time and are full of artifacts, relics and paraphernalia of a past and distant life. Brancepeth is a Listed Category 1 Historic Place with Heritage New Zealand. Fourth generation Ed Beetham is the custodian of the property, and fifth generation William and Emily Beetham are fully active in its maintenance. The Beetham family take great pride in recounting their history, and are seeking to fund further preservation and restoration. For further information, contact Emily Beetham at Tel: 06 372-2546 or Email:

Ed Beetham - 4th generation

The Tasting
The tasting was inspired by John Saker’s research for his book ‘Pinot Noir: The New Zealand Story’. The Wairarapa has been recognised as one of the earliest grapegrowing regions in the county. Details of the Brancepeth cellar have been known for some time, but John’s further investigation led to the formulation of a tasting to follow that as reported by Geoff Kelly. John considers the Wairarapa as the start of Pinot Noir growing in New Zealand, and although the ‘Lansdowne’ wine is named ‘claret’, the varieties planted by the Beethams suggested to John that the wine produced was in the Burgundian style, supporting Geoff Kelly’s conclusions, thus reinforcing the Wairarapa’s position as this country’s Pinot Noir pioneering district. The tasting would give further evidence towards that, as well as providing a record of the condition of New Zealand’s oldest known wine.

One dozen tasters took part in the formal tasting, these including New Zealand and international wine professionals and Beetham family members. Two bottles of the 1903 Lansdowne ‘Claret’ were opened, and due to careful pouring, around 30 people in total, including media and local winemakers, were able to taste the wines. I was privileged to be involved. I gave some thought in the days preceding the tasting as to what the wine might taste like. Although I have experienced wines dating back to the late 19th Century, the majority have been fortified, with table red wine only figuring in bottles. Would it actually be alive, and not turned by oxidation or madeirised? Or could it be beautifully ethereal but fragile, or more likely coarse, rustic and decrepit? I offer my thoughts here; scoring was irrelevant:

Lansdowne 'Claret' 1903 in the cellar

Lansdowne Wairarapa Claret 1903 Bottle #1
Light orange colour with tawny hues and some depth. The bouquet surprisingly full and voluminous with an ethereal, faded and dried roses lift along with some volatility. Some bottle stink too, but this dissipates. The nose has a considerably concentrated core of old, dried wood, the aromatics quite dense and deep. Earthy, undergrowth, autumnal smells, and with some more aeration the input of cork and wood growing to show some rusticity and slight dirtiness. All throughout the red floral nuances apparent. Medium-full bodied, with a strong, vigorous presence in the mouth, with a firm and concentrated core of faded red florals and red fruits melded with layers of earth, undergrowth and dried wood elements, and a suggestion of citrus. Past tertiary and into the ethereal stage, and with distinctive pervasive essence of dried cork. Certainly wood-related complexities and layers, and remarkably clear of any dirtiness. Tannin residue marks the mouthfeel, lending a moderately grippy, dried textures, along with elevated and brisk, lacy, near-racy acidity. The acidity gives the positive illusion of fruit sweetness. This has plenty of life in the mouthfilling structure, though the fruit has receded. The palate has line and a long finish, more wood-flavoured, but with light red floral nuances. This is a complete wine in pleasing, fulsome proportions. If a good bottle, it will remain in this state for decades.

Lansdowne Wairarapa Claret 1903 Bottle #2
Faded tawny colour with slight orange, very pale edged, but with some depth. The nose very powerfully concentrated with deep aromas of dried wood and decrepit cork essence, dried herbs, earth, mushrooms and undergrowth. Very little fruit presence, the rustic earth and wood dominating any rose floral or fruit lift. Verging on overly grubby on the nose. Medium-full bodied, and very tight and elegant in presentation. Real depth and intensity, but more slender in outlook. The fruit is still showing, with restrained faded and dried roses. Dried wood flavours in proportion with the fruit shyness, but the decrepit cork essence flavours more prominent and to the fore. Very tight core and line, with restraint in flavour and texture. The tannins fine-grained, lending a smooth grip. Essentially dry and crisp in mouthfeel from elevated acidity. This has textural precision, along with good vigour and vitality. Had the cork flavours, and possibly some taint elements played a strong role here? The tightness of the flavours suggests a scalping action. The fruit is fragile and beautiful, but allied to the distinctive and strong cork expression. There is still plenty of living with this bottle.

What was truly remarkable was that the wines were very much alive and had not turned. There was no oxidation as such, nor madeirisation. The fruit was still evident, and had a beauty, though much drier than in young wines. The wines were very vigorous with acidity, vitality and life. And tannins, though dried, were not overbearing or dried out. The two bottles opened were, indeed, still enjoyable. The extract of the wines and their residual strength of structure suggests they were powerful in their youth, which is in accordance with the winemaking practices of full extraction and maceration likely to have been employed at the time of making.

How much longer could they last? Old wines that survive to this age tend to possess the ability to develop further at a very slow pace. It is conceivable that another half-century could be possible… Karl Johner who has experienced burgundy wines of a comparable age and older suggested that it was likely these would continue to keep, as the vines were ungrafted; the accepted wisdom is that grafted vine wines do not have the same longevity as those from own-rooted vines.

Same wine, but with bottle variation. The similarity of much of the expression of the two bottles in flavour, mouthfeel and acidity was evidence that the two bottles were the same wine, but showing the effects of bottle variation, exaggerated with time, and one bottle possibly faulted by cork taint. Interestingly, there were proponents for each bottle as their favourite. I was in the camp favouring the first bottle, preferring its more fulsome and complete expression, filling the bouquet and palate. There was balance between the fruit and wood/cork character, though the textures were grainy and grippy. This wine appeared to get coarser with aeration. The finer textures and precision in mouthfeel and tighter, more elegant flavour expression were the positive attributes for those who liked the second bottle more. These people generally felt the strong cork ‘taint’ character lessened in the glass.

Is there a site character? Derek Hagar and Karl Johner offered as a comparison, a tasting of the 2009 Lansdowne Estate Wairarapa Pinot Noir, the first and best vintage of this label to date. Was there any similarity between the old wines at 113 years old, and the contemporary wine? The wines shared red fruit characters, with an earthy dried herb savouriness. Relative high acidity was another commonality.

The Wairarapa is Pinot Noir country. Somewhat little less tenuous as a question than terroir was the success of both old and modern wines being made from burgundian varieties. The Beetham wines were certainly Burgundy rather than claret in style. John Saker and Geoff Kelly would be pleased with the confirmation that the Wairarapa is especially suited to the making of Burgundy-styled wines, and that this was first shown by William and Hermance Beetham.

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