The ‘Winery of the Year’ award is my way of recognising the
best performing wine producer who has submitted wines to Raymond Chan Wine
Reviews for independent assessment in ‘Feature Reviews’ over the year from the
start of December the previous year to the end of November in the current
year. The criteria for the award are
based on the qualities and significance of the wines in terms of excellence as
seen in my descriptions and ratings, as well as how the wines have appealed to
me on a subjective and hedonistic level as a wine enthusiast and consumer. In addition, the award can take into account
innovation and style, and the progress the producer has made in making fine New
Zealand wine, as well as the setting of standards for this country’s
industry. Taking these factors into
account, I presume that readers who follow Raymond Chan Wine Reviews will find
great enjoyment in the wines made by the ‘Winery of the Year’ too. The nominated wine producer is sent a
commemorative engraved brass plaque.
Winery of the Year – Valli Vineyards
For 2016, the Raymond Chan Wine Reviews ‘Winery of the Year’
is awarded to Valli Vineyards, the
Otago winegrowing venture of Grant Taylor.
The Valli Vineyard Pinot Noir wines are unique and supremely high
quality expressions of Otago regionality.
The path to understanding and recognising regionality and terroir has
not been expressed with great success in New Zealand, but Grant Taylor’s wines
must be considered among the best at doing so.
And as intimated above, the wines are certainly world-class in quality.
Grant was born in Otago, and after graduating from Lincoln
College, he went to California in 1980 to help establish Pine Ridge Winery in
the Napa Valley. There he grew an
illustrious work record until coming back to Central Otago in 1993 to head the
winemaking at Gibbston Valley. As well
as developing Gibbston Valley into one of the region and country’s top makers
of Pinot Noir, winning many awards along the way, he produced the first vintages
for many highly regarded wine labels such as Bald Hills, Carrick, Felton Road,
Hawkshead, Mondillo, Mount Edward, Mt Difficulty, Peregrine, and Rockburn. In addition, Grant maintained his international
perspectives by assisting to establish Archery Summit in Oregon in 1995, where he
continued to consult for a number of years.
It is without doubt that few people would have Grant
Taylor’s understanding of Pinot Noir in Otago.
His experience of the variety, the different clones, the interaction
with rootstocks in various soils, geology and geography, as well as climactic
conditions, coupled with his making of countless wines must make him the
foremost Pinot Noir expert in Otago.
From this work grew Grant’s desire to express the variations of Otago
Pinot Noir regionality and terroir.
Grant identified a number of sites in different regions which demonstrated
these characteristics, and with the 1998 vintage, Grant produced his first
Pinot Noir wine under his own label, Valli Vineyards, a wine made from Gibbston
fruit. In 2000 he planted his own
Gibbston vineyard as a step towards his dream.
Then followed a Bannockburn bottling in 2000, a Waitaki Valley wine in
2004, a Bendigo Pinot Noir in 2010, and most recently a Lowburn Pinot Noir in
2014 from the Burn Cottage site of his friends Ted Lemon, Claire Mullholland
and Marquis Sauvage. Grant left Gibbston
Valley in 2006 to devote himself to the Valli Vineyards project. www.valliwine.com
Astounding Regional Expression
Although I’ve tasted most of Grant’s early Valli Vineyards
wines, it was when I began operating Raymond Chan Wine Reviews that I had the
opportunity of tasting and examining his wines properly. In October 2011, I tasted the 2009 vintage Valli
Vineyards ‘Gibbston Vineyard’, ‘Bannockburn Vineyard’ and ‘Waitaki Vineyard’
Pinot Noirs and was astounded by the clarity of regional expression. However, it was also the sheer quality of the
wines, all earning a 5-star rating, as well as a distinctive house style of
serious structure and complexity. The
following year, the 2010 vintage wines, admittedly a great year in Otago, took
my interest up another level. The 2010s
saw the introduction of the ‘Bendigo Vineyard’ wine, which I rated
19.5-/20. The ‘Waitaki Vineyard’ wine
gained a 19.0/20 score from me, and the ‘Gibbston Vineyard’ and ‘Bannockburn
Vineyard’ wines both garnered 19.5/20 scores.
Similarly high ratings followed for the 2011 and 2012
vintage releases. The 2013 vintage
releases were so good that I nominated Valli Vineyards as my runner up to Te
Whare Ra as my ‘Winery of the Year’ in December 2014. In April this year, I reviewed the 2014 Valli
Vineyard Pinot Noir releases. These, included for the first time, the ‘Burn
Cottage Vineyard’ from Lowburn. My
ratings were 18.5+/20 for the ‘Burn Cottage’, 19.0-/20 for the ‘Bannockburn’,
19.0/20 for the ‘Waitaki’ and ‘Bendigo’ and 19.5/20 for the Gibbston wine. (Click here
to see my reviews.)
But it was not only the scores, but the style of the wines
that made them sensational. The clarity
and consistency of regional expression was reinforced, and Grant’s signature of
structure, complexity and longevity were very evident. These were yet again great wines. Some thoughts on regionality and its
expression must be stated. It is the
precursor to terroir, and for many people, the concept of regional expression
has yet to be seen and proven in New Zealand, whether it is in Pinot Noir, Sauvignon
Blanc or any other variety, in any district.
One only needs to taste the different vintages of the Valli Vineyards
Otago Pinot Noirs to see it operating.
The consistency of personality for each regional bottling over different
vintages is startling. The same
consistency can be seen in the Escarpment Vineyard Martinborough ‘Insight’
single vineyard Pinot Noirs of Larry McKenna, Escarpment Vineyard being my
‘Winery of the Year’ in 2015.
Grant’s talent and skill for making superb and wonderfully expressive
wines is not confined to his Otago regional Pinot Noirs. From Gibbston is excellent Pinot Gris; but I
am particularly enamoured with his Riesling wines, whether dry or sweet in
style, or the fruit sourced from the former Black Ridge vineyard in Alexandra
or from the Waitaki Valley. Grant also
makes wine under contract for a number of producers, and the Pinot Noirs for
SOHO, under the ‘McQueen’ label, and the ‘China Girl’ and ‘Signature Selection’
Pinot Noirs for Crown Range Cellar have been very successful. Another sign of
Grant’s abilities is his legacy in the current wines at the Gibbston Valley
winery today. The winemaker there, Chris
Keys studied under Grant, and Chris has taken the wines to new heights, Grant’s
base work in vineyards, viticulture and winemaking having a profound
A Time of Growth
As with all top producers, Valli Vineyards has been
growing. For Grant, it’s not a matter of
increasing production significantly in volumes, but improving what he is
doing. No doubt he would like to make
his Otago regional Pinot Noirs even clearer in their definition. The quantities of the Otago Pinot Noirs have
been fairly constant over the years, subject to the vagaries of vintage
conditions, quality of fruit, and what is made available to him. For 2014, there were 916 cases of the
Gibbston wine made, 441 cases of Bannockburn, 366 of Waitaki Valley, 400 cases
of Bendigo, and 212 of Burn Cottage.
However, Grant’s resources have grown to enable a slight increase in the
regional wines in coming vintages. Grant
oversees the management of the vineyards with help from Grant’s first cousin
Tim Valli and the Vinewise Viticulture team.
At the beginning of 2015, talented, multi-award winning
winemaker Jen Parr joined the Valli Vineyards team. Jen is very well-known for her time as
winemaker at Olssens and Terra Sancta, as well as her contract work for a
number of Central Otago labels, and for her two terms as chairperson of the
Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration.
She brings with her a wealth of international experience and a wonderful
palate, as well as an inquisitive and detailed mind full of innovative
ideas. The Pinot Noirs that she has made
have given her the firepower to work alongside Grant and no doubt reinforce the
quality of the Valli wines, if not improve them. Her first job was working with Grant to
determine the 2014 regional Pinot Noir blends, which were the major influence
in Valli Vineyards being chosen as ‘Winery of the Year’ for 2016.
Jen’s latest and unique addition to the Valli Vineyards
portfolio is ‘The Real McCoy’ Pinot Gris Orange Wine 2015, given extended skin
contact and barrel influence. The wine
is one of the best-balanced and beautifully flavoured bottlings in this contemporary
and thought-provoking category. The
fruit for this wine comes from the 4 ha McCoy’ vineyard in Gibbston, next door
to Grant’s original vineyard, acquired by Grant to enable more breadth to the
Valli Vineyards range. Clearly, Jen is
already making significant and new contributions.
And also recently, Grant shifted his base of operations from
the former Gary Andrus site in the Gibbston Valley to what was the Olssens winery
in Cromwell. The capacity of the
Cromwell site is 150 tonnes, more than the Valli Vineyards production, and
there is a new barrel hall added, giving Grant and Jen a lot more room to make
the Valli Vineyard wines, improving efficiency.
It is a little ironic that Jen Parr is very familiar with the new site
Contenders for ‘Winery of the Year’ 2016 and Runner-Up
Selecting my ‘Winery of the Year’ is one of the most
difficult decisions in operating Raymond Chan Wine Reviews. The country has been blessed with very good
to outstanding vintages since 2013, generally across most of the country’s
growing regions. This has resulted in a
very large number of outstanding wines.
Keeping in mind only producers who submit their wines for ‘Feature
Review’ are eligible for the award, there were still almost too many to choose
Here I highlight the contenders for the 2016 ‘Winery of the
Year’. I go geographically from north to
south, and conclude with my runner-up to Valli Vineyards.
From Waiheke Island, Patrick Newton has crafted some superb Mudbrick Vineyard releases, all six 2015
‘Reserve’ wines capturing 5-stars. The Millton ‘Clos de Ste Anne’ 2014
releases are without any doubt the best wines I’ve seen from Gisborne this
year, the Chardonnay, Viognier Chenin Blanc, Syrah and even Pinot Noir all
rated at the top level.
With 2014 rated as highly as 2013 by many Hawke’s Bay
producers, it is no surprise with the large number of contenders from this
region. The Craggy Range ‘Le Sol’ and ‘Sophia’ 2014s are stupendous as is the Trinity Hill ‘Homage’ Syrah 2014. Particularly wonderful are the Sacred Hill ‘Special Selection’ wines
‘Wine Thief’ and ‘Riflemans’ Chardonnays from 2015 and the 2014 ‘Brokenstone’,
‘Helmsman’ and ‘Deerstalker’. These are
matched by the Clearview Estate 2014
‘Reserve’ and ‘Endeavour’ Chardonnays and ‘2013 ‘Basket Press’ red.
In Martinborough, my last year’s ‘Winery of the Year’, Escarpment Vineyard yet again put up a
superlative set of single vineyard Pinot Noirs, the 2014s nearly rivalling the
sensational 2013s. Ata Rangi put up a broad and diverse range from Pinot Gris and
Chardonnay, ‘Celebre’ and Pinot Noirs to demonstrate their overall quality,
which is stunning. This was matched by
the exceptional Autumn and Spring releases of Dry River. New entrant Devotus has now two vintages of
exceptional Pinot Noirs under their belt, and deserves recognition for them.
Two Marlborough producers shone for their different
styles. The Te Whare Ra 2016 aromatics, 2015 oak-influenced whites and 2013
Pinot Noir all show the beautiful delicate hand in crafting the ‘SV 5182’
BioGro certified organic wines, whereas the Dog Point 2014 ‘Section 94’ Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
are rich, funky, textured and complex.
The brilliance of Pegasus
Bay across its whole range and the innovative techniques of Greystone Wines in Canterbury see them
both as worthy contenders again for ‘Winery of the Year’. This year, they are joined by Black Estate who have terroir
expressive Pinot Noirs as their feature in a very strong range.
From Central Otago, the single vineyard Pinot Noir Gibbston Valley wines continue to show
their regionality and site. Sam Neill’s Two Paddocks wines do the same, and it
will be interesting to see how his new Bannockburn ‘Fusilier’ vineyard performs
after an auspicious start. I’ve added Mondillo to the contenders list, as
their Bendigo Rieslings and Pinot Noirs have shown consistent greatness over
the years, and the latest wines are as good as ever.
As one can tell, the list of contenders is indeed a
collection of some of the best producers making some of this country’s greatest
wines. Last year, I could not choose a
runner-up. This year, I can. It is Ata
Rangi of Martinborough. This year’s
reviews of the 2016 ‘Lismore’ Pinot Gris, 2015 ‘Petrie’ and ‘Craighall’ Chardonnays, the 2012 ‘Craighall’
Riesling, 2014 ‘Celebre’ and 2013 ‘McCrone’ Pinot Noir all captured 5-star
ratings. This was capped off by my
19.5/20 score for the flagship 2014 Pinot Noir.
They are a clear and deserving ‘Winery of the Year Runner-Up’ in 2016.
Other Outstanding Producers
As is customary, I also highlight other outstanding
producers who have sent superb wines for ‘Feature Review’. It could be interpreted that this group is a
step down from the ‘Contenders’, but I should point out possible mitigating
circumstances. A number of producers
choose not to send in their best wines; others may intermittently submit wines
or only make a small number of wines, thus the sample size is not large enough
to make a proper judgement call. In any
case, I consider them worthy of attention, with the potential to be selected as
a future ‘Winery of the Year’.
Hawke’s Bay figures strongly in noteworthy producers, and I
have thoroughly enjoyed wines from Ant
Mackenzie, Brookfields Vineyards,
Elephant Hill, Rod McDonald Wines and Tony
Bish Wines. Martinborough is very
strong with Alexander, Martinborough Vineyard, Palliser Estate and Te Kairanga all producing their fair
share of top wines.
From Marlborough, there have been many wonderful singular
wines presented, but Spy Valley’s
‘Envoy’ bottlings and the Two Rivers
wines of Dave Clouston are ones to seek out.
Neudorf Vineyards hasn’t sent
too many wines lately, but their offerings continue to be top class. Greenhough
is a strong support for the quality of the Nelson region wines. Relatively new Waipara Valley entrant Tongue in Groove is an up-and coming
producer. Watch this space. And from Central Otago, the consistent high
quality of Folding Hill, Grasshopper Rock, and Misha’s Vineyard have made their mark
The previous winners of ‘Winery of the Year can be accessed
by clicking here
The Top Wines of 2016
Here are the
outstanding New Zealand wines I have tasted as ‘Feature Reviews’ during the
period of start of December 2015 to end of November 2016. The following wines are presented according
to variety or style. On occasion where
there are ties in the scoring, I have listed more than one in that particular
category. Not every varietal or wine
style merited listing. The wines
celebrate diversity and excellence throughout the country. Interestingly none of these were scored a
maximum of 20.0/20.
Favourites of the Year from the Wine2Trade Portfolio
Wineries that are distributed by ‘Wine2Trade’, the company
that Raymond Chan Wine Reviews’ operates under, are not eligible for the
‘Winery of the Year’ award. (Click here
to see these wineries.) In way of
compensation, I will list separately my ‘Favourites of the Year from the
Wine2Trade Portfolio’ in a follow-up article next week. Click here
to see my favourites from 2015.