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General Blog

William Murdoch – Guarding the Gravels

There will always be a place for high quality wines that are made with passion and a dream. These difficult economic times should be discouraging for anyone considering launching a new wine label. Not so for Brett Murdoch, who owns a 13.15 ha site in the heart of the Gimblett Gravels. The vineyard, planted in 1999, is devoted to the proven Hawke's Bay red varietals, 18% to Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot in two separated blocks, 37% Syrah, consisting the Chave and MS clones, 7% to Malbec and 5% Cabernet Franc. Surrounded by the vineyards of Mission, Matariki and CJ Pask, with the now Trinity Hill owned block of Mark Blake just down the lane, the Murdoch Wines site in Gimblett Road is as blue-chip as you could ever have.

Supplying fruit to the likes of Villa Maria initially, Brett Murdoch made his first ‘own wines' with the 2009 vintage with guidance from Bruce Helliwell who set up Unison, and then Jenny Dobson ex-Te Awa from July of that year. Brett's wine philosophy is detail and pragmatism allied with total commitment to the environment, and this has led him to selling his engineering business to devote himself to his wine venture, and seeing the conversion of the vineyard and winery to full BioGro organic certification from the 2010 vintage. This was done with considerable input from organics specialist Chris Henry. In June 2010, Brett employed Hayden Penny as manager and winemaker, to be on site full-time, "thinking 100%” about the vineyard, fruit and wine. Hayden is one of the new breed of totally passionate winemakers who wants to make a difference in the wine world; a Bragato scholarship winner with serious experience in Europe, the United States and Australia; his drive and outlook fully complementing Jenny Dobson's proven track record and abilities in her consulting partnership role here.

Hayden has already conducted a physical inspection of every vine in the vineyard as a mapping project to assess vine health with the topography and soil structure as factors. The belief at Murdoch Wines is in "hands-off viticulture”, allowing the organic balance of the vines and site come into play. The grass growing between the vine rows and indeed around the vines is one clear example of their different approach. At the time of my visit, picking was only a matter of a week to two weeks or so away. It was astounding to see that bird netting is not used at Murdoch Wines. There is no need, Hayden and Jenny surmising that birds are afraid of what might be in the grass! The expected yield from the site for 2011 is 40-45 tonnes and the projected full production around 100 tonnes - perfect for Hayden to manage and oversee fully.

Individualistic Gimblett Gravels Wines

The Murdoch family has a strong connection with the Coldstream Guards regiment of the British Army and this has provided the inspiration for the proposed portfolio structure. The flagship wine would be ‘The Guardsman', a Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend, supported by ‘Pax', a Bordeaux-varietal to complement the ‘Guardsman' emphasising harmony, and a ‘Coldstream' Syrah. The next tier will have a Cabernet/Merlot and Merlot/Malbec blend, along with a Syrah, mirroring the top range. The most affordable wines will come under the ‘Station House' tier, and would consist of a purpose-made rosé and blended, full-bodied red. At present, pricing is yet to be confirmed.

A tasting of the wines made to date provided me with a sense of the style and the quality of what Murdoch Wines is going to offer. Firstly they are very traditionally made wines with their style set by the Bordeaux varietals in their classic sense. Fully-ripened fruit that still have their varietal integrity, and nowhere near to the over-ripened ‘dead fruit' stage, fully-extracted with a serious post-ferment maceration regime. Made to be ageworthy with complex development in mind. Secondly, terroir or site expression, and house style are definitely present. Are these two factors inseparable, and how does organics affect or contribute? Brett, Jenny and Hayden see a "manuka and tea-tree” character in the wines. I'd like to think the wines also shout of the Gimblett Gravels with their serious tannin profile and distinctive taste of minerals and earth. And quality? The potential to be at the very top level is apparent.

The 2009 wines showed a similarity that can be attributed to the vintage. Full, dense and chewy in terms of fruit and tannins, a certain robustness and attractive rusticity was present in all of them. The ‘Merlot/Malbec/Franc', a blend based on 45%, 30% and 20% respectively of the varieties with 5% Cabernet Sauvignon was full of savoury red meat and tobacco-like flavours. The ‘Cabernet/Merlot' with 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 20% Malbec and 10% Franc was archetype Left Bank Bordeaux with its sweet blackcurrant, tight tannin texture and crisp length. What could be ‘The Guardsman' with 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 15% Malbec and 5% Franc was more shiny, more aromatic and showing more new oak, and classily so with its serious structure. And the ‘Syrah' combining spices, pepper, herbs and minerals, all on a noteworthy structured palate. All of these saw 35% new wood, the ‘Guardsman' designate seeing 65%.

The 2010 wines were a step up, the output of an outstanding vintage at the vineyard. They were richer, brighter, tighter with great focus and clarity, and very well structured. Though as 8 month old barrel-samples and unfinished wines as such, these were startling with their fruit depth, classy proportions and sophisticated, fine extraction. The ‘Merlot/Malbec', based on 75% Merlot, 15% Malbec, 8% Franc and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon had breadth and aromatic lift. The ‘Cabernet/Merlot' at 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Franc, 5% Malbec and 5% Merlot was again set in the Left Bank style, its sumptuous fruit backed by the most serious structure. Interestingly, ‘The Guardsman' blend at 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Franc, 6% Merlot and 3% Malbec was more integrated and harmonious, but the aromatic complexity was a step further. At this stage the ‘Syrah' was tightly bound and restrained, the acidity standing out. Spicy richness is bound to develop. The new oak was tailored for each wine, 25%, 50%, 60% and 30% respectively. The family resemblances were obvious among these 2010s. The final blends will no doubt be not too dissimilar to these samples tasted.

Taken together the 2009s and 2010s share the same feel, and an earthy, sweet and aromatic overlay, which could be vineyard and/or house style. However, they also demonstrate the powerful style and potential quality emanating from the fruit, vineyard and handling. They will be excellent wines to guard the reputation of the Gimblett Gravels for sure. I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for further developments with Murdoch Wines. Watch this space, as they say!

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