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Desert Heart Wines – The Turbo Chicks’ Passion

By July 4, 2013No Comments
Sue and I met Denny Downie and Jane Gill of Desert Heart Wines at a dinner party and they made a clear and welcoming invitation for us to visit them at their cellar door at the end of Felton Road, at the base of Mt Difficulty. The two women are fun and warm people, with a strong passion and full-on drive to make high quality wine, and the nickname of ‘turbo chicks’ that emerged in conversation seemed quite appropriate. We couldn’t resist calling in on them soon after.


Denny Downie and Jane Gill offering a warm welcome at Desert Heart

Denny and Jane bought their land in 1999 when it came available, and established their vineyard in 2000 with the advice of viticultural neighbour Robin Dicey who has been intrumental in setting up so many winegrowing operations in the district. He deemed the land as being particularly suitable, and how could he not, with his own venture just down the road? They left the city and corporate life moving to Bannockburn in 2003. Denny and Jane named their business ‘Desert Heart’ referring to Bannockburn, which was known as ‘heart of the desert’ from gold rush times. The name is apt on other levels too, as Pinot Noir, the variety the girls wanted to grow needs love and passion, and the logo of a hot orange coloured heart is similar to a grapevine leaf in autumn after a hot and dry growing season.

The Vineyard and the Wines
The Desert Heart ‘Home’ vineyard was established in 2000 and is situated over the road from Felton Road’s vines and between Quintin Quider’s ‘Wild Earth’ vineyards. Also neighbouring are the vines of Terra Sancta (formerly Olssen’s) and Mt Difficulty. It is prime real estate. It’s where Denny and Jane live, and operate a charming and characterful cellar door and apartment stay nerxt door in a converted woolshed. The property measures 7 ha, with 6 ha planted to Dijon clones 113, 114, 115, 667, 777, with 10/5 and Pommard clones 5 and 6. Denny tends the vineyard personally and according to organic and biodynamic principles.

Up to 2011, the Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay were sourced from a single Felton Road vineyard. For 2012, the Pinot Gris was sourced from a biodynamic Lowburn site and the Chardonnay from the Carrick vineyard in Bannockburn.

The wines have been made at the nearby Carrick winery, the owners there, Steve Green and Barbara Robertson-Green their very good friends. Alan Brady, another dear friend has had some input in the winemaking as well. The annual production is a tiny 1,500 cases, reflecting the low yields and Denny and Jane’s heart-felt desire to oversee all aspects in crafting the best wines they personally can. www.desertheart.co.nz

A Tasting of the Desert Heart Range
Sue and I were taken through a tasting of the current, past and future release wines, and some other vintages and labels of Pinot Noir, the Desert Heart focus, by Denny. The wines have been under my radar, though they have had very good results in competitions, the ‘Magic Moments’ Rosé 2012 awarded the trophy for Champion Rosé at the 2013 Easter Show Wine Awards earlier this year. We were both impressed with what we tasted, and felt the vineyard and regional character in the Pinot Noir was expressed with consistency regardless of the variations from vintage. Here are my impressions of the wines we tasted.

Firstly the white wines and rosé. The Pinot Gris 2012 with 13.5% alc. and 5 g/L rs is tight and somewhat shy on bouquet, with gently lush and sweet fruit flavours and a fine-textured palate the feature. This has some alcohol warmth on the finish. The Riesling 2010, at 13.0% alc. and 10 g/L rs was wild yeast fermented. It is beginning to show some toasty complexities from secondary development, the palate gently dry and soft in mouthfeel. The star in this lineup was the Chardonnay 2009, which spent 12 months in 10-12% new French oak, the wine undergoing lees work and 100% MLF. Showing a complex amalgam of savoury citrus fruit, herbs and toasty oak, the palate combines citrus, nuts and toastiness with a tight and linear flow and beautifully creamy textures. This has finesse with concentration. Also drinking extremely well was the ‘Magic Moments’ Rosé 2012, at 14.0% alc. and just over 4 g/L rs. Light purple-hued pink, lifted fruit and the most subtle lollyish aromas and flavours are expressed with fragrance and freshness. The acidity and fruit sweetness are in excellent balance.

Then onto the Pinot Noirs, led by the ‘Untamed Heart’ Pinot Noir 2011, what is essentially a ‘B Blend’ of what could have been the premium ‘Desert Heart’ wine. Made from clones 115, 114 and 113 and fermented to 14.0% alc., the wine aged 11 ½ months in 30% new French oak, this has dark spicy plum fruit with noticeable oak toast. A fulsome wine, this combines juicy black fruits, Asian spices and toasty oak, and rests on a seriously structured palate. Denny and Jane agree that it’s classic Bannockburn style. The Desert Heart Pinot Noir 2010 is made from clones 115 and 5 with the input of Alan Brady. This has lifted fruit aromas with dark herbs, toast and savoury spices, and a plush, supple, juicy palate. The extraction initially seems light, but quitely grows in the glass. Seeming fresh and easy, this has seriousness underneath. The ‘Seduction’ Pinot Noir 2010 is a second tier wine. Youthfully purple, the fruit aromas and flavours are juicy, plush, fleshy and sweet, making it very approachable now. A hint of reduction is apparent on bouquet. My pick of the reds was the Desert Heart Pinot Noir 2009, with its complex, savoury whole bunch character. The dark plum aromas are echoed on a full-bodied palate, the savoury game flavours and whole bunch merging exceptionally well. Firm tannins and racy underlying acidity complete the picture, and the wine needs time in bottle to show its best. Classical Bannockburn regionality in this wine. Likewise in the Desert Heart Pinot Noir 2008, with its savoury interest, the palate having come together, exhibiting suppleness and considerably more integration, the fruit sweetness still the feature.

The final wine in the tasting was the ‘Blue Moon’ Late Harvest Riesling 2011, at 9.5% alc. and 94 g/L rs, this has a light golden colour and a bouquet more expressive of raisined fruit rather than full-blown botrytis. Sweeter than medium, the rich and honied flavours show a degree of restraint, being balanced by fine, drying textures and fresh acidity.

The Desert Heart wines are “caressed by angels”, goes the subtitle. Maybe their quality has the hand of divinty in them? Or are the angels actually Denny and Jane who are messengers carrying the word from high about the land and its wines?


The Desert Heart ‘Turbo Chicks’ have a tough turbo ute
to get around the back blocks of Bannockburn

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