In 1979 Neil and Dawn McCallum planted a vineyard in a very dry and free-draining area now called the ‘Martinborough Terrace’. They took the name Dry River for the vineyard, with a dream of producing individual, high quality regional wines which faithfully reflect the ‘terroir’, vintage and are suitable for cellaring.”
Thirty years on, and Dry River has carved a reputation for excellence with its portfolio of aromatic varietal wines including Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Riesling, whilst Neil McCallum (right) has earned a place amongst the elite winemakers of the world, seemingly able to conjure a little bit of magic into every bottle. Almost all authorities will agree that he is one of New Zealand’s outstanding winemakers.
I recently had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Neil McCallum in Scotland, as he led me through a tasting that featured a range of his wines, in both current and past vintages. I have to conclude that this terroir, these wines, and this man, could take their place not just at the top of the New Zealand scene, but on a world stage.
“I’m not in the business of providing simpler alternatives to French wines,” he tells me,”these are wines of terroir.” Indeed the ‘T’ word arose in almost his first sentence, and came up again and again during our tasting and conversation. Some winemakers pay lip-service to a concept of terroir, but it soon became clear that Neil not only lives and breathes it as a reality, but that he has thought deeply about what it means to him.
“Terroir is also cultural,” says Neil, warming to his theme. “Ideally we’d be tasting these wines in Martinborough where you would have a sense of place. The culture is different – we grow up learning about smells and flavours, which are quite different in New Zealand from those in France or the UK.” To illustrate this, he tells me that he finds it difficult to smell Brettanomyces in a wine. Brettanomyces is a rogue yeast, with a character often described as smelling like elastoplast (band-aids). “Brett has a Cresol character that people from industrialised countries can detect, but I cannot,” explains Neil. Cresol, a compound found in many industrially-produced products, is said to have a similar ‘elastoplast’ aroma to Brett. Neil McCallum’s theory seems to be that he is not attuned to it, because his rural upbringing in clean, green New Zealand, never exposed him to it.
But since we were in Edinburgh and not Martinbourough, I ask Neil to define what is specially about the Martinborough Terrace and his vineyards. “Martinborough is cool climate region,” he says, “Our vineyards are on free-draining gravels and we enjoy a long, cool, stable autumn.” The cool conditions might suggest that only Germanic varieties would do well, but in fact the ripening season is very long, which compensates for lower temperatures. “We strive to pick grapes with really good phenolics, ” he tells me, “and usually there’s no problem acheiving that.”
If we accept these things are constituents of terroir – or Neil’s interpretation of terroir – then it’s an inescapable fact that even the most magical brew of soil, aspect, climate and culture can still be rendered meaningless by poor or unsympathetic winemaking. And perhaps that is the final, and arguably most significant ingredient that makes these wines so special: Neil McCallum is not only custodian of Dry River’s great terroir; he is the medium that has channeled these forces into something truly special.
“Great wine is made in the vineyard, not in the winery,” is a phrase used so often by winemakers that it has become a cliché. And though I understand the truth of it, the more I hear it the more I am convinced that truly great wine – wine that transcends sheer excellence into something less tangible yet more profound – is made in neither vineyard nor winery, but in the mind and soul of great men and women. There’s a combination of intellectual rigour and instinct in Neil McCallum that speaks clearly through these beautifully subtle, multi-faceted, ever-evolving wines.
Dry River Sauvignon Blanc 2006
This was the last ever vintage of Dry River Sauvignon Blanc, the vineyard having now been grafted to Viognier. Neil McCallum explains that Sauvignon Blanc has become a commodity in New Zealand, and as couldn’t ask the prices he needed to make a wine of this quality, he was forced to abandon it. Very pungent pea-pod and asparagus nose. The palate has a rich, quite thick mouthfeel. The flavours are wonderfully ripe and rich, but that clean, lime-like streak of acidity really runs through. Extremely concentrated and long. 91/100
Dry River Riesling Craighall 2006
A dry Riesling, there’s a lovely waxiness and lime rind quality. The palate fills the mouth with ripe, quite rich but delicate flavour. There is huge mid-palate weight and density of flavour here, but balance is impeccable, with a lojng, shimmering finish of glacé fruit and citrus. 92/100
Dry River Riesling Craighall 2002
Lightly nutty and herbal, with that waxy minerality coming through again. A big sweetness level here, with a really juicy, lime flesh sappiness, but the texture again is rich and full. With that crystallised fruit intensity and a super-long, rapier-like balance on the finish. 93/100
Dry River Pinot Gris 2008
A subtle touch of toffee here, with a hint of rounded, yellow plum fruit. The mouthfeel here again is rich – almost syrupy thick, with a glycerol character and a hint of sweetness that balances with a ripe, solidly fruity mid-palate. Finishes with a tantalising lime waxiness. Lovely 91/100.
Dry River Pinot Gris 2006
Seems nuttier in some ways, with again a touch of honey and toffeed sweetness, lots of orange. The palate has beautiful texture, with almost a sweet, dessert wine unctuousness, but plenty of acidity – pithy and lemony – sweeping through. 90/100
Dry River Pinot Gris 1999
The sweetness of a Muscatty, floral and ripe ogen melon character here. The palate has sweetness too, with 18g/l of residual sugar and a smooth, sweet-edged but a medium-bodied finesse. Great acidity again, with delightful length and persistance with a touch of hazelnut. 91/100
Dry River Gewürztraminer 2006
Neil McCallum recommends drinking his Gewürztraminer at around seven years of age. Relatively subtle, but delightfully expressive, with a touch of Nivea cream and old roses. Subtle apricot fruit. The palate on this has delightful sweetness, with a full, quite smoky and exotic fruit quality. A hint of spice and a complex hint of nuttiness with beautifully mineral acidity at its core. 92/100
Dry River Gewürztraminer 1997
There is something lightly earthy and nutty, a very small touch of mushroomy quality that is intriguing. The palate has a waxy richness, with a lovely pure core of fruit that really follows through into a long finish. 92/100
Dry River Gewürztraminer Botrytis 2004
Beautifully deep, honeyed nose, but unctuous mango and a touch of bacon fat come through powerfully. The palate is shimmering with life: not thick or unctouus, but riven with crisp fruit and acidity and a touch of toast to the sweetness. 92/100
Dry River Pinot Noir 2006
From a slightly warmer than average vintage, this has beaitifully plush berry fruits, an undercurrant of meat stock and something earthy and mineral at the core. The palate has clean, fresh raspberry fruit, just merging into a chocolaty density. Very long, with fantasticallt silky, pure black fruit and suede-like, polished tannins. Spice and smooth, rich fruit dominate the balanced finish. Fabulous. 94/100
Dry River Pinot Noir 2001
Neil almost gave up on this vintage after a very hard drought where all the leaves dropped off of the vines two weeks before harvest, but he explains that his mature vines managed to keep ripening by drawing on carbohydrate reserves within the vine. Intriguing roasted meat character, with coffee and rich, dark nramble and spice fruit. The palate has deliciously dark, almost liquoricy stripe to the fruit. There is huge concentration here, but it retains great freshness and that sily, bittersweet black fruit concentration . 93/100
Dry River Pinot Noir 1997
Showing quite a lot of brown, and followed by oxidation on the nose. The slightly sherried, ferrous character is just dominating the fruit quality, which is obviously very good .But just as I thought this was moving too far into decline, it actually starts to emerge, shaking off some of the oxidised notes and filling in more sweetly and solidly. This intriguing wine was heading for a score of 89 or so, but probably more like 91/100 given a little time in a decanter or glass.
Dry River Syrah ‘Lovat’ Amaranth 2006
Neil McCallum eplains that to ripen phenolics in Syrah in Martinboroguh he must crop very low and make sure there is plenty of light exposure – light substitutes for heat in ripening phenolics. Absolutely beautiful nose, with savoury notes of olive and pepper, hints of clove and a very ripe, plush blue-black fruit. Fantastic fruit sweetness. This has a huge presence on the palate. The finish is huge, with the grip of the tannins and bittersweet plum-skin fruit playing against the copious sweetness. 95/100 (‘Amaranth’ indicates wines for extended cellaring).
Dry River Syrah ‘Lovat’ Amaranth 2004
A touch more sweaty and herbal, northern Rhône style, with pepper and earthy frut. On the palate there is great sweetness, and though it is a little more dilute than the 2006, the poise and the balance of the fruit is exceptional. Long and precise, this ends up drinking beautifully. 93/100
Dry River Syrah ‘Lovat’ Amaranth 1998
There’s an unpleasant note here of old iron oxide, slightly tired and a bit leafy and mouldy – rather off-putting. The palate has a weight and richness, but a touch of burnt quality. It is sweet and quite long, but that irony character persists. Neil tracks down another bottle and the improvement is stark: much, much tighter and fresher, with really good, fresh fruit and fantastic clarity. Great dry extract power, but retaining lots of finesse and lovely balance. 93/100
Cape Kidnapper’s ‘Akri’ Red 2007
These Vineyards planted in 1990, are in Hawkes Bay, which is significantly warmer than Martinborough. The Cape Kidnapper project started in 2005 and this is the first release. An 85% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc blend, Neil believes this will move more and more towards 100% Merlot. Slightly indistinct nose: a little leathery and tough. The oak adds a cedary underpinning on the palate it is pretty. Muscular and tightly wound with a very solid core. Slightly impenetrable at present but has massive natural concentration. Plenty of spice in the finish. Needs five years, but serious, layered and complex stuff. 91/100.
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