Sacred Hill, Marlborough, New Zealand with Tony Bish

xI had dinner with Tony whilst he was in London and we sampled through his premium range of wines. The notes on his regular Whitecliffe range come from the NZ tasting which I attended the next day.

New Zealand’s winemakers seem to be a very laid-back lot, and Tony epitomises that attitude. Tall and rangey with a twinkle in his eye and a wry sense of humour, he apprenticed at Brown Brothers winery in Australia, where he seems to have been adopted into the family, going skiing with John Brown at weekends whilst he learned the skills of his trade.

Tony also has a huge respect for natural winemaking and traditional, labour-intensive techniques. For his Cabernet/Merlot blend for example he retains old-fashioned basket-presses which he believes minimises harsher elements in the wine. The grapes are hand harvested, with up to four passes through the vineyard to select at optimum ripeness.

Around 25% of Sacred Hill’s vineyards are their own estates, the rest of their grapes coming from leased vineyards and contracted growers. Their Dartmoor vineyard (source of top Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and some Cabernet and Merlot), is on the site of an old riverbed, so comprises chalky silt from the surrounding limestone hills and river gravel. The Whitecliff vineyard is planted at altitude specifically for premium Chardonnay. The soil here is a mix of volcanic ash and red metals over a limestone base, leading to naturally low yields. Tony uses natural corks, he has experimented with synthetic closures in the past, but found that after 18 months under plastic, experimental bottlings of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Merlot were ‘dead as a dodo’ in the bottle.

Sacred Hill (not to be confused with a similarly labelled range from Australia) comes with a big reputation back in New Zealand. I have to say I was very impressed by the range. The ‘Sauvage’ barrel-aged Sauvignon Blanc was a revealation for me: the first truly great oaked 100% Sauvignon Blanc I have tasted, and just the perfect wine for layered creamy potato and smoked salmon in a citrussy dressing. In fact the food and wine combinations were wonderful on the evening: Tony’s lush basket-press Cabernet/Merlot being a great match for Lundum’s pan-fried breast of duck in a rich red wine reduction.

White wines

Whitecliff Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2000 – £6.00-£7.50
This has lots and lots of crunch with plenty of citrus and green apple fruit and some sweeter, tropical notes. Quite savoury on the palate, a little herbal edge and fresh acidity. A nicely balanced wine and a restrained yet fruity style. Good.

Whitecliff Vineyards Chardonnay 2000 – £6.00-£7.50
This too has aromatic, fresh and crunchy apple fruit on the nose. Lots of zippy pear and succulent melon fruit and good acidity. Another refined and well-balanced wine.

Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 1999 – £7.50-£9.00
Toasty style, with a buttery weight of juicy peach fruit on the nose. Really creamy-textured rich Chardonnay, lovely texture and full peachy fruit. Pithy grapefruit acidity in the finish, a little spice and a decent finish. Very good.

Rifleman’s Chardonnay 1999 – £12.00-£15.00
Tony’s premium chardonnay, and only 600 cases made. The Rifleman’s has a very refined, quite elegant nose with finely-wrought citrus and mineral aromas and juts a softening background of creamy oak. On the palate it has a rich, silky texture and again plenty of juicy, ripe citrus and peach fruit. Very good.

Sauvage 1998 – £12.00-£15.00
The Sauvage is a beautifully-packaged premium Sauvignon Blanc, barrel fermented and aged in oak for 12 months. The vineyards for this wine are composed of small red stones, up to five metres deep in places, and they are planted at altitude. I am not usually a fan of oaked Sauvignon Blanc, but I have to say that this wine instantly converted me. It has a lovely nose, with a mealy richness and a waxy, oily, quince jelly and lime fruit character. There’s a lush quality about the fruit on the palate which is orangy and deep. Some dark, grapefruit marmalade acidity in the finish and fine length. A wonderfully successful style and an excellent wine.

Red wines

Whitecliff Vineyards Merlot 2000 – £7.50-£9.00
Lovely, classy nose of very ripe berry fruit, some briarwood and cedary, tobacco nuances and a gravelly firmness. On the palate it is brimming with ripe plum fruit, very sweet through some vanillin oak and ripe tannins. Good balance once more, with concentration yet elegance and some complexity. A really lovely wine. Excellent.

Basket-press Cabernet/Merlot 1997 – £9:00-£10.00
With nice amount of bottle age, this has a soft, inviting spiciness about the nose with a great creamy density of deep, smooth berry and blackcurrant fruit. It has chocolate-smooth tannins on the palate and lots of sweet, soft juicy fruit. A very hedonistic and rich style with enough tannin and freshening acidity. Lovely.

Broken Stone Merlot 1998 – £12.00-£15.00
Beautifully rich, velvety nose with a background of leafy blackcurrant, cigar-box and a svelte blue/black quality of fruit. Silky mouthfeel with a really deep dark chocolate core, some black olive savouriness. Delicious and deep, this has fine length and a lot of supple style.

Helmsman Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 – £12.00-£15.00
Big, creamy black fruit nose. Hints of savoury black olive and damp earth, a nice sour cherry edge. On the palate it stays very savoury in style. There’s a luscious fruitiness beneath, but the dominant forces are fine, silky tannins and juicy acidity. This is lovely again, with a rounding-out by toasty oak in the finish. Very good.