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What our expert thought of Te Awa, Left Field, Malbec




about this wine About this wine
 
I’m sure you’re all familiar with Malbec: that macho red from sunny Argentina that goes so well with steaks and barbecues.  You’re even more familiar with New Zealand wine: zingy Sauv Blanc and other cool-climate whites, with the occasional cool-climate Pinot Noir.  But a Malbec from New Zealand - how is that even possible?
 
The answer lies in some unique geography.  This wine is from Hawke’s Bay, the warmest and sunniest of New Zealand’s wine regions and the only one that specialises in reds.  It’s also, crucially, one of the driest; there are warmer parts of New Zealand further north but they’re too wet.  Merlot and Cabernet Franc thrive here, and Cabernet Sauvignon does well in warmer vintages (much like back home in Bordeaux).
 
But warmer-climate grapes like Syrah and Malbec struggle.  The problem is not so much the overall heat; it’s the way the cooling sea breezes usually prevent daytime summer temperatures from exceeding 25°C.  This is fine for achieving sugar ripeness but not quite enough for phenolic ripeness so the tannins remain hard and green.
 
Geography rides to our rescue again, though on a smaller scale.  Five major rivers drain into Hawke’s Bay from the mountain ranges to the west whose rain shadow is so vital for viticulture here.  In 1867 the Ngaruroro River experienced a mighty flood which changed its course, leaving behind its old gravel-filled river valley - the Gimblett Gravels.
 
These free-draining soils were so dry and infertile that the land was useless for agriculture and could only support a handful of grazing sheep.  But to make vines focus on ripening grapes instead of growing new foliage you need  infertile soils and a water shortage.  The Gravels are too dry even for vines, so it wasn’t until the Eighties that the first, irrigated vineyards were planted, and in the Nineties the land grab took off in earnest.
 
The Gravels have another benefit: the vines on the flat valley floor are shielded from sea breezes by the steep valley sides, and the arid stony soil heats up quickly and then re-radiates heat onto the vines, just like the famous galets  in Châteauneuf-du-Pape - another old river-gravel vineyard.  Daytime summer temperatures here are 2-3°C hotter than in the rest of Hawke’s Bay, which makes all the difference if you want to ripen Syrah or Malbec.
 
This is the first varietal Malbec from New Zealand that I’ve ever seen.  It comes from two parcels on the Gimblett Gravels (of course) and is produced by pioneer boutique winery Te Awa, established here in 1992.
 
the tasting The Tasting
 
An intensely deep, glass-staining purple-red, this wine is almost opaque. That intensity, and the vivid purple colour (if you hold the glass at an angle you can see a magenta rim) are characteristic of Malbec.
 
There’s a rich nose of ripe black fruit - blackberries and damson jam - with pungent spicy notes of liquorice and clove, and a dusting of cocoa powder.
 
The palate is fully dry, with very juicy flavours of blackberry and black cherry, backed by bittersweet dark chocolate and a hint of mint.  It tastes very fresh even though the acidity isn’t more than medium.  Structure is provided by tannins rather than acidity, and there’s lots of them, but they’re wonderfully soft and ripe.
 
The medium finish is spicy, with liquorice and pepper, and just enough acidity to balance the tannins.
 
Assessment
 
The importer’s website says this wine has spent 18 months in French oak barrels, while other sources say it’s unoaked.  I’m with the latter camp; I can't detect any oak on this and I think it’s all the better for it - the flavours of the grape really shine through.  I reckon the website claim is a mistake; if this has seen any oak then it wasn’t much, and the barrels must have been big old ones used many times before.
 
This is a great example of the qualities of the Malbec grape.  It’s a bit fresher and cooler-climate than most Argentinian Malbecs, where low acidity can be a problem.  Yet there’s no lack of ripeness and I love its up-front fruit intensity.  Textbook, definitive stuff - although as the only NZ Malbec in existence I suppose it has to be!


Tasting notes

Appearance
clear very deep purple-red - almost opaque - with typical Malbec magenta rim
Nose

Intensity medium

Aromas ripe black fruit(blackberry, damson jam), pungent spice(liquorice, clove), cocoa

Development developing
Palate

Sweetness fully dry

Acidity medium

Body medium+

Tannins medium+, but soft and ripe

Intensity medium+

Flavours black fruits(blackberry, black cherry), bittersweet dark chocolate, mint
Finish

Length medium

Flavours spicy(liquorice & pepper), fine acid/tannin balance
Other notes
Unoaked, as far as I can tell.


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