Winemaker Chris Scott says his winegrowers deserve most of the credit for the stellar Church Road Grand Reserve Chardonnay 2018. He tells Mark Story finishing the champion tipple of the Hawke's Bay A&P Bayleys Wine Awards was "ridiculously simple".
Talk us through your champion wine on the palate - and describe how it came together.
I think the thing about this wine is that it treads a nice line between power and refinement. The fruit is beautifully ripe with peach and citrus fruit, subtle winemaking complexity, gentle but present acidity, and a fine, lingering, textural palate without being heavy, fat or cloying. It is a substantial wine that manages to remain refreshing rather than oppressive. It was very warm summer, but towards late February the weather patterns changed and we got a bit of cooler weather and a few mild rain events that kept everything fresh. Our sugar levels weren't as high as normal, but the fruit tasted ripe in terms of flavour and acid balance. We often see this in a warm year, ripe fruit at lower sugar levels, and the warm years are becoming more prevalent due to global warming (there hasn't been a vintage in a long time that was below the 30 year average for heat). So we are often making the call to pick a bit earlier these days. This was the first good crop of our new Terraces Vineyard Chardonnay plantings, situated at the northern end of Te Mata Peak. and it is looking very promising. The other vineyard is the Tuki Tuki Vineyard, on the other side of the river, traditionally our top Chardonnay site. Everything is hand-picked and sorted, then in the winery it's ridiculously simple. The whole bunches are gently pressed, avoiding any harsh, astringent extraction of skins and seeds, and the juice is run straight into oak barrels. We don't add anything to the juice, we don't settle or clarify the juice in any way, and we rely on wild yeast to conduct the fermentation. We try to balance the newer oak barrels in the blend so that they are supporting rather than dominant. The oak is still recognisable, but the fruit takes the lead. There hasn't even been any fining, and there was no sterile filtration. It's all pretty natural. The winegrowers definitely get more credit for this one than the winemakers do.
At this week's awards chairman of judges Rod Easthope claimed Hawke's Bay boasts "an embarrassment of riches" when it comes to chardonnay. Explain the "riches" as you interpret them.
We always say, and probably supported by what I have said above, that Chardonnay, more so than any other variety in Hawke's bay, makes itself as long as you look after it in the vineyard. That for me is a sign of a variety very well suited to its environment. It produces beautifully balanced wines with little or no interference from the winemaker. Ripe flavoured but still fragrant, substantial but still fresh. Climatically we're in a sweet spot for Chardonnay.
The moot at this year's Colliers International Grape Debate was: "Is it the product or the pitch?" Where do you stand on this?
Perception is reality as they say. Simplistically, I like to remind myself that pitch will sell the first bottle but good wine will sell the second. Of course it's not all that simple, because there are always things like herd mentality and the 'Emperor's New Clothes' effect to overcome. But fads and fashion come and go while quality and style endure. Over the long term, if you can deliver quality every year and continue to evolve and improve and stay up there with the best, the contents of the bottle becomes the most important thing.
Some of the local industry's big dogs don't enter the wine awards. Are they public-failure averse?
We all have different marketing strategies. Some winemakers prefer to rely on influential publications and gatekeeper reviews rather than on medals and trophies. We use both and perform well in both. I guess the risk of shows is that if your wine already has a wonderful reputation and receives a gold in a show, it's potentially a bit of a 'so what?' in the eyes of the market. They expect that wine to perform to that level anyway. But my feeling is that if your wines are doing well in shows, it helps keep you front of mind in the marketplace. It is also a bit of a benchmarking tool for us. We make wines that we want to make. We don't go chasing styles that we think have a better chance of winning shows, but if we have a wine that is regularly performing poorly in the shows, we will at least have a hard look at it next to the winning wines to make sure we're happy that it isn't a quality issue. The show system is great for raising the bar and I don't think we'd see the quality of wine made in this country today without them, but wine shows aren't completely immune to fads and fashions either, and some things that were being awarded in even the recent past have now fallen out of favour. So we just stick to making our interpretation, with a focus always on quality. If it shows well, that's a bonus.
As winemakers age, is there an anxiety that their best bottle is behind them? Is it a fear for you?
No, not yet anyway. Experience counts for a lot of wine winegrowing and winemaking and generally I think most winemakers only get better. As a rule we're a naturally curious bunch and we're always tinkering and trialling and tasting and on top of this our tastes evolve and change too so the goal posts are constantly shifting. I learn a lot every year and I think our wines continue to evolve positively as a result.