Five years have passed since Wellington wine-man of note Ken Kirkpatrick died. Ken was a highly accomplished and highly qualified PhD-level individual. He was the kind of man who gave you his full attention, and if you made a mistake, not only did he notice, but almost invariably he quickly made constructive suggestions about remedy. In his career he made great innovations in the researching and marketing of New Zealand dairy products, for the New Zealand Dairy Board. He went on to a Professorship in this area at Massey University, followed by time with The Foundation for Research, Science and Technology. His penetrating approach to issues then led to appointment as a policy advisor in the Prime Minister's Department.
At his funeral, a colleague described how working with Ken often produced: "the slightly disconcerting sense that somehow Ken's enormously talented brain is taking your conversation somewhere unexpected. I remember many a meeting briefly flummoxed by a lateral Ken connection – inevitably a relevant one, even if the rest of us didn't always appreciate that straight away.".
On the wine front the great thing about Ken Kirkpatrick was that he was totally devoid of the snobbery and pretension that characterises so much wine talk, and so many wine people. He was a keen wine options player, for example, an approach which focusses on the wine rather than the label, and is thus anathema to the snobbish. His interest in wine was completely catholic, and the assessing of quality of achievement his primary concern. His cellar therefore ranged widely, from benchmark wines from the old European classics to many wines from emerging producers in the new world. The goal of this tasting is to offer a sampling of that approach, from wines he entrusted to me.
The wines are (bar one) all from the 1990 vintage, one variously considered good to great round the world. It was a time when the old world had still not quite woken up to the new technological understanding about wine in the new world, and at the same time the new had not yet clearly achieved understanding of wine style and a sense of place, though California was rapidly closing in on that approach.
The lead-wine of the tasting is 1990 Ch Petrus. It seems safe to say this wine has never before been offered in a 'public' tasting in New Zealand. It is one of those wines now featuring on the lists of a certain class of journalist, under titles along the lines: 100 wines to try before you die. Current wine-searcher valuation is over $6,000 per bottle, so after a glance at the other labels, you will quickly see this tasting is a gift [ it was offered at $NZ110 ]. It is only fair to note that the 1990 vintage coincides more-or-less with the consolidation on the world wine-scene of American Robert Parker as a key influencer. This is a Parker 100-point wine, which immediately doubles its wine-searcher value. By the same token, it may be a bigger and bolder wine than European palates prefer. This is your opportunity to find out. And relative to the tasting fee: there IS a second bottle of the Ch Petrus, so you are pretty-well assured of a good sample.
Alcohol: Note the alcohol values given, to the extent one can rely on labels, reflect an era before the world-wide Americanisation (that is, over-ripening) of red wines.
The 1990 Vintage:
In summary, the growing seasons for all our districts are rated good or better.
For Bordeaux Wine Spectator rates 1990 well, describing the wines as: Opulent, well-structured and harmonious, 97. Broadbent comments: This was an abundant, exciting vintage, particularly for the Merlots which have enormous amounts of tannin, *****.
For the Northern Rhone Valley, Wine Spectator comments are: massive and rich, with loads of tannin and fruit, 97. And Broadbent agrees: Despite drought the wines were, like those of the previous year, powerful and promising, if a little less aromatic, *****.
For the Napa Valley, Wine Spectator says: A small crop but many deeply concentrated wines that have aged well, 89. Again Broadbent agrees: ... high quality, intense, deep-coloured wines, ****.
Wine Spectator does not know about Australia in those times, but Broadbent notes: ... a coolish dry summer, South Australia ****. Halliday's marvellously detailed Vintage Chart for 1990 rates the Adelaide Hills 9, Barossa Valley 9, Clare Valley 10, Coonawarra 10, and McLaren Vale 10. The Henschke is Adelaide Hills, and the rest should cover Penfolds' multi-regional blends.
Our wine from South Africa is 1991, for which Broadbent notes: High quality reds, particularly Cabernets, deep-coloured, concentrated and long-living, ****.
For New Zealand Cooper rates the Auckland district 5/7, and Hawkes Bay 6/7. The Meteorological Service records that Auckland had an unusually dry February, and an 'average' autumn for March and April, not becoming unduly rainy till May. In contrast they note the East Coast as being unusually dry in autumn, and Te Mata confirm that in the vintage notes on their website, with 30mm of rain recorded in April.
Conclusions about the Tasting:
This special tasting turned out to be the most exciting I have been to in a long time. Firstly, there is the enormous thrill when you are opening wines valued at thousands of dollars, to find none showing TCA / cork taint, either on opening, or as is so often the case, becoming apparent a few hours later, at the tasting. Secondly, that 22 of Wellington's keenest wine people assembled to share in these 25-year-old bottles. Being a great vintage, nearly all the wines can fairly be considered at their peak. Thirdly, being a totally blind tasting, with a seven-point ranking questionnaire conducted before the wines are discussed and revealed, the simple fact that the 1990 Ch Petrus, valued by wine-searcher at $NZ6000-plus, and rated a 100-point-wine by Robert Parker, was not the top wine of the tasting, or even the second, has to be of interest. So there is a tentative moral there: once you have acquired the wine understanding to reconcile winewriters' often contrasting advice, be guided by the authorities, who taste so much more wine than any of us can, but in the end, buy wines / stock your cellar on your own palate analysis, namely wines that give you the most pleasure.
Broadbent, Michael, 2003: Michael Broadbent's Wine Vintages. Mitchell Beazley, London, 223 p.
Cooper, Michael, 1993: Buyer's Guide to New Zealand Wines. Hodder & Stoughton, Auckland, 274 p.
Halliday, James, 2002: Classic Wines of Australia and New Zealand. Harper Collins, Sydney, 386 p.
Halliday, James, wine reviews, ongoing by subscription: www.winecompanion.com.au = James Halliday and Ben Edwards
Halliday, James: Vintage Charts: www.winecompanion.com.au/wine-essentials/vintage-chart
Parker, Robert M., 2003: Bordeaux, Fourth Edition. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1244 p.
Parker, Robert M., 1997: Wines of the Rhone Valley. Simon & Schuster, New York, 685 p.
Parker, Robert M., wine reviews, ongoing by subscription: www.erobertparker.com Robert Parker alone for this tasting ...
Platter, John & Associates, 1996: South African Wines. Mitchell Beazley, London, 315 p.
Read, Adrian, & Andrew Caillard, 2000: The Rewards of Patience. Penfolds Wines, 144p.
Robinson, Jancis, wine reviews, ongoing by subscription: www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW
Multiple authors, wine reviews, ongoing by subscription: www.winespectator.com = too many authors to list, but strong on Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley.
Wine Spectator: Vintage Charts: www.winespectator.com/vintagecharts/search
This tasting was held in the Tasting Room of Regional Wines & Spirits, Wellington, a venue much frequented by Ken. The Wine Options photo (below the reviews) was taken by Sue Courtney, author of the website www.wineoftheweek.com, and reproduced with permission.
THE WINES REVIEWED:
Prices shown below are the current www.wine-searcher.com values for the 1990 vintage. Where no 1990 offered, 1989 substituted.
Ruby and velvet, some garnet, a lively hue, the third deepest wine. Bouquet epitomises the magic of the claret winestyle, showing a sensational volume of browning cassis, cedar and brown pipe tobacco, plus a floral suggestion nearly port-wine magnolia or violets, all totally moulded into a heavenly whole, simply soaring from the glass. Cabernet / merlot doesn't get much better than this. Palate follows perfectly, rich yet light, vibrant cassis, singing, refreshing, not over-ripe, the ratio of berry to tannins (both grape and oak) near-perfect. At a peak, but will hold for years. The loveliest wine experience I have had for years. Top equal wine for the group, 11 votes for favourite or second wine. GK 10/15
Ruby, garnet and velvet, a little browner than the Pichon, above midway in depth. Bouquet contrasts with the Pichon, being nearly as fragrant, but the vanillin of new oak much more prominent, and the whole wine one notch more warm-climate / less floral / less refreshing. But it certainly smells rich. On palate you would never know that cabernet franc is the second grape after merlot, rather than cabernet sauvignon, it being amazingly aromatic for a Saint-Emilion. The richness of berry nearly envelops the oak, but even here there is the thought the wine would have been more fragrant and complex if not quite so ripe (or oaky). One is reminded of California, therefore. Aftertaste lingers long, both on rich fruit but rather a lot of oak also. Yet ultimately, the fruit wins. At a peak, but will also hold for years. Top equal wine, 11 votes. GK 10/15
Ruby and some velvet, below midway in depth but more vitally red / youthful than any of the Bordeaux. Bouquet is simply sensational. Here is all the florality so conspicuously lacking in the Petrus, the wallflowers and pinks and sweet william, just wonderful, on cassisy berry browning only slightly. Palate is a little lighter than I hoped for in such a year, but the precision of berry, the exact syrah varietal character at pinpoint optimal ripeness, and not assassinated by new oak, is wonderful. A very beautiful wine. Only an absolute pedant would ask if there is trace brett. Cellar another 10 years or so, but at a peak now, since it is not a big wine. One top, one second-place, votes. GK 10/15
Ruby, garnet and velvet, just above midway in depth, markedly more garnet with a hint of amber edging, relative to the Pichon, reflecting the thinner-skinned merlot dominance. Bouquet is immediately a much warmer even hotter-climate wine, lacking florality and subtlety, though maybe there is a hint of heliotrope but then you decide that is oak vanillin, not grape / floral vanilla. Like the Angelus, it is certainly rich. Palate is velvety rich, a huge wine, but also with huge furry tannins. This is not the fine side of Bordeaux at all, it is a hot year / hot climate winestyle. Parker's rating of this wine 100 points illustrates his predilection for bigger burlier wines, rather more than illuminating the style of a supposedly archetypal Bordeaux wine. I have written at some length before about the enormous contribution Parker has made to moving wine writing from the subjective waffle phase of yesteryear, to the (at best) more objective, analytical and careful winewriting of today. Therefore I can say, that (if this bottle is representative, and Wellington is a very equable climate for cellaring wine) a hundred-point rating for this wine is simply misleading, as best exemplified by the current wine-searcher value (on today's writing) of $NZ6,390. Tasting and re-tasting the wine, and hoping for a late blooming with 24 hours (and more) in the glass, does not change the nett impression, sadly: this is wonderfully big rich furry-tanniny wine, but it is over-ripe and hence lacks florality and complexity. It is not a 100-point wine, as seen in this bottle. Merlot can be so much more beautiful, floral and multidimensional than this, when not over-ripened. Nonetheless it will give enormous pleasure to people accustomed to bigger and warmer-climate winestyles. It will cellar for many years. One top, one second-place, votes. GK 10/15
Dark ruby and velvet, amazingly youthful, and the second deepest wine. The volume of bouquet here is remarkable, a wonderful demonstration of the concept 'cassis' as the key descriptor for mature cabernet sauvignon. The oak ratio on bouquet for this wine is appropriate, and it is only slightly affected by mint notes. Palate is classic unblended cabernet sauvignon, lots of flavour, but a tendency to a 'hole in the middle', with the aromatic berry crying out for merlot to soften and fill out the middle. Towards the later flavour, a hint of the dreaded Australian euc'y taint creeps in, but because the oak is appropriate, it doesn't sabotage the wine. Later still on the palate, tartaric adjustment detracts a little. This will cellar for another 15 20 years easily, a surprisingly lovely Australian cabernet. 'Surprising' because at that stage and for some years, Bin 407 was priced along with Bin 28 as the cheapest of the Bin wines. Five votes, none top. GK 10/15
Garnet and ruby, one of the lightest, but a great mature-wine colour. Bouquet is fragrant, subtly minty, ripe to very ripe, but not dull. There is lots of browning berry, more boysenberries in this over-ripe syrah equals shiraz handling of the grape, but it is appealing. Palate is soft, plenty of fruit, smoother than the Bin 407 on both less new oak and less tartaric adjustment, so in theory it should be marked higher. But as a person looking for syrah qualities in shiraz, it is just too over-ripe to mark higher. There is a hint of sweet fragrant caramel, and aniseed. Even so, this wine will give much pleasure, and is totally at a peak right now. Will hold for years. One second-place vote. GK 10/15
Ruby and velvet, nearly as red as the Bin 407, but just below midway in depth. Bouquet is like Ch Petrus, clearly tending a bit over-ripe, lacking florality and delicacy, but still showing lots of fruit. Flavour does show a shadow of cassis, and good dark plummy berry browning now, much more subtle oaking than either Penfolds wine, but like them a suggestion of acid adjustment to the tail. This wine served as an excellent lead-in to the three bordeaux in the blind tasting. Fully mature, perhaps fading slightly, but will hold. Two top votes, one second. GK 10/15
Ruby and garnet, a little older than the Clos Pegase, below midway in depth. This is an intriguing wine. It is the closest in style to the Californian, more subtle oak handling than the Australians, but there is this distinctive aroma of red earth / roasted chestnuts that so many South African reds show. Behind that is browning cassis very like the Clos Pegase, and nearly cedary oak. Palate has a similar hole in the middle to the Bin 407, plus the trace of earthiness, and some acid adjustment to the tail. Intriguing. Fully mature but will hold some years. Two top votes. GK 10/15
Garnet and ruby, the second lightest wine. Bouquet shows browning cassis, quite a lot of nearly cedary oak, and some mint. Palate seems leaner and less berry-ripe than the Bin 407, Clos Pegase, or Kanonkop wines, so the mint now shows more, and the oak is more noticeable, on the tending-hollow palate. But the nett flavours and retained impression of juiciness (despite the lack of palate texture) are still appealing, and there is good dry extract, so it scores quite well. Fully mature, starting to fade. No votes. GK 10/15
Ruby and garnet, a lovely mature wine colour, just below midway in depth. Bouquet is attractively clean and fragrant, cool cassis and cedary oak, seemingly closely related to the Lenswood wine, but just an appealing hint of 'more Bordeaux-like'. To a second sniff, though, you do wonder if the wine might be a bit too cool. Palate confirms that doubt, the berry just achieving cassis in ripeness, some red currants, still good fruit at its level of ripeness, but all slightly acid and a little stalky, relative to the Henschke. The oaking relative to the weight of fruit is well done, though. Fully mature, starting to fade now. No votes. GK 10/15
Ruby and garnet, just the lightest wine. Bouquet is intensely floral, but unlike the Clape, the florals dianthus and carnations are here accentuated by a suggestion of stalk. Below is fading cassis, leading into a palate which is a bit lean, some stalks, white pepper, and slightly acid, a perfect illustration of tending under-ripe syrah. This bottle is quite different from Parker's wine, which may have been a best-barrel sample, not the assembled and bottled wine. Attractive in its way, though, to a cooler-climate person, and there is good dry extract. Fully mature, fading now. No votes. GK 10/15
Ruby and velvet, amazingly fresh, the deepest wine. Bouquet is simply ugly in wine terms, the massive clumsy overstatement about oak that Penfolds do so well, the oak aggressive and all pervasive, with intense minty, euc'y and cassisy berry desperately trying to get its head above the oaken parapets. But it is all wondrously clean and high-tech, though. Palate is better than the bouquet, the berry now can be seen in better focus, and the intensity of cassis is benchmark for pure cabernet, if you disregard the taints. And the concentration of berry is so good, there is little sign of a cabernet hole. Then later on the palate, the acid adjustment intrudes. It's a pity that for so long, Penfolds seemed so obsessed with wine technology, overly influenced by the Roseworthy wine school, no doubt, that they forgot that fine wine is about perceived beauty, rather more than technological rectitude. This wine will live for another 25 years, at least, and perhaps mellow and move up in score. Sadly again however, the company economised on corks for many years, the cork on this one being crumbly and poor, so that factor also acts against the wine. Given the remarkable quality of the fruit, all a bit sad it has been so mismanaged. One second-place vote. GK 10/15
Ken Kirkpatrick third from left, in a Wellington Wine Options team competing at Kingsley Woods' Wine'Options Competitions, Auckland, June 2004. From left, Geoff Kelly, John Masters, Ken Kirkpatrick, Mike Parker. Photo: Sue Courtney, with thanks.