Must-Have Wine: Best of the 2010 Lunar Drinking Year

In the six years since I first visited Schubert winery, I have been an avid follower of their wines. Indeed, I would go as far to say Kai Schubert and Marion Deimling make some of the most profound pinot noir on this planet from their tiny vineyards in Martinborough and the Wairarapa -- only a cupful relative to most wineries.

So why did it take so long to write up Schubert? I could plead journalistic paralysis, or maybe I didn't want to give away the secret. When you discover something so good, rather than blast it out all over the place, let people discover it for themselves. And maybe I was being selfish in the knowledge that should the price of their wines double, it would still be one of the great wine bargains of the world.

It was actually Phyll Patton at Ata Rangi that I have to thank for introducing me to Schubert wines, as originally I had asked her if she would drive me around Martinborough and Wairarapa. I wanted to get a better understanding of the geography and before a regional winemaker's lunch that was part of the program. Phyll apologized, saying she couldn't get away, and asked if I would like to meet Marion from Schubert wines instead, who was happy to do the tour for me.

To put this in to context, Ata Rangi is arguably one of the best makers of pinot noir in the new world and if Phyll says they are “doing great things,” you should take this onboard! Determined not to join the hordes of wine writers sniffing and gargling their way around wineries or go near any cellars, and with my inquisitiveness now heightened, I took up the offer.

So, Marion drove me around for several hours and we talked soils and geography, making our way through the different Martinborough terraces and valleys, and most importantly discussing the significance of the ancient Ruamāhanga riverbeds, the main river that runs through the Wairarapa.

The character of a river is generally determined by the landscape through which it runs and New Zealand's rivers are very diverse in origin, some Alpine glacial and braided into vast river plains. Others like the Ruamāhanga, were fast-flowing through hill country and carved out deep gorges and cliffs, leaving escarpments of stony sub-soils and terraces with deep alluvial soils and top soils of loess (in parts) and silty river loam known colloquially as Tauherenikau silt loam.

These escarpments and terraces are where vines flourish, soaking up the nutrients and minerals from these ancient formations and there is a distinctive smell and taste of minerals and an earthiness in Martinborough and Wairarapa pinot noirs.

Marion drove beyond the borders of the Martinborough region to their vineyard in East Taratahi, essentially 'Block B', to which on a terrace next to the Ruamāhanga River they have planted from 1999 onwards, 8 different clones of pinot noir, including the newer Dijon clones.

The significance of the Block B plantings is relative and somewhat crucial in understanding the characteristics of the other Schubert Pinot Noir and vineyard site in Martinborough, 'Marion's Vineyard' which is made from a selection of predominantly two pinot noir clones; Pommard and the 'Able' clone, the latter a fascinating story that you read more on at http://www.thewanderingpalate.com/profiled-wineries/pinot-noir-cloning-new-zealand/

Talking with Kai Schubert on his specific sites, he attributes much of this concentration and structure of the pinot noirs to naturally extremely low yields due to the general harsh weather conditions - late frosts, fierce winds, significance temperature differences, which in the summer time can be hot days (30 degrees) yet plunges to cold nights (5 degrees) which keeps the fruitiness and acidity in the grapes.

The prevailing cool winds from Northwest are bone-chilling dry. Moreover, it is usually very dry from January till May, allowing for a longer ripening time accumulating more complex flavours with harvest around early to mid-April, which translates to October in the northern hemisphere, significantly later than when they harvest in Burgundy. Such dry conditions also mean there are minimal problems with vine disease including botrytis, and makes organic and sustainable practices more feasible.

Kai adds that the lower yield is not only due to having fewer grapes, but the grape bunches and berries are relatively smaller with a different ratio between skin and juice (more skin per juice unit). Furthermore, because of the harsh climate the grapes also develop a thicker skin which means more flavors and color although most of the flavors are in or just under the skin. It is necessary to employ a cold soak (maceration) pre-fermentation and leave on skins for three weeks post-fermentation.

“In a way, this all compensates for our relatively young vine age. Along with our high-density planting, the vines compete for soil, producing fewer grapes and the roots grow deeper, gaining more complex and considerable depth flavours even though the vines were planted only in 1999,” Kai said.

The 2004 Marion's Pinot Noir was a revelation. Having tried successive vintages of their wines ever since, I can attest they are consistently compelling pinot noirs imbued with intense fruit, earthy minerality, invigorating tension and Schubert are arguably making some of the most complex pinot noir in New Zealand, if not the world.

I might add, in a significant blind tasting held in Germany, their Block B Pinot Noir 2004 outclassed one of Burgundy's most coveted wines from a great vintage, 1999 Comte de Vogüé "Musigny Grand Cru," a wine that sells for 10 times the price of Schubert!

My Winery of the Year accolade is not specifically related to one wine although I have included detailed notes of the current offering of Schubert 2008 Block B, tried and tested with Kai Schubert at our table. This wine might well be tricky to find now as it recently cleaned up in the London wine shows, being awarded the International Trophy for best Pinot Noir at Decanter World Wine Awards and also the International Wine Challenge Trophy for Sustainability.

There were pinot noirs from 19 other countries including France, Italy, Australia, the USA, Chile, Austria and Germany, so no small achievement to come out on top of the pack.

Decanter's judges described the winning wine (2008 Schubert Block B) as: 'Forceful, with vibrant, succulent fruits and sweet strawberry and loganberry flavor. Fine concentration and a fresh splash of acidity on the palate. Very long and sleek.' My tasting note below is a bit longer than that, but I do tend to waffle on a bit.

Schubert's 2008 Marion's Vineyard Pinot Noir also made it in the overall Top 10 list of all pinot noirs entered from around the world, and I have to declare it was in fact the Marion's Pinot Noir that first caught my attention about six years ago when I attended the New Zealand Pinot Noir Celebration and met Marion Deimling, Kai Schubert's partner.

Reiterating the comments of the Decanter judges, “Forceful, vibrant, succulent fruits...Fine concentration.” To me these are hallmarks of the Martinborough and Wairarapa pinot noirs that set them apart from other regions in New Zealand. There is a distinctive element of earthiness and concentration to the wines and the tannins are noticeably more chewy, or firmer throughout the whole wine and metaphorically Chambertin-like, rather than Vosne Romanee.

In case you don't realize it, owning a small winery in these highly competitive and somewhat testing financial times is a seriously difficult challenge. It requires a multi-skill-set that few people possess; from being a famer to a wine lab technician, a dynamic marketer to a bookkeeper. Moreover, the perseverance needed to go the distance in establishing a brand can only be outweighed by a genuine passion to succeed and stand out in a crowd of hundreds of thousands of wines on the international wine stage.

Every winery has a story, some more compelling than others, and some tell it better than others. Kai and Marion's story is about fulfilling a dream that started when they were both at Geisenheim University Viticulture & Oenology in Germany. Having graduated they then went on to work with winemakers like Erni Loosen of Dr. Loosen Estate however, were eager to pursue their dream of establishing their own vineyard and growing their favourite grape variety, pinot noir.

So they set out working in and searching around regions like Oregon, California, Australia and parts of Europe. New Zealand's Wairarapa region in the southern part of the North Island turned out to be most fascinating and promising area to them. Eventually, and only after examining some 100 properties around New Zealand, they found two ideal sites in the Wairarapa in 1998 and began rejuvenating the existing vineyard and planting more vines in 1999 and 2000.

That the winery rose to such notoriety and accepted quality in such a short time is certainly evidence of Kai and Marion Shubert's determination and sheer hard work. Kai is the salesman and, for a winery of their size, he's everywhere around the world, one day in London the next in Berlin or New York. Apart from the stamina required to keep this up, it is a strategy that has worked, and Schubert's persistent marketing and promoting in these highly visible markets has paid dividends.

Kai has just sent me an email, as he rushes out the door to catch a plane to Germany to attend ProWein, to go and sell his story to the world. It's a continuing and evolving story of “Tangata Whenua”, in Maori terms literally meaning 'the fusion of place and person', yet profoundly explaining in any language.

You can also catch Kai Schubert in Asia at the Burghound in Asia – Singapore event, Apr. 8-9. Visit www.burghoundinasia.com And, if you are looking to have a little time out in tropical paradise and an amazing gourmet experience, Kai will be joining me at the Datai resort in Langkawi Island Malaysia for, 'The Wandering Palate and Friends at the Datai', read more at http://www.thewanderingpalate.com/events/the-wandering-palate-friends-at-the-datai/

And if you want the perfect match with Schubert Pinot Noir, then check out my wife's legendary Thai Duck Curry recipe, devoted to Kai himself:

http://www.thewanderingpalate.com/produce/thai-duck-curry-receipe/

My tasting notes:

2008 Schubert 'Block B' Pinot Noir – Wairarapa, North Island, New Zealand

Intoxicating nose, intense compote-like smell of mulberry, blueberry, blood plum and black cherry oozing pinot noir fruit with a lifted sweetness to the aroma that draws you into the glass then taking on intriguing savoury nuances with tamarind paste, tamarillo and balsamic notes, and a profusion of earthiness – baked black earth, and flinty, gun-smoke, cold iron, like volcanic black beach sand on a winter's day. As it breaths out, there is an intense spiciness to the bouquet – five-spice, black pepper and cardamom being swirled in a hot wok. Gorgeously rich, plush and silky palate entry, engulfing the mouth with a rush of sweet and sour dark cherry, blueberry and poached blood plums then a surge of invigorating acidity and piquancy of red currents and juniper berry.

There is a thread of spiciness running through the wine imparting a warm glow that lingers with the seamless yet chewy, earthy tannins and barely perceptible oak, all coming to attention with crunchy acidity. Touchstone full-bodied pinot noir – an Antipodean Grand Cru – moreover a wine of extraordinary price/quality rapport that will age easily for decade – even longer if you can lay your hands on one of their rare magnums.

Footnote: I revisited this wine four times over six weeks using the faultless wine preservation winesave, read http://www.thewanderingpalate.com/buying-wine/must-have-wine-accessory-of-the-year/ and can affirm that this wine maintained all its nuances. If anything it improved over this period.

2006 Schubert 'Marions Vineyard' Pinot Noir – Wairarapa, North Island, New Zealand (tasted June 2009)

Heady nose of syrupy poached blood plums and ripe black cherry with cloves; some dried fig and prune nuances and a hint of liquorice and yet despite the enormity of the bouquet or suggestion of a very ripe and full-blooded wine it seems quite harmonious and there is a balancing savouriness and herbal quality with fresh rosemary and lavender, perhaps with a hint of youthful mint and anise and peppery spiciness, with a late charge of metallic, gun metal flintiness.

Powerful palate entry with a torrent of sweet and juicy plumy rich fruit saturating the mouth amongst exhilarating acidity and an intense spiciness – invigorating stuff! There are layers of plush fruit, unctuously textured with the richness counterbalanced by the powerful acidity and some earthy, black tea tannins with incredibly length and power to the back palate with lingering dark berry fruit and a warm and tantalizing spiciness and marked of clove spice.

Equally lingering and adding a wonderful complexity is an earthiness and railway iron, rusted steel, backed earth, minerality and savoury bitter nut nuance. This is full-bodied pinot noir and yet still beautifully elegant and softly textured with a fabulous warmth and richness; the perfect wine to convert “pinot noir is too light” sceptics. Tasted the following day, it had lost none of its power and looks set for a good 10 years in bottle before reaching its best, although a hedonistic and thoroughly enjoyable experience now. One of the most profound pinot noirs from New Zealand I have tried.

2005 Schubert 'Marions Vineyard' Pinot Noir – Wairarapa, North Island, New Zealand (tasted March 2008)

Enticing perfume of black cherry and red rose petal, although changing to a more piquant aroma of persimmon and tamarillo, breathing out to an even more meaty, savoury sauvage look with black olive, funky-cheesy elements, gamey, blood sausage, also a dark soy character amongst clove spice, and the aromas just keep growing in the glass, dried thyme, bay leaf, lavender fields and a pronounced gravelly, iron rocks and granite minerality. Crunchy, lively palate entry with an explosion of sour red berry fruit and tamarillo charges across the palate with racy steely acidity, fleshing out towards the back palate with darker chocolaty nuances, BBQ meats and charred timbers. There is an underlying earthy, forest floor and minerality right through the wine and lingering on the finish with a warming spicy glow of star anise, checked by the cold interplay of steely acidity and fine, chewy, and savoury, black tea flavoured tannins lurking with a noticeable grip towards the end. One got the impression this was a brooding monster of a pinot noir, super-concentrated with loads of dry extract from extremely low yields and the sort of steely structure that brought to mind the Le Chambertin vineyard. With all this coiled up power I decided to revisit the wine the following day, having decanted off a half a bottle and placed in the fridge. The following day it was still brooding, and it was not until the evening of the third day, after several hours in the glass that it opened up fully, indeed growing in the glass, metamorphosing from its seemly initial tight structure to a monstrous, gobsmacking glass of pinot. Clearly this wine has many years ahead of it and follows what I now realise is a consistent style of this producer; impressive structure, indelible steely acidity, pronounced minerality iron ore like nuances - a serious Martinborough Pinot Noir that will no doubt rise in the ranks of the New Zealand pecking order, moreover I think I may have uncovered one of the pinot noir bargains of the world.

Visit www.schubert.co.nz

Importers in Asia

Hong Kong - Kedington Wines www.kedwines.com

Japan - Asahiya Wine Cellar www.asahiya-wine.com

Malaysia - Vintage Cellars (M) Sdn. Bhd. http://www.vintagecellars.com.my

Thailand - Bangkok Fine Wine Co. Ltd. bfwparry@loxinfo.co.th

Singapore - Wine Harvest Pte Ltd - madeleine.tan@wineharvest.com.sg

And the wine... well Schubert Pinot Noir of course, the consummate duck curry wine!