star Vintners 

Some thoughts from Neil McCallum, Dry River, New Zealand
April 2007

Vintner Neil McCallum of Dry River in New ZealandOn Screwcaps: Both the science and our experience indicates that screwcaps cause reduction in wines. This may be evidenced by smell, reduced aroma, or lack of generosity on the palate. I am sure that adjustment to how the wines are made or using different inserts under the cap to increase access by air can compensate. However, in our experience the technology of cork process has improved dramatically since 2001 and we only get 2% cork taint incidence. With the advent of the ROSA process this will probably reduce it to 0.5%. We replace all bottles that people are unhappy with and in our experience there is now probably more problems created by poor cellaring than there is from cork taint.

On making wines that age well: Producing ageable wine is about getting the quantity and quality of phenolics (structure) right. In our climate this requires a bias towards anaerobic processing for most varieties. The downside is that the wines can taste rather lean when young and at the least require decanting and time to breathe before drinking. Other climates (I suspect continental climates with higher summer temperatures) naturally produce higher levels of phenolics and they can be more relaxed in their winemaking in this respect, although they will tend not to get our fruit expression as easily.

On pairing food and wine: Protein has the capacity to bond with phenolics and reduce perception of them in the mouth, pulling away the structure to reveal the fruit and flavor of the wine without the aging process.

On Alsatian varietals in New Zealand: Riesling and Alsatian varieties have a great future in New Zealand in my view – with the proviso that care is taken to get the grapes phenolically ripe and avoid the herbal, faintly green characters you otherwise get, which make the wine appear to lack ripeness and generosity. Pinot Gris requires growing the appropriate clone – i.e. the small berried (low cropping) clone – and which is not widely planted as yet.

On wine-scoring: Let's not try to be too analytical. Hang on to that whole body experience; explore and wonder at what we find rather than analyze according to criteria and their limitations. Pleasure is a function of the human spirit, very rarely just of the mind. My favorite wine writers are people like Hugh Johnson of 30 years ago who managed to evoke the mystique and the magic, the pleasure and the purpose. My least favored are those who arise from faceless panels, average the scores of bagged wines, and make pronouncements on the ‘winners' and the ‘losers'. In the words of Robert Dessaix: ‘And for wonder to happen you must bring something with you when you see the rainbow, or a painting or a football crowd. And, broadly speaking that thing is culture: some reading, some music, a context...' (from an interview by Nick Barnett).
Having said all this, I must affirm that I do enjoy structured wine tastings and scoring wines - somewhat in the same way I do a good game of scrabble. As a winemaker, I appreciate that scoring variations of the same wine is a powerful and helpful analytical tool. And I have to admit to taking notice of the scores given by my favorite wine writers, whose palates seem most similar to my own.

But in the end what would I like to see in wine journalism? Definitely more of an emphasis on evocative prose as it relates to the observations of the taster, even indicating how other people may respond to the wine, if appropriate. As far as scoring is concerned: if you must, I would prefer only a very coarse quantitative system, such as a five-star system, which can indicate how the writer responds to the wine, and also how others respond to it. Thus an excellent wine which is not quite in the style the writer personally prefers but which he knows others may legitimately respond to well could be recorded as ****(*) (the brackets indicating optional views) or ****-***** (with the writers views coming first).

Note: The last few paragraphs are excerpted from one of Neil’s own essays. He posts occasional articles on Dry River’s website on various aspects of wine and winemaking, especially as it relates to New Zealand and Martinborough in particular. If you like your wine writing with erudition and references to late Roman period bishops and Kierkegaard on top of the more usual subjects of terroir and tannins, check them out. Click here.


> more starVintners