Sweet Surrender

Andrew Hedley makes wine in Marlborough, the New Zealand region famous for sauvignon blanc. But it’s not sauvignon that he’s making his fame in, but riesling – in many styles and levels of sweetness, from dry all the way up to trockenbeerenauslese. Hedley is chief winemaker of Framingham winery (tastings), one of the region’s quietest achievers.

At the 2012 Frankland Estate International Riesling Tasting, a two-day session with some of the greatest rieslings of Germany, Austria, Canada, France, the USA and Australia, the audience broke into spontaneous applause for one of Hedley’s wines – the only wine to receive that level of approbation. The wine was his 2011 ‘F’ Series Riesling Auslese (tasting). It was extraordinarily good. Guest panellist Jancis Robinson described it as a terrific wine. His F- Series wines have a neck-label which discloses the number of bottles made. Hedley happened to be in the audience. “Only 400 half-bottles? Why so few”, he was asked.

“We don’t want to burden the market with more than it wants.” Or words to that effect, which brought slightly incredulous laughter.

It wasn’t a oncer: Hedley has been able to make this kind of wine before, in 2009 and 2008 – which I’ve tasted. But the 2011 range is gob-smacking. Apart from the raft of dry wines from staples sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, gewürztraminer, pinot gris and pinot noir, Framingham produced in 2011 a welter of botrytis-affected sweet wines from riesling, pinot gris and gewürztraminer.

In keeping with German and Alsace traditions, Framingham uses the designations of those places to show the sweetness level of the wines. Hence, the rieslings ascend from Dry, Classic (off-dry), Kabinett and Select (Spatlese style) to Noble, Auslese, Breerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese. The pinot gris and gewürztraminer sweet wines are labelled VT (which stands for Vendange Tardive) and SGN (for Selection des Grains Nobles). The wines are universally stunning.

The winery’s history is that in the early 1980s Rex Brooke-Taylor, a Wellington entrepreneur, bought 17 hectares of land in Marlborough’s original Wairau Valley and began planting vines. He named it Framingham after his family’s ancestral home near Norwich in England. The early vintages’ grapes were sold but the first Framingham wines were released in 1994. A winery was built in 1997. Framingham was owned by the multi-national drinks company Pernod-Picard between 2004 and 2007, then it was bought by the leading Portuguese winemaker Sogrape. Although Sogrape is most famous for Mateus Rose, one of the world’s biggest brands, it’s proving to be a benevolent owner, according to Hedley. It is also family-owned.

Hedley is not a trained oenologist: born in Gateshead in northern England, he trained and worked in organic chemistry before his passion for riesling drew him to New Zealand and to Framingham. He’s completed 13 vintages in Marlborough.

He is quite certain that not having been educated as a winemaker enables him to have a different perspective on wine, which he sees as more an advantage than a disadvantage. I wouldn’t doubt it at all.

I’ve been impressed by Framingham wines before, but they are little-known in Australia. Part of the reason seems to be that when Framingham was owned by the Pernod-Ricard, nothing was done to promote the wines, at a time when New Zealand wine was starting to carve its indelible highway across the ditch, with the result that the Framingham brand was dying from neglect. Now, Framingham has appointed World Wine Estates as their NSW and Victorian agent, and we’re likely to see more of them.

Hedley himself is an interesting character. Following surgery for cancer of the throat in 2006 he speaks through an electronic device, which makes him sound rather like an oenological Stephen Hawking. The amazing thing is that he can still smell and taste sufficiently well to not only do his job as chief winemaker, but do it exceptionally well.

Framingham’s latest crop of super-sweet late harvest 2011 rieslings received scores of 96, 97 and 99 from writer Bob Campbell in the latest issue of ‘Gourmet Traveller Wine’. My own assessment was almost as generous.

The 2011 Trockenbeerenauslese ($45 a half bottle – tasting) is sensational, with concentration and lusciousness that compare with the best German examples, while the Beerenauslese (also $45 tasting) and Noble riesling ($33 tasting) are only a shade behind it. The 2011 SGN Gewurztraminer (tastings) is another stand-out, extremely luscious and complex in its honey and glace pear aromas. These are super-sweet, teaspoon wines – but perhaps the most user-friendly of the great stickies are the two 2011 VT wines – gewürztraminer and pinot gris. They aren’t overpoweringly sweet and are more readily available. They contain 150 and 160 grams per litre of residual sugar respectively, compared to 295 for the TBA. They both come in 500ml bottles and cost $45. These are wonderfully complex, deliciously luscious drinks to serve with cheeses (especially creamy blues) or with not-too-sweet desserts, or before dinner with pate. Seriously great wines, and as soon as the world discovers them, I feel sure Andrew Hedley will no longer have to apologise for increasing his bottling-run just a little.

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First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 12 February 2012. 

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