Te Mata Coleraine in top form

Huon with Te Mata Chief Winemaker Peter Cowley. (Photo: Huon Hooke)

Te Mata Estate Coleraine is one of the greatest New Zealand wines, with a 37-year span of vintages, and, most surprisingly it was a great wine from the very first vintage. I well remember dropping-in to the Saturday tasting at Sydney wine store The Oak Barrel one day in the mid-1980s when then-owner Nick Forbes was pouring a mystery wine. None of us could quite believe it was a Kiwi cabernet-based wine. It tasted more like a highly classified Bordeaux. At that time, you could count the New Zealand reds of any interest on no hands.

That first Coleraine was the 1982, and as this tasting showed, it’s still in good nick and drinking superbly.

Having admired Coleraine and Te Mata Estate ever since, I needed no encouragement to attend a complete tasting of Coleraine staged in Sydney recently by Air New Zealand, which had purchased several complete sets of the wine from private collectors. The airline wanted to show these wines off out of the generosity of its heart, just to help promote New Zealand wine. It did the same with Craggy Range Le Sol Syrah, a somewhat shorter tasting, but what a gesture!

That first Coleraine was the 1982, and as this tasting showed, it’s still in good nick and drinking superbly. Coleraine has improved steadily since its early vintages, some of which were a bit shaky, but the overall standard was remarkably high. The climate has warmed since those more marginal days, and this has done nothing but advantage a red wine made from late-ripening Bordeaux grapes. Chief winemaker and technical director Peter Cowley says today’s vintage dates are on average two weeks earlier than back then.

The wine was originally made from the vineyard surrounding owners John and Wendy Buck’s house, but from 1989 onwards has been blended from various Te Mata Estate owned vineyards in Hawkes Bay. The heart of the wine these days comes from vines on the Havelock Hills. Its varietal make-up varies from year to year, but is normally majority cabernet sauvignon with merlot and a small amount of cabernet franc. There have been some years with more merlot in the blend than cabernet sauvignon. Cowley says the blending is always done blind, so the wine’s composition is determined purely on the merits of the components.

The wine has been produced every year except 1992 and 93 – when volcanic ash in the atmosphere from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines caused climate change in the form of reduced sunlight and warmth.

And in 2012, when crops were severely reduced leading to a decision to declassify the Coleraine into Awatea, Te Mata Estate’s second-ranked cabernet merlot.

Stability of ownership and winemaking have been part of Coleraine’s success. The Buck family has remained the owner, and Peter Cowley has been in control of winemaking since he joined the company in 1984. “I finished the ’83 but had nothing to do with the ’82,” he said at the Air New Zealand tasting.

Coincidentally, Cowley announced his retirement, effective at the end of 2018.

He said little had changed in the way the wine is made, but there had been small refinements over the years. These include the benefit of the vines maturing, close control of pruning and crop levels, and grape sorting as the fruit comes into the winery. These measures, plus the diversity of estate vineyards that can be called upon, as well as generally warmer seasons, all add up to Coleraine being an even more statuesque and consistently great wine these days.

My favourites? The 2015, 2014, 1998 and 2008 all achieved 97 points; the 2016, 2013, 2005 and 1991 all rated 96 points; the 2002 and 1985 rated 95 points, and the 2007, 1999 and 1982 rated 94.

Only nine of the 32 vintages rated below 89, and of these only three were past drinking: 1987, 2011 and 1984, all due to lesser seasons.

So, 23 vintages rated 90 or higher, which is quite outstanding.

My tasting notes for all 32 vintages of Coleraine are on The Real Review website now.

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