(The original version, with more photos and more compatible formatting, is here.)
At a picnic table surrounded by vineyards, on a beautifully sunny day, the Blackenbrooks lay out their history. Starting with the fact that “Blackenbrook” isn’t really their name. Or rather, it is, but only from a certain point of view…
Daniel Schwarzenbach, Swiss but a twenty-year veteran of New Zealand, has an odd hybrid accent…is it Swiss cadences but Kiwi verbiage, or the other way around?...while his wife Ursula (they met at a pinot noir tasting), newer to these green lands, sounds somewhat more Old World. Their young son, still drowsy from a mid-morning nap, doesn’t say much of anything.
Here in Nelson, they live on a pleasant, secluded estate full of young vines, and youth is the principal quality demonstrated by their wines, though there’s much inherent promise as well. On the premises are pinot gris, riesling, gewürztraminer, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and a little montepulciano, though I never find out where the latter grapes end up. The focus here is clearly on the aromatic grapes most commonly associated with Alsace, plus pinot noir (planted in, but most definitely not associated with, Alsace). Most everything exists in multiple clones, as befits this sort of exploratory project.
The Schwarzenbachs’ vineyards are currently spread through two of Nelson’s sub-regions, with a third coastal source on the way. Soils are clay and gravelly clay. Everything is hand-worked, fruit is thinned twice (dropping 20% each time) and subject to sorting trays in the vineyard at harvest, pruning and canopy management are done with an eye on air movement (to help avoid spraying), and the end result is fruit at about 6 tons per hectare (8 tons/hectare for sauvignon blanc).
In-winery work is fairly standard. Yeasts are, for now, inoculated, but Daniel hopes to move away from this in the future. All wines are under screwcap. The recipe here is both familiar and basic, but despite the innocence of youth, the wines already show a certain individuality vs. their regional counterparts. That’s a positive sign.
Blackenbrook 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Nelson) – Clean and crisp, with intense acidity lent just enough support to create a balanced wine. Aromas come in the form of green apple, passion fruit, light but ripe red pepper, pear juice, and dried pineapple. In other words, this wine straddles two commercially-relevant styles – the crisp, peppery sauvignon that made New Zealand’s sauvignon splash, and the more modern fruit salad version – merged with élan. It has some length, too, so it just might last for a few years. This doesn’t particularly stand out among New Zealand’s many sauvignons, but it is more deftly done than most.
Blackenbrook 2004 Pinot Gris (Nelson) – Far too many New Zealand versions of this ubiquitously-planted grape are indifferent, at best. In an attempt to avoid such indifference, this wine sits on its fine lees for a while…not an uncommon technique, but one that helps add character and weight when the fruit is of sufficient quality. However, 2004 was a difficult vintage for this grape, and harvest occurred on the 4th of May despite an ardent desire to let the fruit hang longer. The result is still pretty good, and I’d like to see what could be done in a better vintage. There’s light pear and light residual sugar, good yeasty/leesy weight, and a fair amount of floral spice lingering about. It finishes a little sticky, though.
There are two styles of chardonnay here, the better to satisfy both restaurants and the conflicting desires of different markets.
Blackenbrook 2004 Chardonnay (Nelson) – Half barrel-fermented and half in stainless steel, taken off its lees at blending and allowed 100% (spontaneous) malolactic, followed by aging in 30% American oak. Light and open, showing cream, apricot and a lot of really fresh orchard fruit. Light- to medium-weight, with a little butter and wood spice, and then nice floral notes emerge on the creamy finish. Quite balanced and pleasant, handling its oak well but never heading over the top.
Blackenbrook 2004 “Barrel Fermented” Chardonnay (Nelson) – Grapes picked at 24 brix. 100% oak here…60% new, with 90% of both types of wood sourced from America, with the remaining 10% only older French barrels. The wine spends 9-10 months in wood. 100% malo. The nose is full of intense clove, cinnamon and creamy ripe orange and peach, with a caramel note intertwined. Big and ripe on the palate, showing more peach, this time braced with slightly crisper apple. Intense, full and lush, this cleans up its act a bit on the finish, which is crisp and juicy. A very good wine with aging potential, and the likelihood that it will handle its wood well over that period.
St. Jacques is Blackenbrook’s second label, but in reality both of the following pinot noirs were picked the same day; the principal difference is clonal, with the St. Jacques coming mostly from New Zealand’s ubiquitous 10/5, and the regular sourced from Pommard and Dijon variants (there are eight different noir clones in the estate’s various vineyards). Grapes here are picked and vinified clone-by-clone, and in the end the divergence is obvious.
St. Jacques 2004 Pinot Noir (Nelson) – As with the pinot gris, a later harvest was hoped for, but the onslaught of precipitation prevented that. Light plum and earth, blueberry, thyme and other herbs, with a light impact supported by only a little tannin. Fresh, fruity and fun, this is a wine of friendly immediacy, but little future.
Blackenbrook 2004 Pinot Noir (Nelson) – Gorgeous floral aromatics pair with light red and purple plum, anise liqueur (not a dominant element) and graphite-infused cedar on the palate. Gritty but ripe tannin, smoothed-over and perhaps a little shorter than one might prefer, with the tannin still fairly obvious on the finish. Despite this, the wine is fresh and lively. A good effort.
Oh, and as for the name? As any German-speaking reader will already have divined, “Blackenbrook” is a fairly literal transliteration of “Schwarzenbach” into English.