With all the shock and awe that has arisen from the publication of Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics (it is a really good read, by the way, extraordinarily crafted given the very short turnaround time) some people may have forgotten that New Zealand has a fine tradition of whistleblower books.
One such book is called Thirty Pieces of Silver, which was about the law firm Russell McVeagh and some of the dirty dealings that came to light after the Winebox Inquiry. Thirty Pieces of Silver was written by a celebrated lawyer, Tony Molloy QC, and had a profound effect on the firm in question, triggering a major shakeout of that firm’s partners and altering the shape of big city law firms in this country for good. I worked in another big city firm at the time (not as a lawyer, I might add) and while people were unhappy with what Molloy had done there was also tremendous respect for his integrity and discipline in his researching the scandal.
That integrity and discipline was already evident to those of us who got into wine in the late 80s / early 90s. We were blown away by some of the pioneering NZ wines of that era, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 1986, Kumeu River Chardonnay 1987, Stonyridge Larose 1987 and St Nesbit Cabernet Merlot 1987. The first vintage of Te Mata Coleraine was in 1982, in fact John Buck’s first Te Mata vintage overall was in 1979, but Coleraine really didn’t start to hit its straps until the 1989 and 1990 vintages. Antipodean released a group of vintages around the same time, 1985, 1986, 1987, but the price for these first releases, in the mail out in 1989, I remember was astronomical, so I couldn’t afford to buy any to see how good / or not the wine was.
So what the newly emerging wine buffs had for red wine excitement was this unknown producer called St Nesbit, from a peninsula on the Manukau Harbour of all places making restrained, Bordeaux-like Cabernet Merlot blends. The 1987 vintage came and went, then the 89, 90, 91s, they were all good, they were all expressive of their vintage and they were being made by a tax / trust lawyer in his spare time from a bizarre location, Hingaia, which, when we looked it up in the map, was somewhere near Karaka in South Auckland.
There had been a precedent for creating something world-class from a less than auspicious location. Mate Brajkovich, with his now Master of Wine son Michael (second person outside the UK in 1989, Michael Hill-Smith passed in 1988), was releasing some of the New World’s finest Chardonnays from a tough terroir in Kumeu. Kumeu River Chardonnay 1989 remains a key lockstep in my wine evolution, as does St Nesbit 1989 released a year later, these were significant advances on what had come before – Vidal (with Chris Pask’s new Gimblett Gravel vineyards) had blown the wine judges away with their 1987 Reserve reds, Goldwater and Stonyridge also had great wines that year, but our first genuinely Bordeaux like wines (again I hadn’t seen any Antipodean at this stage) were from St Nesbit.
When I got married in 1995, I had a range of wines at the reception, but the red wines on the table were mostly St Nesbit. I remember talking to one of the waiters from Great Catering Company after the guests had left and he getting excited because he was allowed to try a couple of different vintages from the bottles that were left open.
Who was Saint Nesbit? I will leave you to look up that lovely and loving story.
But the driving force behind the wine label was Molloy’s unflappable determination to make a single wine from one estate, in the Bordeaux mold. Unfortunately nature intervened with several disastrous vintages and then, even worse, the vineyard itself became diseased, wiped out by virus and Molloy’s family and friends had to start over.
It has been great to see that this once legendary New Zealand wine label is now coming back and the latest vintages reflect something special amongst local wines. What is most exciting is to see the personality of the different vintages, all of the wines are structured and well made, but there is real definition to each and every one of them, and more importantly balance and drinkability. These are truly brilliant wines considering that we have not heard from St Nesbit for such a long time. Class, sophistication, subtlety and finesse, but then these are all qualities that we got from Tony Molloy QC himself. These currently available vintages are all different – all good – all great drinking.
This Election Night, then, I might have to toast the new government with a glass of St Nesbit and, if she gets re-elected that is, I might have to send the Member for Papakura a bottle, since St Nesbit is in her electorate, to remind her of the values of honesty and integrity.
St Nesbit 2004
One of the first few vintages from the replanted vineyard (the very first from the new vines was in 2002?) this is boldly fruited, dense, a bit of a blockbuster. There is some lovely sweet berryfruit here, also sour cherries and dusty firm tannins. With this bottle age we are seeing earthy, savoury characters, slightly rustic in style, but big and powerful.
St Nesbit 2007
The most Bordeaux like of these current vintages, and thus more typical of what I remember St Nesbit to be, this is an elegant, racy, supple wine, boasting cedar and blackcurrant notes, creamy, vanillin oak over the top, and a pencil lead character that reminds me generally of Cabernet (Sauvignon or Franc?) and more particularly Left Bank Bordeaux. Classy wine – my favourite to drink now.
St Nesbit 2008
If you are more attuned to Hawkes Bay reds or Waiheke, then this riper, richer, more heady wine will appeal to you. The impression here is more plums and dark berry, the wine seems sweeter (higher in alcohol), rounder and plumper. For me, the Merlot component is currently holding forth here, it is this variety that is most expressive, but there is also an excellent acid backbone and firm, but not heavy handed tannins, so this may evolve in a really interesting way in the cellar over the next three to five years.
St Nesbit 2009
Like the 2008 before it, 2009 shows great structure and finish, but the overall impression is of a drier, more firm and taut wine. I would also hazard that 2009 is slightly lighter in extract (and weight?) than the earlier vintage, but it is another one that I prefer, due to the leather and cedar characters, mint and herbal overtones, so here the other varieties are singing and Merlot plays a supporting role only. Another elegant, structured wine that would be great now, decanted, with red meats and hard cheese, but which could also mature gracefully with another four to five years in the cellar.
St Nesbit 2010
Initial impressions are that this is another big, ripe vintage, certainly it is a little more broad shouldered than the 2009 vintage, but my general conclusion is that this is a youthful, fruity wine that needs more time. Big, sweet, cherry-berry characters, some toasty oak over the top yet to be resolved / integrated, juicy and dense on the palate, while this is fruity and relatively uncomplicated in the mouth, it is also tannic and structured, you have been warned! This should age gracefully for up to ten years.
Post Script / Addendum (18 September 2014)
The wines above were first tasted, as a group, on Friday 15 August 2014.
On Wednesday, 17 September, I was able to taste the remaining vintages from the “new” St Nesbit. Many thanks to Great Little Vineyards for this opportunity. Unfortunately the rigours of re-establishing this great estate mean that these may be the last wines sold under this label and that the Molloy family may withdraw from production. The vineyard will go on, but for the moment the future is uncertain and this may be it for this iconic label.
Here are the remaining wines:
St Nesbit 2006
Starts initially like any other Bordeaux varietal New World wine, with fruit prominent on the nose. plum, dark berry, capsicum and cedar aromatics, but then reveals savoury, complex elements somewhere between marmite and iodine. This earthy, secondary aspect comes through again on the palate, the acids are clean and fresh, the tannins taut and direct. This wine took quite a while to open up, suggesting a good cellaring candidate for potentially five plus years. One of the more elegant, perfumed St Nesbits, but already expressing a great deal of character.
St Nesbit 2005
Quite meaty and earthy aromatics, the berryfruit here has evolved into mineral, woodsy notes, showing a lot of development. In the mouth, however, the sweet fruit comes through, with a creamy mid palate, brusque, yet textured tannins and a hint of sweetness and alcohol.
Altogether bigger and more dense than the 2006, perhaps showing a slightly warmer or drier vintage, I am not sure (South Auckland is not exactly a wine region from where we get regular vintage reports.) More developed as well, this is enjoyable now, but will hold nicely for the next three to five years at least.
St Nesbit 2003
Another amazing wine from St Nesbit, especially when one considers that this was the second vintage released from the replanted vineyard (note – I have not yet tasted the 2002, the inaugural vintage from those new and improved vines, but on the basis of this wine, it ought to be exciting.) This fully mature wine shows a mineral overtone which is the hallmark of the entire line up, game meat and macerated berry notes, clove, black olive and diesel. If this is any indication, the younger vintages have potentially some wonderful development ahead of them. The palate gives the impression of another warm year, it is concentrated and dense, with a hint of fruit richness, but the finish is dry and firm, gravelly and dusty very much in the Bordeaux mold. So the wine is just starting to dry out a little, but this is outstanding drinking now and over the couple of years. Beautiful wine, one of the highlights of these recently re-released vintages.