Tony Bish2013

Artful Blending

Unique Tribute Lots Feature at this Year’s Hawkes Bay Charity Fine Wine Auction.

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n land above the Tutaekuri River in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay lies a very special vineyard. It is special for a variety of reasons: it is one of very few left in New Zealand that is on own-roots vines – these vines are twenty years old now and, like those who successfully evaded the plagues of old, these vines escaped the devastation of Phylloxera which tore through the country in the 1980s and 90s. It’s just a small plot of dirt in terms of today’s vineyard real estate, a mere 2.4 hectares, but this slightly elevated site has helped to establish Hawkes Bay as a premium Chardonnay growing region.

Sacred Hill's Rifleman's Vineyard
Sacred Hill’s Rifleman’s Vineyard (c)SacredHill

Bearing the fruit of the iconic Rifleman’s Chardonnay by Sacred Hill is another reason why this vineyard is exceptional. Crafted by esteemed New Zealand winemaker Tony Bish, this wine has at times been likened in style to the most prestigious of Chardonnay appellations in France’s Burgundy – Chassagne-Montrachet. This is especially so in the best vintages, for example the wonderful 2001 and 2007 wines.

A quarter barrique of the equally promising 2013 vintage is up for auction at this year’s Hawkes Bay Charity Fine Wine Auction. At this very moment this Chardonnay is merely embryonic, undergoing the wonderful transformation that is malolactic fermentation embraced in barrels that are carefully laid out on the Sacred Hill winery floor.

The quarter barrique, equating to roughly three cases of wine, will be formed from not more than the 29 barriques that comprise the yield off that special vineyard. I was fortunate to catch up with Tony himself on Monday afternoon to talk about the Charity Fine Wine Auction, now in its 22nd year. We also talked about Sacred Hill’s unique tribute lots that were to be under the hammer on the 1st June event, and of course, under the protective shelter of the barrel hall from the insalubrious weather outside, we talked wine.

[dropcap]B[/dropcap]ish is conspicuously excited about this year’s vintage. While many in the region (and indeed New Zealand) have called 2013 the ‘vintage of the century’, Bish is not so quick to jump to conclusions, especially since there are still red ferments going on in the cellar. However he does stress that he is feverish about the quality of the Chardonnay and many of the reds.

Most importantly, weather during harvest was dry and warm, which meant that Chardonnay, a variety that has a propensity to develop slip-skin botrytis and therefore requiring hasty harvesting, got plenty of hang-time out on the vine this year. Importantly it wasn’t too hot – this enabled the grapes to slowly develop great flavour intensity and attain perfect ripeness.

Like the weather conditions that the whole country endured this summer, Rifleman’s has experienced a similar drought – that is, in production. The last qualifying vintage for the icon was 2010. This is what makes this Chardonnay even more covetable. Bish’s standards are impeccable, he has a clear vision of what Rifleman’s is, and if the vintage hasn’t performed the label won’t materialise.

As with any year that Rifleman’s is produced, Bish will assess each barrel (of which there are many different coopers) blind. Only those that reach the quality threshold and harmonize together go into the final blend.

Bish suspects just 500 cases this year will be produced. All the fruit is hand-picked, whole bunch pressed, and undergoes just 6 hours of settling before being drained to a variety of barrels. At this point they will undergo wild fermentation in the barrel (interestingly enough nearly all ferments at the winery go wild). Bish closely guards his own special techniques for promoting a successful wild ferment that is clean and gets the job done well, without recourse to any additions. The variety of cooperage is used to gain complexity, and it was a representative sample of these that I tasted through.

Tony Bish2013
Tony Bish amongst the 2013 Rifleman’s Chardonnay barrels.

The overriding oak regime Bish maintains is keeping toast to a controlled minimum – so you can be assured you won’t find an overwhelmingly oaky Chardonnay, but a wine of balanced, integrated primary and secondary components. He guided me through a tour of the different barrels he uses and explained that each cooperage delivers individual characterstics and nuances to the final blend. This constructs a complex, focused wine. For example, the Tonnellerie Cadus barrels, originating from Ladoix-Serrigny just north of Beaune, lend enough wonderful creaminess to the wine that Bish affectionately calls it ‘creamy Cadus’. There is incredible vanillin and oak lactone markers here. The hall is peppered with a few Tonnellerie Mercurey barrels, also from Burgundy. They too give creaminess as well as structure and toasty richness to the wine. Other coopers such as Marcel Cadet confer a particular hazelnut character, while others like Taransaud impart masculinity to the blend. Of course on top of these characteristics that the barriques impart is the primary fruit characteristics of citrus fruit, white floral notes and white stone fruit.

Although in its infancy I could see exciting potential from the careful selection of barrels, and I’m very excited to see what results after blending.

The Joseph Brimer Tribute Lot

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t is not just the quarter barrique of Rifleman’s Chardonnay 2013 that will form Sacred Hill’s lot: a stunning, poignant piece of artwork accompanies the generous donation. Photographer Richard Brimer is a good friend of Bish’s having done several vintages together at Vidals back in 1986. They kept in contact: Bish had gone off skiing in the South; Brimer had continued photographing wine and vineyards – a passion which he couldn’t make enough money from at the time. Today Brimer is a very successful wine photographer, executing the catalogue shoots for the auction every year. Bish admits he was useless at remaining in contact with male friends back then but he did so with Brimer. Eventually their children became friends, while the proximity of living in Te Awanga in Hawkes Bay facilitated their enduring friendship.

Brimer’s son Joseph was born with a rare blood disorder which meant not enough red blood cells were made in the body. After his big OE, at 25, Joseph fell particularly ill. Although battling and needing treatment all his life, it got to the stage where he needed bone marrow transplants. This ultimately led to a host-transplant rejection and sadly saw Joseph’s health take a detrimental turn. On the morning of 12 January 2013 Joseph passed away at home surrounded by family. His father Richard shot a very moving time elapse of the Te Awanga coastline, just outside of their family home on the morning of his passing. This scene is one of ten Limited Edition Brimer prints that unites with the quarter barrique of Riflemans Chardonnay to form the Joseph Brimer tribute lot. Bish and Brimer are two good friends, two talented, creative people who have contributed to this unique auction lot, which celebrates the life of a young man and son.

The Hawkes Bay Fine Wine Auction

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Hawkes Bay Fine Wine Auction is a wonderful charity event, which supports and raises funds for the Cranford Hospice. The association between fine wine auctions and hospices is not new. In fact one of the most famous auctions in the world is the annual Hospice de Beaune fine wine auction in Burgundy which raises millions of dollars for the community hospice. Burgundian producers get together and donate wine that is auctioned off by the barrel.

HB Charity Fine Wine AuctionA hospice is such an important organisation in any community, so progressing with the Cranford Hospice as beneficiary makes the Hawkes Bay Fine Wine Auction a noble event. Over its 22-year history, the wineries of the region have raised well over $2 million dollars for the charity. As well as the above-mentioned Joseph Brimer tribute lot, there is also a special tribute lot for Sir Paul Holmes (a unique case of the 2010 Hawkes Bay Vintage Selection wines as selected by Andrew Caillard MW), which will be auctioned off on the 1st June, 2013 at the Church Road Winery, Hawkes Bay. These two individuals were both patients of the hospice, demonstrating that the organisation is there for everyone, no matter what age or status in the community.

This year the auction has gone digital, with silent and online bidding featured, as well as syndicate bidding. Importantly most of the 35 lots up for auction are not commercially available, which makes the Charity Fine Wine Auction a real attraction for the wine lover and philanthropist. The 1st June event will begin with a pre-auction tasting in the Cuvee Room from 4:30pm, which will be followed by a 3-course dinner with matching wines in the Tom Macdonald Cellar. Tickets are $160p/p and are on sale now.

You can visit to find out more, view the lots, get involved and support a wonderful charity. And of course by supporting you will have the opportunity to own unique, fine wines from the generous participating Hawkes Bay wine producers.

Find the shortlist of fine wine auction lots here.
Happy bidding!