Tasting Panel - Bordeaux Style Reds

, from Issue #98. August 13, 2021
Red wine being poured into a glass

New Zealand excels at Bordeaux-style reds. Our judges found 13 of the best to snuggle up with this winter.

We knew this winter would be a cold, muddy one the second those destructive floods hit Canterbury and the polar blasts roared in from the Antarctic shelf. But while climate disruption might be winning the war outside, we can take comfort in the fact that this year’s wines are safely tucked away in tanks and barrels – and the hearty, ribsticking red wines bottled in recent years are just hitting the market now, right when we need a bit of cosiness.

Rich, luscious, Bordeaux-style reds were what our highly skilled judges wanted to see and boy, did they see them! “Bordeaux-style” means wines dominated by any of the six red grapes approved for growing in Bordeaux, France: merlot, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, cabernet franc, petit verdot, carménère or any blend thereof.

It was superb to see a cross-section of styles scooping the top scores, with single varietals holding their own alongside fantastic combos.

Last year, there were rumours from the hot red regions of Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke Island that the 2019 wines were rather sensational. And now 2020 looks rather special as well. Winemakers had a wild time trying to harvest grapes and make wine socially distanced during the pandemic. But nerves were soothed by the excitement of how sensational the fruit looked. Today, some winemakers are calling 2020 the best big red vintage they’ve ever seen.

While Hawke’s Bay and its famous Gimblett Gravels subregion dominated our baker’s dozen, with two wines in the top three Waiheke Island once again showed it’s a force when the weather gods smile.

Most entries came from 2019; however, of the 2020 examples entered, all but two were awarded medals. Mother Nature has clearly smiled on us these past two years, and our judges were happy to see that her gifts weren't tainted with over-extraction or charry new oak. The fruit was left to do the talking and it spoke beautifully.

A Few Words from our winner:

“2020 was the greatest vintage I have ever experienced in my 25 years working in the wine industry,” gushed Mudbrick winemaker Patrick Newton. “The weather couldn’t have been better on Waiheke Island for the 2019/2020 growing season. Early-season rain enabled soil moisture to be at capacity before the longest recorded drought on Waiheke Island started. With high water reserves in the soil and hot dry days, the vines were able to ripen the grapes to perfection without the threat of disease.” Waiheke can be difficult to grow on, with cold, gusty south-westerlies hindering fruit set and rain from the tropics later in the season causing all sorts of drama. High rainfall and warm temperatures often force picking decisions, Patrick says. But he’s loving the Waiheke 2020 reds for their approachability at such a young age. “The fruit that went into the 2020 Mudbrick Reserve Bordeaux was all hand-harvested and naturally fermented in open-top fermenters where the cap was gently hand-plunged twice daily, before being pressed to French oak barriques to mature before bottling,” he adds. “I’d happily cellar this wine for 15-plus years because it’ll develop gracefully, but it’s superb drinking now, especially with butterflied lamb cooked on a charcoal barbecue.”

1. Mudbrick Reserve Waiheke Island Merlot Petit Verdot Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec 2020 ($75) Gold Medal

Wow, wow and triple wow! With its glossy, bright colour, powerful perfume and a palate absolutely heaving with complex dark plum and berry bodaciousness, this wine scored a unanimous gold score right from the get-go and went on to beat the competition in every round and claim the top spot. “It’s fleshy and shows a powerful, rich core,” noted Cameron, while James loved its superb structure, layers of fruit and excellent length. “It’s simply unputdownable,” said Yvonne. “Stylish, supple and if this is how good it tastes so young, it’s staggering to think where it can go.”

2. Esk Valley Artisanal Gimblett Gravels Malbec Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($24.99) Gold Medal

Esk valley

That this wine costs less than $30 blew our judges’ minds. Beautifully structured, silky, bursting with spicy, meaty, malbec-dominant signatures and stitched together with succulent spiced berries, cherries and plum, it’s a wine that instantly invites oohs and aahs. “Incredibly fragrant and fulsome, edged with smoked vanilla, chocolate and fruitcake,” noted Yvonne. “It’s dark and deeply delicious.”

 3. Man O’ War Waiheke Island Blend 2019 (Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot) ($31.50) Gold Medal

man o war

With its bright berries on the nose, bold mid-palate complexity and smooth, supple tannins, this cabernet franc-dominant blend from Waiheke made a huge impression. “Dark cherries, cocoa, coffee bean and blackberries bring power, flavour and a long, fine finish,” noted Cameron. Kiwi cabernet franc-based reds are rare, especially at this price and quality. This has a strong, spice-saturated spine and is quite stunning.

4. Villa Maria Reserve Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2019 ($49.99) Gold Medal

Like Scooby and Shaggy and Chandler and Joey, cabernet sauvignon and merlot are one of history’s great partnerships. Nick Picone and the Villa Maria team have created a blend roaring with dark fruit and sweet, smoky oak. “Impenetrably inky in the glass and showing soy, black olive, blueberry, blackcurrant and black pepper on its long, powerful finish, this is a wine that’ll also age incredibly well,” added Yvonne.

5. Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Prison Block Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($120) Gold Medal

trinity hill

“Deep, dark, intensely fruity, spicy, toasty, earthy, cocoa-crammed and leathery,” wrote Yvonne. “It’s a lovely, muscular red – more please!” Crafted from grapes grown beside the Ngaruroro River on a stony site, this 100 per cent cabernet sauvignon screams tobacco, dark plum, bouquet garni herbs and bitter chocolate. It opens up sexily in the glass and has immense palate structure from its firm tannins. Young, sure, but it shows great promise for the cellar.

6. Church Road 1 Gimblett Gravels Merlot 2016 ($119) Silver Medal

church hill

This 100 per cent merlot shone with poise, elegance and generosity, according to our judges, and at five years old, it's really hitting its straps. “Red berries, black cherry, dark spices and firm, dry tannins make for a very well-made wine,” said Cameron, while James loved its “chewability” and excellent persistence of flavour.

7. Squawking Magpie Grand Gimblett Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($79) Silver Medal

squawking magpie

This well-framed wine boasts aromas of fresh redcurrant, blueberry, bay and boysenberry. The oak handling and tannin integration are excellent, according to Yvonne – and the brightness on the finish is uplifting. It’s lithe, luscious and incredibly beautiful to drink.

8. Squawking Magpie SQM Gimblett Gravels Malbec 2019 ($79) Silver Medal

squawking magpie

100 per cent locally grown malbec is rare, but while this was the sole entry, it well and truly made an impression. Cameron noted “a lovely core of dark fruit and stacked with chocolate and boysenberry,” and Yvonne added “elegant black pepper complexity and gorgeously gritty tannins” to the mix.

9. Villa Maria Cellar Selection Hawke’s Bay Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($17.99) Silver Medal

Showing classic Bordeaux characters of soy, black olive, blueberry and dried
herbs, this is a solid wine with meaty tannins. Cameron felt it had “great impact and tension,” while James noted its “lovely layers and palate presence”. It’s also incredible value for money.

10. Unison Gimblett Gravels Rocky Red 2018 ($24) Silver Medal


This blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon from Philip and Terry Horn’s tiny vineyard is a cracker. James was an instant fan of its “impressive structure, presence and layered, fruity complexity” and Cameron loved the spicy oak and solid length. “It’s a big, chewy wine with a long future ahead of it,” agreed Yvonne. 

11. Mills Reef Reserve Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Merlot 2019 ($25) Silver Medal

mills reef

Want to wow the crowds? Here’s your ticket. Bright, floral, bursting with plum and boysenberry flavours and a whisker of mint chocolate and leather – our judges felt it was a youthful, dangerously drinkable all-rounder.

12. Red Metal Bridge Pa Triangle Merlot Cabernet Franc 2019 ($25) Silver Medal

red metals

The iron-rich soils of the Bridge Pa Triangle famously inject huge floral characters into their reds; this juicy-textured example is no exception. Generously proportioned and soaked in berry, cherry and chocolate, it’s
a grin in a glass.

13. Saint Clair Pioneer Block 17 Plateau Gimblett Gravels Cabernet-Merlot 2018 ($39.99) Silver Medal

St Clair

Dark, inky and sexy to look at, this blend offers blackcurrant and boysenberry aromatics and spiced cherry and toasty flavours. “Very nicely balanced,” said Cameron, while James called it a “superb