I have tried many natural wines in recent years and have written a little about this style of winemaking in previous columns, I am generally quite disappointed in many of those I have tried, but the glaring exception are the wines made by Hans Herzog in Marlborough whose natural wines are exceptionally good.
Last week, Hans and Therese Herzog were in Nelson to host a trade tasting and natural wines masterclass at Hopgood’s & Co so I went along to find out just why Hans can make such beautiful natural wines while others struggle to make something close to enjoyable to drink.
I have known Hans and Therese for many years and buy their wines quite regularly, I have seen the incredible effort Hans puts in to managing their vineyards, the care and thoughtfulness that goes into making their wines and the passion this couple have for selling only the very best wines they can. To me this passion for excellence is reflected in the natural wines they produce.
The term ‘natural wine’ has been interpreted by winemakers in many ways but when you get to the absolute basic principle it is winemaking with minimal winemaker intervention so the grape variety can express its true character. The issue I have with many natural wines is that, to me, they are just unpleasant to drink.
There is no doubt there is a market for funky, different and some would say, interesting natural wines, however these wines aren’t to everyone’s taste. Hans Herzog wines are in a different league, a league where quality and enjoyability go hand-in-hand.
To taste a Hans Herzog wine you wouldn’t know it is a natural wine, they are simply beautiful wines with lots of character and finesse. To me this speaks a lot about the passion of the people who make the wine and the 500 years family winemaking heritage they bring to their business. They care about actually making great wines that naturally express the qualities of their vineyard rather than talking about how cool funky wines are.
Winemakers have learned a huge amount over the centuries and have been striving to make better, more enjoyable, wines so why turn the clock back and make wines that aren’t enjoyable to drink? Personally, I think if you are going to make a natural wine them make it a quality wine, not a trendy wine.
At the natural wine masterclass with Hans and Therese we tasted a small range of wines made in slightly different ways. Therese talked about their vineyards and their philosophy to making wine and how that philosophy is influenced by their heritage.
She says “Hans lives and breathes the vineyard, despite a Master’s degree in Oenology he sees himself as a vigneron (viticulturist) rather than a winemaker. He loves to spend his time amongst the vines and works the land and tends the vines with immaculate detail using the same traditional and holistic approach of his ancestors.
“From hand-pruning to hand-picking and all the hard yards in between, tasks are tied-in according to the astrological calendar. Together with extremely low yields we aim for concentrated, healthy and vibrant fruit that will result in age-worthy wines that express the unique terroir and climate of our vineyard land.”
With reference to natural wines Hans says the real key to making good natural wines is the work done in the vineyard, if you have poor quality fruit then you can’t make good wines, let alone good natural wines, because the faults in the fruit will carry through and can even be amplified in the final wine.
Therese says “this means we have to do a lot of manual work in the vineyard, we need to control under-vine growth and the land is so stony we can’t mow the grass with a tractor mower so our under-vine growth and the grass between rows is maintained with weed-eaters.”
An example of the commitment to making the finest wines they can, natural or not, are the 28 grape varieties the couple grow on their 11.5 Ha vineyard, many of these are small trail plantings to identify varieties that will perform well in their micro-climate. Varieties like Nebbiolo, Lagrein, Saperavi, St Laurent, Barbera and Rousanne are very rarely planted in New Zealand but are performing well in the Hans Herzog vineyard.
Therese says “we want to make great wines, there’s nothing wrong with more conventional, industrial style wineries, there is a place for every wine style and winery size. If you compared us to this style of winery it would be like comparing Hopgood’s to McDonalds, we are a tiny boutique producers versus a mass-market product. We make a lot less money because we have very low crop yields and have a focus on small volume premium quality wines rather than making a cashflow wine.”
Hans told the small group that they are open to anything, “we have to be open minded because we want to make the best wine we can so we will try different things but we never use additives other than an absolute minimal amount of sulphur to stabilise the wine.”
Herzog wines are aged before being released, time is taken in the vineyard and winery to make the best wines they can from their little piece if paradise and if you want to try some of these hand-crafted wines with beautiful food Hopgood’s & Co are hosting a Hans Herzog Estate winemaker’s dinner on the 14th April where several courses will be matched with outstanding natural wines.
Check out Hopgood’s Facebook page or email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your place at the table.
Blackenbrook 2019 Family Reserve Nelson Pinot Noir RRP $43 – 5 stars
I first tasted this wine several months ago not long after it was bottled and thought it was an exceptional wine at the time, with extra time in the bottle my opinion hasn’t changed. While Pinot Noir can be light and floral this example is a delicious, powerful wine with lots of character and intrigue. From the initial intense fruit to the layers of smoky oak and juicy acidity this is a determined wine, it has presence and character.