Te Mata Estate – Dedication turning New Zealand’s Oldest Winery into Gold.
There once was an English immigrant called John Chambers. He made money by digging gold in Australia. With the money earned he started a winery in New Zealand. This is how the story of New Zealand’s Te Mata Estate starts. Being more than 130 years old, the story is long and unconventional. Like every good novel, it starts with a dream and ends with a happily living after.
Please read along with the magic story of New Zealand’s oldest winery: Te Mata Estate.
The Birth of New Zealand’s First Commercial Winery
The story starts by meeting John Chambers. In the late 19th century, this Englishman made his money in the gold mines of Australia. With his pockets full of gold, he moved his family to New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay. As grand tours were common use for wealthy kids those days, Chamber’s offspring was sent around the world to catch up the latest trends on agriculture. Returned from their tour, his son Bernard planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the family estate. We are writing the year 1896. New Zealand’s first commercial winery was born. Welcome to ‘Te Mata Estate’.
The Execution of an Inner Conviction
We move over to an Irish rooted wine judge called John Buck. John Buck carried an inner conviction. The conviction that New Zealand could produce great red wines. To be more precise: John Buck thought for sure New Zealand was able to produce the best red wines in the world. Together with his wife Wendy and their companions Michael and June Morris they built a dream: producing New Zealand’s best red wine. To execute that dream, they bought Te Mata Estate in Hawke’s Bay inn 1974 and made a plan. The plan turned out to be a 50-year renovation project.
Wages for Work
Speaking in terms of structure and operations, Te Mata Estate was in good shape. In terms of quality however, the estate was not at the place where the Buck’s wanted it to be, but the powers of nature were on their side. After a period of prohibition driven tax policy, a food and cafe culture arrived in New Zealand in the 70’s. John Buck became the wine face of this great gastronomic movement. Standing in the spotlights did not harm. Media attention however was not a goal itself. The goal was to make New Zealand’s best red wine.
Without getting ahead of ourselves, it seems they succeeded to do so. Te Mata Estate nowadays is one of the 5 ‘Icon Wineries of New Zealand’. Te Mata is seen as one of the best Cabernet Sauvignon producers of New Zealand. The winery is overloaded with awards and their flagship wine Coleraine is broadly accepted as New Zealand’s best red wine. We find out how the Buck’s succeeded to execute their dream. We talk to Toby Buck, the youngest son of John and Wendy Buck.
Down to Earth Family Business
Toby Buck grew up on Te Mata Estate. Visibly proud Toby Buck shows a book called ‘1001 Wines You Must Try Before You Die’ by Hugh Johnson and Neil Beckett. On the back cover there is a picture of Te Mata. ‘This is our family home. Look, this is my bedroom, just here. Crazy isn’t it?’
The fact Toby Buck is showing a book is no coincidence; he is winner of several writing prices. Talking about wines, Toby Buck expresses himself in lovely poetic metaphors. After finishing several studies Toby worked at Te Mata, across every department. Nowadays Toby is based in Amsterdam, from where he works as Sales and Marketing Manager for the winery.
Te Mata Estate is a family winery. John and Wendy Buck still are involved, but their children pull the strings now. Where Toby is responsible for sales, his oldest brother Jonathan has Te Mata’s grape growing site ‘Woodthorpe Terraces’ under his wings. Middle brother Nick is in daily charge of estate as Chief Executive.
Talking to Toby makes clear the success of Te Mata Estate has not taken their minds. ‘People will sometimes think there is something special about us. There is nothing special about us. Our success is Hawke’s Bay’s and New Zealand’s success. We have been lucky to have some good years. My mother always used to say: ‘don’t congratulate yourself if the sun shines too much’. When nature gives you a great gift, it would be inappropriate to pull every bell and whistle.’
An Intrinsic Relation to Nature
Talking about nature, there are a few things to be mentioned. Thirst of all is New Zealand’s unique landscape. New Zealand is determined by a long mountain chain, running from the north to the south, dividing the country like a spine. The mountains prevent the eastern part of the country from heavy rainfall. Next to the vertical separation by these mountains there is the Cook Strait. This small water between the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific Ocean passage divides New Zealand in two Islands: The North Island and the South Island.
Hawke’s Bay is located on the North Island. On the East Coast of the North Island to be precise. Hawke’s Bay knows a maritime climate, sheltered by the Ruahine and Kaweka mountain ranges. It has long and warm – not excessively hot – summers and it is one of the lowest rainfall areas in New Zealand. Due to these favorable growing conditions, there is a lot of fruits grown. For that reason, Hawke’s Bay is called the “fruit bowl” of New Zealand.
Te Mata’s main site is located on North facing hillsides of Te Mate Peak, the namesake of the estate. The vineyards around the estate are located about three kilometers from the ocean, benefiting tempering and cooling influences. Key factor is a large diurnal swing. Temperatures fluctuate from 33 degrees Celsius at summers days to 13 degrees Celsius at night. ‘Moderate and long summer warmth, cold nights and a cool ocean breeze does give our wines a bright-acid character, aromatic profile and a slightly herbal lift.’
According to Toby Buck it is possible that a warming climate in New Zealand is leading into earlier vintages and heavier weather. At the same time, he is nuancing the effects: ‘every vintage is something to worry about. That is the nature of winemaking. We are essentially farmers. We are always dealing with the potential something can go wrong. There is something equalizing about working with nature. You are always involved in a kind of risk, a kind of gamble, and try to manage it. It will temper your ego. You don’t get too carried away with yourself.’
Size does Matter
The size of Te Mata is deliberate. Toby Buck shows that by recalling his favorite expression of Te Mata’s winemaker Peter Cowley: ‘Te Mata is small enough to make great wines and big enough to have the resources to keep on doing that’. The property of the estate stretches over 235 hectares. It is part of a protected mixed-use area with, inter alia, mushrooms, honey places, gardens, flower beds and farmland. Around 180 hectares is planted with vines.
Only a part of the grapes is destined for Te Mata’s wines. Te Mata’s first income stream is selling contract grown grapes or pressings to other wineries. In a normal vintage Te Mata sells more than 50% of its fruit. Toby Buck explains the motives behind this well-thought-out business model: ‘I think it comes from the fact that my father had a clear vision of what he wanted this place to be. In terms of wine, he had a clear idea about what he wanted to make and how he wanted it to taste. From that point he planned and had a clear idea about the size he wanted Te Mata to be, and how he wanted it to operate. The present business model makes his specific idea work and justifies it. We don’t have an interest in being three times our size.’
Te Mata’s Wines
According to Toby Buck the story of Te Mata is easy to explain, as most of the time the wines do the talking. Wines should always do the talking, so from here on we will discuss the wines of Te Mata Estate.
We tasted five wines: 2022 Estate Chardonnay, 2021 Estate Gamay Noir, 2020 Estate Cabernet / Merlot, 2019 Awatea and 2020 Coleraine. In the first part of this article we discuss the Chardonnay and Gamay Noir. In the second part we discuss the three Bordeaux blends.
Chardonnay & Gamay Noir
Te Mata – 2022 Estate Chardonnay
We start with one of the most popular wines of Te Mata, the Estate Chardonnay. For this review we tasted vintage 2022.
The grapes for the 2022 Te Mata Estate Chardonnay are coming from the estate’s own vineyards located in the Woodthorpe Terraces, Bridge Pa Triangle and Havelock Hills. A part of the fruit is coming from a vineyard that is over 130 years of age, named after the year it was planted: 1892. After picking, about half of the grapes are fermented in stainless steel tanks. The other half is fermented in medium toasted French oak. The part in oak stays in the barrels for about six months, with regular bâttonage. Malolactic fermentation is allowed.
The result is a well-balanced Chardonnay, in a very bright and fruit-forward style. The wine has heaps of fruit, completed by a good freshness en well integrated wood influences. We quote Toby Buck: ‘you are basically looking at a Chablis and a Burgundy put together, with fruit from chalk soils fermented in stainless steel, combined with old vine fruit from clay and sand, fermented and aged in French oak’.
In the glass the wine displays a medium golden colour. The wine is flinty, floral and citrus dominated, with flavours of pure citrus, candied citrus, yellow kiwi and tangerine. With time it opens up, and more ripe and tropical fruits like white peach, mango and apricot appear. The bouquet has a Burgundian look and feel, in a ripe and fruit forward fashion. The combination of the tropical fruit and touch of cream reminds of pêche melba. The aromas are topped with subtle impressions of pure vanilla en fresh green herbs.
On the palate 2022 Estate Chardonnay essentially is crisp and bright, surrounded by several layers of fruit and barrel related influences. The fresh core is accompanied by layers of ripe fruit, some salinity and a subtle creaminess. The profile of the wine is built on freshness and precision. Although the acidy level seems to be quite high, we would say the acids feel round en gentle. The wine has a great fruit intensity and there are heaps of juicy fruits – ‘the fruit is driving the car’ – but all in a fresh and balanced way.
The fruit is rather intensifying than broadening the palate. In terms of fruit we are talking about citrus, grapefruit, white peach and white nectarine. In combination with the balanced barrel influences, a touch of lemon curd and merengue appears. Although the wine is juicy, ripe and slightly creamy, it also is delicate, modest and refined.
The long-lasting aftertaste is dominated by mild green citrussy flavours, pleasant fruit bitters and a touch of pure vanilla bean.
We reward this well balanced 2022 Estate Chardonnay with a 93-point DWA score.
Te Mata – 2021 Estate Gamay Noir
John Buck and Te Mata winemaker Peter Cowley were exploring the French Beaujolais back in the ‘80s. They became curious about Gamay and brought it to New Zealand. Nowadays Te Mata still makes a fascinating wine out of this Beaujolais based grape, the 2021 Estate Gamay Noir.
Beaujolais adepts should keep an eye on New Zealand and Te Mata Estate in particular. The amount of Gamay vines in New Zealand is growing. Toby Buck explains: ‘regions suited for Pinot Noir are getting warmer now. They are looking at Gamay. Pinot Noir based winemakers on the South Island are starting to plant Gamay.’
The grapes for the 2021 Estate Gamay Noir come from Te Mata Estate’s Woodthorpe Terraces vineyards. 65% of the grapes is fermented by carbonic maceration. Whole bunches of grapes are placed in vats, filled with CO2. The lack of oxygen triggers a process called intracellular fermentation. Carbonic maceration extracts some color, but only a little tannin. Carbonic maceration causes typical flavors like bubble gum, kirsch and banana. The rest of the grapes undergo traditional warm red wine fermentation. The wines undergo malolactic fermentation and mature for nine weeks in old Syrah French oak barrels.
The transparent ruby red wine offers an expressive bouquet, showing flavours like candy, raspberry, strawberry, kirsch and banana. Once the carbonic maceration flavours have moved aside, more serious aromas appear. We mention warm herbal flavours like cinnamon, ginger bread and clove, together with a touch of milk chocolate and strawberry jam. The bouquet is soft, smooth, pleasant, warm and joyful.
Being simultaneously cheerful and serious, the 2021 Estate Gamay Noir somehow is bit schizophrenic. In the positive sense of the word to be clear. The attack is filled with soft red fruit, were as orange dominated acids take over and clean the palate. The linear acids reveal several layers of velvet wild strawberry, nutmeg and café crema. The wine is silky and floating and tannins are barely perceptible.
The 2021 Te Mata Estate Gamay Noir is temping and seductive. One you have opened the bottle, you cannot stop sipping. We reward this fun and versatile New Zealand Gamay with a 92-point DWA score.
The Bordeaux Blends
Variations in soils, growing conditions and expositions in Hawke’s Bay are leading into a broad assortment of wine styles. The philosophy of Te Mata is based on sub-regional blending. Both single variety and blend wines are made out of grapes from several plots. In the following we will find out how that works out, by taking a closer look to the famous Bordeaux blends of Te Mata Estate. We will take a deep dive into Te Mata’s Estate Cabernet / Merlot, Awatea and last but not least flagship wine Coleraine.
The limestone hills of Havelock are ideal for ripening red Bordeaux grapes. The original Te Mata Estate vineyards are located close to the Estate on the North-facing hillside of Te Mata Peak, close to the ocean. The soils are rich in calcium and limestone. The other Cabernet en Merlot vineyards are located in Bridge Pa Triangle, Gimblett Gravels and Dartmoor.
As mentioned before, the business model of Te Mata is based on selecting grapes for their own wines and selling the rest. This selection starts in the vineyards. The fruit that might not be used is sold. The grapes are harvested manually. All the blocks are vinified separately and they are all potential components for Te Mata’s flagship wine: Coleraine.
Assemblage is a crucial part in Te Mata’s winemaking. Toby Buck is taking us along into this process. ‘Think of four winemakers, family members and other people in a room discussing for a month in quite robust terms. They are basically arguing about the best expression of Hawke’s Bay. We talk about details, precision, all these kinds of concepts. But most of all we talk about provenance. Provenance is the idea that you can taste where the wine is from. That is essential. We feel like we owe it to the place to make wines speaking about where they are from.’
The final blend is the result of a lot of experiments. ‘It is empirical, it is scientific and is its dogmatic.’ The wines are also the result of lots of discussion. Quite heavy discussions according to Toby Buck. It is part of the process and Buck is not at all worried about it. ‘I am quite comfortable when the winemaker is a bit angry or unhappy. It is a good sign. Is means they are emotionally involved and they care about the results.’ Smiling: ‘Winemakers have to be a bit angry.’
One way to judge non-Bordeaux Bordeaux Blends, is to put them on a virtual map of Bordeaux. Coleraine is having a large amount of Cabernet Sauvignon and in that light could be positioned as a left bank Bordeaux. Awatea initially was developed as a right bank Bordeaux alternative – with a large Merlot component – but the composition changed over time. Nowadays both Awatea and Coleraine do contain a high amount of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Coleraine still is based on higher amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon than Awatea. The exact amounts are depending on the vintage. The 2019 Awatea is made out of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 41% Merlot and 14% Cabernet Franc. The 2020 Coleraine contains 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Franc.
Although a comparison to Bordeaux can be insightful, wines have to be judged on their own merits. Toby Buck agrees: ‘it is wonderful to be seen as a comparison to Bordeaux, but when people talk about you for your own voice, being where you are from, is a way more validating feeling’.
So, let us taste the wines. We start with the 2020 Estate Cabernet / Merlot, followed by the 2019 Awatea and finally the 2020 Coleraine.
Te Mata – 2020 Estate Cabernet/Merlot
Te Mata makes three Cabernet Sauvignon – Merlot blends in most vintages. In these blends, most of the times also a small amount of Cabernet Franc is used. The exact amount is depending on the vintage, varying between 8 and 20%.
‘Cabernet Franc with its herbal, lifted, leafy, raspberry aromas gives Te Mata its signature characteristics. The problem it is that we don’t have much Cabernet Franc and it’s one of the last grapes to come in. In good years you will find Cabernet Franc in all of our wines, in higher percentages. In tough years however, you will see lesser amounts of Cabernet Franc. So, Cabernet Franc almost is a cheat code for how happy we were and how much sunshine we got.’
On earlier vintages, Te Mata used to mention an ‘s’ after ‘Cabernet’ on the label, to clarify there is Cabernet Franc in it. Since 2019 the wines are labeled without the ‘s’, although the wines still include Cabernet Franc. The 2020 Estate Cabernet / Merlot is made out of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 41% Merlot and 14% Cabernet Franc.
The grapes for Estate Cabernet / Merlot are coming from Te Mata Estate’s own vineyards in the Havelock Hills, Bridge Pa Triangle, Gimblett Gravels and Dartmoor sub-regions of Hawke’s Bay. Before blending the wines are matured in a mixture of new and seasoned French oak barrels for 12 months.
The Estate Cabernet / Merlot is Te Mata’s entry level Bordeaux blend. We do note the word ‘entry’ must be seen relative in this context. The word reflects the position of the wine in the Bordeaux blend assortment of Te Mata. As you may have gathered by now, the bar is set high in this winery.
Te Mata Estate Cabernet / Merlot is bang for your buck. That is not that surprising, considering all components were potential components for Coleraine. Toby Buck tells us his own collection is packed with this wine. ‘I keep it eight to ten years. I know most people might drink it young. It can be quite tannic and they are missing a trick. When opening young, I advise to double decant. You will be surprised by the richness.’
We tasted the wine in several stages of exposure to oxygen. The deep ruby red wine with purple reflections opens with a typical Bordeaux related bouquet. The bouquet gives comfortable and concentrated purple fruits like cassis, blueberry, fresh purple plum, together with cigar box, baking spices and sandal wood. The fruit is ripe yet precise, the wood is pure and integrated. There also are some fresh green nuances, flowery nuances and a touch of graphite.
Most striking about Te Mata Estate Cabernet / Merlot is the combination of a ripe and fine-grained tannin structure, surrounded by beautifully applied layers of fruit. The fruit is succulent, juicy and fresh. The midpalate is inky and concentrated, based upon flavours like pure blueberry, blackberry and bramble. The striking acids build up really quick, bringing a banging tension, to then leave a clean palate.
Compered to wines like Awatea and Coleraine, one could say Estate Cabernet / Merlot is a little less precise, but we would rather say Estate Cabernet / Melot in this stage is gives you more kindness. The palate feels velvety and soft, without any weight. The long-lasting calm and savory aftertaste is dominated by tobacco leaf, bay leaf and licorice.
The 2020 Estate Cabernet / Merlot is punching far above its weight. It offers perfect balanced characteristics of a great Bordeaux blend, all in a kind and approachable manner.
We reward this attractive Cabernet Sauvignon dominated Hawke’s Bay blend with no less than a 94-point DWA score.
Te Mata – 2019 Awatea Cabernets / Merlot
Awatea was first made in 1982 and is named after the SS Awatea, a 1930s trans-Tasman steam ship, cruising between New Zealand and Australia. The ship was built in art deco style and was slightly over-engineered. According to Toby Buck, the ship is symbolic for the wine. ‘Awatea is the product of a technical development over a long period of time. It is like a beautiful ship, there is an element of engineering in it. Part of the ethos of Te Mata is that we always slightly over-engineer our wines, just offering a little bit more value than it should be.’
Awatea is composed out of 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot and 22% Cabernet Franc. The grapes are coming from several parcels spread throughout Te Mata’s vineyards. The parcels were vinified separately. The grapes were destemmed and traditionally warm fermented. The resulting wines were aged in new and used, medium toasted, French oak barrels for 15 months.
The deep ruby red wine with purple reflections shows some early aging reflections. We tasted this wine in various stages of exposure to oxygen. Direct after opening, the bouquet was dominated by the wood influences. The wine open up slowly, releasing a fraction of its true potential every half hour. We notice pure chocolate, orange peel, black tea, tobacco leaf, violets, rose, blackberry and a scent of red fruits. All pure and honest, with a touch of comfort.
Pure and honest, with a touch of comfort. Maybe that is the best way to describe Awatea. The fruit is fresh and uplifting, making the wine unbelievably vibrant and elevating. Compared to Coleraine, Awatea is slightly more open, a bit more comfortable.
Please don’t get us wrong, Awatea is exciting in every sense of the word. Responsible for all the excitement is a thrilling spine in the wine, around which the whole wine carefully is built up. This backbone feels like iron wire. The fine-grained tannin structure is wrapped around this iron spine. The powdery tannins are intertwined within floating fruit layers.
It takes some time all of these layers fully open up, but once they do you better be prepared. Fresh and pure slightly polished and lifted Cabernet fruits like blackberry and blackcurrant go hand in hand with a perfumed persistence. Determined green herbal tones of bay leaf, sage and thyme. The long-lasting aftertaste is leaving an impression of black olive, fine grained cacao, herbal tea and the best Italian espresso you can imagine.
We reward this inconceivable Hawke’s Bay Bordeaux Blend with a justified 95-point DWA score.
Te Mata – 2020 Coleraine
The headline of Te Mata Estate is Coleraine. Coleraine is seen as New Zealand’s best red wine and gets a huge amount of praise. Bucks is grateful about these rewards. ‘For us it is important, because there is a huge amount of work behind these wines.’
Coleraine is named after the birthplace of John Buck’s late grandfather in Northern Ireland. The wine was first produced in 1982. Until 1989 it was a single vineyard wine. Since then Coleraine is an assemblage of distinct plots in Havelock Hills. As mentioned before, all the component in these vineyards are potential components for Coleraine. The first selection is made in the vineyards by selling a large part of the fruit.
The best fruit is destined for the Bordeaux blends of Te Mata Estate. All the plots are vinified separately. The resulting wines were then run to predominately new French oak barrels for 17 months, after which the blending process takes place. The final blend of the 2020 Colerain contains 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Franc.
The bouquet of the deep purple coloured Coleraine is compact and unbelievable dense and perfumed. We mention deep concentrated bramble, blackcurrant and fresh plum skin, accompanied by fragrant rose and some savoury flavours. Freshness is given by aromas of green leaves, green tea and orange peel and a dark luxurious sensation is given by sandal wood, pure chocolate and baking spices.
Coleraine is pure and fresh. Coleraine is clean and honest. Coleraine is curbed power. Power without aggression. The fruit is dense, concentrated and focussed. There is so much going on and Coleraine seems to do it all without a fight. Maybe the best feature of Coleraine 2020 is the apparent effortlessness the wine is moving. All the components are perfectly composed and integrated. There is not a single flaw, not a single distraction. That is what real greatness is about.
One detail we would like to discuss is the way Coleraine is packed together. Although the wine has a great density and pressure, it feels like it is floating. The wine is built around a chalky and iron frame. Surrounding it you find the fine-grained tannin structure, that binds all the layers of fruit together. These powdery and perfectly ripe tannins give an impression of tiny little teasing pricks.
Last but not least there is an essential pure and vibrant acid backbone, carrying the wine towards an eternal lasting aftertaste, leaving impressions of perfect ripe blueberry and bramble and a touch of graphite. Fun fact: Coleraine is so fresh and uplifting that it felt 1 or 2 degrees cooler in comparison to other wines on the same serval temperature.
Unbelievable satisfying on the 2020 Coleraine is the combination of iron precision and accuracy, all balanced out by a remarkable gentleness. Coleraine has the look and feel of a great aged classic Bordeaux, without any aging tones. The wine gives the sensation of a perfect aged Premier Grand Cru Classé, with a fruit intensity of that same wine only just bottled.
In terms of right bank and left bank, we would say it has the conviviality and tranquillity of a right bank Bordeaux and the tenacity and persistence of a left bank Bordeaux. To be more precise: a feminine left bank Bordeaux, Margaux maybe. Coleraine however has to be judged on its own merits. Coleraine is a wine on its own.
Although we have not been to Hawke’s Bay yet – after writing this article Hawke’s Bay went some places up on our wine destination list – we would not dare to argue Coleraine reflects the terroir of Hawke’s Bay. There is simply too much going on to not have a reflection of the terroir in it.
It is no question Coleraine has great aging potential. According to Toby Buck Coleraine will easily survive 20 to 25 years. We instantly take that as a truth. At the same time, we are sure our bottles won’t stay unopened that long period of time.
We reward this brilliant and incomparable Hawke’s Bay Bordeaux inspired blend with an outstanding 97-point DWA score.
A Tale of Dedication, Modesty, and the Art of Winemaking
The story of New Zealand’s Te Mata Estate is long and unconventional. It starts with an English immigrant making money in the gold mines of Australia. It comes to fruition by executing the dream of an Irish family making New Zealand’s best red wine. Dedication, modesty and a deep sense of dependency and provenance made that dream come true. A long-term plan and a brilliant business model turned Te Mata Estate into gold.
The wines of Te Mata reflect the motives behind Te Mata Estate. They are unadorned and honest. They are well thought through and perfectly detailed. It is a saying the devil is in the details. The wines of Te Mata however show greatness in its details.
Do you see the happily living after now?
This article is written by our own Hermen Jansen (Origine Wijnen). We would like to especially thank Toby Buck (Sales and Marketing Manager EMEA) for his time and the interview, and Wijnimport J. Bart for providing the wines. Picture credits: Te Mata Estate Winery and Dutch Wine Apprentice.