Good things can be helped by false start

ONE OF THE BEST: Tony Bish, winemaker at Sacred Hill.
ONE OF THE BEST: Tony Bish, winemaker at Sacred Hill.

Wine lovers at the bottom of the world should think themselves lucky, having among them at a winemaker's dinner in Gore last week one of the country's finest, armed with some of the stunning wines he makes.

The next day I had the same good fortune when Tony Bish did the honours at a gathering of wine writers which marked the 25th anniversary of Sacred Hill, the winery near Napier in which he has been involved from the start.

To which some with long memories might well say: Which start?

In the early 1980s the late Ian Mason, fresh from a tour of European wine regions, made several attempts to establish vineyards on a farm he had bought up the Dartmoor Valley.

"But we were farmers, not grape growers," says his son David, now the chief executive of Sacred Hill, who remembers the weather forcing three false starts.

Then, no sooner had they launched the label with a fume blanc (an oaked sauvignon blanc) in 1986 and the weather struck again, this time in the form of Cyclone Bola.

It was at this stage winemaker Mark Mason, his good mate Tony Bish, and David, then working as a deep sea diver in the Middle East, put in $2000 each and said "let's try and do it properly" - "try" being the operative word.

Unfortunately, their bankers did not share these plans. Their only answer was to go into receivership, buy back the assets and start yet again making their wine in a farm implement shed covered with possum poo and bird-droppings that they converted into a spotless winery.

Later, it became the cellar door and remains one of the most picturesque in the country. The winery is a hi-tech 250,000-case facility in Hastings.

However, much of the focus last week was on two of the vineyards up the road from the cellar door, both high above the Tutaekuri (dog's turd) River.

One produces Sacred Hill's famous wild yeast, barrel-fermented Sauvage Sauvignon Blanc, the other - Rifleman's Terrace - to a lesser or greater degree the chardonnays for which Tony Bish first earned my admiration back in the early 2000s when he won gold medals at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards for all three that Sacred Hill produced.

Today, of course, these vineyards produce only a fraction of the wines made by Sacred Hill which also has plantings in Marlborough , grows most of its reds (made by Jenny Dobson) on the Gimblett Gravels, and also sources pinot noir from Mark Mason's Central Otago Vineyard.

The three-tier range includes Orange, Halo and super-duper Special Selection labels.

Ti Point, made from fruit grown near Leigh, north of Auckland, by David Mason's winemaker wife Tracy Haslam is also a member of the wider family.

Some must-try wines from Sacred Hill:

Virgin 2011 Chardonnay, $29
A chablis-style special selection chardonnay made to celebrate 25 years. Vibrant, citrus-driven and made without the use of oak, it dances on the palate. Available only from fine wine outlets and from the winery.

Sauvage 2011, $34.99
Watch out when it is released next year for this beautiful tropical-fruited sauvignon which for some reason is cork-stoppered. Leaner than usual but still with the same great texture, taste and appeal.

Deerstalkers 2010 Syrah, $59
Given its relative youth this is a remarkably complete and approachable Gimblett Gravels red. Seamless and soft, rich and ripe and worth every cent, according to those who have given 90 points plus from 100.

Brokenstone 2010, $49
A mainly merlot blend that also contains cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and syrah. A glorious mouthful of black fruits leavened with spice and chocolate. Silky and rich with a coffeed finish.

The Southland Times