Re-framing Riesling at Framingham, New Zealand

This time last year, I was in eager anticipation of my Riesling-focused trip to Australia (reported here).  As part of my “limbering up” process, I checked out what was happening in, on the face of it, a climate/country better-suited to Riesling – New Zealand.  With one notable exception, Framingham, I was (and have been) generally disappointed by Kiwi Rieslings.

Yesterday, I had the chance to spend time with Framingham’s winemaker, Dr Andrew Hedley.  Great tasting, great chat.  Hedley and his wines talk and walk the Riesling line.  These are Rieslings after my own heart – balanced, fine and focused as opposed to the sweet and sour, non-linear style which I’ve more typically encountered from the land of the long white cloud.  Stylistically, they’re closer to Germany than Australia – New Zealand’s more botrytis-prone climate lending itself well to sweeter styles.

A diverse portfolio

So what accounts for Framingham’s success with Riesling?  A clue lies in the diversity of their portfolio, which includes Framingham Dry (c. 5g/l of residual sugar), Classic (c. 18g/rs), Select (c 60g/l rs) and Noble Riesling (c.200g/l rs), as well as the new footloose, fancy free and downright funky “F-Series. While most producers make a single off-dry style, by picking Riesling at different ripeness levels, Hedley can fine-tune each cuveé from grape to glass.

Irrespective of style, Hedley tells me “we’re bold with acidity and flavour” – important because acidity levels drop rapidly in Marlborough.  It requires a quick response team of harvesters and, sometimes, every man and his dog who works in the office! For Framingham Dry, grapes are harvested around 19 brix, as long as flavour ripeness is there.   And it usually is, by reason of the precocious site (heat-retentive, well-drained stony soils) and low yielding old vines (up to 30 years old), pruned to two canes rather than four.

Make it funky

Most of the Rieslings are fermented and aged in stainless steel but, in other respects, Hedley diverges from an ultra-protective New World approach.  He uses wild as well as inoculated yeasts.  Wines are left on fine lees for as long as possible before bottling.  Sulphur is added quite late in the day. Not one to celebrate Riesling’s youthful “gin & tonic” austerity, Hedley explains this helps the development of the wines.  For the same reason, the Dry Riesling is bottled aged before release.  And, with plenty of underpinning acidity, there’s no fear of sacrificing his stated aim – structure and ageworthiness.

Tasting the range

Here are my tasting notes for Framingham’s Rieslings, fruit for which is now exclusively sourced from the producer’s three Wairau Valley vineyards in Marlborough.

Framingham Dry Riesling 2004 – this is the current bottle-aged release.  A bright, delicate nose with just a hint of petrolly development forecasts a sprightly palate with good citrus acid drive.  Though it’s fine-boned, tight and steely, a judicious 5g of residual sugar adds a note of richesse.   Pristine and persistent finish with pretty blossom top notes and a mineral undertow.  Very good.  RRP £9.99

Framingham Classic Riesling 2009 – rounder on the nose and palate with delicious honey-licked ripe apple and lifted apple blossom gently balanced by ripe but lipsmacking pink grapefruit acidity.  Lovely intensity.  Unsurprisingly, this is Framingham’s most popular Riesling – Hedley jokes “you cellar it in the car on the way home.” Hard to believe it has 18g/l of residual but fans of Ernie Loosen’s “Dr L” would get on with this like a house on fire.   As the German sommelier sitting next to me observed after the tasting, the wines are quite Germanic – quite a compliment! RRP £10.99

Framingham Select Riesling 2008 – a steely, mineral nose complexed with richer undertones.  A subtlely waxy palate shows honeyed orchard fruits and grapefruit.  It’s 60g of residual sugar are well met by an apple sorbet-fresh acidity.  Great balance and very user-friendly already.  £14.99

Framingham Noble Riesling 2009 – Sealed with a gold capsule, Hedley describes this as  Framingham’s “Gold Cap” (Germany’s Reserve Auslese).  Botrytis brings the concentration but Hedley points out that an element of clean fruit provides the key to its sorbet-like clarity and levity.   There’s a gorgeous purity and precision to its citrus and apple fuelled palate.   Though it has around 200g of residual sugar, we agree it’s not so much a dessert wine as a between courses sorbet substitute or partner for cheese.  I find it a great candidate for reverse spitting…RRP £14.99 (half bottle).

Off piste – the F-Series

Next up, we taste a couple of fledglings (tank samples) from Framingham’s new F-Series range.  Hedley tells me it gives him “scope to do daft things.”  Though the new range (and, he admits, larging it with Riesling) may not make commercial sense, few can argue with Hedley’s rationale – “we like wine and we’re a wine company.”

Framingham F-Series Old Vine Riesling 2009 (tank sample) – the idea is to differentiate the F-Series from mainstream Marlborough and how – unsulphured juice sees no clarification and is wild fermented.  The wine is then aged on full solids in stainless steel barriques and old barrels.  There’s a touch of malo too which Hedley used to balance “fairly perky acidity.”  Unsurprisingly, there’s plenty of texture here and, though there’s a buttery note to its applely fruit, it has a really good, tight spine of acidity.  Lovely pithy, spicy finish.  Despite 9g/l of residual sugar, it tastes dry.  Lots of character – very promising.

Framingham F-Series Auslese Riesling 2009 (tank sample) – this prophylatic creation may be a one off.  I say prophylatic because it’s made from an early harvest of fruit (picked two weeks earlier than anything else), that had succumbed to botrytis.  Hedley harvested it to contain the botrytis attack, wild fermented it and aged it in old wood and stainless steel barrels.  The result is a wine with 140g/l of residual sugar and over 10g/l of well tingly total acidity (that’s high!)  And it’s a wine of contrast – gentle, yet very precise, with a riot of rich, exotic fruit cut with lemon sherberty acidity.  In a word, fun, which I reckon goes to the heart of the F-Series.

Framingham aren’t half bad with Gewurtz, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc either, bringing the same combination of texture and life to all three.  The wines are imported and stocked by Les Caves de Pyrene, who specialise in off piste and natural wines.  It’s well worth checking out their exciting list or wining and dining atTerroirs wine bar and restaurant off Trafalgar Square, which they part own.