Maybe like all hobbies, wine is more exciting the less you know of it. Even after almost a decade selling wine at Cork Culture, even after the thrill of discovering and introducing new producers year-after-year, some of the most treasured memories I have are from the very start of my wine journey. Memories almost always involving nameless bottles, since the producer or vintage or really anything other than the occasion was unimportant.
This all changed a little when I drank my first bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. I remember the thrill of drinking something so supercharged, so different, that I had to see who was made this unbelievable bottle. It was Kim Crawford. That's right. Kim Crawford, from the big old conglomerate that is Constellation Brands. Bulk wine, mass produced, industrial Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Apparently, the most advertised wine brand of 2018. This was the stuff that got me through university. The kind of wine that made me fall in love with wine.
An actual photo of some damage that my flatmates and I did back in 2010 as we prepared to clear out of university. Not much studying was done. Lots of Sauvignon Blanc was consumed.
It goes without saying that since 2010 a lot has changed in not only what I drank, but also what the world drinks and makes. In pristine New Zealand, the country has been undergoing the same revolution that's swept wine producing regions all around the world. A new generation of winemakers has been making natural wines under their own interpretations of what is natural.
Despite mostly importing wines from Europe, we've long been looking to import from a winery closer to home. When Theo Coles of The Hermit Ram emailed us last year, we couldn't have been more excited.
Despite me talking about Sauvignon Blanc, Theo's journey began with Pinot Noir. He's been a winemaker for a number of years and even now works at another winery in Central Otago. The Hermit Ram is his personal project and a place where he can share his own style of winemaking. One day years ago, he met Gareth Renowden, the owner of the Limestone Hills vineyard in the Waipara Gorge, who had 1000 Pinot Noir vines planted of course on limestone soil. Renowden wanted Theo to make some wine, and his first vintage was in 2012. Since he loved natural wines and the vineyard was already farmed organically, the project began.
Over the years he's expanded beyond just Pinot Noir to make wines such as his "Muller Thurgau", a testament to New Zealand's history with the grape prior to Sauvignon Blanc, and "Salty White", a blend of Muller and Sauvignon Blanc. The saltiness seems to be a point of obsession with Theo, and radiates throughout his wines.
When people ask us what the wines taste like, I wouldn't say they are classic at all, but they are clean and reflect a type of precision in the winemaking. There's often an explosive aroma on the nose, but it's on the palate where the wines truly shine, with a lingering minerality and yes, salinity. Since New Zealand is such a coastal country, he wants to ensure that his wines speak of that element.
With the Skin-Fermented Sauvignon Blanc you get a little bit of everything. You get that original gooseberry, fruitiness that is so attractive about the style, but also texture from the skins and tremendous freshness from Theo's careful touch. His ancestral method Muller is just an explosion - like if there were an IPA that was also a wine. His field blend is a mix of riesling, gewurtz, pinot, and cab, but it doesn't taste like a jumble of flavours - it tastes just carefully delightful.
The Pinot is a star though. This is something I could drink cases of. Restrained but with fruit, wild but also clean and careful. It's a terroir wine, but it never forgets to be fun.
I know it’s a bit indecent of an importer to say this , but I think in many ways consumers take for granted the amount of labour it takes for a single bottle of wine to end up on a dinner table in Hong Kong. The winery and the importer have to connect, samples have to be shipped over and tasted, the grapes must be grown, harvested, picked, and then bottled and labelled and eventually shipped - only for them to be handled carefully and brought to a warehouse, only then again to be packed into smaller boxes to be shipped once again.
It took almost a year for these specific wines to get here, and especially with COVID disrupting global supply changes, quite a bit of effort. This situation isn't unique to The Hermit Ram, and honestly it happens with every single wine brought in by a good importer to Hong Kong.
Again, I'm not complaining, I'm just saying a lot is at stake here - we don’t take it lightly when we decide to import wine from a country (New Zealand) that we’ve never dealt with before logistically.
This makes it all the more important that you find a bottle of The Hermit Ram, and drink it. This is a bold statement, but after all - the only reason we do any of the aforementioned effort is so that this small bottle of wine that Theo harvested and fermented in North Canterbury New Zealand is so that it can be shared with you. These are, as Theo likes to put it, salty wines. They are salty and mineral and aromatic with the profound imprint of terroir, and coaxing such flavour isn’t accidental.
Ultimately, even though New Zealand brought us our love of wine (thanks Mr Crawford), it’s taken us almost a decade to return to the country - and honesty, we are so glad we did.