Calgary Wine Life: Nautilus Technical Tasting with Winemaker Clive Jones

25 07 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

The more New Zealand wine I drink, the higher it climbs in my esteem.  Renowned for its superb array of cool climate vineyards and their purity of fruit expression, New Zealand provides a fine showcase for my favourite black grape, Pinot Noir; I have also met few who cannot appreciate the unique and ultra-distinctive style that is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. We were all exceptionally pleased to welcome to Calgary Nautilus Estate’s winemaker Clive Jones, who travelled all the way from the globally renowned Marlborough region to put an array of his wines through their paces before us. Limits on word count and reader attention span mean that I must immediately plunge into telling six different stories about six different Marlborough wines…OK, five stories. You’ll see below.


2017 Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc (~$23)

Clive’s knack for explaining technical winemaking details in highly entertaining fashion becomes immediately apparent as the tasting begins. He feels fortunate that a vintage as challenging as 2017 in Marlborough, one marred by not one but two cyclones, could yield a wine of this caliber: “It did get 92 points…if we care about points.” I don’t, but much of the world at large does.


Nautilus winemaker Clive Jones

Only about half of 2017’s grapes were picked before the weather turned foul, but miracles were wrought and enough of the remainder were able to be used in the final blend. This crisis averted speaks to the classic advantage for those making a varietal wine from a blend of different sites year in and year out, a characteristic that Marlborough (with its myriad soil types and small-scale regional differences in elevation and climate) shares to some extent with Champagne. With an array of lots from different parcels to choose from, careful adjustments can be made by the savvy winemaker to land on a house style every time. The intent in Nautilus’ case is to dial down the aromatics (but not too far down) and dial up the palate weight, yielding something with a pleasing texture that maintains the drinker’s interest. Interestingly enough, part of Clive’s strategy involves adding around 1% of barrel-fermented wine to the Sauvignon Blanc blend, the remainder hailing from trusty temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. This calculated attempt to tame what is usually a fiercely aromatic, high-acid variety while still exalting the grape’s fundamental identity executes its mission with precision. 

I get some delicate floral aromatics that recall goldenrod and fresh thistles buzzing around above the more expected gooseberry, lime, grapefruit. passion fruit, guava, nectarine and under-ripe mango fruit. The trademark NZSB green element recalls bitter melon, nettles, beet tops, and tomato leaf as opposed to a full blast of green bell peppers, although the latter are tastefully woven into the tapestry. This 2017 has a particularly pronounced tomato leaf character, said to be provided by grapes from Marlborough’s Awatere Valley, and I would willingly smell this note forever. A subtle briny note hints at oysters for a moment. The palate weight is substantial but not ponderous, and one does notice a silky texture right away, providing a pleasant foil to what is still a tart, bone dry, steely, stony wine at its core. Hey, it’s a NZ Sauvignon Blanc, no?

90 points

2016 Nautilus Gruner Veltliner (~$26)

You read that correctly. NZ Gruner. I have previously discussed the fundamentally weird nature of this grape and why I love it so. This Austrian native first landed on NZ shores in Gisbourne in the 2000s and made the jump to Marlborough soon thereafter, so New Zealand is still in its Gruner infancy.  Despite its awesomeness, the grape has a few traits that keep it from mass-market white wine world domination, or at least more widespread recognition. The name is not particularly marketable; Clive suggests calling it “groovy jetliner” if all else fails. Gruner is challenging to grow, given its penchant for producing giant clusters if left to its own devices, which would yield vapid, relatively tasteless wines unless aggressive thinning is employed to ensure good flavour concentration.  Clive cannot promise that Nautilus’ experiments with this varietal will continue, but his understated pride cannot help but shine through when he talks about this semi-reluctant creation.IMG_1783

I stick my nose in the glass and cannot help but don my self-styled Gruner personality psychologist lens: what’s this one gonna do? Is it going to be linear or broad, staid or funky? This wine turns out to be…a lot of things. It is pithy and juicy, slinky and rather voluptuous, thick and unctuous. The nose makes an initial steely/stony impression that briefly harkens back to its Sauvignon stablemate, but then it quickly spools into classic Gruner territory: white peppercorn, grapefruit, Cox’s Orange Pippen apples, Bosc pears, pineapple gummy bears, bok choy greens, turnips, pumpkin pie spice and crust, white grease, and pot geranium. I reluctantly share my tasting note of “capers” with the table. More than half the time when I do this I get blank stares and a few facial expressions suggestive of mild pity. On this occasion I got the firm agreement of the winemaker himself. (I did not elect to share white grease. Hey, there’s something oily in there.) Eventually some of these weird yet wonderful impressions coalesce into fragrant honeydew melon mid-palate…and then I get this one exhilarating yet perplexing note deep into the long finish. What the hell am I tasting? Elevated grape Jello, maybe? Ethereal and perfumed, yet a touch histrionic, like those polarizing British floral gums. Maybe its just more honeydew. I will never perfectly pin it down, but for me this dash of inscrutability is one mark of a great Gruner.

91 points

2017 Nautilus Chardonnay (~$33)

Clive asks us if there is still a robust market for Chardonnay here. Most of us nod our assent. I suspect this grape is going nowhere, as much as the tides of wine fashion ebb and flow. When people finally tired of the overflow of rich buttery Chardonnay, a two-pronged revolt of cool climate grape growing and enhanced winemaking finesse took place, and good old Chard won most of us back. Clive explains that he cleaves to a Burgundy model, with exclusively barrel fermentation in 20% new French oak, indigenous yeast, and generous lees stirring. Most barrels undergo malolactic fermentation. However, the handpicked Chardonnay grapes are chilled overnight before pressing directly to the barrels without any solids being allowed to settle first. This technique of including some solid grape matter in the fermentation, one eschewed by some premium winemakers, results in added flavour and textural complexity. It may also render the wine less susceptible to oxidation. Clive advises that this wine does change with age but does not tend to develop a deep gold colour as it does so as would be expected. An effect of those solids, or some other alchemy?IMG_1786

I exchange knowing looks with my buddy a few chairs down as we both smell this. What an intense nose. It is decidedly pronounced, giving the olfactory bulbs a vigorous tug. The acid is far from shy, but there’s that plush silky texture again to balance things out. In another life Clive probably wove the finest silk scarves or cashmere sweaters or some other opulent garment. There is some popcorn and Werther’s Original candy here to be sure, but this is no butter bomb. Pineapple, green banana, acacia, and Asian pears stake a tropical claim while lemons (fresh and preserved) and key limes desperately try to fill the breach. Although typically a signature of American rather than French oak, some coconut Lifesavers throw in with team tropical, and the judicious oak treatment yields additional vanilla and nutmeg notes. A flinty yellow mustard/gunpowder note completes the package. This is firm yet elegant, complex yet not scattered, with everything in its right place. Usually after a tasting such as this, one particular wine dominates my thoughts for some time afterwards. Hello, Chard. Unlike Mudhoney, I do not hate you.

92 points

2014 Nautilus Pinot Noir (~$38)

In a total flip of Marlborough convention, Nautilus developed a specialized Pinot program BEFORE turning its sights on Sauvignon Blanc, constructing a winery that uses the principles of gravity flow to minimize aggressive handling of this thin-skinned fickle red grape. These guys do Pinot first and foremost in a region dominated by the white stuff. The end goal is to allow the grape’s natural aromas to come through and preserve the unique identity of each vineyard site that contributes to the final blend. Careful cap management allows extraction of only relatively soft, ripe tannins after an initial cold soak. Whole grape bunches are included in some fermentations (the tech sheet for this vintage says 13.3% of the vat on average). Although he now seems to have Pinot cased, Clive admits that the learning curve was steep. There has been a shift from growing on the valley floor to slopes, but the intent here was not to chase cool-climate altitude but rather clay soil! This soil from Marlborough’s Southern Valleys, a type infrequently lauded except on the right bank of Bordeaux, provides a robust fruitiness and midpalate texture to round out grapes from Wairau and Awatere.IMG_1788

Nautilus’ signpost wine greets the drinker with relatively pure red fruit aromas: fresh strawberries and raspberries galore, with some darker fruit in a support role, blackberries and mushy cherries. I get subtle wafts of bubble gum and radish and sundried tomato, allspice and clove, that conjure up a sensory gestalt that reminds me of Jamaican jerk seasoning, as well as a savoury edge of rosemary and thyme. A little flinty gun smoke recalls the Chard that I enjoyed a few minutes previous. Fresh acidity and very fine tannins contribute to an impression of supreme drinkability. Great stuff. Now let’s deconstruct.

91+ points

2014 Nautilus Clay Hills Vineyard & Awatere River Vineyard Pinot Noir (~$62)

I am going to describe these two single vineyard bottlings together, as that is essentially how we tasted them. Clive invited us to compare and report back as to which we preferred. The Clay Hills grapes are used to add midpalate weight to the Nautilus blended Pinot Noir above, whereas the Awatere grapes show lighter red fruit and herbal characteristics. Both these wines include substantial whole bunch components (25% and 20% respectively) and each saw 11 months in oak (33% new French). I start with the Clay Hills and, wouldn’t ya know, the nose is a dead ringer for…clay. Straight up fresh clay, perhaps modeling clay or maybe something dirtier from the bottom of a sandbox. It is just remarkable that something like this can occur. Wow. Beyond the carbon paper and art supply impression is a huge glut of plush, plush fruit, from cranberries to sweet red cherries to something more herbal, like a cherry menthol lozenge. I feel I’m getting less dark fruit than I should be, just a slight blackberry vibe. All these wines seem really red-fruited to me. And wait, there is a really complex floral note as well, or rather series of notes: lilacs, gardenia, white tea/Camellia blossom. More wow.IMG_1790

At some point I move onto the Awatere. I find the nose here less bold but more complex than the Clay Hills: more strawberry and pomegranate, but also something medicinal and earthy like goji, something spicy that falls between cinnamon bark and Red Hots candies, rhubarb, red chilli pods, potting soil, and for the first time today some meaty notes, perhaps pastrami or a salami coated in pickling spices. This has a longer finish than the Clay Hills, a wine that maintains a steady pace as opposed to exploding into a mad sprint. I ultimately vote for the Awatere, which Clive later describes as a “Pinot lover’s Pinot”, in contrast with the “crowd-pleasing” Clay Hills. Truth be told, both wines are masterful, one broad and bold yet with a nose of pure terroir and a floral nature that sternly chides any premature judgments about complexity, and the other powerful yet restrained, spicy as the day is long and just nailing the “classic elegant cool climate Pinot” trope. Josh Jensen of Calera in California describes Pinot as the “especially” grape. Any generalization you can make about grapes, for good or ill, is especially true of Pinot. These two bottles are especially delicious. Pinot’s chances of slipping from its position as my favourite black grape seem more slim than ever.  Safe travels, Clive.

91+ points (Clay Hills), 92 points (Awatere) 



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