Friday, December 29, 2006

Its all the same wine. Yeah Right!

We didn’t know it, but when we flew into Auckland, New Zealand on December 3rd a storm was brewing. Perhaps fermenting, or batch fermenting, might be a better choice of words. It was, of course, the furor over the awarding of accolades to an early batch of the 2006 Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc. There might not have been anything wrong if the 2,228 cases of this early batch, called BR315, had been appropriately labeled, but they were not. They were no different in bottled form than the total production of more than 100,000 cases!

However New Zealand wine writer Michael Cooper had determined that a store bought sample of the wine tasted different to that supplied for competition. After further tasting (in which Mr Cooper preferred the competition sample 5 of 6 times, while other wine judges Kay Morganty, could not identify a difference, and Sam Kim, favored the store bought sample 5 of 6 times) the wine magazine Cuisine sent bottles of the wine to the Institute of Environmental Science and Research where it was discovered that the store bought and competition samples differed in their content of alcohol, sugar and acidity. Wither Hills winemaker and director Brent Marris described the competition sample as made to “best represent” the vintage, and that there was no attempt to mislead critics or the public.

On Saturday (December 2nd) while we were somewhere between packing our bags and flying the Pacific the wine lost its five star rating from Cuisine. Case closed? Not quite. On Sunday (December 3rd) Wither Hills took out full page newspaper ads defending their wine. On Monday Michael Cooper revealed his role to the media and the tasting done by himself and the two other judges. When Cuisine did not offer an explanation for its action of removing the five star rating and Cooper was told that this would not occur anytime soon, he decided to get the information to the buying public. By Thursday Brent Marris has resigned as chief judge of the Air New Zealand awards and Wither Hills had returned all medals awarded to the wine. On the same day we traveled out of Auckland to Waitomo, on the way passing the Tui billboard that is the title of this post. When a beer company puts up a billboard that implies a criticism of wine in general you know that they smell blood in the water.

On Friday (December 8th) Brent Marris stated on a radio show that he was following standard wine industry practice by bottling a wine that had been harvested earlier than later bottlings. New Zealand Winegrowers’ chairman Stuart Smith suggested that Mr Marris “review his position”. On Saturday the New Zealand Weekend Herald ran a synopsis on the preceding week’s events. But more scathing was a lengthy piece by Chris Barton entitled “Sour Grapes” which showed that the wine industry was divided over the role that wine shows/judging play. That may not seem like news, but the Wither Hills incident brought the divisions within the industry more clearly into focus for the public. The question that remains is whether the industry will address the concerns raised.

On December 14th and again on the 16th Lion Nathan, the owners of Wither Hills, placed a total of $4 million in discounts in the daily New Zealand newspapers. The discount was in the form of 800,000 vouchers, each good for a $5 discount on a bottle of the 2006 Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc. Brent Marris stated that the discount was Lion Nathan’s idea, “It had nothing to do with me.” You have to wonder if Lion Nathan will ante up any money for PR classes for Mr Marris, or if he’s cost them too much already? It seems a costly exercise for him to be seen and heard, instead of making wine. But then it was the winemaking that started the whole thing in the first place.

Is all this just fermentation in a wine glass? Several individuals I talked with were of the impression that Brent Marris continued to do more damage as the weeks progressed and he would have done better to state the facts as they were and not try to defend them. His attitude definitely made things worse for himself and New Zealand wine. Wither Hills was not on our list of wineries to visit but during some of our discussions I joked that we should visit and ask to taste both versions of the wine. That was greeted with laughter, but also nods of approval. Hmmm, the knives did seem to be out! In the end the decision was made for us. While tasting at Fromm Winery in Marlborough one of our party asked the cellar door staff if they could recommend any other Sauvignon Blanc wines. The answer came back, without hesitation, Wither Hills. Even though they were having problems, their wine was still one of the best.

The Wither Hills winery/cellar door is Napa Valley come to New Zealand, or at least Marlborough. Its big and bold and you can visit the barrel room or the top floors to view the vineyards. The cellar door staff are friendly, fairly knowledgeable, and unlike other wineries Wither Hills offers two vintages of its wines for comparative tasting. There is no doubt that the 2006 Sauvignon Blanc is an excellent wine, much more fruit forward and refreshing than the somewhat softer, less aggressive 2005. We left impressed, and realized that we had not asked to taste a sample of the BR315. Then someone suggested that maybe that was what we had tasted!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

New Zealand - Further Impressions

We are getting toward the end of our New Zealand trip, and having found excellent accommodation in Martinborough, with free wireless internet access, I thought I should post again. At least that is my excuse for the paucity of entries into this blog.

Navigating to and from Napier
After arriving in Wellington Miranda and I drove by car to Napier and the Hawkes Bay wine region. We had a little detour to Martinborough in the Wairarapa region, which resulted in our present accommodation, but more on that later. The trip to Napier is pleasant if you enjoy driving country roads, I mean Highways. Its more interesting if you come into Napier through the Gimblett gravels wine country. Napier, after being destroyed by earthquake in 1931, was rebuilt mostly in the Art Deco style. If architecture is your thing, go for it. We found it just a little too out of the way for trips to wine country, and arriving at rush hour made us realize that there are more people than sheep in some places in New Zealand. We pulled up our tent pegs and moved on to Havelock North.

A Few from Hawkes Bay
We got through quite a few wines on our first day in Hawkes Bay, but only two wineries. Outstanding hospitality from Nicholas Buck at Te Mata saw us in the vineyards, winery and tasting room for over 3 hours. Their Elston Chardonnay (2005) is pretty special, as is the Bullnose Syrah (2005). The Coleraine (from barrel) looked good as well. A quality line up in all respects.

The other visit was to Sileni where Grant Edmonds had lined up 18 wines. While Miranda looked after the owners’ toy Poodle I faced the task undaunted. My pick would be the 2004 Semillon (The Circle), with the 2005 EV Chardonnay, 2004 Merlot, 2004 Merlot (The Triangle) and the 2004 EV Pourriture worth trying as well.

I was on my own for the second day, which started at Stonecroft. After all the hype I was not as impressed by their Syrah as I was hoping. The 2004 Young Vines was all pepper, while the 2004 Serine was more approachable but will need time. Unfortunately Alan Limmer had “gone fishing” and his son, who was serving the wines, while very friendly was not a wine drinker. He wasn’t great at giving directions either when I asked about Unison, but fortunately I did find the winery. And it was worth it. I’m not a big Rosé drinker but their 2006 Rosé is excellent, as was most of their small line-up. The stand out wine was the 2005 Syrah. The best I tasted in the region, seek it out. Next was Te Awa where I preferred the 2002 Boundary. Trinity Hill did not excite me. I scribbled my tasting notes on their sheet of printed tasting notes, and its around here somewhere. Last was Vidal, which is in Hastings. The friendly young lady serving grabbed me a pour of the 2004 Soler Syrah from the restaurant, and it was worth it.

My most lasting impression about Hawkes Bay Syrah is the diversity of the wines. Admittedly I tasted across two vintages (2004 and 2005) but even so the differences are pronounced. The 2004 wines go from peppery (almost under-ripe) wines to over ripe wines, and even though the 2005s appear to have more depth, they ranged from a peppery style to something that approached Cabernet in its flavor profile. And all this from a handful of wineries in one region! You gotta love it.

Wine and the Big Picture in New Zealand
When in New Zealand, and especially Havelock North, you have to go to the movies, right? Well, you are on vacation. Havelock North has Cinema Gold, and Cinema Gold will sell you a glass of wine while you wait for your movie to begin screening. You can then take your wine with you into the theatre. Better still make it a whole bottle and store it in the pull out receptacle provided between the seats. Saluté!

Buring, a name alive and well in Martinborough
Arriving in Martinborough on a Sunday evening is not the best choice as many of the vineyards are only open on the weekends (or by appointment). We missed Margrain and Escarpment because we could just not quite hook up with Strat Canning or Larry McKenna at mutually agreeable times, but the unexpected should always be expected in wine country. On Monday, while I was busy sticking my nose into a tasting glass at Schubert Miranda was busy quizzing the server, Robert Hunter, about education of winemakers in Martinborough and learning that one was a UC Davis graduate. And not just any UC Davis graduate but the great nephew of an icon of the Australian wine industry, Leo Buring. The presence of another Cal Aggie graduate within spitting distance was enough for Miranda to drag me kicking and screaming (Yeah, right!) to Oak House and the once barn now winery that is the home of Buring wines. Chris Buring has worked as a winemaker in Martinborough since 1989 and started Burings of Martinborough in 2002. Lacking his own vineyards, he buys his fruit from local growers and was kind enough to show us his 2004 and 2005 Pinot Noir and then some blended barrel samples from 2006 of fruit from old and new vine Pinot Noir. Enthusiastic and technically proficient would be inadequate descriptors of Chris’s approach to his craft. And his Pinot certainly fits the bill. I just hope that the bottles of 2004 and the gift of a single bottle of the yet to be released 2005 make it back to San Diego unscathed by baggage handlers and customs officials.

For me this trip was capped by a discussion about Pinot with Chis Buring and his mention that the 2005 TerraVin Hillside Selection is an excellent Pinot Noir that he has purchased for his own cellar. Maybe I am beginning to understand New Zealand Pinot!

A Pinot you can Live In
We had originally planned to stay in Wellington and drive out to Martinbouorgh and the wineries. But Wellington is one busy city and a good 90 minutes from Martinborough; looks much closer when you view New Zealand as a whole! So on our way through to Napier we stopped to check out accommodation, and found Pinot Villas. If you come to Martinborough and you need a place to stay, look no further. It’s the best accommodation we have had on our trip, and the cost is extremely reasonable. Plus the internet is free! And if you get really lucky Millie will wink and wag her tail at you.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

New Zealand - Some Impressions

We have been in New Zealand for almost 10 days, long enough to form some opinions. And while my views may contrast with those of longer experience, its often first impressions that form the most lasting memories; I’m certain not to forget some of the experiences we have had so far.

Auckland and Waiheke Island
Our plans to visit some of the wineries around Auckland were dashed when we found our hire car had been broken into, about five hours after we signed the hire agreement, and it would take a week to fix. Did we want another car? Is crime a problem? Well, yes it is worse in the city. Then, seeing as how the deductible meant that we were already responsible for an unknown repair cost, we would use public transport for the rest of our stay. That was not entirely true. A few days later, when relatives arrived from Australia, we took the ferry across to Waiheke Island and hired a car so we could visit some of wineries and view some of the scenery.

I apologize to those who view Waiheke Island as a serious wine destination, but it seems little more that a tourist trap to me. If you wish to visit the wineries on the island, be warned that many require prior appointment. And tasting the wines can be expensive. We stopped at the Waiheke Island Wine Centre and had to hand over $15 to sample three wines. At Stonyridge Vineyard it cost a further $30 to taste 3 of their wines. While we didn’t taste widely among the wineries, what we did taste was far from impressive, and more remote in terms of value. The noted Passage Rock Syrah from 2004 cost me $80NZD at Accent on Wine in Parnell. At an informal offline, which included the 2004 Lagier Meredith Syrah (Mt Veeder, California), the Passage Rock sank to the bottom, or very near the bottom, of the 8 wines consumed on the night. I should have taken the hint when the store attendant at Accent on Wine said that most New Zealand reds were 2 to 3 time over priced! The one bright spot? Te Whau. Excellent food and the wine is quite good. I had The Point, but also try the Chardonnay.

Its Quite Restrained
This seems to be the chorus line among winemakers/cellar staff in Nelson and Marlborough. Do they know that this means austere, or severe on the palate? And its not really a term for acidic white wines. However some of my teeth have taken to aching but we haven’t had THAT many wines, and I can only think of one that really upset the apple cart in terms of acidity.

I planned on visiting only two wineries in this region at the north-western end of the South Island, and that is what we did. And if you don’t go out and chase down some of Andrew Greenhough’s (Green–hoff) Pinot Noir, especially the 2005, then I don’t know why you are reading this. Purity, density, complexity – its all there. Get some of the 2004 to drink while you wait for the ’05 to really strut its stuff.

The Max and Simon Show
Most posters and lurkers on the Auswine and Starwine forums will know Maximus, but I doubt that many will know his friend Simon. Both work in the wine industry, Max in Nelson and Simon in Marlborough. Max was very helpful getting us into the two wineries in Nelson, and in putting on an outstanding picnic-style late lunch offline with some really excellent wines including some great wines for Options. Thanks Max. Now if we can just teach you to throw a tennis ball!

Simon turned out to be the king of options players. While I was still trying to decide whether the first wine was from the Old World or New World, Simon already had country and grape! This guy is really quick off the mark, and so correct that either he has tremendous knowledge and an excellent palate, or x-ray vision. I know the answer.

We visited a total of eleven wineries in the Marlborough region. More than I had planned. And while we missed a couple that I wanted to see, we visited others that turned out to be very pleasant surprises. I hope to write more about some of these wineries at a future date, but for now I just wanted to mention two.

The first is TerraVin. I don’t know how widespread the reputation is of this winery, but if they continue to make wines of the quality that we tasted then their future is assured. Without a doubt the best Pinot Noir I have tasted. I’d love to put these wines in a blind tasting up against some really big names, maybe even from that place in France, begins with a B or something. The 2004 Hillside Selection was going all oldie worldie on me just before I tipped out my glass to taste the “J”. Oh yeah, sure, you made this in Marlborough, New Zealand. Its 85% Cabernet! Bordeaux blend, sure. But its bloody impressive. Still, THE wine was the 2005 Hillside Selection Pinot. If I can convince you to get just one bottle of wine, this is it. OK, get the ordinary Pinot, but make it the 2005. The yields were low, the flavors concentrated, and these wines have a mouthfeel that really is sex in a glass.

The next winery to blow my horn, so to speak, was Te Whare Ra. Don’t ask me to pronounce it, but in the native dialect Wh has an f sound. What is so special about this place? Well, they are a young husband and wife team making quality white wines, and a very nice Pinot as well. But it’s the whites that will spellbind you. The 2006 Riesling was delicate and yet filled the mouth with flavor and finished with lively acidity. It was the best example I tasted in Nelson and Marlborough. Their Gewurztraminer is also excellent as is their Noble Riesling. And a little thing called the Toru might not set your world on fire, but it will certainly make a warm summer evening pleasant.

Tomorrow we are bound by ferry to Wellington for a day of rest before its off to Hawkes Bay and big reds. Can anyone say restrained?