Sunday, January 14, 2007

Nelson Interlude

The Nelson wine region, located on the western side of the northern end of the South Island of New Zealand, is home to some twenty-three boutique wineries which occupy two major geographical regions. The Waimea plains are made up of alluvial loams; Waimea means “river gardens” in Maori. The plains are bounded by rolling valleys and hills so that a V-shape is formed as the plains broaden toward the ocean. To the west of Nelson, the Moutere Hills are more clay and gravel in composition.

This is a cool climate wine region, protected from rain by mountains to the west. Rich in horticulture, seafood and artists, the region was first home to winemaking when German winemakers arrived in 1843. By 1845 they had left for the more appealing hills of South Australia. It was not until the 1970s that vineyards again began to make their presence felt.

We arrived into the region by car from Blenheim, the heart of Marlborough wine country, after a short flight from Auckland. It did seem a little like a retreat to be driving away from the flat vineyards of Marlborough through Renwick to Havelock, the Green Shell Mussel Capital of the World, and then through the Rai Valley and on into Nelson. But we were on a mission. We had planned to meet up with Max Marroitt, an expatriate Aussie, who was working over the summer at Neudorf. Max planned to meet us at Greenhough Vineyard at midday to taste through some of their wines before moving on to Neudorf to sample their wares.

Greenhough (green-hoff) Vineyard and Winery
Both vineyard and winery are located on an elevated south-easterly corner of the Waimea Plains, a broad plateau known as Burke's Bank. When we arrived at Greenhough Max was already inside talking with Andrew Greenhough. A Master’s degree in Art History seems an unlikely start to viticulture but that is how Andrew began his wine adventure. Quietly spoken, he let’s the wines do all the talking.

Sauvignon Blanc 2006 (screwcap) (13.5% alcohol)
Light straw in color with muted notes of citrus and tropical fruits. A riper style, lacking herbaceousness. Very crisp acidity is the center piece of this well balanced, very well made wine. Should drink well till 2008. 2, 2, 3.8, 9.8 = 17.6/20, 88/100.

Hope Vineyard Chardonnay 2004 (screwcap) (14.0% alcohol)
A wine made using French oak (13% new) and malolactic fermentation it has an excellent nutty character with just a hint of oak. Medium weight on the palate, this is a vibrant wine with excellent mouthfeel and carry of flavors and a lengthy finish. Drink 2006-10 2, 2, 4.0, 10.0 = 18.0/20, 90/100.

Hope Vineyard Chardonnay 2005 (screwcap) (13.5% alcohol)
Made with more new oak (25%) this wine shows its youth and is revealing very little at present, just some citrus, and lime flavors. Tightly wound, it will need time to open, but the balance and structure are there, and the acidity adds appealing crispness. Drink 2006-12. 2, 2, 3.8, 9.8 = 17.6/20, 88/100.

Hope Vineyard Pinot Noir 2004 (screwcap) (14.0% alcohol)
Matured in 35% new French oak this wine is light cherry in color, and with very typical spicy notes of Pinot Noir together with flavors of red fruits and ripe lychees. There is almost a touch of sweetness on the palate, and the flavors carry extremely well providing great length to this delightfully balanced wine. Drink 2006-2010. 2, 2, 4.1, 10.3 = 18.4/20, 92/100.

Hope Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005 (screwcap) (14.0% alcohol)
The yields were considerably lower, and the flavors more concentrated in 2005 and it shows in this wine. It lacks the overt spicy notes of the 2004. Instead there are deeply seated fruit and savory flavors with a touch of pepper rising just above the surface of this densely packaged, classy wine. The mouthfeel is soft and silky with prominent, vibrant acidity that carries across the palate and will need time to integrate. But thus is an excellently structured wine that will reward patience. Drink 2008-2015. 2, 2, 4.3, 10.4 = 18.7/20, 94/100.

As we were leaving we purchased a bottle of the Gew├╝rztraminer that Miranda and I had with dinner at the Plaza Indian in Blenhiem later in the week.

Gew├╝rztraminer 2006 (screwcap) (13.5% alcohol)
Light straw yellow in color this is a wine that is full of flavor with muted spices flooded by aromas of apricot, nectarine and white peach. The flavors carry well onto a rich palate and are enhanced by crisp acidity. There is a little lingering sweetness to the finish, but it is not cloying. A very well balanced and palate pleasing wine. Drink 2006-2010. 2, 2, 3.9, 10.0 = 17.9/20, 89/100.

The Neudorf Vineyards are among the oldest in the Nelson region with planting having begun in 1978. The vineyards constitute either those on the north-facing slope overlooking a branch of the Moutere Valley, or on the Waimea plains south of Nelson.

Nelson Chardonnay 2005 (screwcap) (14.0% alcohol)
Light straw in color with aromas of smoky oak, citrus and peach, barrel fermented (25% new oak) with indigenous yeasts this Chardonnay is less complex than the Greenhough, but still nicely structured. It needs a little time for the oak to settle but it has the acidity to carry aging. Drink 2008-2014. 2, 2, 3.7, 9.8 = 17.5/20, 87/100.

Moutere Pinot Noir 2004 (screwcap) (14.5% alcohol)
Indigenous yeast fermented and matured in French Oak barrels (40% new) for eleven months, this is a richly aromatic, riper style of Pinot Noir with a stalky character. Soft and silky in texture with a beautiful carry of flavors onto the palate, nice balance and good supporting acidity. Drink 2006-2011. 2, 2, 3.9, 9.7 = 17.6/20, 88/100.

Nelson Pinot Noir 2004 (screwcap) (13.5% alcohol)
Also fermented with indigenous yeasts and then matured for eight months in French barriques (25% new), this is an unusually scented wine, giving little spiciness but instead the smell of yeasty dough. More mouthfilling that the Moutere, it opens on the palate to reveal spice flavors more typical of Pinot Noir. However the acidity is a little harsh and not well integrated at present. Needs time. Drink 2008-2011. 2, 2, 3.3, 9.4 = 16.7/20, 84/100.

Later in the evening, courtesy of the excellent hospitality of Max, we sampled even more wines including a few more New Zealanders. One, the 2004 Felton Road Pinot Noir left the examples tasted earlier in the day in its wake. But we would taste even better Pinot in the days to come.

The next evening we opened a bottle of Neudorf Moutere Riesling. It was a wine some liked and others were less enamored by. The fact that the bottle remained unfinished after two days seemed to indicate the verdict of the jury.

Moutere Riesling 2005 (screwcap) (11.0% alcohol) $28NZD)
Light straw yellow in color the initial aromas were of sweet, ripe grapes, followed by honey, with a hint of apricot and peach, and a touch of petrichor (minerality). Mouthfilling, the initial sweetness was cut short by pronounced green apple acidity that overwhelmed the palate, and did not allow the fruit flavors to show off their highlights. Otherwise a well made wine with excellent persistence to its finish. Drink 2007-2013. 2, 2, 3.7, 9.5 = 17.2/20, 86/100.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Syrah, Pinot Noir, and Aromatics

I’ve been waiting on Steve Smith MW to reply to an email I sent asking about the age of the oldest vines in New Zealand. And then I realized that he’s probably up to his armpits in Pinot Noir2007. It’s a four-day event being held in Wellington, New Zealand between January 29th and February 1st 2007.

Pinot Noir2007 will be preceded by a Syrah Symposium to be held on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th of January in Hawke’s Bay. The symposium is being organized and hosted by Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers as part of an extended program of Pinot Noir 2007.

And after these two symposiums if you find that you have had trouble identifying the aromas of Pinot and Syrah then maybe you can get help at the inaugural Nelson Aromatic Symposium in Upper Moutere, Nelson, on Saturday February 3rd. The one day symposium is strictly limited to 150 places (SOLD OUT).

I guess I’ll be waiting quite awhile for a reply to my email!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Waiheke: Island of Wine. Yeah Right

I’m not sure if there has been a Tui billboard that argues against the pundits when it comes to Waiheke Island wines. And having tasted less than a dozen perhaps I shouldn’t cast doubts either, but judging from the lack of criticism of my stance from others in different wine regions of New Zealand I think there is support for the construct. Sour grapes? Perhaps, but that depends if you think the grapes are being used to make wine or in the mouths of others.

Vineyards on Waiheke Island have a very short history, going back only as far as 1978 when vines were planted at Goldwater Estate. Today there are some 26 individual vineyards, many with cellar doors. However if you want to taste wine on Waiheke go on a weekend, go later in the summer than we did, and call ahead for an appointment; see the web site for details. Only 10 vineyards/cellar doors were open when we visited and a number of them closed by 4pm. So don’t linger in the villages or over the scenery, as we did, because it will severely cut down on your time with wine.

Waiheke Island is best reached by ferry from The Ferry Building in Auckland (a Link stop on Customs St will get you close). The trip takes about 35 minutes and if you are feeling lucky you can leave the organization of island transport until you the reach the ferry terminal on the island. I had emailed both hire car companies the night before about the possibility of reservations and they were ready for us as walked up to their booths. Pity I didn’t have my California Drivers’ License with me. Fortunately Ngaire, my cousin, and her husband Chris had flown in from Australia at 1 am that morning. Chris looked awake enough to sign up as our chauffer.

The first order of business was to find the Waiheke Wine Centre. Touted as having all available Waiheke wines, as well as tastings of wines and local olive oils, it seemed like the ideal first port of call. Wine centers with official sounding names are big in New Zealand. We had visited the New Zealand Winemakers Centre in Auckland thinking that it was something put together by New Zealand winemakers. But it was just a privately run wine shop. It was the same with the Waiheke Wine Centre. Just a simple bottle shop, but with an impressive selection of wines. We spent a good half an hour just looking before we decided to ask what was on the tasting bench. The line-up was of Waiheke Island wines, 3 wines for $15NZD. That seemed a little steep, even if it did come with local olive oils and dukkah. There was the Passage Rock 2006 Rose and 2006 Viognier, and the Obsidian Weeping Sands 2005 Merlot/Cabernet. We were allowed to sit out the back of the shop, on a very, very small balcony with an ocean view, while we tasted our wines. I didn’t make any notes because, well I was simply not moved to do so. The wines were ordinary at best. The others kept asking me what I thought, did the wines seem to be lacking in flavor, and did I think that there was enough there in terms of structure? At least the olive oils seemed attractive. Maybe we should go and have lunch?

Miranda had figured out where she wanted to go, Te Whau. But we didn’t have a reservation for what has been described as "One of the Best Restaurants in the World for Wine Lovers" by the Wine Spectator. If we couldn’t get in we could at least get a few pictures of the magnificent views back towards Auckland. As soon as we walked in the door we were asked if we had a reservation. No? Well, sorry but we are fully booked. All we can give you is the next hour. No problem, we can eat lunch in an hour. And we did. The food was impressive, the service attentive and the views the best I have had from any vineyard restaurant. I had the Lemon Pepper Roasted Rump of Lamb with fennel and capsicum pickle, and lemongrass puree and a glass of the 2004 Te Whau The Point. The other wine tasted (by Chris) was the 2005 Te Whau Chardonnay. Both wines were clear improvements over our earlier tasting and as we snapped a few final pictures outside the restaurant I held high hopes for the next winery on the list, Stonyridge.

Stonyridge makes the flagship wine of Waiheke. Its a Bordeaux blend called Larose that is sold largely en primeur. A cult wine, among a stable of expensive wines, none of which is less that $55NZD/bottle. Is this reputation deserved? A PDF on the web site notes that the 1994 and 1996 Larose produced record sales at auction in New Zealand in February 2003, “which makes this one of the best investments anyone can make!” An interesting claim to make on a web site!

The Larose was not on the tasting list but many of the stable were, and we could pick any three for the princely sum of $30NZD! We chose the 2004 Row 10 Chardonnay ($65NZD), 2004 Luna Negra – Hill Side Malbec ($75NZD) and the 2004 Pilgrim, a Syrah, Grenache, Mouvedre blend ($90NZD). A second label, Fallen Angel, made from grapes sourced off Waiheke was also available for tasting at a more reasonable $10NZD for three wines. Here we picked the 2006 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($26NZD), 2005 Central Otago Pinot Noir ($59NZD) and the 2004 Gisbourne Semillon/Gewurztraminer dessert wine ($36NZD). It may have been the almost gale force winds that forced us to fiercely protect our glasses (how do they keep leaves, let alone berries on the vines here?), or the entertaining conversations with another table about the wind, New Zealand beating Australia at rugby, and anyone beating England at cricket, but I was again unmoved by the wines. No, that is not quite true. The Sauvignon Blanc was quite a passable example and the Semillon/Gewurztraminer blend a pleasant little sticky. The Stonyridge wines, although presenting some attractive flavors, attacked the palate from all angles. Balance and structure seemed to have been carried off by the wind. The rest of our time on the island was spent exploring the scenery and trying to get lost on the narrow, sometimes poorly marked, roads.

That evening, back in Auckland we opened a bottle of Penninsula Estate Zeno Syrah 2002 ($35.95NZD) that I had purchased from Accent on Wine in Parnell. Initially muted with white pepper over a little mint and spice it developed mocha, earthy, and dusty oak notes. Almost medium weight on the palate, it presented the mouth with inky, earthy, lengthy flavors mixed with graphite and surrounded by firm astringency and overt acidity. Again, there was that angularity and lack of balance. With time things may come together. (2, 2, 3.5, 9.0 = 16.5/20, 83/100. 13.3% alcohol). The one interesting observation was that the aromas of the Zeno did evolve over several hours; trying, perhaps in vain, to become more Old than New World. A similar event occurred the following evening where a bottle of the 2004 Passage Rock Syrah ($80NZD at Accent on Wine) faced off against the 2004 Lagier Meredith Syrah (Mt Veeder, California). The Passage Rock, although suffering the fate of sinking to the bottom or near the bottom among a group of eight wines, did evolve some interesting flavors over several hours. (Note: Link - Scroll down to see tasting notes by Max Marriott on the wines from the evening.)

Am I being too hard on Waiheke Island wines? Given our New Zealand wine experiences, especially those of the following days? No. The Waiheke Island wines that we tried simply do not warrant consideration at the prices being asked. Limited production and the idea of Bordeaux style wine is not a recipe that will lead to success in the wine world of the 21st century. There may be wineries on Waiheke that let the wine speak of the vineyards, I hope there are.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Mattinson and the Madcap World of Mollydooker

There is simply no doubt about it, Campbell Mattinson is the most creative and informative wine writer on the planet. I’ve just finished reading his article on Sarah and Sparky Marquis of Mollydooker wines, and if you think you know about Sarah and Sparky, their high octane wines, and Robert Parker Jr’s love affair with them. Well, think again. Campbell uncovers the real reason why wines made by the Marquis’s, including Shirvington, Parson's Flat, Henry's Drive, Marquis-Philips, and Mollydooker, have such intensity. Its not because they try to make wines with rich flavors of blackcurrant or even the subtly of rose petals, its not a desire for complexity, or elegance, or to be different, or even interesting; although I’m not too sure about the last two. Its……., well you have to read the article to find out. (Yes, you need to subscribe. So you’ll miss out on two bottles of wine this year. They will have been corked anyway.)

There is one paragraph of the article that I do want to quote, and I hope Campbell will forgive me, but its mostly a quote from Sparky. It concerns the longevity of Mollydooker wines.

"People are always asking me, When should I drink this wine? How long should I cellar it?" he says. And I don't doubt him for a second - his wines are blisteringly fruity and whacky with alcohol, and a lot of people are bound to wonder whether time will mellow the fruit, leaving only ... "And you know what I say to them? I'm making another one next year! When should you drink it? How long will it take you to find a corkscrew?!! Or now that we're going screwcaps, How long will it take you to get a glass?!!"

I don’t know about you, but that seems like a pretty good explanation as to why someone would make wines the way that Sarah and Sparky Marquis do, year after year.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

New Zealand in Review

Over a coming series of posts I will be reviewing the wineries we visited in New Zealand this past December and providing tasting notes on many of the wines consumed during our trip. The posts will be based on the chronological order that we visited the wine regions. This means Waiheke Island will be first followed by Nelson, Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay and finally Martinborough.

Why won’t there be any reviews for wineries in the Auckland region other than Waiheke Island? Its quite simple really. I was in Auckland to talk at a conference and as I did not know the final program for the 4-5 days of the conference I had decided that it would be foolish to set up appointments with any wineries. It would be much better to simply fly into Auckland early, very early as it turned out, on Sunday the 3rd of December. We could then avoid jetlag by spending the day registering for the meeting and perusing the program to figure out what presentations I should attend and whom I might need to catch up with. I could then give my talk on the Monday afternoon, do my extra little bits at the conference, and then we would be free to indulge in our vacation. Conferences can be a significant misuse of time when the vast majority of the subjects under discussion do not involve your own, so it was fortunate that it only took Sunday and Monday to do all that I needed to do.

Thus on Tuesday we hired a car with the expectation that we would be visiting the sights of Auckland, Hobbiton, and, yes, some vineyards. As I have reported in a previous post our hire car experience in Auckland was short, not sweet, and having just received the credit card bill, fortunately not as expensive as I was dreading. Without our own transport, any trips outside of Auckland had to involve tour buses of one description or another. An organized trip to Waitomo and Tumu Tumu TOObing was an outstanding way to spend a day. Sadly, on the Waitomo trip we were told that Hobbiton was no longer as pristine as seen in cinemas. It may well have been imagined by JRR Tolkien, and brought to the silver screen by Peter Jackson, but all that remains now are facades of the movie set. Sad but true. We thought our time would be better spent elsewhere.

After spending six days in Auckland Miranda and I came to realize that it does not rate highly on our list of cities of international appeal. We roomed on the 11the floor of the Quest on Eden, overlooking some very ordinary high-rise buildings, Auckland Harbor, dockyards and rail lines; it was not a pretty vista. Additionally, the architecture of the central business district (CBD) of Auckland is uninspiring to say the least. I hesitate to use the word blighted because there is plenty of hustle and bustle on the streets during the day, but one does get the sense of a city that needs a thorough makeover.

Renewal is taking place in some areas. The Auckland Museum is obviously getting more than just some spit and polish. Hop on the free Link bus to Parnell and you are in boutique city. The wine is expensive there but the coffee is good! Back on the harbor, on Quay Street, you can also find restaurants. We dined at the Harborside on our second night. Go futher afield and you can stroll Ponsonby Road for more restaurants. We had a passable meal at Leonardo’s. And I’m sure if you really work at it you can find better. We had to go to Waiheke Island for our best meal in the Auckland area. More on that later.