30 November 2006
21 November 2006
(The original version, with more photos – and since it’s Yosemite, they’re quite worthwhile – is here.)
27 April 2006 – San Francisco, California
Taylor’s Automatic Refresher – Loaded up with overpriced but high-quality groceries from the Ferry Building Marketplace, we’re completely ready for our trip to Yosemite. Well, that’s not quite true…we’ve got food for later, but we could use some food for now. And so, it’s one more trip to this upmarket burger joint for a perfect bacon cheeseburger, sinful garlic fries, and a decidedly average “black and white” shake.
27 April 2006 – Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite National Park – Anyone with the slightest bit of awareness has seen innumerable pictures of this place, and yet they still don’t replicate the jaw-dropping experience of one’s first glimpse of Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, Half Dome, and the various waterfalls that surround the valley. “Breathtaking” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Photos come closer, but even then....
Yosemite West – We’ve rented a self-catering apartment, in a little cluster of houses between the valley and Wawona, and technically outside the park itself (though the only way out, other than on foot, is through the park). It’s dark and in need of updating, but it’s clean, quiet, and comfortable…if a little bit harder to find than it should be. Theresa whips up a dinner of sturgeon with thyme and Meyer lemon, red leaf greens with crumbled Point Reyes blue cheese, and burrata for dessert.
Edmunds St. John 2003 Viognier Rozet (Paso Robles) – Sweaty and full-bodied, showing sultry decayed flower petals and dark stone fruit; the sun beats down on this wine, but it’s a dark, eclipsed sun. It’s rich and a bit heavy, but quite tasty nonetheless.
Dönnhoff 1999 Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Auslese 19 99 (Nahe) – From 375 ml. Long crystalline quartz, pulsing with energy and intensity. There’s candied tangerine rind, needle-sharp acidity, and massive yet well-integrated sweetness, but what’s most unbelievable about this wine is the length. Stunning, awe-inspiring wine.
(The original version, with many more photos, is here.)
The roof takes flight, curving against the breeze and rising gracefully skyward. Its strong lines are reflected in a nearby pool as it soars and swoops over the vines that cover the valley floor, tracing a graceful curve along its length that runs from sun to shadow, and then back again.
Or rather, it would do all those things if it weren’t bolted to the structure underneath.
There’s been much architectural hoo-hah over the new winemaking and visitors’ facility at Peregrine, and on both first and last view the chatter is richly deserved; this is a dramatic and original statement. It works in this otherwise wholly natural setting for three reasons: 1) it is, frankly, a beautiful structure, 2) it’s both low enough to the ground and set back far enough from the road, behind a protective veil of trees and low slopes, that it doesn’t overtly intrude on the surrounding landscape, and 3) it is of a piece with the carefully restructured grounds (which incorporate a pond, a more rustic and traditional banquet facility, and walkways), showing sensitivity to the harmonies and rhythms of nature. Plus, the peregrine falcons on which the wing-like roof structure is based do indeed visit the vineyards from time to time.
The curved steel and Duralite canopy shades a two-level concrete facility that accommodates the needs of both arriving grapes and inquisitive tourists, and it’s to the latter that I walk, gaping and marveling at the surroundings. But the tasting room itself cannot be ignored, either; a shadowy chamber that nonetheless seems partially constructed of light, with a thick wall of glass separating tasters from a precise and martial array of barrels in the winery’s aging facility. It’s no less beautiful than the exterior, and I begin to worry that – as with so many California wineries – more attention is being paid to the visuals and externalities than to the wine that provides the alleged raison d’être for all this man-made beauty.
Another source of worry: Peregrine has not experienced much winemaking continuity in its relatively brief history, having built their name under one regime, then experiencing a minor explosion in notoriety under the brief tenure of the very high-profile Michelle Richardson (ex-Villa Maria), a talented and fiery personality who has since left for her own venture. I’ve tasted, and liked, a few Peregrine wines in the States, but I approach their current lineup with a measure of trepidation, wondering if their obvious pretensions toward quality will be maintained by the wines, given the discontinuities in the cellar and all the money represented by its physical presence. (Co-founder Greg Hay is the principal constant, having remained attached to the project since its beginnings as yet another cooperative growers’ venture.)
Peregrine offers wine under three different labels: the main-line estate products (Peregrine), a lineup of “second” wines called Saddleback, (that carry neither the reduced quality nor, frankly, the usual price reduction of a typical secondary label), and a premium cuvée called Wentworth, which hearkens back to the original name for the winery.
Quicker than a glass of light
Rather remarkably, Peregrine offers nearly everything they have in stock for tasting, for free and to all comers. I’m not sure this is economically sustainable given the winery’s proximity to bustling Queenstown, but it’s a fine gesture…especially as it puts a good deal of what turns out to be quite high-quality wine into the glasses of a lot of previously-unsuspecting people. This is an unquestioned good.
My tasting experience is guided by a friendly young man (who also turns out to be a freelance photographer) that shows signs of being scatterbrained and inefficient when I first arrive, but easily rises to the occasion as more and more visitors populate the glowing bar behind which he stands. He’s able to answer all my (admittedly not particularly technical) questions with ease, and leads me through the wines as quickly as can be expected given a multitude of other customers.
Peregrine 2003 Riesling (Central Otago) – Intense, showing steel, grapefruit and lime leaves with an almost electric intensity on the midpalate. Finishes extremely dry and long. Marvelous riesling, with a good future ahead of it.
Peregrine 2004 “Rastasburn” Riesling (Central Otago) – Despite the geographic name, Rastasburn is here meant to indicate a stylistic shift towards the off-dry. Which it is, showing lime, mixed apples and a lush, shattered minerality that pulses towards the full-bodied, then retreats to permit a crisp, dry and tingly finish. It’s a bit shorter than the regular ’03 riesling, but very nice nonetheless.
Peregrine 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – This is usually sourced from Central Otago fruit, but in 2004 the quality…and more importantly, the quantity…just wasn’t there, and so alternate sources had to be found. I regret not being able to taste the wine in its typical form, but this is hardly a chore: gooseberry and grass, yes, but also a mineral-driven liquidity on the midpalate and finish…something not often found in fruit-focused Marlborough. The only flaw is a somewhat sticky texture, but it’s forgivable. A nice wine.
Peregrine 2004 Pinot Gris (Central Otago) – Pinot gris is, in many ways, the chardonnay of New Zealand: mindlessly planted everywhere and producing wines of endless and anonymous tedium, almost without exception. Thankfully, “almost” is the correct term (though it would do no harm to the New Zealand wine industry to grub up 75% of the nation’s pinot gris vines), and this is one of the exceptions. Yeasty and thickly-textured (while the wine is matured in 100% stainless steel, lees stirring adds weight and complexity), but brightened with zingy acidity, showing grapefruit rind and pear with a long, dry finish that shows hints of further complexities to come. A marvelous wine with medium-term aging potential.
Peregrine 2004 Gewürztraminer (Central Otago) – Lychee and cashew oil form a fully ripe and quite phenolic nose, with a lovely, elegant complexity on the palate. It’s very light for gewürztraminer (those desiring more weight will want to look to the North Island’s Gisborne region), but nice in that idiom.
Saddleback 2003 Chardonnay (Central Otago) – 100% malolactic fermentation, 30% matured in French oak. Intense stone fruit (mostly apricot), fig, nut oil and nutmeg with a light touch of wood and a smooth, balanced aspect. A pleasant, good-quality chardonnay with a bit of aging potential but of no particularly unique distinction…which is, after, the persistent problem with this grape from anything other than the most remarkable terroirs. This, though, is a subjective complaint; the wine is perfectly nice.
Saddleback 2004 Chardonnay (Marlborough) – As with the sauvignon blanc, acceptable fruit for this wine was simply not available locally. The nose is tighter, flatter and leafier than the ’03, with banana skin and a long, growing intensity on the palate and a zippy, sorbet-like finish braced with fine acidity. This is more structured and probably longer-aging than the ’03, and certainly less overtly marked by oak, but objectively it’s probably less pleasurable. People will choose based on their perceptions of what constitutes quality in a chardonnay.
Peregrine 2004 Rosé (Central Otago) – A pink pinot (not saignée), juicy and off-dry with simplistic strawberry and floral components. Just…eh.
Saddleback 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Light plum, strawberry blossom and red cherry, with sweeter plum notes emerging on the finish. Almost nice, but slightly stemmy, unfinished and underripe. This should be better.
Peregrine 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Earth, dark plum and strawberry – a big-fruited wine with just a touch of syrup on the midpalate – given heft and direction by a brooding (yet crisp) structure so well-integrated that it almost escapes notice. Everything expands towards a beautiful finish; this is a lovely wine, with elegance and polish, and fine aging potential (though it will be very hard to avoid in the interim).
The swirling afterglow
These are, despite my initial misgivings, mostly extraordinary wines that show intensity, elegance and vision…not to mention high-quality fruit, handled well and relatively unobtrusively. There’s power here, but also class and maturity, something achieved by few other wineries in the Central Otago. This is an exciting winery, and one to watch very closely, for it is already the unquestioned star of the Gibbston sub-region. And after all, nothing flies higher than a star.
Dog Point 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Cooked white and green asparagus, pink grapefruit, passionfruit, limestone and dry leaves on the finish. It presents itself as Yet Another™ Marlborough savvy, yet carries depth and some mineralistic complexity for those interesting in looking past the obvious fun. (11/06)
19 November 2006
(The original version, with more photos, is here.)
The road pointlessly taken
According to my at-hand references, only three wineries in the entire Clyde/Alexandra area are open for drop-in tasting. Having just left the best-known of the triad, full of unresolved gewürztraminer must and wacky theories about Otago cabernet, I leave the eroding forests of rock formations behind and travel a long, straight dirt road across a flat plain to number two: William Hill.
Make that two wineries open for drop-in tasting, for William Hill is – despite its quite clear exterior signage to the contrary – closed to visitors. There’s even a short bus full of disappointed wine tourists pulling out of the driveway as I arrive, and only the shouts of a vineyard worker alert me to the fact that the locked and darkened tasting room is not that way by accident. He has no explanation to offer, either, aside from a bewildered shrug. I return his shrug in kind, and move on.
Woodless and fancy free
Springvale Estate (Dunstan Rd., Alexandra), just a short distance away, is most definitely open, and the expansive tasting room is surrounded by gardens and tables currently undergoing a pre-lunch setup. I arrive just early enough to get the attention I need before lunching tourists (and, by appearances, quite a few locals) arrive in force, because the staff is unquestionably spread a bit thin once that occurs. Nonetheless, my welcome is friendly, and I’m offered a table and an organized flight of wines to study at my leisure, rather than fighting the growing crowds at the tasting bar/lunch counter.
Springvale Estate 2001 “Unoaked” Chardonnay (Central Otago) – Strong apricot – and perhaps very slightly botrytized? – aromas with white plum and peach. There’s a nice core of fruit here, and while the wine is perhaps a touch sweet, it’s got good structure, length and balance. Pretty and fun…and, it turns out, the best wine I’ll taste.
Springvale Estate 2001 “Oaked” Chardonnay (Central Otago) – A touch of charred lemon and apple shrinks from intrusive oak on the nose. The effect of the wood on the palate, however, is tactile rather than organoleptic, as it flattens out the spectrum, hides the spiced (and dried) orange fruit, and abrades the finish to something tannic and dull. It’s long, but things are neither as integrated nor as pleasant as they should be, and the oak ultimately damages the wine more than it adds to its complexity.
Springvale Estate 2003 Sauvignon Blanc (Central Otago) – A shy nose, with green pepper and grass on the palate, and a tart, green finish: all the unwelcome signs of underripe sauvignon. I’ve said it before and I’ll likely say it again: Otago sauvignon may not be the best idea…which is not to say that it can’t be done well (as, for instance, at Carrick), only that the chances seem slimmer than normal. Not everyone in New Zealand is honor-bound to produce sauvignon blanc, a fact that sometimes seems to be lost on certain bottom line-focused wineries.
Springvale Estate 2003 Gewürztraminer (Central Otago) – Light rose petal, lychee skin, dried apricot pit and almond form an enticing nose that falls completely away on the palate and that provide absolutely no finish whatsoever. Initially pleasant, but ultimately disappointing.
Springvale Estate 2002 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Gentle plum and baked strawberry turn quickly bizarre, with bark, green olive sourness, and a sandy texture. This wine is light to the point of being watery, both insubstantial and insufficiently aromatic, and is shot through with a nasty green streak. No good.
Springvale Estate 2001 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Dirty plum, raspberry, rotten strawberry and more of that green olive note, with tarry tannins and a syrupy texture that adds to an impression that the remaining fruit in this wine is starting to turn to liqueur. This is “better” than the 2002 only in the academic sense, and I’d avoid either version.
Like Mt. Difficulty, this is a cooperative venture between vineyard owners. But to an even greater extent than that Bannockburn winery, it seems that grape quality is an issue…which makes me wonder how an equal partnership between otherwise competing growers can effectively encourage viticultural improvements. It’s not as if the threat to turn to other grape sources would be an effective one. Also of concern, or at least questionable: the age of these wines. Tasted in March of 2005, only the sauvignon and gewürztraminer are of what other wineries would call the current vintage, and it’s not as if the remaining products are Fromm-like and in need of extra aging to shed their youthful ferocity. One wonders about the reasons for this delayed presentation, because it certainly doesn’t appear to benefit the wines.
Ultimately, Springvale Estate is a pleasant place to visit and lunch (though I can’t vouch for the food, which I do not try), and their unoaked chardonnay would appear to have the qualities necessary for a nice picnic wine, but there’s a lot of work to do here…mostly in the vineyard, but perhaps also in the cellar.
Driving the friendly skies
The drive back to Cromwell, and then towards Queenstown, is done during some sort of midday lull, and as traffic is virtually nonexistent, I speed homeward at an unforeseen pace. Thus, I’ve got a little extra time before I’m scheduled to meet Theresa, so I endeavor to sneak in a little bonus tasting back in the Gibbston Valley. A tasting where I am, quite literally, taken under someone’s wing.
Disclosure: tasting fee is waived.
17 November 2006
(The original, with more photos, is here.)
Separate ways, worlds apart
Back when this voyage was still in the planning stages, I’d assumed that, from time to time, Theresa and I would want to do different things. Her capacity for endless wine tasting doesn’t quite match mine, and I also figured she’d desire a few restorative days in between all of our rushing to and fro across the New Zealand landscape.
So it’s a bit of a surprise, just a few days shy of a month into this venture, that today is the first (and, it turns out, only) day we’ll pursue separate activities. Theresa’s going to nap, wander the streets of Queenstown, and spend a few refreshing hours at a local spa, while I’m taking the car to the last of the Central Otago wine regions for a little drop-in tasting.
With a half-dozen drives under one’s belt, the Queenstown-Cromwell road seems less twisty and precarious than it does at first glance. This is actually a slightly dangerous notion, for the road retains all of its perilous edge-of-danger aspects despite the familiarity, but it’s a clear morning and there are few cars on the road, which makes the drive a relative breeze. At Cromwell, the road angles south along the banks of the Clutha, straightening and flattening along the dramatic but rather harsh cut of the Cromwell Gorge. What seems like scant minutes later, the road descends past a mighty dam and drops into the rich valley in which nestle the towns of Clyde and Alexandra.
The layout of the towns – modern suburban grids in uniform two-story sprawl – seems somehow out of place in this otherwise remote landscape. Or perhaps moonscape would be a better term, for outside the (no doubt heavily manicured) valley, the earth is about as hostile an environment for agriculture as one can imagine (short of a complete lack of soil): tussock-covered mountains meet rolling fields and hills covered with craggy outcroppings, shelves, and tables; a forbidding and borderline unusable landscape that…inevitably…formed one of the major open sets for The Lord of the Rings.
It figures that someone would try to grow grapes here.
In truth, the rocky slopes around Alexandra aren’t any worse than some of the great European vineyards…Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe come immediately to mind…though this is not to say that the wines from this region even vaguely compare to those exalted appellations. In the first place, it would appear that the majority of vines are planted not on the difficult slopes, but rather on the flat and fertile plains; rarely a recipe for top-quality wine. Second, there seems to be a lot of haphazard experimentation and, it must be said, pervasive underfunding, especially in comparison to the more developed vineyards and wineries around Bannockburn, Cromwell, and the Gibbston Valley. The end result is that, unfortunately, the wines of the region don’t quite meet the standards being set by the rest of the Central Otago.
My first stop is at Black Ridge, the Central Otago’s first commercial vineyard…though this presupposes that I’ll ever be able to find the place. The map in Michael Cooper’s Atlas sends me on a long but visually captivating detour through the area’s rocky hinterlands, but eventually I pull into the rather dramatic hollow in which the winery sits…on the heels of a small group of youthful Americans. What, exactly, are those odds?
The proprietor is somewhere between goofy and eccentric (in a good way), but his passion can’t be denied, and we delve into a haphazard tasting while I listen to his ramblings…some of which are sensible, others of which are rather the opposite. As for the wines themselves, they’re all over the qualitative map.
Black Ridge 2002 Riesling (Central Otago) – Diesel and mineral with pear skin, wet leaves and a metallic edge; the latter is usually welcome in a riesling, but here it’s a little bit too jarring. The finish is very dry, despite eight grams of residual sugar. Good for short-term drinking, but I don’t like its preparation for the longer haul.
Black Ridge 2003 Chardonnay (Central Otago) – Peach and stone fruit with a big impact, and a decent enough balance that persists until the onset of an oily-textured, low-acid finish that eventually dries out all the goop. It’s quite flavorful, but more akin to a good fruit wine than a chardonnay.
Black Ridge 2004 “Otago Gold” (Central Otago) – A blend of breidecker, riesling, gewürztraminer and chardonnay, carrying fifteen grams of residual sugar. (What’s breidecker, you ask? A müller-thurgau/chancellor cross, which should fill absolutely no one with anticipation. Further, blends with gewürztraminer are rarely anything more than thinned gewürztraminer.) There’s fusel oil and grapefruit, but only a dab of each, and otherwise this wine is sweet, simple fun that’s completely absent anything of interest or complexity. The proprietor suggests serving it over ice (“you keep on sipping until the ice is dissolved”), which seems as good a use as any: the pastis of the Central Otago.
Black Ridge 2004 Gewürztraminer (Central Otago) – My second attempt at this wine, and unfortunately it’s only slightly changed: oily lychee, roses and spiced orange are completely overwhelmed by fat, even blowsy residual sugar (19 grams) and a flabby midpalate. The finish is much better, showing long and luscious, but it’s a shame what one has to go through to get there. This is a cocktail wine, at best.
Black Ridge 2003 Gewürztraminer “Late Harvest” (Central Otago) – 20 grams of residual sugar…just one gram more than the regular ’04 gewürztraminer…but overall a much more solid wine, which indicates the problem at Black Ridge is likely to be insufficient physiological ripeness rather than regular old hang time; a way must be found to mitigate intrusive sugars while urging on the grapes’ aromatics and structural elements to some harmonious end. This wine, which is no more overtly sweet than the basic bottling, shows nice spiced apple and roses with a bitter-sour lychee, pear and peach midpalate that manages to hold into the finish. There’s good intensity here, and the only major flaw is…well, to be indelicate, a sort of “foot cheese” aroma that emerges as the wine warms in the glass. Still, if one can ignore this characteristic, there’s at least potential here.
Black Ridge “Conroy’s” 2004 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – An inexpensive wine meant to be an early- and easy-drinking pinot, except that it’s a little too easy. It’s juicy, perhaps even akin to a slightly flat soda, with light leafy flowers and a short finish. The still-bound CO2 eventually becomes a touch off-putting, but with enough chill this could be a decent quaffer on a hot summer day.
Black Ridge 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Sour cherry on the nose, which expands to fuller, riper and fleshier plum, orange peel and earth aromas on the palate. There’s good structure, balance and length here, but the wine persistently tends towards tartness, and one wonders if the fruit will outlast the acidity.
Black Ridge 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon (Central Otago) – OK, this is the second cabernet sauvignon I’ve tasted from this region (the first was part of a blend at Olssens), and I’m a little baffled at the enthusiasm for the experiment. OK, sure, maybe it’s possible to get cabernet ripe here, in one vintage or another, but the world needs another marginal cabernet about as much as it needs another breidecker. This one shows bell pepper, blackberry, black pepper and dark cherry with good structure, but despite the proprietor’s tremendous enthusiasm it’s just not all that interesting. It’s decent enough, and structured, and will age with all the qualities and problems it currently possesses, but there’s just no call for this wine, and no real purpose in its making other than to prove that it can (very occasionally) be done.
16 November 2006
The luxurious colon
Just what exactly is “luxury muesli,” anyway? 24-carat gold nuggets amidst one’s rolled oats? Or does it make your…no, wait, on second thought, never mind. I’ve felt some pushback from musing on muesli’s digestive effects in the past, and perhaps the world isn’t truly ready for such ruminations. (And maybe they feel the same about unsavory digestive puns. You know, the kind that leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.)
Anyway…it’s “luxury muesli” in our bowls this morning, and our bodies are virtually brimming with whole grains and crunchy earth-mother goodness. We’ll need it.
The mirrored crown
In a country full of ascendant byways, “the country’s highest sealed road” is bound to be quite something. And indeed, the breathtakingly beautiful and precarious trip from Queenstown and over the Crown Range is just that, flitting its way dramatically upward through golden mountain slopes tufted with tussock. It eventually flattens, shooting relatively straight along the Cardrona River to emerge high above Wanaka, a small but popular town draped across the southern tip of its majestic alpine lake. It’s a good thing the road’s downhill, too, because we’re running on fumes by the time we reach civilization. (Note to selves: next time, gas up before leaving Queenstown, because there’s nothing along the way.)
We’d been to Wanaka before, though only for a few minutes on a seemingly endless drive to the glacial wilds of the West Coast, and had greatly admired something it shared with its nearby “sister lake” Hawea: an almost impossible sky-tinted blue, like something out of an unlikely but riveting painting of the ideal mountain pond. Today, it’s not quite that blue – whether due to season, sun angle, or mineral content we can’t tell – but it’s hardly less beautiful for it. We park near the beach, and emerge into a sun-warmed (but wind-cooled) paradise surrounded on three sides by towering mountains. Wanaka is vacation town for Kiwis and tourists alike, and buzzes with activities and the planning thereof. We stroll along the beach to shaded, calmer groves of trees on the lake’s southwestern corner, then head north along the Waterfall Creek path for a gently pretty, leisurely stroll through trees, shrubs, beaches and grapevines…that, eventually, turns a little boring. What cynical and world-weary hikers we’ve become in such a short time!
Let napping dogs lie
Back to the car we go, to retrace our steps via a road only a few dozen meters from our walking path, leading us to the dramatic entrance to Rippon, a strong candidate for the world’s most beautifully-situated winery. Vines descend in orderly rows towards the lake, which reflects both the sky and the snow-capped mountain peaks in mirrored glass. It’s awe-inspiring. (linked image ©Gilbert van Reenan, Clean Green Images)
Unfortunately, the wines do not live up to the view.
(Continued here, with tasting notes and many, many more photos.)
15 November 2006
Carr 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) – Good, straightforward Napa cab…dark cherry, cassis and blackberry fruit with nicely layered wood (expressed as vanilla, chocolate and toast), very little acidity, and a little bit of dust coming from the subwoofer. A fairly good value, too. It’s not something I’d want to drink very often, because it’s more than a little obvious, but as an occasional diversion it’s perfectly decent. (11/06)
Villa Bucci 2000 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico “Riserva” (Marches) – Corked. (11/06)
Villa Bucci 2000 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico “Riserva” (Marches) – Not corked, perhaps, but still not quite intact. Maybe mildly corked. There’s enough pleasantness here to render it drinkable – old hay, soft minerality, delicate yellow-tinged fruit – but it lacks the complexity and verve that usually marks this wine. (11/06)
14 November 2006
(The original version, with many more photos, is here.)
The Holstein firm
There’s certainly industrial winemaking in New Zealand, but one doesn’t expect to find it in the smallholder-dominated Central Otago. Thankfully, the giant corrugated airline hangars at Central Otago Wine Company (“CowCo” to the locals), just down the street from Quartz Reef, hold not the worst excesses of mass-market vinification, but the very essence of small-estate winemaking. CowCo is a contract facility for wineries too small to have their own, and serves as both winemaker and stand-in tasting room for over a half-dozen producers.
It would be nice, then, if a few more of the available wines were on offer. I’m sure calling ahead would have arranged this, but our enthusiasm for tasting is flagging at the end of a long day doing just that (Theresa opts to sit this venue out in its entirety), and so I buzz through the four options as efficiently as possible.
Kawarau Estate 2003 Chardonnay “Reserve” (Central Otago) – An organic winery, working with Lowburn fruit. It’s wood-spicy, showing orange peel, clove and apricot with a short-ish finish. Fine in its idiom.
Central Otago Wine Cellar 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Blended from four parcels (I fail to ask who owns them), showing lemongrass, red cherry, strawberry and the classic regional orange rind, with pretty good acidity. Fresh, fun and easy-drinking pinot.
Dry Gully 2003 Pinot Noir (Alexandra) – Powdery chalk, strawberry leaf, banana skin and chewy celery over a bed of gravel. The tannin’s slightly underripe, leaving the wine with a bitter aftertaste, and overall it’s depressingly light.
Two Paddocks 2003 Pinot Noir “First Paddock” (Gibbston) – A winery owned by actor Sam Neil, though it’s most definitely not just another vanity project. This (from the One Paddock vineyard, their oldest parcel) is a fine effort, with elegant strawberry, plum, raspberry, red cherry and orange with very slightly touchy tannin and a long, zingy finish. Tasty stuff. (The brief disconnect of tasting wine from a guy who played the Antichrist is a little jarring, but I get over it. Anyway, the winery’s web site is frequently hilarious, which helps ease the struggle.)
Loom of the fruit
After a full day with glass to nose, the highs push out the lows and we remember a rather packed day with appreciation. Comprehensive thoughts on what we’ve tasted are still coalescing, and I resolve to put them to paper after I’ve visited the third – and most remote – sub-region of the Central Otago. What lingers is the feeling that, while the whites continue to lag, the reds are showing a real spark, and finally starting to justify the regional excitement in sufficiently convincing numbers. But at the moment, we’ve got something other than grapes on our minds.
For the Cromwell/Bannockburn area is only recently known for its wine. Historically, what excelled here was produce, especially fruit. Old-timers, in fact, rather bemoan the general loss of the region as a berry Mecca, and consider winemaking more than a bit arriviste. In any case, proof of this history towers into the Cromwell sky in multicolored majesty: a giant, rather lurid sculpture of fruit. We’ve got a bit of a fetish for the kitsch represented by such things – with pictures of us hanging from giant kiwifruit (and kiwis), garlic, apples and even wheels of Munster – so we can’t resist a brief photo stop.
From there, it’s into Cromwell itself to pick up some items for dinner, and then to its historic outskirts for a few minutes in “Old Cromwell,” which is a faithfully- (if somewhat cheesily-) restored frontier town from the gold rush days. We also hit a few fruit stands (today littered with busloads of Asian tourists, for reasons that aren’t particularly clear to either of us) on the way out of town, just to check out the selection, after which the wonderful desolation of the Cromwell-Queenstown road brings us home.
Dinner is a Cromwell-sourced pasta primavera (of sorts; since it’s actually early autumn here, maybe pasta d’autunno would be more accurate) with the remains of our lunch wine.
Amisfield “Lake Hayes” 2004 Riesling (Central Otago) – Green apple and yellow-green citrus, clean and crisp but simple.
For “dessert,” I pop open something acquired at Akarua, which makes me wish I’d spent more time tasting through their brewed lineup.
BannockBrew “Wild Spaniard” Black Lager (Central Otago) – Chocolate and hickory-smoked espresso. Incredibly intensity. This is an aptly-named pit of dark, brooding blackness, and I rather love it.
Tomorrow, we work off the excesses of today. And, along the way, embrace some new excesses at a strong contender for the world’s most beautiful vineyard.Disclosure: the beer is a gift.
13 November 2006
(The original version is here.)
After the wind-whipped hills and gullies of Bannockburn, the flat industrial outskirts of Cromwell are a bit of a downer. This is still the South Island of New Zealand, so “industrial” means “some big buildings on mostly-abandoned streets with tons of green space surrounding them,” but as winery settings go, this isn’t the most enrapturing.
We don’t have much time to admire the non-scenery, however, because we’re racing the clock. Everyone and their assistant at each winery we’ve visited has told us the same thing: go visit Rudi at Quartz Reef. We tend to accept frequently-repeated advice of this nature, but there’s a problem: the winery tasting room apparently closes at three o’clock, and it’s about 2:55. We tear into a deserted lot and spy the makeshift assembly that passes for a tasting room. The door is closed, and locked, but there’s a man striding across the lot.
“What can I do for you?”
“We’re interested in tasting some wine, if possible, but I know we’re here at closing time and…”
“It’s no problem.” This, to be honest, is the answer we expect. After some time in New Zealand, one gets used to the incredible generosity.
“Rudi” is Rudi Bauer, a bit of a winemaking legend in these parts, and he’s got an accent. A non-Kiwi accent, that is. It turns out that he’s Austrian, though he’s been in New Zealand for a while (making wine at various notable establishments, including Rippon and Geisen), and that this particular venture is a collaborative one between himself and one of the branches of the Chauvet family of Champagne.
It also turns out that there’s more to the facility than meets the eye. Bauer makes wine for more than one company: Quartz Reef (including their Chauvet line of sparklers), Pisa Range and Rockburn. All are available in the tasting…well, “room” is a bit optimistic; “shed” might be more accurate…though only a few are open at the moment. Bauer unlocks the door and we take a few exploratory sips while we chat.
Quartz Reef “Chauvet” Methode Traditionelle (Central Otago) – 54% pinot noir, Rudi tells us, but the web site says 38%. Not that it really matters. Also: 26 months on the lees, with 10 g/l residual sugar. It’s very crisp, with apple and lemongrass in lovely balance. A nice, and surprisingly inexpensive bubbly that performs a good deal better than most of its more expensive competition up north.
Quartz Reef 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Dark, brooding, extremely structured and saddled with leather notes. Strong and forceful, yet well-built. An excellent expression of a fuller-bodied form of Central Otago pinot, which…as others have noted…is not that hard to achieve, given decent weather.
Bauer, apparently unconcerned by the time and obviously happy with our interest, offers a brief barrel tasting. How can we do other than accept? The winemaking facilities are slightly haphazard, with more than a few approaches to maturation in evidence, but the tasting itself is revelatory.
Rockburn 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample) (Central Otago) – Dark plum, firm and ripe with lots of structure. But, it’s balanced and quite nice.
Pisa Range 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample) (Central Otago) – Dried flower petals, celery and earth with darker-toned red and black licorice, yet more refined than either of the previously-tasted pinots.
Quartz Reef 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample) (Central Otago) – Assemblage #1, showing blueberry, plum and other, bigger and leafier fruit. Strong, but short-finishing and just a bit goopy.
Quartz Reef 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample) (Central Otago) – Assemblage #2, still sitting on eggs from its recent fining. Here, we have blackberry, plum and black cherry with graphite-like structure. Huge, but complex and absolutely stunning.
Bauer hesitates before dipping his thief into a final barrel. He seems full of trepidation, noting “I’m not really sure what to do with this one.” I ask why.
“Just taste it.”
Quartz Reef 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample) (Central Otago) – Assemblage #3, a/k/a “Shrek.” A massive wall of tannin and other structural elements, with penetrating dark blackberry, black cherry, blueberry and boysenberry. Drying and chewy, with massive tannin omnipresent on the finish.
It is, without a doubt, an absolute paragon of extraction. It’s good in its idiom, and it does taste more like pinot than any other grape that immediately comes to mind, but it’s pretty extreme…and it’s not entirely clear that Bauer is pleased with its existence. What intrigues me, however, is the name.
“Shrek? Like the animated character?”
“You don’t know about Shrek?” We close up the winery and return to the tasting shed, where Bauer digs through some paperwork and smirkingly produces a calendar. There, right on the cover, is one of the most awe-inspiring sights I’ve ever seen. And one of the more unintentionally horrifying as well.
Shrek, you see, is…or rather was…the world’s most famous sheep.
The brief version of the tale is this: a sheep, lose in the wilds of New Zealand, managed to avoid being shorn for at least six years…to the point that the weight of his barrel-shaped fleece quite literally pulled the wool over his eyes. (Honestly, it’s a shock that the poor thing could even see…or move, for that matter.) Anyway, the renegade sheep was finally caught and, in a massive publicity stunt staged for charity, shorn on national TV. Among the results: a popular childrens’ book, a charity calendar, and an ongoing soap opera.
Only in New Zealand.
With gratitude and visions of Godzilla-sized sheep dancing in our heads, we take our leave of Quartz Reef. Bauer’s skill as a winemaker is unquestionable, but the biggest impression we’re left with is that of the clear differences in source material – both from terroir and from clonal selections – revealed in wines made by the same hand. The pinots are definitely on the larger, more structured side (and Bauer does express admiration for Hätsch Kalberer at Fromm, another devotée of this style), but neither are they out of balance or moving into the zinfandel/syrah realm inhabited by so many other large-bodied pinots.
And the biggest news of all? As we’re leaving, I ask Bauer why he doesn’t plant some grüner veltliner, just to see what it could do in New Zealand.
Ramonteu “Domaine Cauhapé” 2004 Jurançon “Ballet d’Octobre” (Southwest France) – Sweetly pretty, with a blushing, shy caste to its lovely white stone fruit and sap flavors brightened by sunny acidity. There’s something else, too…an herbal, almost anise-like note that chimes at the edge of perception, then rings more loudly as the finish drifts along. (11/06)
Bisson 2001 Cinque Terre “Marea” (Liguria) – Slightly oxidative, but gorgeous, with pulverized moss-covered rocks in a wet stream, crystalline grapefruit rind and a white, cloud-like texture. Fully mature, I’d guess, though I don’t have enough experience with the wine to be absolutely certain. (11/06)
Sepp Moser 2004 Grüner Veltliner (Kremstal) – The basic bottling, full of zesty white pepper, white asparagus and celery salt. Fun – albeit a very Teutonic sort of fun – and highly agreeable with food. (11/06)
Dr. Fischer 2004 Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Kabinett 02 06 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – A kabinett that actually tastes like a kabinett. Maybe a little too much so, as the mildly pleasant apple and light mineral aromas fade into the background at the slightest provocation…a bit of food, an aroma from the kitchen, a passing breeze…. I wonder if the wine might not be very mildly corked, though usually riesling is so transparent to TCA that time would make it obvious, and it never rears its moldy head. (11/06)
12 November 2006
Prudhon 2001 St-Aubin “1er Cru” “Sur le Sentier du Clou” (Burgundy) – Lovely and elegant, with earth-flecked loam and lurking raspberry. The wine’s a bit of a structural chameleon, with good acid and tannin up front, a quick, sun-drenched brightening, then the emergence of a deeper, basso undertone, before finally softening once more on the finish. Air tightens the wine. It’s good now, but after a disappointing stage as it closes down it’s likely to be very pretty at full maturity.
Sorelle Bronca Prosecco di Valdobbiadene (Veneto) – Fun citrus and sweet flower nectar with grapefruit and ripe melon. Aromatic and succulent. Terrific prosecco.
Unti 2003 Syrah (Dry Creek Valley) – Heavy, dark and thick fruit fighting through thick wood and thick (though ripe) tannin. Did I mention something about thickness? There are good raw materials here, and I suspect long ageability is a given, but the sludge is so heavy that it’s a chore to drink.
Anselma 1993 Barolo (Piedmont) – Bitter tannin overwhelms fully-resolved fruit, leaving some dried rose petals and rough, sun-baked red cherries in its wake. Hanging on, but only just, and not that interesting of a wine.
Contini 1996 Vernaccia di Oristano Riserva (Sardinia) – Like dry oloroso Sherry, flat and austere with dark molasses residue. Very, very different. I’m initially repelled, but by the last sip it starts to grow on me.
Gysler “Bundle of Scheu” 23 04 (Rheinhessen) – Off-dry dandelion pollen and other floral, leafy stuff of much unthinking goodness. (8/06)
Huet 2000 Vouvray Brut Pétillant (Loire) – Waxy and acidic with the faintest suggestion of bubbles, but otherwise giving up absolutely nothing. This is about as closed as a wine can be. (8/06)
Rodez Champagne Ambonnay “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Noirs (Champagne) – Soft strawberry and red cherry. The fruit is concentrated and almost liqueur-like, with sweet tones on the finish, and the overall impression is one of plushness. I’m not sure that’s an admirable quality here. (8/06)
Johannishof 2005 Johannisberg “G” Riesling Kabinett 010 06 (Rheingau) – Mixed heirloom apples dusted with nutmeg and ripe with piercing sweetness, turning quickly to overwhelming red fruit on the palate. There’s molten iron and a good deal of spice that emerges with air…as the wine gets redder and redder with each sip. Powerful stuff, though it bears about as much resemblance to a kabinett as does a Barossa shiraz. (8/06)
Lopez de Heredia “Viña Tondonia” 1989 Rioja Reserva “Viña Gravonia” (Center-North) – Dry toast with spiced butter and preserved lemon spread, dotted by buttered marshmallows. Long, with fine acidity and a drying element on the finish that eventually becomes a slight burn. Controversial, and though I finally decide that I like it, it’s definitely not for everyone. (8/06)
Trimbach 2000 Riesling “Cuvée Frédéric Émile” (Alsace) – Absolutely impenetrable, though it gives the impression of being nothing more than liquid minerality. Not even worth taking a peek at right now, but it should be much, much better in a half-dozen years. (8/06)
Mann 1998 Riesling Schlossberg (Alsace) – Intense, ripe and very dry banana skin shoved through a metal cylinder. It grows to an early climax, then quickly fades away, and the finish is surprisingly short. But from a site where most producers pursue some level of residual sugar, this wine is dry, dry, dry. (8/06)
Boxler 2000 Riesling Sommerberg “L31D” (Alsace) – Light sweetness…for Boxler, that is…backed by such terrific acidity that it really doesn’t register after the first sip. Otherwise, there’s a brilliantly-structured wine running the mineral gamut from coal to diamond, with ripe red apple and strawberry blossom. An extremely vertical riesling, with power and presence and many, many fantastic years ahead of it. (8/06)
Bantlin “Domaine Les Portes” 2004 Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes Muscat Sec “fin de la nuit” (Roussillon) – Faded flowers and dried fruit fading into an oxidative summer sunset. Yet there’s something intriguing about this wine, which keeps enticing me back for sip after sip, until the liquid’s gone. How’d that happen? (9/06)
Sauzet 1998 Saint-Romain (Burgundy) – Sweet-sour grapefruit with a bit of sweaty acridity, good but slightly disjointed crispness, and a light sheen of mature butter. It gains some crisp, citrusy spice with extended aeration. A pretty good, light, lower-tier white Burgundy at full maturity. (9/06)
d’Angerville 1994 Volnay (Burgundy) – Harshly tannic at first, but this slowly fades, giving way to a nice mélange of well-aged red fruit and crumbled autumn leaves fallen on a mossy ground, with the morning’s frost rising as steam from wet, aromatic earth. This is a really lovely wine, but it requires time to present itself. (9/06)
Trimbach 1989 Gewurztraminer “Sélection des Grains Nobles” (Alsace) – From 375 ml. Not even close to ready, with lychee and peach fruit only mildly spiced (though heavily sweetened), and showing almost none of the expected meat-like characteristics that come with aged versions of this grape. A dining companion notes an emergent bitterness, which is typical for late-harvested gewurztraminer; he dislikes it, while I find it a necessary balancing element in the wine’s sugar-dominated structure. Way, way too young, but potentially very nice. However, if you’re insistent on opening something, the ’89 VT is drinking much better right now. (9/06)
Jean Claude Thévenet Brut Blanc de Blancs (Mâcon) – Soft suggestions of white apricot and gentle chalkiness; pleasing and inoffensive in form. The finish lingers nicely, but this is a very restrained wine. (9/06)
Reynaud “Château des Tours” 1998 Vacqueyras “Réserve” (Rhône) – Dense smoked plum concentrate with wet leather and meat-like components. However, the texture is lush and creamy, it’s quite heavy, and there’s an intense, heavy sweetness to the palate. Is there residual sugar in this wine? The owner says that half his bottles have undergone a secondary fermentation in their bottles, so I guess we know the answer to that question. Anyway, it’s very good in strict moderation, but less so in quantity, and sweet Vacqueyras is crossing too many borders of typicity for me. This tastes like show wine, rather than something one would wish to drink at table. (9/06)
Sabon “Clos du Mont-Olivet” 1990 Châteauneuf-du-Pape “La Cuvée du Papet” (Rhône) – Corked. (9/06)
Domaine Michel Cheveau 2005 Saint-Amour “En Rontey” (Beaujolais) – Surprisingly gentle: delicate red berries and ethereal floral notes dance right on the edge of perception. Surprisingly firm: a strong, granitic structure adds a pillar-like rigidity to matters. Between these two incompatible notions lies a slightly schizophrenic wine. The results are, on the surface, quite nice…as the wine functions both as light-bodied quaffing Beaujolais and something firmer and crisper that stands up to food, but one yearns for something a little more focused. (9/06)
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2000 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – At first, this wine can’t decide whether it wants to be grilled-plum syrah, or tart-berried pinot. There’s a lot of acid here, and eventually that acidity decides matters; the smokiness fades a bit, leaving a wine with lots of unfocused flavor but a somewhat hollow midpalate and a perhaps overly crisp finish. Starts wide, finishes narrow. It’s a good wine, but I’m not sure I’m entirely on board with the way it’s aging. (9/06)
Maculan 1998 Breganze “Torcolato” (Veneto) – 375 ml. A beautiful, inspiring mélange of cinnamon, nutmeg, pineapple, clove, blood orange, caramel and butterscotch with just the right amount of brightening acidity. My mouth is watering just writing this tasting note. One of the truly great sweet wines of the world, calling to mind all the classic elements of Sauternes-style wines, but with its own unique palette of aromas and characteristics. (9/06)
Prager 1996 Weissenkirchner Steinriegl Riesling Smaragd (Wachau) – Firm and stern to the point of being sour (more in mood than in structure), with dried greengage plum and wind-whipped limestone. Complex and interesting, but not – at this moment – pleasurable. It would appear to need time, since there’s an awful lot of “here” here. Or “there” there. Whatever. It’s a stupid turn of phrase anyway. (9/06)
casina ‘tavijn 2004 Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato (Piedmont) – Exotic, Thai-influenced red fruit with wild aromas darting from jarred cherry to makrut lime to rose jam, with juicy acidity and light, sandpapery tannin lurking in the background. Difficult to embrace without preparation, but lots of fun. (9/06)
Audras “Clos de Haute-Combe” 2002 Juliénas “Cuvée Prestige” (Beaujolais) – Gentle but surprisingly firm red fruit dusted with graphite and sweet black earth. Lithe and light, with fine acidity and an elegant, almost regal texture. Lovely. (9/06)
Kuentz-Bas 2004 Alsace (Alsace) – Fragrant, and promising more palate weight than it eventually delivers; the wine is fresh, lightly fruity (mostly from the white and green spectrum) and very lightly spicy, with a vaguely effervescent zing and good, food-friendly acidity. An hors d’oeuvre wine. (9/06)
Edmunds St. John 2003 “Rocks & Gravel” (California) – Dense, fruity blueberry compote with light leather and faint morels. Forward and juicy, with decent structure somewhat overwhelmed by a lot of friendly, smiling fruit. (9/06)
(The original post is here.)
As wineries ‘round the world have proved over and over, money does not solve all problems. On our last visit to New Zealand, we’d stopped in at Carrick on the recommendation of an acquaintance. It was, apart from a pleasantly drinkable pinot, a complete waste of time and taste buds. And this despite the painfully obvious scale of the funds being thrown at everything in sight…mostly including a then-unfinished tasting room and restaurant facility.
However, in the interim the buzz had spread a bit…just enough to lead to my taking a chance on a bottle at Dunedin’s Bell Pepper Blues. The difference that money cannot necessarily make, time and money can; the wine, a 2002 Pinot Noir, was very nearly extraordinary. A closer investigation was required.
At any given mealtime, the parking lot at Carrick is likely to be full. Rather than hungry tourists stocking up on picnic wine, the draw is the (allegedly; I haven’t eaten there) fine restaurant on the facility, about which there is growing regional and national hype. There’s also a little action at the long tasting bar (which shares a vaulted room with the restaurant), but things seem busier than they are because the tasting counter staff is also responsible for covering the restaurant floor. They do a remarkable job considering the circumstances, but one wonders if – especially at lunch – the promotion of the winery itself might not be better-served by separate staffs.
Carrick 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Central Otago) – Ripe gooseberry, lime and white spice; a nicely juicy wine that almost makes me recant my dire warnings about Central Otago sauvignon. But I fear it may instead be the proverbial exception that proves the rule.
Carrick 2003 Chardonnay (Central Otago) – 50% of this wine spends twelve months in French oak, and handles it fairly well. There’s spicy clove and fig jam, with plenty of ripe, juicy oranges and a balanced finish. Chardonnay’s still not my thing, but this is a good one.
Carrick 2004 Rosé (Central Otago) – Like most pinks from this region, this is made from pinot noir; I don’t get the opportunity to ask if it’s vat-bled or from secondary fruit. It shows very light spiced peach (more white than yellow), to such an extent that it tastes more like a dark-skinned white wine (complete with a touch of tannin; think Alsatian pinot gris) than a true rosé. It’s strange, and I’m not sure I like it even on its own merits.
Carrick 2003 “Unravelled” Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Yes, that’s how they spell it; the term is a play on the regular label’s depiction of a Carrick Bend knot, which here is…literally…unraveled. Or “unravelled.” Whatever. Anyway, this is intended to be a fresh, upfront, early-drinking pinot sold at a lower price, and it succeeds in those goals (though I wouldn’t necessarily call mid-twenties in Kiwi dollars cheap, either). The fruit – mostly strawberry, plum and the persistent Central Otago orange rind characteristic – is very ripe, with nuts and light earth tones introducing themselves and then quickly stepping back to allow the fruit to feature itself. It’s pure, fruity fun, but more complex than I think most would expect. A nice wine, indeed.
Carrick 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Dark plum and somewhat bulky tannin dominate this tight, concentrated wine. The balance is discernibly terrific, and there’s wonderful length, with crisp and acid-enhanced floral esters on the finish…but the wine is very balled-up right now. Give it the necessary aging.
Carrick 2002 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Another stab at the bottling tasted in Dunedin, apparently opened (from an available stock) in response to my enthusiasm for my previous encounter with the wine. This, thanks to the extra year of development, presents as a much richer wine than the ’03, showing generous plum and black cherry with hints of chocolate on the finish. As with my previous encounter with the ‘02, the niggling flaw is a very slightly bitter tannic bite; one wonders if the seemingly more balanced ’03 might, eventually, turn out to be the better wine. But this, too, really needs age to show its true qualities.
This is a winery still on the ascent, with across-the-board improvement in their wines and newer, differently-cloned vineyards working their long, hard slog towards maturity. Despite this, their next two vintages are potentially problematic (which is mostly beyond their control), so one hopes that their obvious strides forward will not stall while they wait for a more reliable vintage. Nonetheless, I will be completely unsurprised to see even greater things from this winery in the future.
And maybe I’ll give the restaurant a try, too.
11 November 2006
Burgaud “Château de Thulon” 2005 Beaujolais-Villages (Beaujolais) – Sappy red berries with cedar, pine nuts and buoyant acidity; this wine lives amongst sopranos, and though it sings quietly among them, it sings with appealing purity. Fun stuff. (11/06)
(The original version is here.)
No use crying
Dusty rock and scraggly, breeze-burnt trees surround us. Dry grass whips to and fro in the swirling wind. We’re seated at a concrete picnic table in a hollow, alongside what can only be described as a watering hole in the heart of Bannockburn wine country, and would be not at all surprised to see itinerant herds of antelopes (or hippopotami) making their jittery (or lumbering) way down to join us.
Bottles purchased at morning winery visits help weigh down the corners of our picnic set’s tablecloth, as we try to prevent its wind-driven flapping from catapulting our lunch into the pond. We very nearly succeed, until a particularly strong gust spills a full glass of wine all over…well, pretty much everything but us. I guess it’s good that it’s a white.
Amisfield “Lake Hayes” 2004 Riesling (Central Otago) – Lemon-lime and green apple; a fruit-forward and quite acidic expression of varietal riesling character, but with absolutely no additional complexities. There’s no depth here. I think I preferred it at the winery.
Oh, by gosh, by Gullies
The tasting facility at Akarua (technically known as Bannockburn Heights Winery, Ltd., though no one calls it that) is small and cozy, so it’s probably a good thing that we’re the only visitors. Attached are the winemaking facility and a small restaurant. Natalie Wilson, an engaging and eager-to-share host (and, not coincidentally, the winery’s Cellar Door Manager), does the pouring and talks us through the more interesting details, though she seems equally interested in our travels and experiences…a longer-form but no less charming version of “the conversation.” There’s a nice selection of wine on offer (perhaps more when the conversation turns geeky), and some brewed-on-site beer as well.
All the fruit used here is from estate-owned vineyards, and a new winemaker has recently joined, making the notes that follow a bit of an historical snapshot. The core winemaking and viticultural team is now 100% female; though women are not at all unusual at the helm of New Zealand wineries (witness Michelle Richardson, of Villa Maria, Peregrine, and now an eponymous label), women inhabiting all key positions is just a touch unusual.
Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2004 Pinot Rosé (Central Otago) – From what Natalie calls “dropped fruit” rather than from a saignée, which seems a somehow less manipulative thing to do than making a saignée rosé for the primary purpose of concentrating a red, as so often happens. This wine is decidedly not dry – which I guess puts it in the white zin category – but it handles that burden with much more aplomb than most “blush” wines, showing sweet strawberry and red cherry in a pretty, sun-filled punch. Not “serious” in the least.
Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2004 Pinot Gris (Central Otago) – Pear and dry, ripe apple with a really great intensity on the finish. This wine is partially fermented in French oak (I don’t know how old), and seems to absorb the experience with deftness. A nice wine.
Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2004 “Unoaked” Chardonnay (Central Otago) – Peach and tangerine; intensely ripe and fruity, with a short finish. Fun. One must approach most unoaked New World chardonnays with simplified expectations, and this wine satisfies those expectations.
Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2003 Chardonnay (Central Otago) – 100% malolactic fermentation, with a dollop of new wood (mostly expressed by a clove accent on the nose), but otherwise dominated by ripe pear and nectarine. Unfortunately, the finish is deadened; a nice wine cut short before its time. I often find this character in wines freshly pulled from new wood, but that doesn’t apply here, and so I’m afraid it must be attributed to the wine.
Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2003 Pinot Noir “The Gullies” (Central Otago) – A barrel selection despite the geographical-sounding name, with just 5% new wood and done in an upfront, early-drinking style. Perhaps extremely so: sharp strawberry and fresh red cherry with a rasp of slightly bitter tannin make this a wine very obviously for the now. Only just OK.
Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Smooth black cherry, plum and earth (it’s striking how easily these Central Otago pinots move into the black fruit realm), with its own very slightly underripe tannin, but showing much longer and more intense with superior overall structure. It will never be great, but it’s certainly very good, and has aging potential.
This is a pleasant and tasty lineup of wines…solid (if slightly underachieving) with potential and an apparent desire for improvement. Just around the corner, however, big things are happening. Big things.
Disclosures: free bottle of beer from co-owned brewery, trade discount on wine purchases.
10 November 2006
(This is long, and rendered longer by a narrow blog column. If you prefer something a little wider, try this.)
It seems self-evident that some measure of independence is crucial for any critic. Exists there anyone who would trust an employee of a firm to objectively review the products or practices of that firm? The same is also true of the writer, whose narrative musings must be recontextualized if they have a foundation that is not principally internal.
However, independence is very much a matter of degree, and it can be successfully argued that true independence is unachievable if one’s goal is informed, effective writing. Just as complete objectivity is a myth, so too is the notion of the unencumbered and unentangled critic.
What is independence?
Independence, in the context of wine writing, is freedom from encumbrance and entanglement with the subject of said writing. There is also the corollary implication of independence of action; the independent writer is not bound by restrictions on their work from any source, including parties unrelated to the subject. An independent writer is free to inquire, free to explore, free to opine and free to express, all without restriction.
One can immediately see many of the great problems inherent in this definition. But first, it might be valuable to examine the myriad ways in which a writer can be non-independent; a state which I will hereafter label “dependent.”
Forms of dependence
This goes beyond the most obvious case, that of a writer employed by a wine-related firm being asked to review the products of that firm. That is a situation that few would trust, and though it is a frequent component of marketing materials, it is fairly rare among actual wine writers. But economic entanglements come in many forms: partners, investors, financial relationships not specific to the product in question, subsidiary relationships (for example, an employee of a winery’s public relations firm, or their dentist), etc. Those writers who are employed by wine producers and related businesses usually avoid this conflict on a situational basis, simply avoiding their own products in their work. When it is clear that a writer is employed by, or otherwise economically entangled with, a product about which they’re writing, it is almost always a safe assumption that their work is either pure marketing, or must at least be viewed with a most suspicious eye.
Of course, merely avoiding the products of the entity that signs one’s checks isn’t necessarily enough. For example, can a producer of a product successfully review competing products? Is it fair for them to do so? Many would argue that it is not. But what is the definition of a competing product? Must a producer of Oregon pinot noir avoid just their own products, other Oregon pinot noirs, all Oregon wines, or all the world’s pinot noirs? (This example, as many will understand, is not selected by accident; one high-profile critic is a partner in a successful Oregon pinot noir producer, and he or his newsletter employees review all of the aforementioned categories of wine. His choice is to never review, and rarely mention, the winery with which he has a relationship; a restriction he extends to his employees. One can question this decision, but the solution appears to be acceptable to the majority of his readers.) It is fairly easy to argue that a competitor should not review the products with which they are in competition, but what is far less easy is defining what is and isn’t in actual competition. By one admittedly expansive definition, all wine would fall under this heading, thus making it impossible for anyone involved in the production, transfer or sales of wine to write on the subject. But this absolutely flies in the face of sense, especially with the goal of informed criticism in mind; these entities are often the most informed sources around. Why unnecessarily restrict their ability to share their knowledge? That is, to borrow an analogy, destroying the village in order to save it. Obviously, another solution must be found.
The problem, as indicated, comes when one attempts to draw bright lines. Is it OK to sell wine, but also write about it? Is the necessary limitation there that the writer not mention their own products? Is the writer then prevented from deciding to sell a wine that they loved and wrote about, just to preserve the appearance of independence? Or consider a producer of a wine-related product (let’s say a synthetic cork) who also writes? Are wineries who employ that cork off the menu? How about wineries that were pitched but rejected the cork? How about wineries that specifically chose a competitor’s product? Or return to the aforementioned Oregon pinot producer. His reviews of pinot noir might indicate certain stylistic preferences, preferences that could naturally be assumed to be reflected in the wine he helps produce. Would not that lead those aligned with his critical judgments to be especially interested in trying this unnamed wine, resulting in increased sales? Is that not a dependent entanglement that should be avoided?
As the examples flow, they seem as increasingly absurd to the realist as they do worthy of examination to the idealist. Betwixt the two, however, some solution must be found. And perhaps bright line-drawing is not it.
This category of dependence includes familial relationships. Even though the daughter of a winemaker may not herself make wine, her relationship to the winemaker is problematic and unlikely to allow true independence. And it extends to neighbors, friends, and even acquaintances. It is in the latter category that we find the issue of most relevance to wine writers, for it is exceedingly rare for a writer to proceed through their work without interacting with owners and employees of the entities they cover. Since wine people are, in the majority, highly decent types, it is inevitable that many of these relationships will be amicable, occasionally developing into outright friendship. How does one independently examine the work of someone that one likes or admires, of a close acquaintance, of a friend? This is tied up with the thorny dilemmas inherent in objectivity and negativity and their applicability to wine writing, but it also applies to the concept of independence, as the cost of truth may be the relationship itself. That is a dependency. Or worse, consider a revelation: a winemaker revealing some secret to a writer without specifying it to be in confidence. Does the right to know trump the pleasure of the relationship, or vice-versa? And in either case is the writer actually acting independently?
Obviously, the opposite case – an antagonistic personal relationship – can also affect independence, and in a similar fashion. This can follow from personal animosity, but also economic animosity. I know a retailer and an importer who had an exceedingly acrimonious professional breakup, and while I don’t know that I’d ever trust either on the subject of the other (that’s a matter of objectivity), the retailer also refuses to carry the wines of the importer. That’s a lack of independence, because the retailer feels constrained by his relationship with the importer to not carry products that may be desired by his customers, products that may well increase his profits.
On this, there’s much more to say in the essay on ethics, but ethical challenges can also lead to dependencies. Ethics may be imposed from without, as in the case of a journalist bound by a publication’s strictures (on this, see more immediately below). Or they may be internal, leading the writer to positive or negative choices that restrict their independence. An example of this might be a writer who will not cover the wines of a certain producer, region or country for political, religious or historical reasons. A writer who chooses to focus on a niche is not suffering from a dependency, but one who feels ethically drawn towards avoidance is.
One might also call this procedural dependency. The classic example, as indicated above, is the journalist constrained by the ethical code of the publication for which he or she is writing. But matters may be simpler than that. I once wrote for an editor who believed that anything that cost more than $15 was insensibly expensive, and I was strongly discouraged from writing about wines above that threshold. Even then – many price increases ago – it was a rather extreme limitation, and it was necessary for me to disregard (in print) entire categories of wine; important categories essential to understanding and contextualization, especially since my goal was education rather than the provision of shopping lists. But whether by suggestion or by enforcement, this was a restriction on my independence…an article on, say, the glories of grand cru Burgundy was simply out of the question, no matter how useful it might be to the readers. Other restrictions on independence might include matters as simple as word count, perceived audience (“writing down to the average reader” is endemic among mass-market publications) or locality (avoiding the mention of wines not proven to be currently available in a local store). In each case, the writer is restricted and limited. This is not to argue that such restrictions may not be necessary in a specific writer/publisher dynamic, or even to argue that such restrictions are unquestionably wrong, only to point out that they do affect a writer’s independence.
With all these dependencies (plus those not iterated here), it seems impossible for a writer to remain truly independent. Theoretically, it remains a possibility…albeit a remote one, for one major reason I will soon iterate. As a matter of practice, however, no critic is independent. Let me repeat that: no critic is independent. Dependencies, relationships and limitations can always be identified. Always. Independence, then, is simply a matter of degree. At which point, the burden falls on the writer to decide how much independence they want or need, and on the reader to decide what level of independence they require from a writer.
All about the Benjamins
The belief that full independence is an unquestioned good leads, as with misguided notions of objectivity and ethical purity, to unreasonable and unachievable expectations on the part of the reader. This is an important point, and thus worth examining in some detail.
The one inescapable requirement for complete independence is significant wealth. Without it, a writer simply cannot avoid entanglements with all facets of the wine trade. (This presumes that the writer is interested in expanding their knowledge; a writer content to work in ignorance can be as independent as they want at any economic level…but they will never be useful to anyone else.) A writer with enough money can purchase all the wines necessary for building organoleptic and intellectual context, while others less economically-blessed must either do without or rely on alternative sources. This becomes a more restrictive limitation with each yearly increase in the price of wine. A writer with enough money can visit any wine region they wish to visit, while others will have to forgo such journeys or accept ethically dangerous junkets. A writer with enough money can arrange face-to-face meetings with important, knowledgeable people in the wine industry, while others will have to accept limited access or take advantage of press-focused opportunities sponsored by the industry. In each case, the choice is tripartite: the writer pays, someone else pays, or the writer does without.
It’s true that the fraternity of wine writers is rather overpopulated, in comparison to society as a whole, with lawyers, doctors and other highly successful and wealthy people looking for a second career. This is especially true in the United States, where rather more of a fetish is made of independence from entanglements with the wine trade. But it seems profoundly anti-egalitarian to make this a virtual requirement for wine writers by insisting on some semi-mythic ideal of independence. No other critical endeavor with which I’m familiar is burdened by this expectation (in fact, in many fields the situation is rather the opposite: critics tend to be severely underpaid in comparison to the creators of the works they review).
So what is the non-wealthy writer to do? Accept profound limitations on their ability to learn, to grow as a writer, to contextualize their experiences with a broader and deeper range of knowledge, and to write with ever-increasing authority? That’s one path, though it’s hardly an estimable one, and it will definitely not lead to a more economically representative mix of informed wine writers. Alternatively, one could come into sudden wealth, perhaps via the lottery or a wealthy great-aunt’s will. But in the end, the one sensible choice is to accept a certain measure of dependence.
The educational value of access to, say, winemakers is immeasurable. A writer who wishes to improve must have access to that education. And words are not enough; any winemaker can best illustrate their knowledge via actual liquid examples, and a writer needs to also be a taster to do their job effectively. Once this has been done, it is true that the writer has lost a bit of independence by drawing their knowledge from a winemaker rather than from their own independent study. This can be mitigated by greatly increasing the number of winemaking sources from which a writer obtains knowledge, but since winemakers frequently disagree, and since it is impossible that they are all right, at some point the writer will have to make a choice. A decision. An alignment. The freedom to make that choice is independence, but what follows from such an alignment is a diminishment of independence. A dependency, in other words.
A non-wealthy writer must, if they wish the widest context and opportunity possible, accept samples in some form. The restrictions the writer places on such acceptance will be a matter of personal ethics, but there is just no alternative unless the writer wishes to remain generally uninformed. This, inherently, forms a relationship between the writer and the various parties who provide samples: wineries, importers, distributors, retailers, restaurants and public relations agencies. And it is another form of dependence. (Some entities will refuse future samples to a writer who has earned their ire, whether by actual negative press or by unwillingness to trade coverage for product. Most, to their credit, won’t. But it does happen, and any writer who starts down this path must understand this. Dependent relationships are not stable ones.)
Some, including a few prominent wine critics, will immediately decry this solution as unacceptable. As with the issue of anonymity, one suspects that some are applying the ethics of restaurant reviewing to wine, while others are blithely and hypocritically dismissing their own dependencies to better criticize those practiced by their competitors. And it’s also worth examining the ethics that govern other genres of criticism. Music critics do not purchase the albums they review, and they are showered with promotional items and other swag along the way; neither do they pay to attend concerts. The same goes for literary critics, who receive books in the mail. Theater and film critics don’t pay for their tickets, get special access to stars and directors, and attend events and junkets at the expense of producers/PR agencies/marketing firms. All critics of live performances get preferential seating. In fact, almost all product and event reviews are done with the assistance of free samples…except for restaurants, and then only at the few publications who subsidize a restaurant critic, and even then only successfully at the very few publications wealthy enough to subsidize enough repeat and representative dining to ensure fairness and proper context. (Think, for example, how much four small-group dinners at Per Se or Daniel must cost the New York Times. And that’s just one review.) There is one glaring exception to all this: Consumer Reports. But there, the monetary issue must be reintroduced into the equation. CR takes a monetary risk by purchasing (and then reselling, which is not an option for a wine critic) the often-expensive products they review. What if the audience won’t support the activity with their subscription dollars? They would be forced into one of three options: stop, accept free samples, or accept advertising (the publication version of coming into wealth). Their ethics and practices are laudable, but they are also virtually unique in the universe of critique. That, all by itself, is revealing. Even semi-similar publications like Cook’s Illustrated don’t have to purchase fifty mid-size sedans solely on subscription profits.
The knowledge-seeking writer might also consider taking advantage of travel opportunities. It is simply not possible to learn as much about wine in the comfort of one’s home as it is in the cool humidity of a producer’s cellar. But the junket has obvious dangers, not least of which the undoubted expectation of coverage in return for such expensive generosity (an expectation buoyed by the simple fact that many writers do feel an obligation), and there is also the issue of philosophical independence to consider. A particular trip might be engineered to convince writers of one firm’s position on a controversial issue, thus gaining “friends in the press” and advocacy for an opinion; the cork industry has spent a good deal of money in this fashion, in an attempt to beat back the largely positive press coverage of alternative closures. And given the number of times that junkets are rewarded with coverage in the popular press (it turns out that much automobile journalism proceeds from junkets, for example), the problematic nature of these trips is thrown into stark focus. Nonetheless, the benefits can be substantial, and must be weighed against the risks.
Trust but verify
It seems that there are no easy answers here. A writer who practices true independence must be wealthy or contextually handicapped. A writer who allows dependencies is surrounded with the temptations of compromise and inethics. So: what, then?
As with the thorny issues of objectivity and ethics, the only effective solution is internal. A writer must practice and hold to their philosophical and intellectual independence despite the myriad temptations to do otherwise. A writer must communicate this independence to their reader by their actions and opinions as revealed in their work. And when a writer is compromised, there must be full anticipatory disclosure.
This does not mean an endless litany of potential dependencies must attach to every word the writer puts into print. No one has the time for or an interest in such a practice, even if they think they do. Here, for example, is a “disclaimer” for anything I might write about the wines of Trimbach:
I have a personal relationship with Jean and Pierre Trimbach, and have met Hubert and Bernard Trimbach on several occasions. I have tasted and dined with Jean, Pierre and Hubert at various locations in the United States and France. Some meals have been paid for by the Trimbachs, some by their importer, and some by me. I have been driven around Alsace by Jean Trimbach, and have returned the favor. I have tasted wines at Trimbach and at press events in the States to which the general public does not have access, at the expense of Trimbach, their importer and other associated entities. I have received gifts, both wine and non-wine, from the Trimbachs, their importer and their Massachusetts distributor. I have given gifts to Jean Trimbach. We have exchanged Christmas cards. I own a great deal of Trimbach wine, and have a strong personal preference for their style.
Now, does anyone want to see that every time I mention Trimbach? No. Does anyone want to see that disclaimer replicated for every producer, importer, distributor, retailer and restaurant that might be mentioned in anything I write? Probably not. And even if there was such a request, it is in no one’s interest for a writer to spend the time necessary to do so. A successful writer could spend years writing disclaimers rather than writing about wine. That is insensibly counter-productive.
What “anticipatory disclosure” of compromise means is simply this: if there is an event or an unusual relationship that is likely to affect the focus, opinion or intensity of a piece of writing, it is in the writer’s best interests to disclose it. To follow along from the above example, it’s not necessary for me to disclaim a simple tasting note on a Trimbach wine. But if I write two-thousand words on why I think Trimbach is the best producer in the world (NB: I don’t), it would be ethical of me, and useful for the consumer of my words, to know about the extent of my personal relationship with the Trimbachs. Similarly, were I to write about the wines of a producer who, one week earlier, threw a glass of wine on my shirt (NB: this didn’t happen, though I do have a few highly antagonistic relationships with members of the wine trade), that, too, would be an event worthy of disclosure. And though it almost goes without saying, economic relationships must always be disclosed. (Samples are ubiquitous enough among writers that I think the effort to disclose their source is wasted verbiage, though others may disagree. Readers should assume, in the absence of commentary to the contrary, that most writers taste a mix of purchased and free wine from various sources. Junkets, on the other hand, are sufficiently lavish that I think coverage that flows from them should be disclaimed.)
For the reader, as with questions of ethics it simply comes down to a matter of trust. The signs of a writer working as independently as possible are clear with a little insight, while a compromised writer can be seen as a charlatan by nearly everyone. And it’s also important to remember that writers are readers as well, and will collectively shun those among them who demean the profession by their inethics. Writers, too, must play their role by constantly working to earn that trust by their intellectual and philosophical independence. But, ultimately, what allows an atmosphere of independence among writers is their audience. The active, interested participation of consumers creates a demand for experienced, knowledgeable and skilled writers. Without that audience, there would only be marketing.