Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Central Otago - day one

I awoke to a raging storm outside. The weather report showed a huge low pressure had swung into NZ from the Pacific the night before. Knowing I had to fly out in yet another tiny plane made for a nervous drive out to the airport!

However we left on time and a after an extremely bumpy 45 minutes we cleared the storm and flew into crystal-clear skies and the breathtaking scenery of Central Otago: green valleys, snow capped mountains, unbelievable!

The temperature was quite a shock and so long trousers and a jacket made their first appearance since I arrived in New Zealand.  From the hotel on the banks of Lake Wakatipu I hopped onto a water taxi across to the town of Queenstown.  

Queenstown is a vibrant, bustling little place and with the ski season looming, accents of all kinds –Irish, Spanish, French, American… – can be heard in the cafes, bars and restaurants.

Plenty of fish restaurants too, and a grilled plaice and glass of local Bald Hills Pinot Noir made a perfect late lunch.

The following morning I met our Aus/NZ buyer Dan Parrott at the little Frankton airport from where we embarked on our tour of the Otago wine region.

We drove firstly to the south-eastern region of Alexandra and to the small, family-owned Drumsara vineyard.  The owner Wayne Matheson gave us a look around the vineyards and a tasting at the beautiful bathtub terrace. It faces the Leaning Rock Mountain, so called because the sedimentary rock has been pushed up causing it to lean on the Dunstan range behind. I liked the 2011 Pinot Gris; lovely aromatics with a nice, off-dry style to balance the acidity.

Next we headed 35km back north to the town of Cromwell to meet the legendary Rudi Bauer at his Quartz Reef winery. Rudi is quite a guy, an Austrian of origin where he studied his winemaking, arriving in New Zealand to work in Hawke’s Bay in 1985, and setting up the pioneering Quartz Reef in 1996!

 No sooner had we shaken hands we were straight into his Jeep along with very excitable dogs Pippa and Stella and off to the vineyards even further north in the sub region of Bendigo.

Here in Bendigo, Rudi has a unique, 15ha, north-facing sloped vineyard. He has a further 15ha on the lower terrace, sitting opposite Pisa Ridge and west of the tablecloth mountain of Saint Bathans; so named for the draping blanket of cloud that sits on the mountain.

 Every inch of this vineyard has been carefully thought through and it is 100% biodynamic which is basically homeopathic treatments for the soil and vines. From the vineyard, we went down to Rudi’s passion: his shed where he makes all is concoctions for the natural vineyard treatments.  He was lifting up floor boards, opening big jars of homemade brews, stirring buckets of fermenting plant liquid. It was like being in a wizard’s lair! 

The geography is fascinating and the smooth and sharp landscape is caused by strong winds blowing erosion soil formed from last ice age into the pockets amongst the hard rock.  Organic viticulture is big in New Zealand and Rudi informed me that by 2020 NZ will have an incredible 20% of their vineyards organically certified. After a great tasting of the wines back at the winery, we sadly had to say our goodbyes. I was kindly given a half bottle of the Pinot Noir and its one that will definitely sneak into my suitcase to take back to France.

Our next visit is an absolute must for wine lovers: the amazing Felton Road in Bannockburn! We were met by the winemaker Blair Walter, unfortunately the owner Nigel Greening couldn’t be there but his daughter Nicola was holding fort.  

We very quickly got busy tasting barrels, perhaps rather carried away! We started with the exquisite Chardonnay: who says Otago doesn’t make Chardonnay? We then made a cooper comparison tasting with the 2012 Felton Road Bannock Burn, Cornish Point, Block 3 and Block 5 Pinot Noirs: absolutely stunning wines. I strongly advise that if you can splash out on NZ wine then do so from these guys.

Not only was the barrel tasting a fantastic experience, I was in for a real treat tonight as Blair and Nicola were taking me for dinner to the new and highly reputed Jervois Steak House in Queenstown. And it certainly didn’t disappoint, nor the wines! Blair pulled out a 2005 Felton Road Chardonnay – fresh and complex; a 2006 Block 5 Pinot Noir – spicy with a velvet palate; and a Ata Rangi 2011 from Martinborough – elegant cherry fruit and rose petal aromas. Thanks guys!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Waipara Valley

I flew into the South Island capital Christchurch early Saturday morning, picked up the hire car and headed 40 minutes north to the principal Canterbury vineyard area called The Waipara Valley.  The Waipara has around 1200ha of vines which sit mainly on the gravely clay of the valley floor. They’re protected from the cooling coastal winds by the Teviotdale Hills in the east and from excess rain by the foothills of the Southern Alps in the west.  

This micro climate makes the Waipara on average two degrees warmer than Christchurch. It gives a long growing season and has a dry climate receiving only 600mm of rain per year.  As in Marlborough, the large fluctuation of day and night temperatures allow grape varietals such as Pinot Noir to retain their acidity, but to my surprise, the top varietal in the valley – and the most prized – is Riesling. 

My first stop was the world-famous Pegasus Bay winery, rated to be in the top five NZ producers. It is owned by the pioneering Donaldson family who have been involved in wine since the early 1970s. Today Ivan Donaldson oversees viticulture and wine styles, with sons Matthew the winemaker, Edward the marketeer and Paul the general manager.

The wines are serious stuff across the board but I personally liked the 2010 Encore Noble Riesling; a bottle of which will be accompanying me back to Bordeaux!

A few minutes further up the road is Mud house who also have the Waipara Hills label. It’s a big commercial venture with a huge range of wines, tasting rooms and restaurants. However the wines are all very good and great value for money and they do a terrific big, buttery Chardonnay in the Equinox range.

Greystone was next a little further up the road and the opposite of the previous visit. It’s a small 39-hectare estate of predominantly north-westerly facing land with a range of altitudes from 60m to 150m. Although 60% is planted with Pinot Noir, the soil profiles from light clays through to rich limestone allowing for some very good small blocks of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah.  I enjoyed all the wines but the again the Riesling was my favourite. 

My last visit before lunch was to Waipara Springs Winery. It’s a quaint little place with an inviting cafĂ© and the estate boasts some of the oldest vines in the valley. The off-dry Riesling was very good with zesty limey acidity and well worth the visit.

Lunch was at the highly recommended Black Estate in the north end of the Waipara. It’s a great spot and the black, barn-like restaurant and tasting room sits high on the hillside. The view is stunning, as is the food and I also tasted my favourite wine of day, the Black Estate 2010 Pinot Noir.

The Waipara is such a lovely region and I am very impressed with the Riesling in all styles made here; wines I certainly will be on the look out for in the future!

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Clos Henri (and a little bit of Castillon in Marlborough!)

Clos Henri is the brainchild of legendary Sancerre producer Henri Bourgeois. He and his family searched the globe for the ‘perfect’ spot for his beloved Sauvignon Blanc variety, finally finding it in the year 2000 here in Marlborough! 

They quickly planted 43-ha of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir on a single estate in the western reaches of the Wairau Valley, hugging the foothills of the Wither Hills. It’s French; very French (and I secretly loved it!)
Visits are by appointment only and even the locals don’t really know what’s going on here. However, I got a contact from my home town of Castillon from the world-renowned, stainless steel wine vat manufacturer, Monsieur LeJeune! Monsieur Lejeune made and designed personally our vats at Le Chai au Quai and he did the same for Henri Bourgeois’ famous estate in Sancerre! I was given the phone number of Damien Yvon, an energetic Frenchman from Chinon in the Loire Valley.  

The winery and cellar door is actually only five minutes from where I have been living, but as I have never once turned left from my drive in last five weeks I never knew it was there! It’s located just after the small hamlet of Renwick accessed by a long, winding dirt drive towards a white wooden church. I later learnt the church was bought from another town and transported down to Renwick because the vineyard back in Sancerre also has a church in the property; it’s quite beautiful.

Damien is a lovely guy and has been here for seven years now. He (as much as I) was delighted to speak French, although his has a wonderful French accent when speaking English. But he does tack  mate on the end of every sentence.  
He gave me a great tour of the property and they have been very busy over the last 13 years, carefully studying the terroir and planting to perfection. 

From the highest vineyards, we drove back down to the winery below and I was greeted with many bonjours from the French harvest cellar hands! And then there they were: beautiful, gleaming, stainless steel tanks, designed and made in our little Castillon back in France, courtesy of Monsieur Lejeune!

In their search for perfection they believe the tools used to make the wine are as important as the vineyards. And as all tradesmen will speak of the tools of the trade, this is no different.

I have to be brutally honest and the wines (only two wines are made) are simply superb. Some of the finest I have tried anywhere in the world.