(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.