TN: Pic two

[label]Cavalier “Château de Lascaux” 2004 Côteaux du Languedoc (Languedoc) – Good, basic Languedoc flavors – fire-roasted dark berry, earth, mushroom and herb – muted and somewhat indistinct, but pleasurable and direct nonetheless. Think of it as really high-quality cooperative wine, though of course it’s not. More relevantly, this is a fairly large step down from the much better Pic Saint-Loup, and I’m not sure the reduced cost is proportional enough to warrant the downgrade. There’s nothing wrong here, but… (12/06)

Cavalier “Château de Lascaux” 2001 Pic Saint-Loup “Les Nobles Pierres” (Languedoc) – A lip-smacking blend of southern Frenchness – ripe, slightly roasted black fruit, black-earth mushroom, wind-dried herbs, underbrush and dustings of peppercorn. Structured, balanced and delicious. (12/06)

TN: Water & fire (New Zealand, pt. 39)

[Hooker Valley](The original version, with more photos, is here.)

Unfortified

Some things are worth getting up early for. Unfortunately, this breakfast isn’t one of them. In a country that seems to pride itself on hearty, satisfying breakfasts, the exceedingly pathetic few bites served in the cramped quarters of the coffee shop at The Hermitage don’t serve to fortify us for much of anything, let alone the major hiking we intend to do this morning.

Alas, the weather is no more on our side than the breakfast. Clouds continue to obscure our view of Aoraki Mt. Cook (and nearby Mt. Sefton), and the threat of rain continues to loom. However, we’re not here long enough to wait out the weather, which could be even worse later, and so hike we must. Outside the hotel, a statue of New Zealand’s most famous son, Edmund Hillary, points the way. Or at least, we think he does; right now, he’s pointing to a fluffy pile of low-hanging clouds.

A glacial escort

That the Hooker Valley is glacial isn’t something one needs to know in advance. The evidence is all around: carved-out channels, churned-up and deposited boulders of impressive size, remnant shards of ice towering over frigid ponds, and a shockingly cold river. On a good day, the retreating glacier itself can be seen, a twisted rivulet of ice and snow against the slopes of Aoraki. However, this is not “a good day,” and while visibility allows occasional glimpses of Aoraki’s lower half, even that is shrouded in a crystalline mist.

And yet, there’s a persistent (if occasionally harsh) beauty to the landscape. Some of it is rent and torn, leaving ashen piles of Mordor-esque slag surrounding chalky, turquoise-white pools. Some of it is vertical, with brown and grey slopes giving way to fresh, gleaming whiteness. Some of it is watery, with bubbling creeks turning to slashing rapids, then back again. And some of it is even green…low-slung against the wind, ungenerous and thorny and even a bit mean, but green nonetheless. Overall, it is a testament to the powerful, inexorable force of nature, which pulls and tears and lashes this land with its strongest weapons, but nurtures life in its wake.

Despite the dubious weather, the valley is a joy to hike. A bush-sheltered path becomes rocky steps, then wind-cut stone outcroppings, then a careful descent into hopeless grey pits that emerge stream-side. The gentle slush of the river crescendos, precipitously dropping away to leave one dangling on a swaying, unsteady swingbridge, then pinning long lines of carefully-stepping hikers against a sheer cliff face, clinging to ropes and rods hammered into the rock and protected from fatal rockfalls by only a net and a prayer. Later, it’s a painstakingly-constructed footpath winding through a chilly marsh, occasionally pausing to let the visitor ford their own unique crossing over creek-smoothed stones. A careless step will plunge their foot into the searing, icy pain of the slow-moving glacial runoff.

It is, in other words, an absolute blast.

Unfortunately, it is not the only blast this morning. The gentle, chill breezes of morning freshen, picking up icier temperatures from higher in the Southern Alps, then bringing with them a persistent rain. As the valley rounds a bend, heading straight for the glacial terminus (and Aoraki above it), their force doubles, then trebles. The wind goes right through our protective gear, while the rain becomes a constant stab of frozen needles against the tiniest bit of exposed skin. Theresa looks up at me, the message clear in her eyes. Even though we’re almost all the way to our destination, there’s simply no way we can continue.

As if to punctuate this point, the roar of wind and water grows into the rhythmic thrumming of a low-flying helicopter, fleeing the tumult in an aborted attempt to ferry unlucky tourists somewhere atop the glacier, and careening madly back and forth as it is buffeted by the swirling gale.

We turn back.

In the warm comfort of our chalet, we nurse our wounds and dry our clothes. Our break quickly becomes lunch, and lunch in turn becomes an indulgent nap. Though there’s time for a quick beer in the interim.

BannockBrew “Wild Spaniard” Best Bitter (Central Otago) – Another brewed offering from Akarua, straightforward but good in a very English way. Yeasty and hoppy, with a clean, dry aftertaste and good balance. Nice.

Stealing a peak

Re-awakening in the late afternoon, we find exterior matters have improved. The key sights are still shrouded in clouds, but the sun that bathes the far end of Lake Pukaki has now reached us…though given the late hour, it shines the majority of its warming gaze on high mountain slopes. The rain has stopped. It’s time for another hike.

A few minutes’ drive away is a haphazard pile of rocks, which has somehow been organized into an arduous “staircase.” This is the beginning of the Tasman Glacier walk, a long slog through the striking, pitted remains of glacial retreat (though one pockmarked by both beautiful, crystalline-emerald lakes and desolate, icy pools of milky mint green), and though we won’t do more than five percent of it, the glacier itself isn’t our goal. We’ve noticed that the clouds that block our views along the Hooker Valley don’t seem to be in evidence above the Tasman River. Since Aoraki Mt. Cook rises between these two valleys, we hope to be able to steal a glimpse from the other side. And, at the top of the climb, our guess is rewarded.

Sort of.

We do, indeed, get to see the unmistakable tripartite peak of Mt. Cook. It gleams pristine white-blue in the low-angled sun, a whipped-cream curl of cloud clinging to its windy precipice. But the view is a fleeting one, with lower-hanging mists moving in and out of the picture…and, finally, obscuring our vista. We leave, generally satisfied, and head back to the village.

Signal flare

The only food-service operation in Mt. Cook Village that isn’t run by The Hermitage is fairly new, but it’s superior to everything at the main hotel except for the upscale Panorama restaurant. It’s The Old Mountaineers’ Café, Bar & Restaurant, with a spectacular view of the (still-shrouded) mountainscape, very good basic fare, and one of the cheaper internet access options in the village. It’s the latter that actually brings us here, but we end up staying for a while, enjoying both a break from the main hotel’s “hostage” dining concept and a quick bite along the way: a delicious bowl of tomato soup with smoked salmon that warms both the body and the spirit. I settle back with an enormous “jug” of Mac’s Black and stare out the window, reflecting on a difficult but ultimately quite satisfying day. Suddenly, I’m rewarded as the clouds momentarily part, revealing the very top of Aoraki lit up like a torch. The peak gleams in reddish-orange fire, sputters, and then – as the sun dips behind some distant barrier – flames out. It’s an inspiring sight.

Back at the chalet, we graze on leftovers and – at long last – some wine.

Springvale Estate 2002 “Unoaked” Chardonnay (Central Otago) – Creamy peach and butter replace the oak influence here, but the dominant characteristic is thick citrus fruit. The wine’s dense at the core, lighter around the edges, and very guzzle-riffic, though I can’t imagine it will age.

We’re exhausted but happy…and yet, a bit melancholy, for tomorrow signals the slow denouement of our New Zealand journey. We passed the halfway point a while ago, but other than a brief stopover north of Christchurch, there’s only one destination left. Leaving’s going to be hard.

TN: Back the 80s, part deux (Paris/Alsace, pt. 1)

[Cognac](The original version is here.)

To save time and speed up posting – always a good thing with me – this “travelogue” is presented in short form, like the recurring California reports. In any case, there’s a lot of wine to notate when this gets around to Alsace, so I doubt people will miss the length…or, for that matter, the narrative.

25 March 2006 – Thionville, France

Air France – Back on the road again, exactly 364 days after returning from our truly epic 2005 New Zealand journey. Has it really been that long? I’m strangely unexcited and unprepared, but manage to get myself to the airport nonetheless. The plane is reasonably comfortable (maybe a slight notch down from, say, British Airways), and the food is quite decent for steerage: salmon couscous salad, tortellini, braised beef, chocolate pastry…though for breakfast, a lame croissant. They’re stingy with the wine – an apéritif portion is offered, but no refill – though it hardly matters all that much, given the low quality on offer.

Castel 2004 Vin de Pays d’Oc “Cuvée Réservée” Chardonnay/Viognier (Languedoc) – Juicy melon and tropical fruit. Thick but not unpleasant; “inoffensive” is the perfect descriptor. There’s absolutely no finish, though. My mineral water has more finish than this wine. Where’d it go?

Even though we arrive at the “nice” terminal at CDG/Roissy, it’s still a pit…this is absolutely one of the worst airports anywhere in the developed world. I nearly fall asleep behind the wheel of our rental on the long, boring autoroute to Thionville, but manage to get us there alive.

Bruno & Patricia Fratini’s house – Patricia’s an old friend from way back, Bruno’s her guy. They’re newly (re-)married after a long partnership, and seem blissfully happy. Better yet, Patricia’s an excellent cook, and Bruno – while not reaching my level of obsession (who could?) – enjoys and collects a little bit of wine. We’re headed for a nap, but Patricia won’t hear of it without stuffing us with an (excellent) Reblochon tartiflette, salad, fruit and some wine.

Jean Dupont 1998 Auxey-Duresses (Burgundy) – Fully à point with bricking well into the core, showing autumnal forest floor and a little baked cherry pie spice. Light-bodied. This wine reminds me of a sweet old grandmother pottering around her tiny kitchen, trying to fix her unexpected guests a little snack.

Post-nap and post-shower, old friends start showing up and soon we’ve got a full house. Mere hours after our last meal, it’s: salmon Wellington, asparagus with an excellent béchamel, homemade gemelli with a long-cooked meat ragù, salad, cheese, more cheese, fruit, and cake made by someone’s pastry chef brother. It’s a hell of a lot of food, but it is France, and somehow it all seems to get eaten.

Ogereau 2002 Coteaux du Layon St-Lambert (Loire) – Honeyed wax, chalk and honeysuckle; pure and beautiful, though not showing much in the way of complexity. It might come, however, as this is still very young.

Jean Dupont 1998 Meursault (Burgundy) – Raw peanut oil, light melon rind and a faintly spicy note, with elements of nutty bitterness marking the finish. Struggling, but failing, to rise above disappointment.

Carbonnieux 2003 Pessac-Léognan (Bordeaux) – Full-fruited in a Napa vein (blackberry and black cherry, ripe and fat), with gorgeously textured tannin, graphite, very little acidity and a smooth finish. It’s a very appealing wine, at a purely hedonistic level. I don’t know how anyone could identify it as Bordeaux, but maybe this producer doesn’t care about that anymore.

Gérard Roy Cognac Fine Champagne XO (Southwest France) – Sweet and almost fruity, showing dried Rainier cherries and hazelnuts. The aromatics are just beautiful, though the palate is a bit strident.

Postprandial entertainment is a little on the absurd side, with live shows from Francis Cabrel, Led Zeppelin, Toto, Genesis and the Scorpions on a giant projection screen, and everybody (phonetically) singing along to power ballad after power ballad. Are we actually in France? It would appear so.

TN: Falling into everywhere (California, pt. 11)

[Yosemite Falls base](The original version, with more photos, is here.)

28 April 2006 – Yosemite National Park, California

Mist Trail, Vernal Falls, John Muir Trail – The most popular hike in Yosemite, we’re told. It’s easy to see why, though the track is more popular in theory than in practice, as the lower elevations littered with the defeated demonstrate. Especially in the spring, a good soaking is promised, and a good soaking is delivered. What’s even more fun than the ascent, however, is looping back down via the end of the John Muir Trail, which provides breathtaking views of Yosemite Valley and Falls. Lunch – on a picnic table with nature all around – has rarely been devoured as quickly.

Harrington 2003 Pinot Noir Birkmyer (Wild Horse Valley) – Mixed red berries and plums with hints of graphite. Ripe and full-fruited, yet pretty. It’s a little on the heavy side, but then that’s hardly unusual for domestic pinot. Pleasant.

Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall – The eerie (and wet) moonscape of Yosemite Falls in full spring torrent is something to behold, but so is the drenching soak of the impossible approach to Bridalveil Fall. If you’ve ever wanted to get saturated without leaving “dry” land, this is the way.

The Ahwahnee Bar – The décor of this hotel lives up to the hype, though the combo Indian/medieval theme is a little jarring at first. The bar, however, is somewhat dreary…and the prices are wearying.

Bakers 7 Year Bourbon – Sweet peach and brown sugar. A little too obvious.

Dinner back at Yosemite West is a selection of sausages from a Ferry Plaza butcher – duck & pork, wild boar & beer, and veal with spinach – plus asparagus in a Meyer lemon dressing. This food needs a wine with some bite, and we’ve got just the thing.

Edmunds St. John 1999 Sangiovese Matagrano (El Dorado) – Crisp raspberry acidity spiked with strawberry seeds (that add both their fruit and their bitterness) with very slightly green tannin. It’s long and intense, however, and really sings with food. What is isn’t is completely ready; a few more years might help calm matters down.

TN: Sam, I am (California, pt. 10)

[Yosemite Falls](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.

TN: Wines on the wing (New Zealand, pt. 34)

[Peregrine winery](The original version, with many more photos, is here.)

Architecture aloft

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.

TN: Springvale forward (New Zealand, pt. 33)

[Kawarau water](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.

TN: A dam shame (New Zealand, pt. 32)

(The original, with more photos, is here.)[Black Ridge vines]

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.

Sugar, sugar

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.

TN: The rusty belt (New Zealand, pt. 31)

[Rippon]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.)

TN: Fruit, wine, Antichrist (New Zealand, pt. 30)

(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.)

[fruit]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.