Swan “Mad House” 2006 Pinot Noir Clearview (Bendigo) – Finally, we get a wine carrying the appellation of the ocean of vineyards that make up the Central Otago’s “secret” supply. It’s structured and mineralistic, but lacks generosity. (2/08)
Peregrine 2004 Pinot Gris (Central Otago) – Ripe and lush, with fine spiced pear and flaky minerality. Round and rich, yet medium-bodied thanks to lingering acidity. The finish is quite lovely. This is probably the best pinot gris we’ve tasted on this trip. (3/05)
Peregrine 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Intensely liqueur-like, with sweet-tasting fruit hanging exposed in a wine that lacks the requisite structure to support it. I’m not sure what’s happened here, as the wine was much better balanced in its youth (though the sweet note was always present); maybe this is what passes for this wine’s “dumb phase,” or maybe things have just fallen apart around its fruity event horizon. (7/07)
One adventure awaits. Just one more commune with nature, before we jet off to Sydney and the bustle of the urban life. We don’t know what we’ll find there. There’s more to do here, of course…wine tasting, food, perhaps even a restful afternoon on a beach. But on a trip punctuated by the relentless beauty of the wild and framed by its inexorable seduction, this is the final chapter.
But first, we have to get there.
(Continued, with tons of photos and an instruction manual on how to catch a taxi in a place with no roads, here.)
(The original version, with many more photos…and bonus alpaca porn…is here.)
If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that the Kiwis love their breakfasts. We figure that the average New Zealander must burn about three million calories before lunch, given the size of the morning repasts they eagerly supply to visitors both foreign and domestic.
This morning, Shirley is at the door bearing freshly-laid eggs, bacon, sausage, fruit, the ever-present muesli, milk, and the makings of coffee…so we don’t have the heart to tell her that we’re only halfway through yesterday’s bounty. Well, no matter. We’ll bring the remnants with us.
Spring following spring
If there’s another thing we’ve learned, it’s that New Zealand isn’t exactly for lovers of flat. Fiords, glaciers, mountains, volcanoes, islands both small and large…it’s rare to find any sort of level expanse, as probably befits such a geologically youthful landmass. We’re leaving one of the very few – the fertile plains of Canterbury – for one of the very few others, a destination with tiny plots of flatness surrounded by the usual tumult and jumble of Aotearoa’s coastline.
But first, we have a long – a very long – road to travel.
At first, the way is gentle, shooting straight through the vine-covered Waipara – we wave to Pegasus Bay and Black Estate as we pass – but in the town that gives the wine region its name, we turn northwest, abandoning the coastal road (towards Marlborough) to our memories of a trip three years in the past, and start the winding climb to the thermal retreat of Hanmer Springs. The town is much-heralded by local tourist organizations, but on our arrival it appears to be…well, a spa. That’s it. Just a spa. Oh sure, there’s a (tiny) town attached, and the setting is rather dramatically beautiful, and spa towns have a long Old World history…but we’re not here for spas; New Zealand has more than enough naturally-occurring restoratives for our purposes.
And so, at Hanmer Springs we follow the (mostly) westward road…unless you’re a sheep farmer, it’s the only road…which absolutely redefines scenic isolation. Rivers, mountains and valley vistas are even more dramatic than they might be for their complete lack of competing tourism; it’s as if we’re the only automobile on this two-lane highway. The Lewis Pass crossing passes uneventfully, and we swing ’round to the north via the amusingly rebellious micro-village of Spring Junction, a town seemingly populated by a few hundred motorcycles and one rollicking bar.
The road flattens for a time, but it’s an illusion provided by the smooth cut of a river valley – the spiky, tree-covered mountains persist on either side – and soon enough, the road starts yet another steep incline into the Brunner Range, before falling, precipitously and with a final series of writhing curves, into the gentle village of Murchison. From here, it’s but the remainder of a gentle descent – albeit, at times, wildly curvy – to the agricultural and pictorial cornucopia that is Nelson.
As a result of the many twists in the highway, I fear my long-suffering wife is a bit nauseous…but, thankfully, the roads soon straighten. Wakefield and Brightwater come and go, just waypoints in a long series of part-residential, part-industrial, part-commercial streets that crisscross this fertile crescent. Every dozen structures or so, there’s a vendor of local produce, and in between those are artists and artisans of every stripe. Our road dead-ends at the beautiful, sun-brightened waves of Tasman Bay. It’s then that it hits us: this is California. Cheaper and much less insincere, but California nonetheless. No wonder so many Americans move here.
And the sun shines on the bay
We find our final New Zealand lodging without much difficulty, but entering its garage proves a bit more difficult. The Harbourlight Villa (365 Wakefield Quay, Nelson…currently for sale, and thus off the rental market) is right on the main coastal road, and its narrow and mostly blind entrance onto a high-speed byway is a bit of a heart-stopping experience. Thankfully, the interior of the garage is a rotating disk, so a car can be repositioned forwards for a similarly jittery departure.
The villa itself is majestic, with expansive windows open to a wide view of the Bay and the peaks of Abel Tasman in the distance, and though the upstairs can be a bit noisy from passing traffic with all windows ajar, the downstairs master bedroom is insulated and quiet, with a small garden-like enclosure attached. Otherwise, all is modern (especially the kitchen), colorful, and pure architectural and highly-designed fun.
Theresa settles onto the patio, which overlooks both bay and street, with her journal and a glass of wine, and draws curious – and occasionally yearning – stares from virtually every passing pedestrian, while I join the aforementioned walkers for a leisurely stroll of our environs. Despite the traffic, our street is mostly residential, and there’s not much to see aside from the beautiful waterfront views. Eventually, however, hunger pangs arise, and we nervously extract our trusty automobile from its garage with an accelerator-pounding lurch, but more sedately meandering towards town in search of the seafood for which the region is well-known. It doesn’t take long. Local clams are available in abundance, and a quick pan full of them…with wine, bacon and chiles…both compliments and contrasts their briny sweetness.
Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2004 Pinot Gris (Central Otago) – Not very showy, but what’s here is clean pear skin and windblown minerality. It carries just a hint of spice and fatness. I liked this bottle a little better at the winery; now, it seems somewhat wan.
Black Estate 2003 Chardonnay (Waipara) – Butterscotch oak and minerals tasted through a thick screen. It gains fat with food, but what it persistently lacks is complexity…or, for that matter, interest. Despite the weight gain, I think this is “better” – and it’s not good – by itself.
Sated, we retreat once more to the patio, watching the descending sun light up the bay in a rainbow of fires and shades. It’s absolutely breathtaking, and seems to go on for hours. But it’s also tinged with a measure of sadness, for now our New Zealand adventure really is coming to a close. Just a few days remain. How will we spend them?
Amongst olives, grapevines, and sweaty, churlish winemakers, of course. And, also, antisocial importers. Can’t forget them.
Disclosure: the Black Estate Chardonnay is a gift from Russell Black.
Tasting notes from the Boston Wine Expo. These were difficult tasting conditions, where speed and distraction were the norm rather than the exception. Thus, notes are brief at best, somewhat superficial, and cannot in truth be otherwise.
Rockburn 2005 Riesling (Central Otago) – Slate/quartz dominated, with clean lemon and green apple. It’s long, concentrated and very intense. A terrific wine. (2/07)
Villa Maria “Private Bin” 2005 Riesling (Marlborough) – Good and intense, with apples and rocky quartz. A fine value. (2/07)
Villa Maria “Private Bin” 2005 “Unoaked” Chardonnay (Hawke’s Bay) – Golden fig, melon and spice with a leafy finish. It’s ripe, but there’s a worrisome Styrofoam note on the midpalate. (2/07)
Mana 2006 Chardonnay (Marlborough) – Stone fruit, grapefruit and clementine with a touch of cream on the nose. It’s better than the sauvignon blanc, but only just. (2/07)
Crossroads “Destination Series” 2005 Chardonnay (Hawke’s Bay) – Crisp and clean, showing melon, pineapple and pine nuts. Ripe and very scrubbed. Simple, fruit-forward chardonnay with no rough edges. (2/07)
Dog Point 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Incredibly intense, with green, white and red pepper (a little like the Italian flag, I suppose). Vivacious, with striking minerality. This wine continues to show the constraints under which so many formulaic Marlborough sauvignons operate, yet it remains unmistakably Marlborough. (2/07)
Grove Mill 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Round, showing grapefruit and pineapple in a sugar wash. The person pouring this wine makes pretentious and somewhat obnoxious noise about Grove Mill’s status as the only carbon-neutral winery in New Zealand. Well, that’s great, and I’m happy for them, but how about a little less residual sugar in this overly goopy sauvignon blanc, rather than appealing to the basest of sugar-loving palates? That’s the sort of neutrality I’d be more interested in. (2/07)
Redcliffe 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – From magnum, though for what reason I can’t imagine. Slightly sulfurous (is it reduction?) with melon, grapefruit and grass. Boring and quite sweet. Dull, dull, dull. (2/07)
Villa Maria “Private Bin” 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Mild and simple, with grass and some vague hints of ripeness. Overall, however, this is quite dilute, and a step down from previous years. (2/07)
Mana 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Gooseberry and pineapple with green, underripe notes. In other words, fairly classic. But I’m over this style. (2/07)
Crossroads “Destination Series” 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Clean and metallic, with a short finish. Different enough to be interesting, but there’s some things missing here. (2/07)
Mana 2006 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Filmy raspberry sauce with acrid, slightly bitter medicinal notes. Crisp but underripe. (2/07)
Dog Point 2004 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Strawberry, plum, ripe blood orange and golden beet. Balanced, and almost approaching something one might call “elegant”…but in context, because it is fruity. Call it a fruit firecracker, rather than a fruit bomb. (2/07)
Mana 2005 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Burnt leaves and nasty, charred red cherry. Very underripe and shockingly tart. (2/07)
Rockburn 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Beet soup nose, turning to blended fat berries and plums. Soft but full-bodied, though it finishes somewhat stringy. It’s cleanly made, but it already shows signs that it might wear down under the ravages of age, so drink it soon. (2/07)
Villa Maria “Private Bin” 2004 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Strawberry and red cherry. Simple and pleasant, with light lemon verbena accents. (2/07)
Villa Maria “Private Bin” 2005 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon (Hawke’s Bay) – Herbal medicine and dirt with blueberry and blackberry, finishing with a barky texture. Dissolute. (2/07)
Crossroads “Destination Series” 2004 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon (Hawke’s Bay) – Soupy herbs, blueberry and wood bark. Firm enough, but not very good despite some hand-waving in the direction of structure. (2/07)
Crossroads 2002 “RGF” (Hawke’s Bay) – Sophisticated black fruit and dark leather over stones. Good acid. Balanced and surprisingly polished. (2/07)
Notes from a tasting led by Daniel Schuster himself. He’s a bit difficult to understand with his blend of accents and a tendency to ramble into sub-audible tangents, but when he can be understood, he is absolutely one of the funniest – I mean side-splittingly, rolling on the floor hilarious – winemakers I’ve ever met. Were it not for the necessity of hearing the next bon mot, I’d have been roaring with laughter for a solid hour.
He’s also eminently quotable, uttering profundities that have you nodding your head, even while realizing that they don’t necessarily mean all that much. For example:
“This wine has a hint of corruption.”
“Why do ‘winemakers’ insist on that title? You don’t hear people who keep bees saying ‘I make honey’.”
“There’s no communism in wine.”
As for the wines, they’re a very solid collection that show restraint and elegance. One might hope for a bit more verve in places, but I suspect there’s an active stylistic choice at work here, rather than an inability to achieve something of more intensity. Only my unwillingness to drag myself away from day-long tastings at Pegasus Bay has stopped me from visiting this winery in the past. I won’t let that happen next time. (Well, I’ll probably still do the day-long tastings, but I’ll supplement them with a visit to Schuster…possibly the next day.)
Daniel Schuster 2006 Riesling (Waipara) – Plenty of spritz here, which fizzes up sweet crystalline lime, candied apple, and whipping needles of acidity slashing like a razor ‘cross the palate. Exquisitely balanced, with a light sweetness that complexes to white button mushrooms on the finish, in concert with a metallic aluminum sheen. This is impressive, albeit in an understated way. (3/07)
Daniel Schuster “Selection” 2004 Chardonnay Petrie (Rakaia) – Fetid apricot and overripe pear with some sweat on the nose. The palate is more generous, showing creamed orange, grapefruit, crisp crabapple and an almost shockingly vivacious acidity. The finish is piercing, with steel flakes in abundance, and matters are brought to a close by the gentle emergence of drying tannin. I find it a bit shocking, but very appealing…though others at the table note the overt butter (which I find restrained) and miss the acidity. (3/07)
Daniel Schuster Pinot Noir Twin Vineyards (Canterbury) – A non-vintage bargain pinot. Synthetic sour cherry, with tart greenness dominating. A few strawberry leaves are about all that’s worth mentioning. Simple-minded and not very interesting. (3/07)
Daniel Schuster 2004 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Ripe strawberry, plum and beet with a deeper cherry core emerging on the palate. There are light but insistent traces of licorice and spice. Texturally, this shows gentle, cottony fruit with a beautifully supple finish that rolls and fades. A lovely wine, exemplifying a soft expression of the Waipara terroir. (3/07)
Daniel Schuster “Selection” 2004 Pinot Noir Omihi Hills (Waipara) – Tighter and more concentrated than the regular Waipara pinot, with the aromas shifted to a darker, black fruit and leather spectrum. There’s a slightly syrupy thickness to the forepalate that eventually lends a smooth texture to a core rich with morels, black truffles, and dark, roasted beets. The wine is round and mouthfilling, squeezing into every corner and filling it with satin. I probably wouldn’t drink this now, because everything is still a little over-wound, but I would most definitely stick a few in the cellar. It’s going to be a beauty. (3/07)
Daniel Schuster 2004 “Late Harvest” Riesling Hull Family (Waipara) – Shy, with sweet green apple and a milky texture. It’s very sweet, and while it gives the appearance of concentration, there’s not actually all that much that’s being concentrated. The wine quickly crescendos, then just as quickly decrescendos…it’s all build-up, with no subsequent explosion. The finish is long, tart and vibrating. It’s OK, but definitely not up to the standards of the rest of the portfolio. (3/07)
With dinner, Schuster springs for a few alternative tastes of pinot, the better to compare and contrast his wines. Given the very real possibility that one or both of them will be preferred by tasters, I consider this a commendable gesture.
Roumier 1994 Chambolle-Musigny (Burgundy) – A little imbalanced and a lot tired, showing dried-out red fruit and brown leaves with a squeezed meat finish, all layered with a faint but insistent tannin. It’s delicate and there are certain minor charms, but this was better at some time that was before now. (3/07)
Mount Difficulty 2004 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Fairly simple but boisterous plumberry, orange rind and gravel notes, with more weight than acidity (though this isn’t a heavy wine by any means). Nice. (3/07)
(The original version, with many more photos, is here.)
The roof, the roof…
A respite is, by its very definition, finite. And so we’re not really surprised that yesterday’s break in the weather has this morning been replaced by a thundering deluge. Rain pounds on the roof of our chalet, while buffeting winds threaten to wrest the roof from its moorings.
We fight through the gales to a buffet breakfast in The Hermitage’s grand dining room, then fight our way back and pack our car as quickly as possible, intent on escaping the rain at the first opportunity. For the entirety of our stay at Aoraki Mt. Cook, the southern end of Lake Pukaki has been wreathed in sunlight, and though low-hanging rain clouds prevent us from determining if this is still true, we’ve no reason to suspect otherwise.
That is, until we arrive.
Salmon of the bride
Pukaki is more milk than turquoise this morning, and not even the lowest elevations of fast-retreating Aoraki are visible. The situation is even more dire at the southern tip of Lake Tekapo, the site of so many beautiful photos of this peak-framed valley. However, here we witness someone even more negatively affected by the weather than a pair of otherwise-satisfied tourists. At the lonely Church of the Good Shepherd, a wedding party is bravely enduring both the driving rain and the high winds. Thankfully, the bride looks happy enough, though her dress makes several attempts to blow away during her struggle from limo to church door, and she is able to maintain verticality only through the Herculean efforts of her bridesmaids and parents. Unfortunately, her dreary wedding day is also our loss, as the church interior is closed to visitors.
We attempt to wrest some sort of value from this anti-scenic morning by making a brief culinary stop’n’shop, but while Mt. Cook Salmon might well be open for business, the only two roads leading to it are not. It’s a little strange, but there is a military base nearby. One never knows what the mighty Kiwi army might be up to…
There are two paths to our destination today…one flat and straight, the other the optimistically-named “Inland Scenic Route.” There’s really no question which one we’ll take, especially since we have diversions in mind. The road passes through sedate Fairlie and cutely absurd Geraldine (home of the world’s biggest sports jersey…and no, we don’t get to see it) before turning northward, scissoring through valleys and fields slashed with the occasionally dramatic river valley.
For a while, I manage to ignore the wind…because we’ve taken what seems like a forty-hour detour to the most ridiculously remote of the various Lord of the Rings sites we’ve seen on this trip. The path turns from pavement to gravel, from gravel to dirt, from dirt to undulating trench, and finally from trench to impassible chasm. How anyone is expected to reach dubiously-named Erewhon at the end of this road is beyond me. (Perhaps with a tank.) But after endless jaw-jarring bumps, our destination finally appears, rising like a…well, rather like a bumpy wart…from an otherwise desolate, wind-swept valley surrounded by icy peaks: Mt. Sunday, the now clean-scrubbed location of Edoras in the films. This has been the most insane side-journey we’ve ever made, especially given that it has no rational purpose, and yet…there it is, plain as day, somehow rendering the voyage bizarrely worth it. We launch into a haphazard humming of the appropriate theme from the soundtrack, laughing at the absurdity of it all.
The return trip is difficult, for the wind is picking up, buffeting the car and occasionally causing it to slide across the rolling gravel. The return of pavement is most welcome, but as we gain speed our vehicle becomes more and more difficult to control. In aptly-named Windwhistle, where we turn due east towards Christchurch, the gales are so fierce that I can barely maintain control of our car. Thankfully, the roads here are straight and true…no precipitous dropoffs or blind corniches to navigate…and with surprising physical effort, we manage to navigate our return to civilization, a reconnection that engenders a strange resentment. Once more, the lure of the untamed stains our interactions with the signposts of population: traffic, malls, even the people themselves. Have we been too seduced by nature to recover? I guess we’ll find out when we get to Sydney.
They’re fluffy and soft, calm but shy, and painfully adorable. But we’re not really here for them. We’re here for a bed…a surprisingly rare thing in this heavily-populated area.
Maybe I should back up and explain.
Our next actual destination, after Aoraki Mt. Cook, is Nelson. However, that’s a bit too much driving for one day (that is, if one wants to see anything along the way), and in any case we don’t want to pass up a chance to stop at Pegasus Bay, one of our favorite wineries in all of New Zealand. During the planning stages, however, it soon became clear that lodging was going to be a problem. There were places to stay in Christchurch, sure, but we’d already been there. And there were a few luxury retreats in the Canterbury countryside. Otherwise, lodging options were exceedingly slim…except for one place, found through assiduous Googling and no little consternation.
In reality, the farm looks pretty much like any other farm, set amidst flat, wet, grassy land and hosting a small collection of trucks, wagons, and other large-wheeled equipment alongside a stately, ranch-style house. The on-site accommodations, originally designed to host visiting farmers in search of breeding material, are gorgeous, with a sub-equatorial theme throughout. The only slight caveats: a non-functioning dishwasher and the usual lack of a good chef’s knife. But these are minor quibbles.
As for the namesake animals, they’re (as previously mentioned) almost painfully cute…and when one can be corralled, incredibly soft to the touch. One strange youngster called Dreamcatcher follows us around, shivering and uttering pleading little whines. Son Lloyd, giving us a tour of his family’s farm and a sketch of his plans for world domination (alpacas are expensive little buggers, but like most teens he has his entire future figured out), wonders if she’s mentally ill. Watching her attempt to pick a gate lock with her teeth every time Lloyd turns away, I wonder if she might not be smarter than her brethren, because it almost sounds like she’s trying to tell us something. Maybe it’s related to the painful braying in the distance…a sound that echoes across the plains, and seems to come every ten minutes or so.
I can no longer tolerate my curiosity. “Is there some sort of slaughterhouse over there?” I ask Lloyd.
He smirks. “No. Deer breeder. That’s, uh…well, the male is, uh…” he turns slightly red, glancing at my wife. She laughs.
“Well, he sure sounds like he’s enjoying it.”
Lloyd turns a darker shade, then reaches for the lock-nibbling Dreamcatcher, scratching her fuzzy head as she bleats and moans.
The peaceful aftermath
When the call of the rutting venison finally stops, all is peaceful in alpaca land. We settle in for a dinner accompanied by a few remnants from the Central Otago.
Springvale Estate 2002 “Unoaked” Chardonnay (Central Otago) – More cream and less fruit than the winery version, and starting to fray about the edges. Still, it should develop some tertiary characteristics with (very) short aging.
Olssens 2002 “Late Harvest” Riesling “Desert Gold” (Central Otago) – Petrol, lemon rind, dense sweet apple and Greengage plum, with wet chalk and a building fullness on the palate, plus good acidity. However, it fades on the finish to leave a slightly sludgy impression. 2/3 of a terrific wine.
(The original version, with more photos, is here.)
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.
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.
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.
(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.