Guffens-Heynen 2000 Mâcon-Pierreclos “Le Chavigne” (Mâcon) – Quite woody, showing sweet melon and banana. Sickly spicy, with big, aggressive wood. Acidity doesn’t help. (9/07)
Abeja 2005 Chardonnay (Washington) – Smoky and very ripe, with cantaloupe and Calimyrna fig. Quite woody, though there seem to be pleasant enough materials underneath. The finish is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, which is unfortunately par for the course with such wines. (9/07)
Kluge Estate “Cru” “Mélange Nouveau” (Virginia) – Apparently, this is a chardonnay brandy or something along those lines. But it tastes like a bad piña colada. And getting caught in the rain. (10/07)
Doña Domingo 2006 Chardonnay (Colchagua Valley) – Sweet and vile. More descriptors would require keeping this wine in my mouth longer, a possibility too horrifying to contemplate.
Blackenbrook 2004 Chardonnay (Nelson) – Half barrel-fermented and half in stainless steel, taken off its lees at blending and allowed 100% (spontaneous) malolactic, followed by aging in 30% American oak. Light and open, showing cream, apricot and a lot of really fresh orchard fruit. Light- to medium-weight, with a little butter and wood spice, and then nice floral notes emerge on the creamy finish. Quite balanced and pleasant, handling its oak well but never heading over the top. (3/05)
Blackenbrook 2004 “Barrel Fermented” Chardonnay (Nelson) – Grapes picked at 24 brix. 100% oak here…60% new, with 90% of both types of wood sourced from America, with the remaining 10% only older French barrels. The wine spends 9-10 months in wood. 100% malo. The nose is full of intense clove, cinnamon and creamy ripe orange and peach, with a caramel note intertwined. Big and ripe on the palate, showing more peach, this time braced with slightly crisper apple. Intense, full and lush, this cleans up its act a bit on the finish, which is crisp and juicy. A very good wine with aging potential, and the likelihood that it will handle its wood well over that period. (3/05)
Pierre Moncuit Champagne à Le Mesnil sur Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs “Cuvée Pierre Moncuit-Delos” (Champagne) – Brilliant bubbly with fine poise, creamy texture, and complexity to spare. Brioche and hazelnut are in the mix, as well as preserved lemon, old wood shavings, and a delicate aroma of faded yellow flowers. Just beautiful. (8/07)
Babich 2005 Chardonnay “Unwooded” (Hawke’s Bay) – Under screwcap, and heavily reduced. It doesn’t much matter, however, because there’s just not much here to rescue; the mild, melony fruit is wimpy and generally useless. Babich is typically a very solid producer, even at the low end, so this performance is a little surprising. (8/07)
Hamilton Russell 2005 Chardonnay (Walker Bay) – Confident, pristine and one of the most Burgundian chardonnays I’ve ever tasted from the New(ish) World. Icy stone fruit, fine acidity and a light brush-sweep of balanced wood complete an intense, but not overbearing, wine with a strongly glacial undercurrent. Really, really impressive. (7/07)
Navarro 2004 Chardonnay “Première Reserve” (Anderson Valley) – Balanced and clean. Bright melon and grapefruit are braced by fine acidity and a light, only mildly acrid butter tone shorn of its fat by a slight backpalate bitterness. This is no modernistic New World chardonnay, and in fact it tends a bit more towards the lean than it might. It should age for a short while, as well. (6/07)
(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.