Browse Tag

chardonnay

Black harvest (New Zealand, pt. 42)

[waipara dusk](The original version, with more photos, is here.)

Acid redux

After our ridiculously indulgent visit to Pegasus Bay, the thought of more wine – or worse, food – serves to make us both a little nauseous. Yet we must rally, somehow, for we’ve a long-promised appointment. After a proto-nap back at the alpaca farm, we’re once again rolling north through the Waipara’s undulating hills and valleys. But the roiling in my stomach isn’t solely due to the aftereffects of lunch.

Three years earlier, during our first visit to New Zealand, I’d criticized a pinot noir from Black Estate as being internationalized and woody. While planning our current jaunt, the wine’s U.S. importer (who was doing us a lot of favors otherwise) had brought up the review, claiming that I’d missed the call. He suggested a retaste. I agreed.

The retaste, however, soon became an invitation to the winemaker’s home. To this I agreed as well, but with trepidation. What if I still didn’t like the wines? I’ve no problem being honest about wine quality, but there’s a level of inconsideration and rudeness which I’m unwilling to cross, and that line is drawn a lot more closely when I’m someone’s houseguest. I considered backing out, but resolved to just suck it up and go. After all, how bad could it be?

Black and white

Russell Black is, like most Kiwis, relaxed and affable. It helps us relax in turn…at least a little bit…as he welcomes us into his beautiful home, which is a gorgeous melding of local and Asian themes. The latter is, no doubt, the influence of his wife Kumiko. She’s a chef of some repute, or at least she was at some point in the past, and she’s as charming as her husband.

But mine are not the only worries this evening, nor are they even the most important ones. Kumiko is unwell (though we don’t find out just how unwell until after our visit; no doubt she prefers it that way), and as of our arrival, the exact plans for the evening are still in flux…dinner chez Black, dinner at some unidentified restaurant, or just a tasting and conversation. It turns out that Kumiko is preparing a small meal (which turns out to be three fabulous courses led by delicious cuts of venison), and in the meantime we’re going to taste verticals of the winery’s two bottlings.

We sit at a wooden table on the patio watching the sun’s last rays drift across the valley, which shades everything in dramatic dark greens and blues. Russell arrives with his arms full of bottles, and we dive right into the tasting while he spools out an occasional bit of background.

The chardonnays are from estate-owned vineyards, planted mostly to the Mendoza clone. This surprises me (less so after I taste the wines), but Russell insists “I actually love it,” noting that “if you get the Mendoza ripe, it can make a really nice wine.” (There’s a little clone 222 as well.) However, the chardonnay’s future is bleak no matter which clone is under discussion. 2004 featured frost, a wet flowering, spray damage, hail and beetles, and 2005 was another bad year…though for different reasons…which is leading him to consider giving up the vineyard (in search of another or to concentrate on pinot noir, he doesn’t say).

Black Estate 2004 Chardonnay (Waipara) – Just bottled (in March 2005), showing minerals and stone fruit, wet grapefruit and a watery finish. The wine is overly-restrained…balanced and elegant, but just not very “there.” Post-bottling shock is a possibility, but there needs to be more to this wine.

Black Estate 2003 Chardonnay (Waipara) – Creamier than the ’04, with grapefruit, orange and ripe apple studded with clove and nutmeg. The finish is lithe and mineral-infused. It’s a better wine than the ’04 in almost every respect, but it’s still somewhat indistinct and submissive.

Black Estate 2002 Chardonnay (Waipara) – A shy nose, leading to a very creamy plate that – at long last – shows some filling-out and expansiveness. The finish is a little odd, though, as if it’s hesitant to carry through on its promises. The best of the bunch, but still…

The chardonnays show a good continuity of style – terroir, winemaking, or whatever – but that style just isn’t interesting enough. Is the problem an overly-aggressive filter? Weak fruit? Or just tentative winemaking? It’s hard to say, but it might not matter.

Peaked pinot

From there, we move on to pinot noirs. Russell explains that these, like all their wines, are from vines on their own roots; there’s no phylloxera in the Waipara. And there’s a change in the works, as the wines – previously made by Mark Rattray – are now under the tutelage of Muddy Water’s winemaker and vineyard manager. It’s too early to tell if that change is going to be significant.

Black Estate 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample) (Waipara) – Red cherry with maraschino accents and plum. Some bitterness on the finish.

Black Estate 2003 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Corked.

Black Estate 2003 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Ripe strawberry with minor green notes. Still moderately tight. There’s light tannin and a zingy, almost tingly mouthfeel. Decent raw materials that never really come together, and that green note is worrisome.

Black Estate 2002 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Slightly sweaty and horsy, with roasted raspberries and a powdery texture. This seems to be maturing rather quickly, and in a fairly odd fashion.

Black Estate 2001 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Balanced, with dark red fruit and gravel. The finish is elegant and pretty, though there’s eventually a drying element. Most of this wine’s qualities are exhibited around its exterior, as there’s a definite flattening on the midpalate. Good, but it’s fading quickly.

Black Estate 2000 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Rocks and sweat, with strawberry seeds dominated a shy nose. The palate is earth and sand, and it turns softly pretty on the finish. However, this is a very insubstantial wine.

Black Estate 1999 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – More balanced and fuller than anything I’ve yet tasted, with soft red fruit that feels like cotton candy in the mouth (without the sweetness), earth and moderately-light, seed-like tannin. This is maturing nicely, and it’s by far the class of the lineup.

Unfortunately, these wines show a general decline from oldest to youngest, which doesn’t bode well for their future. Again, one wonders at the reasons, though a clue may be derived from a conversation we have about screwcaps (on the heels of the corked 2003). Russell has no interest in making the closure switch that so many of his compatriots are making, claiming, “I don’t want to be a leader, I’m fine with being a follower.” And while that’s not an indefensible position to take when the subject is seal composition, the wines themselves also express that philosophy.

Darkness falls

We sip a few of the wines over dinner (they do improve – marginally – with food, but in a highly submissive fashion; the whites do better than the reds), listening to fascinating tales from Russell & Kumiko’s past. They’ve been everywhere, and done everything, and their lives are rich tapestries of texture and complexity. As we eat, the sun slips behind the central mountain ranges and the darkening sky lights up in striated fire. It’s an awe-inspiring sunset.

…but it’s a sunset tinged with mourning, and a sadly symbolic one as well. Black Estate produced no wine in 2005, and 2004 may have been the winery’s last vintage. For there was a much greater loss in 2005: Kumiko lost her long battle with cancer, not too many months after our visit. Some vintages are more difficult than others…and sometimes, no matter how beloved the vines, the vineyard can’t be saved.

Disclosures: wine, dinner, and two gift bottles provided for free. A gift of Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 3 is given in return.

Day with a Diva (New Zealand, pt. 41)

[lynnette hudson](The original version, with more photos, is here.)

Immobile home

Were Matt Donaldson not the very embodiment of equanimity, he’d be impatiently tapping his foot. As it is, he’s standing in the tasting room at Pegasus Bay, jacket already donned, waiting for us to arrive. He’s headed north to Marlborough to check on some grapes, and we’ve delayed his departure. But it’s not our fault. There was a house in the way.

We’d left our fuzzy habitation on time, looking forward to a relatively quick jaunt up Route 1 into the heart of the Waipara. But approaching a large junction near Amberley, we slowed, then stopped, faced with a rather unusual obstruction. A truck carrying a subsection of a prefab home was stopped right in the middle of the intersection. Or, more accurately, the truck and the house were both in the intersection, but the house was no longer carried by the truck. Shattered ropes and chains were everywhere. It was going to be an interesting cleanup. Thankfully, police were on the scene – just how many can there be in sedate Amberley? – and soon got traffic moving again.

Informed of this, Matt almost looks as if he’d like to detour south to check out the domicilic carnage. Nonetheless, after a quick greeting, he’s out the door, leaving us with his partner and co-winemaker Lynnette Hudson. The shape of her morning thus far is clear: grape-stained work pants and dark purple fingertips, the signs of a working winemaker. She’s clearly been hard at it until our arrival. But the balance of her day will be much, much different.

White noise

Lynnette grabs several armfuls of bottles and ushers us upstairs for an interesting tasting, one marked by a series of micro-verticals. While we taste, she spins her and the estate’s winemaking philosophies, which are even more Francophile than on our previous visit. They’ve moved, especially with the top of the line “Prima Donna” pinot noir, from regional and national eminence to something approaching world-class, and they’ve done it by emphasizing restraint and beauty over a sheer power that seems too easy to achieve in the area.

We begin our tasting with riesling, a grape that is a major focus of the portfolio, but one that is not (by critics and certain consumers) as universally admired as the pinots. Some attribute this deficiency to site, but I wonder if it might not instead be a question of finding the wine’s ideal balance. Rieslings come at all levels of sweetness and intensity, of course, and some regions and sites seem more suited for certain styles than others. Pegasus Bay’s successes with riesling seem to increase in proportion to their retention of residual sugar, a trend which is (in part) natural due to advancing ripeness, but is also helped by their grapes’ ability to retain a glacial core of acidity despite escalating hangtimes, something that is not achievable in all terroirs.

In any case, the basic rieslings are fermented cool with inoculated yeast, and bottled relatively early. Lynnette says that both the 2002 and 2003 were full of botrytis and desiccation, with ’03 a little warmer than the vintages on either side of it, leading to a little more “flesh” in the whites from that vintage. As for 2004, December rainfall was at its highest level since 1860, which was paired with the lowest temperatures since the end of World War II. An unfortunate combination. January and February followed “astonishingly hot,” with warm nights, which caused even more damage to already overstressed vines. It was a bizarre vintage that required a great deal of attention throughout the growing season and in the cellar. 2005 looks to be no less difficult, with very poor flowering and precious little fruit (about 30% of normal).

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Riesling (Waipara) – The nose is dry, with a dusting of white pepper and a little whiff of petrol. Medium-lightness contrasted by a slight thickening from residual sugar defines this wine’s form, though there’s the later suggestion of a thick palate redolent of banana skin. Great acidity and a long, balanced finish round out the package. Nice.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 Riesling (Waipara) – Seemingly sweeter than the ’04 (though only apparently so due to decreased acidity), showing stone fruit and pear. It’s a little more obvious than the vintages on either side.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2002 Riesling (Waipara) – Just starting to show the first signs of aged-riesling creaminess, with sweet lemon-lime, spiced honey thick with aromatic flowers, and a very long, silky texture. This is delicious.

Moving on to the most famous grape of New Zealand (which here is regularly blended with sémillon), Lynnette professes to be seeking more of a Loire Valley, Sancerre-influenced style, rather than the boisterous chile pepper/tropical fruit festivals that are so common elsewhere in the country. The grapes are not destemmed, and after fermentation the sauvignon blanc rests on its gross lees for six to eight months, with some stirring to induce the complexing benefits of autolysis. Semillon is barrel-fermented and enzymed during settling, as apparently its fruit can otherwise be overly coarse. Malo is not induced, as a rule. The goal is a textural richness not often found in Kiwi versions of these wines, and a byproduct seems to be a true ageability that eludes almost everyone else (except those already consciously working from the white Bordeaux model).

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon (Waipara) – Grassy, with mixed green elements. Peas and a flat wall of vegetables linger on the finish, which is shorter than I’d like.

One tank of the 2002 was naturally fermented – the first time it had been allowed in this wine – and it struggled to finish. The wine also underwent malolactic fermentation, which changed the texture somewhat dramatically.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2002 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon (Waipara) – Fetid hay, grass and tart green apple. Creamier and much more interesting than the ’04.

The chardonnays at Pegasus Bay are undergoing a transition, which is perhaps an artifact of both Matt and Lynnette’s experiences in Burgundy. The grapes are crushed but not destemmed, leaving lots of solids that go straight into the tank, but not given enough time to fully settle. Instead, they’re moved very quickly to barrel, where the must is inoculated (the sugar is apparently difficult to fully ferment with native yeasts) and then moved to 25-30% French oak.

2004 was a vintage that experienced very late malos, which had been arrested about halfway to completion by the addition of sulfur. The wines are traditionally notable for an overabundance of phenolics; Lynnette explains “New Zealand has so much upfront fruitiness, so we’re trying to do everything possibly to increase complexity.” And the results are beginning to show. “This is the first time ever that I’m happy with the complexity of the chardonnay.”

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Chardonnay (barrel sample) (Waipara) – Undergoing cold-stabilization, and recently fined with milk and bentonite. It shows fruit and spice, with good acid and a longish finish. It’s so highly marked by the aforementioned techniques right now that it’s a little hard to assess.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2002 Chardonnay (Waipara) – Rich stone fruit and spiced vanilla, with a sweeter-seeming palate than the ’04. Hudson identifies “sweet corn,” which encompasses both the aroma and texture. Quite nice.

Noir of the worlds

2003 was a good year for pinot, with even and consistent ripening. The winery mimics a post-fermentation maceration technique practiced in Burgundy (3-4 days in 2003, two weeks in 2004); as with the chardonnay, this is designed to move the wine away from upfront fruit while gaining length and structure. Another result is that wines tend to be lighter, overall, which seems to be a goal of Lynnette’s. Grapes are destemmed, and the percentage of whole berries has been increased. Lynnette explains that pinot noir tannin tends to reside more in the seeds than the skins; the lighter color that leads to some practicing lengthy extractions “breaks” the seeds and leads to an unwelcome surplus of tannin.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Medium-bodied strawberry and walnut with raspberry and apple-crisp acidity. This is definitely more “Burgundian” than some recent vintages, and it’s delicious and appealing in its youthful fashion.

2001 was another good year with nice, even ripening and a lingering autumn. The pinot from that year represented mostly the older, early-planted clones, while from 2003 onward newer Dijon clones have been a component of the blend. Inevitably, these clonal elements present different flavor profiles, with the Burgundian specimens providing more vibrancy in the red fruit spectrum (though not as many intact berries at harvest), better (not a synonym for darker) color, and more cohesiveness. From 10/5 comes a mix of ripe and unripe fruit and chunkier tannins, plus obvious strength, but without as much poise or elegance. Both clones are being pressed off sooner than in the past, and spend an average of sixteen months in oak…40% new French, and the rest a blend of one-, two-, and three-year old barrels…with natural malolactic fermentation allowed to occur in the spring.

(I must say, for the record, that my barrel-tasting experience is that the older clones are currently showing more red fruit than the younger Dijon clones, but I expect that will change with vine age; certainly the finished bottlings have taken a definite turn away from broodingly dark fruit..)

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2001 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Corked.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2001 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Darker than the ’03, with strawberry seeds, dark plum and cherry. There’s a slightly soupy cast to the finish, and the tannin edges towards the green, but it’s still a pleasant wine.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, West Block, 10/5 clone) (Waipara) – Plum, black cherry and juicy, vivid red cherry. These were whole berries, allowed a chilled pre-fermentation maceration and resting on the skins for two weeks, with a natural fermentation, twice-daily punchdowns, and pumping.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, West Block, 10/5 clone, just pumped over) (Waipara) – Soupier and bigger, with a darker brow and more tannin (obviously).

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, 114 clone) (Waipara) – Graphite-textured tannin and dark blackberry fruit. Slightly coarse, but deliciously so. This is a Dijon clone that’s popular in Burgundy, but (as of yet) one that hasn’t produced much of interest in the Pegasus Bay vineyards. Perhaps with time.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, 113 clone) (Waipara) – Chocolate and elegant dark plum, blackberry and blueberry. Long. Very fruit-dominated.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, UC Davis clone 6) (Waipara) – Fatter than other samples, showing medium- to full-bodied blueberry, spiced chocolate and vanilla. Perhaps it’s just particularly amenable to its aging vessel, because it does appear to be soaking up more wood aromatics than the other clones.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, Scott-Henry trellised 10/5 clone) (Waipara) – Complex and gorgeous, with a lovely texture. This shows true class and breeding. “Not that I’m really into Scott-Henry at all,” notes Lynnette, “but [it’s] a really nice vineyard” that used to deliver huge tannin and fruit, but is now coming into balance. These, by the way, are the oldest vines on the property, and it shows.

Into the dark

2003 was a good year for Bordeaux varieties in the Waipara, according to Lynnette, and the qualitative focus is moving towards merlot and malbec rather than the harder-edged cabernets.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon (Waipara) – Just bottled. Chewy black-and-blueberry with a dense, tannic, forceful palate and a medium-length finish. Quite good now, but its real strengths will come with age. This was just bottled, after spending 18 months in barrels (10-15% of them new).

“Maestro” is a semi-Bordeaux-styled blend produced in exceptional years. It’s a barrel (rather than vineyard) selection that’s given two years in wood (20% new) and additional bottle age before release.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2001 “Maestro” Merlot/Malbec (Waipara) – Blueberry and baked earth studded with walnuts, plus dark plum. The structure is just gorgeous, with ripe tannin and fine wood integration, though chocolate and vanilla do stand out a bit at this stage. The finish is ripe, showing oven-roasted blueberry, boysenberry and apple fading into a lovely, drying finish. Balanced and really, really good, with an excellent future.

Liquid opera

Unlike the rare “Maestro” and “Prima Donna” bottlings, the late-harvest “Aria” riesling is made most years. In 2004, however, there are two selections: a regular “Aria” and an ultra-dried, botrytis-ridden bottling (picked on June 25th) that does not yet have a name. Keeping with patriarch Ivan Donaldson’s operatic theme, I suggest “Diva”…Lynnette agrees that it’s a favored possibility, but unfortunately the label is already in use. (Eventually, the wine will be called “Encore.”)

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 “Aria” Riesling (Waipara) – Pineapple, sweet lemon and a crisp, elegant, drying finish of medium length. This should be better in a few years, but it’s quite primary now.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 “Encore” Riesling (Waipara) – Very intense, with crystallized peach, quince and apricot. It’s exquisitely sweet, but balanced by sharp, crisp acidity, and finishes long and poised. Beautiful, ageable, and a true masterwork.

Botrytized, late-harvest chardonnay – which is, despite chardonnay’s worldwide ubiquity, somewhat of a rarity in bottle – is, to the extent possible, left out of the regular chardonnay, then separately crushed by foot, soaked and barrel fermented. 2003’s dried berries “didn’t give us a lot of juice,” but there is most certainly new wood employed during the process.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 “Finale” Chardonnay (Waipara) – Just bottled. Silky-textured, showing spiced citrus, peach and apple pie. The finish is clean and crisp with acidity. Terrific.

First lady

But wine isn’t the only thing at which Pegasus Bay excels. The recent recipient of Cuisine magazine’s “Best Casual Restaurant” award can be a tough reservation, even for a weekday lunch. It pays to be in the company of the winemaker!

After an arduous barrel tasting, we’re assembled at an outdoor table, while Lynnette pulls a few more bottles (as if we really need more wine) to show with food. And what food! Lynnette is largely a vegetarian (though she has certain weaknesses) and professes to be not all that hungry, so rather than order from the menu we just let the staff bring us a selection of marvelous small bites. One course that stands out in memory in a sinfully rich soup of creamed leeks, potatoes and goat cheese, but in truth everything is outstanding. While we eat, we continue to converse about wine, travel, the failings of French coffee and French marketing, exchange a bit of gossip about other New Zealand winemakers, and just generally have a great time.

Despite her initial protestations of gustatory parsimony, Lynnette suddenly turns all girly and orders both an extravagant cheese platter and an assortment of desserts to finish off the meal. What is it about women and dessert? We’re stuffed to the gills…in fact, we’ve been full to bursting for a good long while…but we nonetheless manage to steal a few bites here and there, including a taste of what she asserts are some of the very few truly high-quality cheeses made in the country.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 1999 Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc (Waipara) – Shy at first, with ripe melon and apple skin finally emerging, crisped and sharpened by acidity. This has matured nicely, and is probably ready to go.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 “Prima Donna” Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Black and red cherries, then strawberry and plum with soft, graphite-textured tannin. This wine is pure elegance and refinement, lithe and gorgeous as it caresses the palate, with a stupendous finish. Unbelievably good, and unquestionably one of the best pinots in all of New Zealand.

As the meal draws to a close and we say our farewells, we realize that we’ve been here for a little over six hours. Six hours! Our plans for a casual drop-in tastings elsewhere in the Waipara are now completely moot. But we can’t think of many more satisfying ways to spend a day, and even Lynnette seems to have enjoyed herself.

By the Bay

The wines at this property, already terrific on a previous visit and in many subsequent tastings Stateside, have moved from strength to greater strength. The improvements to the Burgundian palette of grapes are obvious, and everything in the portfolio shows signs of a little extra refinement, a soupçon more delicacy, and a persistent yearning for ever-escalating quality. The latter is the finest compliment one can pay to a winery, and it is one that Pegasus Bay richly deserves. Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. These are tremendous wines.

Though the next time we visit, we’ll remember to skip breakfast. And to avoid immobile homes.

Disclosures: a rather extravagant lunch is provided for free, and we receive a discount on wine purchases.

TN: New Zealand (BWE notes)

[vineyard]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)

[vineyard]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)

TN: The wines of Daniel Schuster

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)

TN: Less than a Jackson

[label]Kendall-Jackson 2003 Chardonnay “Vintner’s Reserve” (California) – As inoffensive as a wine can be: rote stone fruit and citrus, almost lighter than air, with vague sweetness and an utter lack of character or meaning. This is almost a work of mad genius in its predictability and inoffensiveness. But it’s still no cure for narcolepsy. (3/07)

TN: Judge and Jura (BWE notes)

[vineyard]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.

Laguiche “Château d’Arlay” 2001 Côtes du Jura “Corail” (Jura) – Pinot noir, trousseau, poulsard, chardonnay and savagnin. Mixed old apples, and slightly stale nuts with long, terrific acid-based structure. There’s a sensation of old furniture to which a patina of polish has been applied. Lovely and soft, despite the acidity. (2/07)

Laguiche “Château d’Arlay” 2001 Côtes du Jura Rouge (Jura) – 100% pinot noir. Raspberry and roses (both fresh and older, somewhat decayed versions) with dead cider aromas and nuts. Strongly-expressed, but perhaps pursued a little farther down its particular organoleptic road than I can easily follow. (2/07)

Laguiche “Château d’Arlay” 2003 Côtes du Jura Chardonnay “à la Reine” (Jura) – Pure white and grey rocks with salt, showing bigger but unidentifiable fruit in the forepalate. This is a vin de terroir much more than it is a chardonnay. (2/07)

Laguiche “Château d’Arlay” 2000 Côtes du Jura Blanc (Jura) – Chardonnay and savagnin. Hazelnut and golden raisin with a peanut vinegar note. It sounds bizarre, but it’s a frankly delicious wine, complex and long. (2/07)

Laguiche “Château d’Arlay” 1998 Côtes du Jura Vin Jaune (Jura) – 100% savagnin. Big and complex, showing apricot, banana skin, wet salt, and huge acidity. The length is incredible. There’s a faint aura of must, but more that of the ancient wine cellar than anything deleterious. (2/07)

Laguiche “Château d’Arlay” 2000 Vin de Paille (Jura) – Trousseau, poulsard, chardonnay and savagnin, denied the appellation due to atypicity (“too much cinnamon” or some such nonsense). Lemongrass, hazelnut…and yes, cinnamon…with elegant softness. It arrives with gentility, and is then carried away on a light spring breeze. (2/07)

Laguiche “Château d’Arlay” 1999 Côtes du Jura Vin de Paille (Jura) – Trousseau, poulsard, chardonnay and savagnin. Sweet white plum, blood orange rind, apricot and soft caramel…a thickness that carries through to the texture. This is more direct than the 2000, and perhaps simpler as well. But they are both delicious wines. (2/07)

Laguiche “Château d’Arlay” Macvin du Jura Rouge (Jura) – 100% pinot noir. The sharp bite of the maquis, needled and herbal, dominates this pointed brew that rests on an undertone of fermented old straw. The finish is long and surprisingly soft, with oranges and sweet wood ear mushrooms emergent. Fabulous…but not quite as good as the blanc. (2/07)

Laguiche “Château d’Arlay” Macvin du Jura Blanc (Jura) – Chardonnay and savagnin. More pure than the rouge, showing white candy and white chocolate with praline and nougat. Incredibly complex, this expands and shifts on the palate, dancing and weaving away from each attempt to pin it down. A stunning performance. (2/07)

TN: South Africa (BWE notes)

[vineyard]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.

Louisvale 2006 “Unwooded” Chardonnay (Western Cape) – Clean apple, clementine and tangerine. Decent. (2/07)

Avondale 2006 Chenin Blanc (Paarl) – Concentrated red cherry, blood orange with slightly noticeable residual sugar. Quite intense, with good acidity. Flavorful New World-style chenin. (2/07)

Springfontein 2006 Chenin Blanc (Walker Bay) – Green peach and white linen. Simple and soft. (2/07)

BWC 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (Stellenbosch) – Gooseberry and thyme with a grassy undertone. Simple, fair. (2/07)

Avondale 2006 Rosé (Coastal) – Clean strawberry & raspberry leaves. Simple & fun. (2/07)

Amira 2004 Syrah (Coastal) – Bitter blueberry, dirt, and stems. No good. (2/07)

Vriesenhof 2003 “Enthopio” (Stellenbosch) – Rich, roasted frut and burnt soil with spice and crispness. Mostly pinotage. Both good and interesting. (2/07)

Morgenster 2001 (Stellenbosch) – Chocolate, cappuccino, black cherry, blackberry, and soft greenness. Low-tier potential at best, but it’s probably at its best now. It’s unquestionably better after a few hours of air. (2/07)

[view]Muratie 2003 Shiraz (Stellenbosch) – Cassis, black cherry and strawberry. A big-fruited, simple-minded wine. (2/07)

Springfontein 2005 Pinotage (Walker Bay) – Red cherry and raspberry with pine tar and a great acidic tingle. Ripe and quite good. (2/07)

Springfontein 2005 “Estate Reserve” (Walker Bay) – Herbs (mostly thyme), underripe but boisterous fruit, light tannin, and a soupy texture. Bleah. (2/07)

Springfontein 2005 “Ulumbaza” Shiraz (Walker Bay) – Big blueberry fruit, light spice, mild tannin and good acid. Everything’s front-loaded here, but it’s good in that idiom. (2/07)

Avondale 2006 Cabernet Franc (Paarl) – Rosemary, rough black earth, blueberry and pointy acidity. Eh. (2/07)

Avondale 2006 Pinotage (Paarl) – Soft, with big strawberry, apple, and medium-ripe plum with some tannin on the finish. Moderately OK. (2/07)

TN: Wild & wooly (New Zealand, pt. 40)

[alpacas](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…

Big sport

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.

And…it’s windy.

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.

J’arrive

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.

The consternation stems from the name: Silverstream Alpaca Stud. Unbidden images of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, but with woollier ears, spring to mind.

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.

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.