Browse Tag


TN: Whites in triplicate

[label]St. Innocent 2005 Pinot Blanc Freedom Hill (Willamette Valley) – Striking green grape and zingy, underripe apricot with fresh-cut grass and spiky acidity. It’s got a nice, clean, pure appeal, but it carries too much alcoholic heat, and as a result loses most of its claim to freshness and approachability. (12/06)

J. Christopher 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Maresh (Dundee Hills) – Green fruit and herbal sodas with a shattered crystalline minerality, dustings of sea salt, and a lot of exciting, almost frothy complexity along a sharp, clean finish. This is fantastic sauvignon blanc, individualistic and nervy, with structure to spare. (12/06)

[label]Hendry 2005 Chardonnay “Unoaked” (Napa Valley) – Friendly peach, grapefruit, ripe lemon curd and apple. Deliciously appealing, and there’s plenty of bright, balancing acidity as well. Despite a well-justified fear of aging any unoaked chardonnay that isn’t from Chablis, I’d consider holding on to this just to see what happens…but then again, it’s awfully nice now. (12/06)

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

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

Architecture aloft

The roof takes flight, curving against the breeze and rising gracefully skyward. Its strong lines are reflected in a nearby pool as it soars and swoops over the vines that cover the valley floor, tracing a graceful curve along its length that runs from sun to shadow, and then back again.

Or rather, it would do all those things if it weren’t bolted to the structure underneath.

There’s been much architectural hoo-hah over the new winemaking and visitors’ facility at Peregrine, and on both first and last view the chatter is richly deserved; this is a dramatic and original statement. It works in this otherwise wholly natural setting for three reasons: 1) it is, frankly, a beautiful structure, 2) it’s both low enough to the ground and set back far enough from the road, behind a protective veil of trees and low slopes, that it doesn’t overtly intrude on the surrounding landscape, and 3) it is of a piece with the carefully restructured grounds (which incorporate a pond, a more rustic and traditional banquet facility, and walkways), showing sensitivity to the harmonies and rhythms of nature. Plus, the peregrine falcons on which the wing-like roof structure is based do indeed visit the vineyards from time to time.

The curved steel and Duralite canopy shades a two-level concrete facility that accommodates the needs of both arriving grapes and inquisitive tourists, and it’s to the latter that I walk, gaping and marveling at the surroundings. But the tasting room itself cannot be ignored, either; a shadowy chamber that nonetheless seems partially constructed of light, with a thick wall of glass separating tasters from a precise and martial array of barrels in the winery’s aging facility. It’s no less beautiful than the exterior, and I begin to worry that – as with so many California wineries – more attention is being paid to the visuals and externalities than to the wine that provides the alleged raison d’être for all this man-made beauty.

Another source of worry: Peregrine has not experienced much winemaking continuity in its relatively brief history, having built their name under one regime, then experiencing a minor explosion in notoriety under the brief tenure of the very high-profile Michelle Richardson (ex-Villa Maria), a talented and fiery personality who has since left for her own venture. I’ve tasted, and liked, a few Peregrine wines in the States, but I approach their current lineup with a measure of trepidation, wondering if their obvious pretensions toward quality will be maintained by the wines, given the discontinuities in the cellar and all the money represented by its physical presence. (Co-founder Greg Hay is the principal constant, having remained attached to the project since its beginnings as yet another cooperative growers’ venture.)

Peregrine offers wine under three different labels: the main-line estate products (Peregrine), a lineup of “second” wines called Saddleback, (that carry neither the reduced quality nor, frankly, the usual price reduction of a typical secondary label), and a premium cuvée called Wentworth, which hearkens back to the original name for the winery.

Quicker than a glass of light

Rather remarkably, Peregrine offers nearly everything they have in stock for tasting, for free and to all comers. I’m not sure this is economically sustainable given the winery’s proximity to bustling Queenstown, but it’s a fine gesture…especially as it puts a good deal of what turns out to be quite high-quality wine into the glasses of a lot of previously-unsuspecting people. This is an unquestioned good.

My tasting experience is guided by a friendly young man (who also turns out to be a freelance photographer) that shows signs of being scatterbrained and inefficient when I first arrive, but easily rises to the occasion as more and more visitors populate the glowing bar behind which he stands. He’s able to answer all my (admittedly not particularly technical) questions with ease, and leads me through the wines as quickly as can be expected given a multitude of other customers.

Peregrine 2003 Riesling (Central Otago) – Intense, showing steel, grapefruit and lime leaves with an almost electric intensity on the midpalate. Finishes extremely dry and long. Marvelous riesling, with a good future ahead of it.

Peregrine 2004 “Rastasburn” Riesling (Central Otago) – Despite the geographic name, Rastasburn is here meant to indicate a stylistic shift towards the off-dry. Which it is, showing lime, mixed apples and a lush, shattered minerality that pulses towards the full-bodied, then retreats to permit a crisp, dry and tingly finish. It’s a bit shorter than the regular ’03 riesling, but very nice nonetheless.

Peregrine 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – This is usually sourced from Central Otago fruit, but in 2004 the quality…and more importantly, the quantity…just wasn’t there, and so alternate sources had to be found. I regret not being able to taste the wine in its typical form, but this is hardly a chore: gooseberry and grass, yes, but also a mineral-driven liquidity on the midpalate and finish…something not often found in fruit-focused Marlborough. The only flaw is a somewhat sticky texture, but it’s forgivable. A nice wine.

Peregrine 2004 Pinot Gris (Central Otago) – Pinot gris is, in many ways, the chardonnay of New Zealand: mindlessly planted everywhere and producing wines of endless and anonymous tedium, almost without exception. Thankfully, “almost” is the correct term (though it would do no harm to the New Zealand wine industry to grub up 75% of the nation’s pinot gris vines), and this is one of the exceptions. Yeasty and thickly-textured (while the wine is matured in 100% stainless steel, lees stirring adds weight and complexity), but brightened with zingy acidity, showing grapefruit rind and pear with a long, dry finish that shows hints of further complexities to come. A marvelous wine with medium-term aging potential.

Peregrine 2004 Gewürztraminer (Central Otago) – Lychee and cashew oil form a fully ripe and quite phenolic nose, with a lovely, elegant complexity on the palate. It’s very light for gewürztraminer (those desiring more weight will want to look to the North Island’s Gisborne region), but nice in that idiom.

Saddleback 2003 Chardonnay (Central Otago) – 100% malolactic fermentation, 30% matured in French oak. Intense stone fruit (mostly apricot), fig, nut oil and nutmeg with a light touch of wood and a smooth, balanced aspect. A pleasant, good-quality chardonnay with a bit of aging potential but of no particularly unique distinction…which is, after, the persistent problem with this grape from anything other than the most remarkable terroirs. This, though, is a subjective complaint; the wine is perfectly nice.

Saddleback 2004 Chardonnay (Marlborough) – As with the sauvignon blanc, acceptable fruit for this wine was simply not available locally. The nose is tighter, flatter and leafier than the ’03, with banana skin and a long, growing intensity on the palate and a zippy, sorbet-like finish braced with fine acidity. This is more structured and probably longer-aging than the ’03, and certainly less overtly marked by oak, but objectively it’s probably less pleasurable. People will choose based on their perceptions of what constitutes quality in a chardonnay.

Peregrine 2004 Rosé (Central Otago) – A pink pinot (not saignée), juicy and off-dry with simplistic strawberry and floral components. Just…eh.

Saddleback 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Light plum, strawberry blossom and red cherry, with sweeter plum notes emerging on the finish. Almost nice, but slightly stemmy, unfinished and underripe. This should be better.

Peregrine 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Earth, dark plum and strawberry – a big-fruited wine with just a touch of syrup on the midpalate – given heft and direction by a brooding (yet crisp) structure so well-integrated that it almost escapes notice. Everything expands towards a beautiful finish; this is a lovely wine, with elegance and polish, and fine aging potential (though it will be very hard to avoid in the interim).

The swirling afterglow

These are, despite my initial misgivings, mostly extraordinary wines that show intensity, elegance and vision…not to mention high-quality fruit, handled well and relatively unobtrusively. There’s power here, but also class and maturity, something achieved by few other wineries in the Central Otago. This is an exciting winery, and one to watch very closely, for it is already the unquestioned star of the Gibbston sub-region. And after all, nothing flies higher than a star.

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

[Kawarau water](The original version, with more photos, is here.)

The road pointlessly taken

According to my at-hand references, only three wineries in the entire Clyde/Alexandra area are open for drop-in tasting. Having just left the best-known of the triad, full of unresolved gewürztraminer must and wacky theories about Otago cabernet, I leave the eroding forests of rock formations behind and travel a long, straight dirt road across a flat plain to number two: William Hill.

Make that two wineries open for drop-in tasting, for William Hill is – despite its quite clear exterior signage to the contrary – closed to visitors. There’s even a short bus full of disappointed wine tourists pulling out of the driveway as I arrive, and only the shouts of a vineyard worker alert me to the fact that the locked and darkened tasting room is not that way by accident. He has no explanation to offer, either, aside from a bewildered shrug. I return his shrug in kind, and move on.

Woodless and fancy free

Springvale Estate (Dunstan Rd., Alexandra), just a short distance away, is most definitely open, and the expansive tasting room is surrounded by gardens and tables currently undergoing a pre-lunch setup. I arrive just early enough to get the attention I need before lunching tourists (and, by appearances, quite a few locals) arrive in force, because the staff is unquestionably spread a bit thin once that occurs. Nonetheless, my welcome is friendly, and I’m offered a table and an organized flight of wines to study at my leisure, rather than fighting the growing crowds at the tasting bar/lunch counter.

Springvale Estate 2001 “Unoaked” Chardonnay (Central Otago) – Strong apricot – and perhaps very slightly botrytized? – aromas with white plum and peach. There’s a nice core of fruit here, and while the wine is perhaps a touch sweet, it’s got good structure, length and balance. Pretty and fun…and, it turns out, the best wine I’ll taste.

Springvale Estate 2001 “Oaked” Chardonnay (Central Otago) – A touch of charred lemon and apple shrinks from intrusive oak on the nose. The effect of the wood on the palate, however, is tactile rather than organoleptic, as it flattens out the spectrum, hides the spiced (and dried) orange fruit, and abrades the finish to something tannic and dull. It’s long, but things are neither as integrated nor as pleasant as they should be, and the oak ultimately damages the wine more than it adds to its complexity.

Springvale Estate 2003 Sauvignon Blanc (Central Otago) – A shy nose, with green pepper and grass on the palate, and a tart, green finish: all the unwelcome signs of underripe sauvignon. I’ve said it before and I’ll likely say it again: Otago sauvignon may not be the best idea…which is not to say that it can’t be done well (as, for instance, at Carrick), only that the chances seem slimmer than normal. Not everyone in New Zealand is honor-bound to produce sauvignon blanc, a fact that sometimes seems to be lost on certain bottom line-focused wineries.

Springvale Estate 2003 Gewürztraminer (Central Otago) – Light rose petal, lychee skin, dried apricot pit and almond form an enticing nose that falls completely away on the palate and that provide absolutely no finish whatsoever. Initially pleasant, but ultimately disappointing.

Springvale Estate 2002 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Gentle plum and baked strawberry turn quickly bizarre, with bark, green olive sourness, and a sandy texture. This wine is light to the point of being watery, both insubstantial and insufficiently aromatic, and is shot through with a nasty green streak. No good.

Springvale Estate 2001 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Dirty plum, raspberry, rotten strawberry and more of that green olive note, with tarry tannins and a syrupy texture that adds to an impression that the remaining fruit in this wine is starting to turn to liqueur. This is “better” than the 2002 only in the academic sense, and I’d avoid either version.

Like Mt. Difficulty, this is a cooperative venture between vineyard owners. But to an even greater extent than that Bannockburn winery, it seems that grape quality is an issue…which makes me wonder how an equal partnership between otherwise competing growers can effectively encourage viticultural improvements. It’s not as if the threat to turn to other grape sources would be an effective one. Also of concern, or at least questionable: the age of these wines. Tasted in March of 2005, only the sauvignon and gewürztraminer are of what other wineries would call the current vintage, and it’s not as if the remaining products are Fromm-like and in need of extra aging to shed their youthful ferocity. One wonders about the reasons for this delayed presentation, because it certainly doesn’t appear to benefit the wines.

Ultimately, Springvale Estate is a pleasant place to visit and lunch (though I can’t vouch for the food, which I do not try), and their unoaked chardonnay would appear to have the qualities necessary for a nice picnic wine, but there’s a lot of work to do here…mostly in the vineyard, but perhaps also in the cellar.

Driving the friendly skies

The drive back to Cromwell, and then towards Queenstown, is done during some sort of midday lull, and as traffic is virtually nonexistent, I speed homeward at an unforeseen pace. Thus, I’ve got a little extra time before I’m scheduled to meet Theresa, so I endeavor to sneak in a little bonus tasting back in the Gibbston Valley. A tasting where I am, quite literally, taken under someone’s wing.

Disclosure: tasting fee is waived.

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

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

Separate ways, worlds apart

Back when this voyage was still in the planning stages, I’d assumed that, from time to time, Theresa and I would want to do different things. Her capacity for endless wine tasting doesn’t quite match mine, and I also figured she’d desire a few restorative days in between all of our rushing to and fro across the New Zealand landscape.

So it’s a bit of a surprise, just a few days shy of a month into this venture, that today is the first (and, it turns out, only) day we’ll pursue separate activities. Theresa’s going to nap, wander the streets of Queenstown, and spend a few refreshing hours at a local spa, while I’m taking the car to the last of the Central Otago wine regions for a little drop-in tasting.

With a half-dozen drives under one’s belt, the Queenstown-Cromwell road seems less twisty and precarious than it does at first glance. This is actually a slightly dangerous notion, for the road retains all of its perilous edge-of-danger aspects despite the familiarity, but it’s a clear morning and there are few cars on the road, which makes the drive a relative breeze. At Cromwell, the road angles south along the banks of the Clutha, straightening and flattening along the dramatic but rather harsh cut of the Cromwell Gorge. What seems like scant minutes later, the road descends past a mighty dam and drops into the rich valley in which nestle the towns of Clyde and Alexandra.

The layout of the towns – modern suburban grids in uniform two-story sprawl – seems somehow out of place in this otherwise remote landscape. Or perhaps moonscape would be a better term, for outside the (no doubt heavily manicured) valley, the earth is about as hostile an environment for agriculture as one can imagine (short of a complete lack of soil): tussock-covered mountains meet rolling fields and hills covered with craggy outcroppings, shelves, and tables; a forbidding and borderline unusable landscape that…inevitably…formed one of the major open sets for The Lord of the Rings.

It figures that someone would try to grow grapes here.

Sugar, sugar

In truth, the rocky slopes around Alexandra aren’t any worse than some of the great European vineyards…Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe come immediately to mind…though this is not to say that the wines from this region even vaguely compare to those exalted appellations. In the first place, it would appear that the majority of vines are planted not on the difficult slopes, but rather on the flat and fertile plains; rarely a recipe for top-quality wine. Second, there seems to be a lot of haphazard experimentation and, it must be said, pervasive underfunding, especially in comparison to the more developed vineyards and wineries around Bannockburn, Cromwell, and the Gibbston Valley. The end result is that, unfortunately, the wines of the region don’t quite meet the standards being set by the rest of the Central Otago.

My first stop is at Black Ridge, the Central Otago’s first commercial vineyard…though this presupposes that I’ll ever be able to find the place. The map in Michael Cooper’s Atlas sends me on a long but visually captivating detour through the area’s rocky hinterlands, but eventually I pull into the rather dramatic hollow in which the winery sits…on the heels of a small group of youthful Americans. What, exactly, are those odds?

The proprietor is somewhere between goofy and eccentric (in a good way), but his passion can’t be denied, and we delve into a haphazard tasting while I listen to his ramblings…some of which are sensible, others of which are rather the opposite. As for the wines themselves, they’re all over the qualitative map.

Black Ridge 2002 Riesling (Central Otago) – Diesel and mineral with pear skin, wet leaves and a metallic edge; the latter is usually welcome in a riesling, but here it’s a little bit too jarring. The finish is very dry, despite eight grams of residual sugar. Good for short-term drinking, but I don’t like its preparation for the longer haul.

Black Ridge 2003 Chardonnay (Central Otago) – Peach and stone fruit with a big impact, and a decent enough balance that persists until the onset of an oily-textured, low-acid finish that eventually dries out all the goop. It’s quite flavorful, but more akin to a good fruit wine than a chardonnay.

Black Ridge 2004 “Otago Gold” (Central Otago) – A blend of breidecker, riesling, gewürztraminer and chardonnay, carrying fifteen grams of residual sugar. (What’s breidecker, you ask? A müller-thurgau/chancellor cross, which should fill absolutely no one with anticipation. Further, blends with gewürztraminer are rarely anything more than thinned gewürztraminer.) There’s fusel oil and grapefruit, but only a dab of each, and otherwise this wine is sweet, simple fun that’s completely absent anything of interest or complexity. The proprietor suggests serving it over ice (“you keep on sipping until the ice is dissolved”), which seems as good a use as any: the pastis of the Central Otago.

Black Ridge 2004 Gewürztraminer (Central Otago) – My second attempt at this wine, and unfortunately it’s only slightly changed: oily lychee, roses and spiced orange are completely overwhelmed by fat, even blowsy residual sugar (19 grams) and a flabby midpalate. The finish is much better, showing long and luscious, but it’s a shame what one has to go through to get there. This is a cocktail wine, at best.

Black Ridge 2003 Gewürztraminer “Late Harvest” (Central Otago) – 20 grams of residual sugar…just one gram more than the regular ’04 gewürztraminer…but overall a much more solid wine, which indicates the problem at Black Ridge is likely to be insufficient physiological ripeness rather than regular old hang time; a way must be found to mitigate intrusive sugars while urging on the grapes’ aromatics and structural elements to some harmonious end. This wine, which is no more overtly sweet than the basic bottling, shows nice spiced apple and roses with a bitter-sour lychee, pear and peach midpalate that manages to hold into the finish. There’s good intensity here, and the only major flaw is…well, to be indelicate, a sort of “foot cheese” aroma that emerges as the wine warms in the glass. Still, if one can ignore this characteristic, there’s at least potential here.

Black Ridge “Conroy’s” 2004 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – An inexpensive wine meant to be an early- and easy-drinking pinot, except that it’s a little too easy. It’s juicy, perhaps even akin to a slightly flat soda, with light leafy flowers and a short finish. The still-bound CO2 eventually becomes a touch off-putting, but with enough chill this could be a decent quaffer on a hot summer day.

Black Ridge 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Sour cherry on the nose, which expands to fuller, riper and fleshier plum, orange peel and earth aromas on the palate. There’s good structure, balance and length here, but the wine persistently tends towards tartness, and one wonders if the fruit will outlast the acidity.

Black Ridge 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon (Central Otago) – OK, this is the second cabernet sauvignon I’ve tasted from this region (the first was part of a blend at Olssens), and I’m a little baffled at the enthusiasm for the experiment. OK, sure, maybe it’s possible to get cabernet ripe here, in one vintage or another, but the world needs another marginal cabernet about as much as it needs another breidecker. This one shows bell pepper, blackberry, black pepper and dark cherry with good structure, but despite the proprietor’s tremendous enthusiasm it’s just not all that interesting. It’s decent enough, and structured, and will age with all the qualities and problems it currently possesses, but there’s just no call for this wine, and no real purpose in its making other than to prove that it can (very occasionally) be done.

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

(The original version, with many more photos, is here.)

The Holstein firm

There’s certainly industrial winemaking in New Zealand, but one doesn’t expect to find it in the smallholder-dominated Central Otago. Thankfully, the giant corrugated airline hangars at Central Otago Wine Company (“CowCo” to the locals), just down the street from Quartz Reef, hold not the worst excesses of mass-market vinification, but the very essence of small-estate winemaking. CowCo is a contract facility for wineries too small to have their own, and serves as both winemaker and stand-in tasting room for over a half-dozen producers.

It would be nice, then, if a few more of the available wines were on offer. I’m sure calling ahead would have arranged this, but our enthusiasm for tasting is flagging at the end of a long day doing just that (Theresa opts to sit this venue out in its entirety), and so I buzz through the four options as efficiently as possible.

Kawarau Estate 2003 Chardonnay “Reserve” (Central Otago) – An organic winery, working with Lowburn fruit. It’s wood-spicy, showing orange peel, clove and apricot with a short-ish finish. Fine in its idiom.

Central Otago Wine Cellar 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Blended from four parcels (I fail to ask who owns them), showing lemongrass, red cherry, strawberry and the classic regional orange rind, with pretty good acidity. Fresh, fun and easy-drinking pinot.

Dry Gully 2003 Pinot Noir (Alexandra) – Powdery chalk, strawberry leaf, banana skin and chewy celery over a bed of gravel. The tannin’s slightly underripe, leaving the wine with a bitter aftertaste, and overall it’s depressingly light.

Two Paddocks 2003 Pinot Noir “First Paddock” (Gibbston) – A winery owned by actor Sam Neil, though it’s most definitely not just another vanity project. This (from the One Paddock vineyard, their oldest parcel) is a fine effort, with elegant strawberry, plum, raspberry, red cherry and orange with very slightly touchy tannin and a long, zingy finish. Tasty stuff. (The brief disconnect of tasting wine from a guy who played the Antichrist is a little jarring, but I get over it. Anyway, the winery’s web site is frequently hilarious, which helps ease the struggle.)

[fruit]Loom of the fruit

After a full day with glass to nose, the highs push out the lows and we remember a rather packed day with appreciation. Comprehensive thoughts on what we’ve tasted are still coalescing, and I resolve to put them to paper after I’ve visited the third – and most remote – sub-region of the Central Otago. What lingers is the feeling that, while the whites continue to lag, the reds are showing a real spark, and finally starting to justify the regional excitement in sufficiently convincing numbers. But at the moment, we’ve got something other than grapes on our minds.

For the Cromwell/Bannockburn area is only recently known for its wine. Historically, what excelled here was produce, especially fruit. Old-timers, in fact, rather bemoan the general loss of the region as a berry Mecca, and consider winemaking more than a bit arriviste. In any case, proof of this history towers into the Cromwell sky in multicolored majesty: a giant, rather lurid sculpture of fruit. We’ve got a bit of a fetish for the kitsch represented by such things – with pictures of us hanging from giant kiwifruit (and kiwis), garlic, apples and even wheels of Munster – so we can’t resist a brief photo stop.

From there, it’s into Cromwell itself to pick up some items for dinner, and then to its historic outskirts for a few minutes in “Old Cromwell,” which is a faithfully- (if somewhat cheesily-) restored frontier town from the gold rush days. We also hit a few fruit stands (today littered with busloads of Asian tourists, for reasons that aren’t particularly clear to either of us) on the way out of town, just to check out the selection, after which the wonderful desolation of the Cromwell-Queenstown road brings us home.

Dinner is a Cromwell-sourced pasta primavera (of sorts; since it’s actually early autumn here, maybe pasta d’autunno would be more accurate) with the remains of our lunch wine.

Amisfield “Lake Hayes” 2004 Riesling (Central Otago) – Green apple and yellow-green citrus, clean and crisp but simple.

For “dessert,” I pop open something acquired at Akarua, which makes me wish I’d spent more time tasting through their brewed lineup.

BannockBrew “Wild Spaniard” Black Lager (Central Otago) – Chocolate and hickory-smoked espresso. Incredibly intensity. This is an aptly-named pit of dark, brooding blackness, and I rather love it.

Tomorrow, we work off the excesses of today. And, along the way, embrace some new excesses at a strong contender for the world’s most beautiful vineyard.

Disclosure: the beer is a gift.

TN: Tying the knot (New Zealand, pt. 28)

(The original post is here.)

As wineries ‘round the world have proved over and over, money does not solve all problems. On our last visit to New Zealand, we’d stopped in at Carrick on the recommendation of an acquaintance. It was, apart from a pleasantly drinkable pinot, a complete waste of time and taste buds. And this despite the painfully obvious scale of the funds being thrown at everything in sight…mostly including a then-unfinished tasting room and restaurant facility.

However, in the interim the buzz had spread a bit…just enough to lead to my taking a chance on a bottle at Dunedin’s Bell Pepper Blues. The difference that money cannot necessarily make, time and money can; the wine, a 2002 Pinot Noir, was very nearly extraordinary. A closer investigation was required.

At any given mealtime, the parking lot at Carrick is likely to be full. Rather than hungry tourists stocking up on picnic wine, the draw is the (allegedly; I haven’t eaten there) fine restaurant on the facility, about which there is growing regional and national hype. There’s also a little action at the long tasting bar (which shares a vaulted room with the restaurant), but things seem busier than they are because the tasting counter staff is also responsible for covering the restaurant floor. They do a remarkable job considering the circumstances, but one wonders if – especially at lunch – the promotion of the winery itself might not be better-served by separate staffs.

Carrick 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Central Otago) – Ripe gooseberry, lime and white spice; a nicely juicy wine that almost makes me recant my dire warnings about Central Otago sauvignon. But I fear it may instead be the proverbial exception that proves the rule.

Carrick 2003 Chardonnay (Central Otago) – 50% of this wine spends twelve months in French oak, and handles it fairly well. There’s spicy clove and fig jam, with plenty of ripe, juicy oranges and a balanced finish. Chardonnay’s still not my thing, but this is a good one.

Carrick 2004 Rosé (Central Otago) – Like most pinks from this region, this is made from pinot noir; I don’t get the opportunity to ask if it’s vat-bled or from secondary fruit. It shows very light spiced peach (more white than yellow), to such an extent that it tastes more like a dark-skinned white wine (complete with a touch of tannin; think Alsatian pinot gris) than a true rosé. It’s strange, and I’m not sure I like it even on its own merits.

Carrick 2003 “Unravelled” Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Yes, that’s how they spell it; the term is a play on the regular label’s depiction of a Carrick Bend knot, which here is…literally…unraveled. Or “unravelled.” Whatever. Anyway, this is intended to be a fresh, upfront, early-drinking pinot sold at a lower price, and it succeeds in those goals (though I wouldn’t necessarily call mid-twenties in Kiwi dollars cheap, either). The fruit – mostly strawberry, plum and the persistent Central Otago orange rind characteristic – is very ripe, with nuts and light earth tones introducing themselves and then quickly stepping back to allow the fruit to feature itself. It’s pure, fruity fun, but more complex than I think most would expect. A nice wine, indeed.

Carrick 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Dark plum and somewhat bulky tannin dominate this tight, concentrated wine. The balance is discernibly terrific, and there’s wonderful length, with crisp and acid-enhanced floral esters on the finish…but the wine is very balled-up right now. Give it the necessary aging.

Carrick 2002 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Another stab at the bottling tasted in Dunedin, apparently opened (from an available stock) in response to my enthusiasm for my previous encounter with the wine. This, thanks to the extra year of development, presents as a much richer wine than the ’03, showing generous plum and black cherry with hints of chocolate on the finish. As with my previous encounter with the ‘02, the niggling flaw is a very slightly bitter tannic bite; one wonders if the seemingly more balanced ’03 might, eventually, turn out to be the better wine. But this, too, really needs age to show its true qualities.

This is a winery still on the ascent, with across-the-board improvement in their wines and newer, differently-cloned vineyards working their long, hard slog towards maturity. Despite this, their next two vintages are potentially problematic (which is mostly beyond their control), so one hopes that their obvious strides forward will not stall while they wait for a more reliable vintage. Nonetheless, I will be completely unsurprised to see even greater things from this winery in the future.

And maybe I’ll give the restaurant a try, too.

TN: Heights and lows (New Zealand, pt. 27)

[lunchtime in Bannockburn](The original version is here.)

No use crying

Dusty rock and scraggly, breeze-burnt trees surround us. Dry grass whips to and fro in the swirling wind. We’re seated at a concrete picnic table in a hollow, alongside what can only be described as a watering hole in the heart of Bannockburn wine country, and would be not at all surprised to see itinerant herds of antelopes (or hippopotami) making their jittery (or lumbering) way down to join us.

Bottles purchased at morning winery visits help weigh down the corners of our picnic set’s tablecloth, as we try to prevent its wind-driven flapping from catapulting our lunch into the pond. We very nearly succeed, until a particularly strong gust spills a full glass of wine all over…well, pretty much everything but us. I guess it’s good that it’s a white.

Amisfield “Lake Hayes” 2004 Riesling (Central Otago) – Lemon-lime and green apple; a fruit-forward and quite acidic expression of varietal riesling character, but with absolutely no additional complexities. There’s no depth here. I think I preferred it at the winery.

Oh, by gosh, by Gullies

The tasting facility at Akarua (technically known as Bannockburn Heights Winery, Ltd., though no one calls it that) is small and cozy, so it’s probably a good thing that we’re the only visitors. Attached are the winemaking facility and a small restaurant. Natalie Wilson, an engaging and eager-to-share host (and, not coincidentally, the winery’s Cellar Door Manager), does the pouring and talks us through the more interesting details, though she seems equally interested in our travels and experiences…a longer-form but no less charming version of “the conversation.” There’s a nice selection of wine on offer (perhaps more when the conversation turns geeky), and some brewed-on-site beer as well.

All the fruit used here is from estate-owned vineyards, and a new winemaker has recently joined, making the notes that follow a bit of an historical snapshot. The core winemaking and viticultural team is now 100% female; though women are not at all unusual at the helm of New Zealand wineries (witness Michelle Richardson, of Villa Maria, Peregrine, and now an eponymous label), women inhabiting all key positions is just a touch unusual.

Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2004 Pinot Rosé (Central Otago) – From what Natalie calls “dropped fruit” rather than from a saignée, which seems a somehow less manipulative thing to do than making a saignée rosé for the primary purpose of concentrating a red, as so often happens. This wine is decidedly not dry – which I guess puts it in the white zin category – but it handles that burden with much more aplomb than most “blush” wines, showing sweet strawberry and red cherry in a pretty, sun-filled punch. Not “serious” in the least.

Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2004 Pinot Gris (Central Otago) – Pear and dry, ripe apple with a really great intensity on the finish. This wine is partially fermented in French oak (I don’t know how old), and seems to absorb the experience with deftness. A nice wine.

Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2004 “Unoaked” Chardonnay (Central Otago) – Peach and tangerine; intensely ripe and fruity, with a short finish. Fun. One must approach most unoaked New World chardonnays with simplified expectations, and this wine satisfies those expectations.

Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2003 Chardonnay (Central Otago) – 100% malolactic fermentation, with a dollop of new wood (mostly expressed by a clove accent on the nose), but otherwise dominated by ripe pear and nectarine. Unfortunately, the finish is deadened; a nice wine cut short before its time. I often find this character in wines freshly pulled from new wood, but that doesn’t apply here, and so I’m afraid it must be attributed to the wine.

Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2003 Pinot Noir “The Gullies” (Central Otago) – A barrel selection despite the geographical-sounding name, with just 5% new wood and done in an upfront, early-drinking style. Perhaps extremely so: sharp strawberry and fresh red cherry with a rasp of slightly bitter tannin make this a wine very obviously for the now. Only just OK.

Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Smooth black cherry, plum and earth (it’s striking how easily these Central Otago pinots move into the black fruit realm), with its own very slightly underripe tannin, but showing much longer and more intense with superior overall structure. It will never be great, but it’s certainly very good, and has aging potential.

This is a pleasant and tasty lineup of wines…solid (if slightly underachieving) with potential and an apparent desire for improvement. Just around the corner, however, big things are happening. Big things.

Disclosures: free bottle of beer from co-owned brewery, trade discount on wine purchases.

TN: White paint (Oregon, pt. 11 & the end)

(The original version, with bigger photos, is here.)

[grapes]15 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon

Oregon Sauvignon Blanc Cartel – While tasting at Bella Vida, we’re handed a card announcing this most unlikely event: a sauvignon blanc tasting at Patricia Green Cellars (normally closed to the public). Sauvignon blanc from Oregon? This we have to taste for ourselves.

The drive, which crosses the hills on a small country road winding through trees and vineyards, is a beautiful one, but we take it a bit faster than caution might indicate, as we’re short on time. In Green’s busy winemaking shed, three wineries are represented: Andrew Rich, J. Christopher, and Patricia Green Cellars, and not everything on offer is made from sauvignon blanc. We grab glasses, push through the dwindling late-afternoon crowd, and dive in.

Andrew Rich 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Croft (Willamette Valley) – Grassy, with big lime, green apple and grapefruit bursting forth on the nose and palate. It become riper and more focused on the finish, with gooseberry, lime, lemon and lemon curd dominating, yet the wine is obviously a bit of a fruit salad. And there’s an intrusive Styrofoam note throughout, the memory of which the delicious finish can’t quite obliterate. Admirable but worrisome.

Andrew Rich 2005 Gewurztraminer “Les Vigneaux” (69.5% Washington, 30.5% Oregon) – A “freezer wine” that apes true ice wine as made in Germany and Canada. There’s much varietal truth here, with lychees and peaches in play, and though the wine is a little on the silly side, it’s got a great balance between acid, sugar and fruit. Fun.

Patricia Green 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (Oregon) – Citrus rind, Bosc pear, green apple and fetid armpit notes – not all that unusual for sauvignon blanc, though I don’t know that it’s ever actually welcome – with an exceedingly dry, flat finish. Not very interesting.

Patricia Green 2005 Chardonnay “Four Winds” (Yamhill County) – Restrained with terrific acidity, showing melon, grass and lemon over a firm bedrock of limestone. The finish, though seemingly dominated by malic acid, is incredibly persistent. A terrific wine that almost mimics unoaked Chablis (not in taste, but in overall structure)…and it’s hard to believe that it’s from the U.S. I don’t know that it will age, but it’s awfully nice right now.

[Mt. Hood]J. Christopher 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Maresh (Dundee Hills) – Dominated by majestic quartz-like minerality, with grass, dried lemon, and apple skin. Acid and a tannic dryness compete with fine-grained minerals on the finish. Just terrific, and probably the best domestic sauvignon blanc I’ve ever tasted.

J. Christopher 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Croft (Oregon) – It’s interesting to compare this with the Andrew Rich wine from the same vineyard…though I note they use different appellations. A blending issue, perhaps? This is harder-edged than both the Maresh and the Rich version of the Croft, with green apple about all that’s discernable amidst a biting wave of acidity. It probably needs some time to settle down and develop aromatics, but it is a much more uncompromising interpretation that either of its cohorts.

Ponzi Wine Bar – Part of a larger complex of restaurant, wine bar, and (as of our visit) empty space awaiting a client, this is a very pleasant spot that desperately needs a better exterior view. Nonetheless, it does well, presenting both Ponzi and other Oregon wines by the glass and bottle. The staff, almost inevitably, is almost exclusively comprised of attractive young people…though unlike so many other similar venues, they appear to know their stuff.

Ponzi 2005 Arneis (Willamette Valley) – Floral, showing honeysuckle, ripe apricot and mango with a spicy texture. Yet despite all these yummy descriptors, the wine comes of as simple. Pleasant, to be sure, but simplistically so.

Ponzi 2004 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) – Very closed at first, with burnt cherries and a bit of jam underneath a heavy, palate-deadening weight. With air, a Port-like character emerges, with jam a significant player as well. A decidedly fruit-dominated, somewhat behemoth wine that’s not to my taste, but that’s executed pretty well for those that appreciate this style. And I suppose it will age…though my previous experiences with old Ponzi pinot suggest that “last” is a better term.

[vineyard]The Painted Lady – Like Red Hills and the Joel Palmer House before it, this is a converted residence. And as with the Joel Palmer House, we barely see the interior, preferring an outdoor table on the restaurant’s tiny terrace to one of the over-conditioned rooms. (A word of advice: there are serious issues with glare and heat from the setting evening sun on the few outdoor tables, so if you eat early, be prepared to play a positioning game until after sunset…or sit inside. After the sun goes below the rooftop horizon, however, the outdoor tables are well worth their previous inconvenience.)

With a passionate, knowledgeable owner and (mostly) excellent service, plus a true purity to the cuisine, this ends up being the most complete dining experience of our stay. While it’s not as memorable at our fungal fiesta at the Joel Palmer House, it does everything just a shade better.

Theresa starts with fried razor clams, their panko-encrusted texture and form a surprising and worthy variation on an old standard, while I nibble on flawless sweetbreads in a shallow pool of chopped corn and porcini cream, the earthier aspects of each combining for a glorious whole. Proximity to source improves an impeccably roasted filet of wild King salmon, while halibut over corn succotash and fried green tomatoes is no less perfectly presented. The most outstanding dish, however, is a simply-prepared 10 oz. cut of Strawberry Hill beef that brings out every beautiful essence of rare steak, served with pillowy potato gnocchi and a few asparagus spears drizzled with olive oil. It sounds unexciting to the jaded diner, but each bite proves otherwise.

Willakenzie 1998 Pinot Noir Aliette (Willamette Valley) – Shy at first, though it builds and improves throughout the evening, showing gentle baked cherries and leaves over a flowing stream of gravel and crushed granite. Soft-textured, this pinot embraces the tongue, getting longer and longer with each sip. A lovely wine, though I don’t know if I’d hold it much longer.

The only lapse in the restaurant’s perfection comes at the end of the meal, when we’re offered a “small plate of local cheeses” and, after much delay but no explanation, presented with a single, razor-thin wedge of a cheese…from Washington. Well, OK, I guess it could easily be “local,” but somehow this seems to subvert the premise. Or at least the plural.

Toro Albalá “Don PX” 1971 Pedro Ximénez “Gran Reserva” (Montilla-Moriles) – Prune motor oil that’s still amazingly primary (though I’m led to believe that this isn’t exactly 100% 1971 wine, but rather more of a solera), yet with beauty and elegance as the wine lingers…and lingers, and lingers, and lingers. Old PX is the longest-finishing wine I’ve ever encountered, which I guess means that one should studiously avoid bad examples. Thankfully, this isn’t one.

And thus is our brief Oregon visit brought to a satisfying close. The drive to the airport, through otherwise depressing strip malls and chain shopping complexes on the southern outskirts of Portland, is overwhelmed by the beauty of a dark purple sky, in which the snowy peak of Mt. Hood and the smoking crater of Mount St. Helens gleam as pinnacles of light and dark; metaphoric representations of good and evil made manifest. (Or perhaps that’s just the wine talking.) We’ll remember the books, the wines, and the mushrooms, but most of all we’ll remember the gentle beauty of a region to which we’ll soon find a reason to return.

TN: An innocent life (Oregon, pt. 10)

(The original version, with bigger photos, is here.)

[St. Innocent]15 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon

St. Innocent – It’s a little surprising that one of Oregon’s most acclaimed wineries is hidden in a bleak commercial backlot of Salem, surrounded by chains and warehouses. If you go, bring good directions…and a better map.

The quality and ageability of St. Innocent’s pinots has been an open secret for some time now, but recent critical acclaim has left the winery’s tasting room a little underwined. Well, I’m happy for them, though it makes our visit a short one. Almost everything is vineyard-designated (the sole exception being an unremarkable sparkling wine), which makes any comprehensive tasting an exercise in terroir identification. Other winemakers may have their doubts about the individuality (or, perhaps more accurately, maturity) of the Willamette Valley’s vineyard sites, but there seems to be nothing but enthusiasm for the concept here.

St. Innocent 2004 Chardonnay Freedom Hill (Willamette Valley) – Green apple and celery; crisp and intense, with balanced acidity but a dominant simplicity.

St. Innocent 2004 Chardonnay Anden (Willamette Valley) – Grapefruit and limestone with a drying, structured finish. Very long. This shows more complexity and character than the Freedom Hill, though it’s less pleasurable to drink in its callow youth.

St. Innocent 2004 Pinot Noir Temperance Hill (Willamette Valley) – Dusty strawberry is the only element of interest in an otherwise odd, off-putting nose. The palate shows growth, with dried seeds and leaves both green and dry. Not particularly enticing, and showing rather striking desiccation.

St. Innocent 2004 Pinot Noir White Rose (Willamette Valley) – Red fruit and white flowers on a gravel bed, turning soft on the palate but then finishing crisp and spicy, with lovely balance. It neither strives for nor reaches the summit, but it’s a very good pinot nonetheless.

[view from Bella Vida]Bella Vida – Perched atop a beautiful expanse of vineyards, with some of the best views in the entire valley, this is a bit of a “concept” winery. Only pinot noir is produced, via a métayage-like arrangement with a succession of local winemakers. For the consumer, it’s a fascinating study in the ongoing tension between the inevitabilities of terroir and the transforming power of the winemaker. For the winery, I’m less sure of the benefit; surely an inconsistency in winemakers is bound to create an inconsistency in styles. It’s a good one-time gimmick, but eventually the Bella Vida name has to stand for something in the minds of consumers, or they’ll look elsewhere for something upon which they can rely.

Bella Vida 2002 Pinot Noir “Ryan Harms” (Dundee Hills) – Shy on the nose, though the palate is redolent of dark chocolate and black cassis liqueur. It’s heavy and strong, perhaps even a bit hot, though a bit of age might resolve things. Harms is the Rex Hill winemaker.

Bella Vida 2004 Pinot Noir “Jacques Tardy” (Dundee Hills) – Much lighter in color than the Harms bottling, with dust on the nose and a red cherry/licorice palate. As with the previous bottling, there’s noticeable heat on the finish, turning the cherries to kirsch. Tardy is the Torii Mor winemaker.

Bella Vida 2004 Pinot Noir “Brian O’Donnell” (Dundee Hills) – Aromatic, showing strawberry and raspberry plus gentle earth. More agile than either of the two previous bottlings, with the nicest, prettiest fruit and by far the best balance. Brian O’Donnell is the Belle Pente winemaker.

Bella Vida 2004 Pinot Noir “J. Christopher” (Dundee Hills) – Mixed cherries and mint with rosemary. A bit spirituous, with a long, hot finish. The second best of the cuvées. Jay Christopher Somers is the J. Christopher winemaker.

Other than a tendency towards heat, it’s not easy to see a terroir signature in these wines. However, the winemaking style is immediately obvious, and it’s interesting to see how different winemakers treat this fruit. If this experiment is still ongoing when the vines (and the winemakers) are more mature, the results could be exciting. But it must be said that, from a qualitative standpoint, this collection of wines does not make a compelling case for the excellence of the site.

TN: From the farm to the white house

La Vieille Ferme 2005 Côtes du Ventoux Rosé (Rhône) – Slightly candied strawberry juice and canned red cherry, both overwhelmed by sweetening alcohol. (9/06)

50% cinsault, 40% grenache, 10% syrah. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: screwcap. Importer: Vineyard Brands. Web:

Sterling 2002 Chardonnay (71% Napa County / 16% Sonoma County / 13% Mendocino County) – Sweet peach, honeydew melon and orange with a pretty, albeit confected, palate presence and lots of buttery, toasty wood. Paint-by-numbers chardonnay, and tedious before the first sip has left one’s mouth. (9/06)

Alcohol: 13.5%. Web:

Faiveley 1998 Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Nuits “Dames Huguettes” (Burgundy) – Dead. (9/06)

French bottling. 100% pinot noir.Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Web:

Faiveley 2002 Mercurey “Domaine de la Croix Jacquelet” (Burgundy) – Corked. (9/06)

100% pinot noir. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Wilson Daniels. Web:

Goats Do Roam Wine Company 2003 “Goat-Roti” (Western Cape) – Big, obvious dried blackberry and synthetic leather with tarred wood and rosemary squeezings. It’s exceedingly heavy, but somehow manages to lack structure. There’s nothing overtly wrong with this wine, but it’s not very interesting either. (9/06)

96% shiraz, 4% viognier. Alcohol: 14.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Vineyard Brands. Web:

Trimbach 1996 Riesling “Cuvée Frédéric Émile” (Alsace) – From 375. Very, very tight and sulfurous at first. With a few hours of air and aggressive swirling, the classic CFE profile of liquefied metal appears, in a razor-sharp pillar of crystalline structure. In no conceivable universe is this yet ready to drink. (9/06)

Closure: cork. Importer: Seagram. Web:

Parcé “Domaine du Mas Blanc” 1998 Collioure Clos du Moulin (Roussillon) – Rough, leathery fruit that’s been involved in some sort of long-lasting street brawl, leaving it bruised and bloodied by somehow matured by the effort. The aromatics are enticing, showing dark wet soil and fall leaves, with brief intrusions of gentler floral notes and the occasional trace of dark soy. Really nice wine, though certainly not polished to a sheen for modern tastes. (9/06)

90% mourvèdre, 10% counoise. Closure: cork. Web: