Browse Tag


TN: How dry is my gully? (New Zealand, pt. 26)

[Theresa at Mt. Difficulty](The original version is here)

Sergio Leone had it right. It’s OK to film a western in Europe, but you’ve gotta do it where the vineyards that otherwise blanket the Old World aren’t. After all, there’s not a whole lot of Scott Henry trellising in Wyoming…

Perhaps this is why one’s first view of Mt. Difficulty is so jarring. Windswept dust gales across rocky buttes and steppes, looking for all the world like something out of the Old West (and this is, among other things, gold country)…but there’s vines in them thar’ valleys. The partners behind this concern – local grape growers owning and operating a sort of high-end cooperative – probably should have constructed their tasting room out of adobe. Instead, the existing structure is a window-filled white apostrophe on the crest of a hill, encompassing a café and some outdoor tables…though today’s breeze is a little extreme for al fresco noshing.

It’s not yet lunchtime when we arrive, so the room is empty except for a few employees making last-minute preparations. There’s also not a whole lot of wine on offer – much is, apparently, sold out – but we taste what we can. (Later in the year, I’ll hear an amusing story about a couple attempting to corner the market on one of the winery’s flagship pinots; a gesture neither the storyteller nor I can quite understand).

Mt. Difficulty 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Central Otago) – I am not, at least so far, an advocate of Central Otago sauvignon blanc. From an objective point of view, it seems pointless to introduce yet another sauvignon into a country littered with them, especially when one might fight an endlessly uphill battle against the superior name recognition of Marlborough. The price comparison isn’t too healthy, either. Organoleptically, there’s been little to convince me otherwise; I don’t know that one can’t properly ripen sauvignon in these climes, but certainly the evidence supporting the effort has been exceedingly thin on the ground. This wine sorta proves my point: it shoots past spicy and zippy into the realm of capsicum, showing chile and black pepper on the nose, palate and finish. There’s a bit of dry crispness, but ultimately this is all about underripeness and harsh pyrazines. It’s “interesting” from a certain point of view, but wouldn’t be much fun to drink. Maybe with salsa.

Mt. Difficulty 2004 Riesling Target Gully (Central Otago) – From a true gully vineyard closer to Felton Road than to our current position, this a sugar/acidity balancing act at 25 g/L residual sugar. It is quite sweet, though with ripe apple, lemon and a blend of steel and slate adding their complexities to the midpalate. It dries a bit (and shortens) on the finish, and while it’s quite fun, there’s a serious undercurrent to it that bodes well for the future. It’s not a great wine by any means, but it is a good one.

The woman manning the tasting room is a little on the lecturing side, though she seems wary and a bit chilly towards responsive questions. More enticing is the spittoon, which operates with a swirl of water identical to that in a dentist’s office. It’s very clever, and I briefly wonder why more wineries don’t make use of this nastiness-avoiding device.

Mt. Difficulty “Roaring Meg” 2002 Merlot (Central Otago) – I’m not entirely clear on the nomenclature here. A second label of some sort is the gist of it, I think…but as I’ve noted, the woman doing our pouring isn’t particularly responsive when moved off-script. In any case, the “Roaring Meg” name is ubiquitous in the region, variously referring to a “waterfall” (really more of a stretch of rapids) on the Kawarau River, a gold rush-era madam, and a popular Queenstown restaurant. In any case, take what I’ve written about sauvignon blanc in the Central Otago and repeat it here. Why is this a good idea? The wine itself is barely acceptable, showing chewy baked plum, brown sugar and drying tannin with a gummy pecan paste and peach stone finish. Boil it down, you’ve got a nice and not-too-sweet dessert topping.

Mt. Difficulty 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – A multi-vineyard blend, initially dominated by mercaptans but eventually presenting itself as strawberry, earthy walnut, and chunky black loam with some structure and more than a bit of youthful truculence. Long and interesting, but not for early drinking.

The wines here – at least, those that we’ve tasted – are fine, but could use more “oomph” across the range. Previous experiences with the upper-end pinots (though one presumes the Target Gully will now be hard to find) suggest that better work is possible, but even there Mt. Difficulty is a step behind its regional compatriots.

Tasting completed, we mount our horses and mosey on down the hillside. We reckon there’s vittles, yonder.

TN: Gardens & grigios (San Francisco, pt. 2)

[Lichee Garden]23 April 2006 – San Francisco & Berkeley, California

Lichee Garden (1416 Powell) – A person could spend years touring the dim sum options in San Francisco (not to mention elsewhere in the Bay Area). It’s not generally thought that the best are in or near Chinatown, but for various logistical reasons we need to find one in that area, and thus after some research we find ourselves meeting out-of-town friends here. It’s quite good, with vivid flavors in the best dishes and inexplicably absent flavors in the worst (fish- and starch-based items seem to be the best, meat the most inconsistent), and seems to be primarily populated by locals. And, of course, it’s stupidly cheap…$12.50 per person, 17 “courses” later.

Wine tasting in Berkeley – Steve Edmunds is having a little inventory blowout, and with a few other wineries hawking their wares and my wife busy at a conference, it seems silly to not go. The room is small and dark, but there’s light (and food) in a sort of courtyard, and the operation – which involves both tasting and selling – is relatively efficient. What I really notice, however, is that despite our being in a relatively unassuming location, far from anything else commercial, there’s a steady inflow of consumers – even passersby – on an otherwise restful Sunday. Only in California…

Edmunds St. John 2002 Pinot Grigio Witters (El Dorado County) – Juicy pear skins and dried leaves. Just barely rises to the level of “eh.”

Edmunds St. John 2003 Pinot Grigio Witters (El Dorado County) – An improvement, especially as the flavors drift over to the red side of things (for dark-skinned pinot gris, I think this is a highly positive quality), showing strawberry and rhubarb. It’s fuller-bodied than the ’02, but it also has an odd, out-of-place feel to it.

I admit that I’ve never been much of a fan of Steve’s pinot grigios (I’ve decided that my long-time affection for the Alsatian expression of this grape must have something to do with it), and these wines do nothing to change my mind. He claims his 2004 is better, but I’ve tasted it and can’t share his enthusiasm. Well, tastes differ…

Edmunds St. John 2001 “Los Robles Viejos” (White) Rozet (Paso Robles) – Fat and fruity, like thick peach soda. There’s also pear, grapefruit rind, and a long, sticky finish. This is just a bit on the goopy side at the moment, and I think it was better a few years ago.

Edmunds St. John 2002 “blonk!” (Paso Robles) – Balanced and pretty, with richly-spiced nuts (mostly cashews) and a lovely finish. This is one of the wines I take home with me…

[hanging birds]Edmunds St. John 2003 “Los Robles Viejos” (White) Rozet (Paso Robles) – …and if I didn’t already own a whole bunch of this, here would be another. Peach flowers in a thick brew, with a slight bitterness that adds to the complexity and helps prevent it from being as sticky as its older brethren. The finish is long and broad, and there’s clear potential for development.

Edmunds St. John 2003 Viognier (Paso Robles) – Everything you want in a viognier: flowers, apricots, peaches, and a silky texture. Heavier vs. most quality Condrieu, but then that’s to be expected from Paso. This, too, hits the shopping cart.

Edmunds St. John 1999 Sangiovese Matagrano (El Dorado County) – I’ve always felt about this wine the way I feel about ESJ’s pinot grigio: indifferent at best. But today, I’m forced to drink my words. Spicy, black pepper-encrusted strawberry and bitter walnut skin with some tannin and biting (but not overdone) acid. In other words, the ultra-rare California sangiovese that tastes like a sangiovese. It’s still a little on the extreme side, but this has finally come around, and I can’t resist a few bottles.

Edmunds St. John 2001 Zinfandel Peay (Sonoma Coast) – 15.2% alcohol, though there’s reason to believe it’s a bit higher than that. In any case, it doesn’t really taste more than a little bit hot. What we’ve got here is actually zin done in an older, almost bygone style, with concentrated wild berries, tannin and acid to spare, and a peppery finish. The heat expresses itself with a little herbality, a bit like juniper (or, I guess, gin). Steve hears our discussion, notes that this bottle was opened yesterday, and uncorks another.

Edmunds St. John 2001 Zinfandel Peay (Sonoma Coast) – Bigger, juicier and fruitier than the aerated version, with spicy berries dominating and the structure retreating a bit in the face of the “zinberry” assault. Yet another wine to purchase.

(For updated and more detailed takes on a few of these wines, take a look here.)

TN: Less is Morocco (San Francisco, pt. 1)

(The original version, with more photos and less margin-squishing, is here)

[trolley tracks on Embarcadero]22 April 2006 – San Francisco, California

Aziza – This Richmond District Moroccan is always a lot of fun. We’d resolved to come back after our somewhat disastrous last experience…which wasn’t the fault of the restaurant, but rather of some sort of epic road rage incident on Geary Avenue that resulted in our dining companions’ new BMW being totaled while we noshed on lamb shanks.

Determined to do better, we arrive to a cheery staff who immediately appears to recognize us. Whether or not we’re unusually memorable, I can’t say, but it’s soon obvious that they all recall last year’s incident. The restaurant is packed and noisy (it is, after all, a Saturday night), but we’re put in as remote a corner as can be had, and this helps quiet the din somewhat. Food highlights include pistachio-encrusted goat cheese on a tomato/citrus jam with zaatar croutons, seafood phyllo triangles delicately laced with saffron, and a selection of wild mushroom with Manouri cheese (also on phyllo), but the star of the evening is presented as a special: a carrot soup with an utterly seductive mélange of spices and a flawlessly silky texture. After that exciting array of appetizers, the main courses are a bit less exciting, no thanks to a somewhat bland vegetarian couscous with tragically mild harissa. A terrific black cod claypot dish and a bit of the signature basteeya improve matters once more, to the point where we are simply incapable of eating another bite.

Inevitably, they bring us a selection of (comped) desserts: a piercing rhubarb tart, a strangely prosaic chocolate concoction that draws initial indifference but improves with each bite, and a fascinating reinvention of pistachios.

As for wine, I’m eager to sample from the always-enticing list, but our companions have brought their own, and who am I to look a gift bottle in the mouth?

Deiss 1998 Muscat d’Alsace Bergheim (Alsace) – Balanced and integrated floral aromatics (mostly orange blossoms) with great weight and concentration. Eventually one starts to tire of the aforementioned weight (it’s a bit fat on the finish), but this wine has aged nicely. It’s nice to know Deiss is still capable of making good wine.

Schaefer 1999 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese 17 00 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Quite sweet and possessing the texture of liquid glass, with ripe, sweet crabapple and a long, vivid finish. Glows with power, but it’s still fundamentally primary. Let it rest.

I top this off with a glass of the always-reliable Macallan 18 Year Scotch Whisky (a near-perfect blend of primary and oak-derived aromatics), while our dining companions introduce me to yet another take on anise liqueur, Lebanon’s arak (producer unknown), which has more bite and verve – albeit more rusticity and burn – than most of these beverages do. Fun stuff.

Dining: Sonsie (Boston, MA)

When Sonsie first opened many years ago, it was greeted with howls of derision. “Pretentious!” screamed the naysayers, partly for its open-to-Newbury-St. front (perfect for checking out the competition on this most luxe of Boston’s pedestrian boulevards), and partly because it was, in fact, presenting itself with a carefully studied sense of elevated hipness.

These days, those cries seem a distant memory. Yes, the open front is a little showy, but then again it’s the modus operandi for any European café; why can’t a restaurant do the same thing? And second, two things that have always been fairly constant at Sonsie are solid food and an often very clever wine list. Though a caveat: at Sonsie, the best thing has always been and probably will always be the thin-crust pizza. The more adventurous one asks the kitchen to become, the greater risk of failure, though there are successes as well. Service is solid (and attractive, as one would expect), and if the front-facing tables aren’t an option, the interior remains dark, comforting and even a little bit romantic…post-collegiate romantic, yes, but then that’s the restaurant’s key demographic.

There’s also a private room downstairs…again, no surprise…but since one of my friends had what turned out to be a fairly unpleasant experience down there (he asked, she said “no”…nothing that was the restaurant’s fault), it’s hard for me to judge it objectively.

(Based on multiple visits since the restaurant’s opening, the most recent in June of 2006.)

TN: Acid plain (New Zealand, pt. 25)

(The original version, with more photos and a slightly cleaner look, is here)

[Olssens sculpture]Sculpture both classy and kitschy frames the driveway to Olssens, a winery situated on the flatter plain just below Felton Road, with vineyards covering that plain and the gentle slopes that abut it. Some of the figures are delightfully breezy, while others brood in dour darkness…

…though none are as dour as the woman behind the counter of a pretty but cluttered tasting room. She glowers sourly at us, barely registering a few grunts in response to our request to taste some wine. I quickly reassess my intention to ask some probing questions, and instead dive right into the tasting.

Olssens 2004 Riesling (Central Otago) – Clean and crisp, showing pure green apple fruit juice with growing acidity on the finish. Tart, limey and fresh on the palate, this is a perfectly nice wine, but may in fact be a bit too acidic to accommodate aging.

Olssens 2001 “Barrel Fermented” Chardonnay (Central Otago) – “100% malolactic fermentation, 70% new oak.” I’m so startled by the words I almost drop my glass; it’s our pourer, still unyieldingly sullen but at least proving herself capable of speech. I nod, taste: dates and sweet orange with a strong caramel component and a short, somewhat harsh finish. This is maturing quickly.

Olssens 2003 Gewürztraminer (Central Otago) – She speaks again: “3 grams per liter residual sugar.” Simple, declarative sentences. Efficient. As for the wine, it shows lightly nutmeg-infused rosewater and cashew on the nose, but the palate is thin and watery. Some roses re-emerge on the finish, but by then it’s too late to save the wine.

Against my better judgment, I make a few comments on what we’ve tasted thus far. Our host seems to brighten a bit at our interest – it’s reflected more in the addition of adjectives and adverbs to her sentences, rather than by any change in visage – and while she’s not precisely rude, she’s also not particularly welcoming, and the resultant mood is more than a bit depressing. I’m momentarily inclined to dispense with the rest of the tasting and depart for happier locales, but stick it out in the interests of education.

Olssens 2001 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Lightly burnt cherry, earth and baked plum. This is elegant and balanced except for a drying component that grows on the finish; don’t hold it much longer, if you’ve got any.

Olssens 2001 Pinot Noir “Jackson Barry” (Central Otago) – Lovely, if sour, plum and citrus characteristics do battle with strange acidity (not its presence, but its aspect, which is just…I don’t know, somehow inexplicably off) and some stemminess to the finish. Just OK, and a bit of a letdown vs. a slightly superior bottle tasted at The Bunker.

Olssens 2001 Pinot Noir “Slapjack Creek” (Central Otago) – Bigger fruit here, with red cherry and cranberry added to fuller-bodied plum aromas. Tart but intense, with good overall structure despite the (yet again) spiky acidity and a longer finish.

Olssens 2002 “Robert the Bruce” (Central Otago) – There’s every indication (mostly climatological) that this wine – a blend of pinotage, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz – should be an utter disaster, yet it defies expectations. Its initial impression is ripe…write that with an exclamation point…though it later devolves to mixed seed peppers, with a light varnish character and a Juicy Fruit™ finish. Fruity but ultimately a bit soupy, it has complexity and interest, but what it lacks is sufficient quality. Still, points for effort.

From the decorations that adorn the tasting room and the deliberate presence of less-than current vintages (though they are current releases), it’s clear that Olssens has a close eye on its history. That’s fair enough, but the wines lack excitement and forward-looking energy, and despite wide name recognition are uncompetitive with the region’s better producers. That will need to change if the winery is to thrive in the future, lest all that remain is the statuary…both external and internal.

Dining: Simon Pearce, Quechee, VT

[Simon Pearce]The restaurant at Simon Pearce in Quechee, Vermont is obviously, as I think everyone must assume, there to sell their glassware and pottery. The food is necessarily an afterthought, and while it’s usually reasonably tasty, it can be variable due to changes in chefs and seasons. (Usually, fish is a better bet than meat, and appetizers are stronger than main courses.) The service is typically fine…comforting without being either too casual or too stifling. The only actual knock on the restaurant might be the one out of its control: it is very, very popular with both locals and tourists, and the mid-lunch or -dinner din can be deafening. But there are two reasons to dine here that surpass anything the food may or may not accomplish.

The first is the setting. Atop the waterfall that, at least historically, powered the mill and the forges at the heart of the various Simon Pearce industries, and looking one way towards yet another beautiful Vermont covered bridge and another along a peaceful river surrounded by overhanging trees, the window-laden dining room is beautiful in any season. Summer brings the gorgeous greens (and, as a bonus, open windows), fall the spectacular autumnal canvas on the surrounding hillsides, winter the stark grayscale of snow and falling mists of ice, and spring the thundering power of the melts that churn down from Killington to roar and crash over the falls right underneath the corner of the building.

The second isn’t much-advertised, and guide books tend to ignore it: the wine list is extraordinary. Not only is it long, but it still relies on a long-standing program of the careful cellaring of older vintages that are, to this day, sold at or near their original markups. I won’t mention specific examples from the current wine list (lest I deplete my own options!), but here’s one from the recent past: a stunning Beaucastel 1981 Châteaneuf-du-Pâpe for just $65. (Don’t bother asking for it; I drank the last bottle.) Even those uninterested in older wines will find much that’s worthwhile here, from the familiar to the arcane, and all at very fair prices.

(Review based on dozens of visits from 1996 to the present.)

TN: The Blair necessities (New Zealand, pt. 24)

(The original, with better formatting and a quite a few photos, is here.)

How dry I am

The road to Cromwell, which any Queenstown-based wine tourist will take again and again, is a study in browns. Dry tussock covers rocky, rust-colored hillsides and abandoned, dust-covered mining shacks in a long, undulating roller-coaster ride through Desiccationland, with only the sharp turquoise rush of the Kawarau River and an occasional brushstroke of greenery to break up the monochromism. Fascinating at first glance, sure, but by one’s sixth trip along this half-hour thrill ride the beauty has been replaced by a dull weariness, due also in part to the unrelenting difficulty of the drive.

At journey’s end, however, there is respite. Cromwell’s history is tied to mining, but it’s reputation is based on fruit. It used to be fruit of the eating kind – and in fact a giant multi-hued fruit sculpture greets visitors to the town in all its lurid glory – but that image is quickly being replaced by its position as the geographical and functional center of the exploding Central Otago wine industry. And indeed, fertile and well-watered plains do inhabit the immediate area, with fruit stands along the highway selling wide-ranging collections of rather extraordinary produce…though the customers, perhaps inexplicably, seem to be busloads of primarily Japanese tourists.

Grapes, however, have different needs. And thus, it’s back into the dry and desolate hills that one goes in search of vineyards. The Bannockburn area, just southwest of Cromwell and even drier-looking than the Queenstown-Cromwell road, features a rather striking number of cut-from-the-rocks wineries. And out near the end of one dusty country track is one of the best.

[Felton Road vineyard]The hole story

On our last visit to Felton Road, we’d simply dropped by the tasting room for a quick sniff’n’spit. But that’s a less than satisfactory way of assessing the winery, as their best bottlings sell out so quickly and invisibly that the casual visitor will hardly even be aware of their existence. This time, we arrive armed with an appointment, and are met by Blair Walter, the Felton Road winemaker. Walter is friendly, talkative, and casual, and like most winemakers with his philosophical bent, immediately leads us not into the cellar, but into the vineyards. As we walk, he gives an overview of the area and its history.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Central Otago is as young as it is explosive, but remains the province of smallholders with only 30-40 hectares of total plantings, and as of yet no large companies. “There will always be a lifestyle element to the winemaking,” notes Walter, whose employer has been in the vinous game only since 1992. Yet there are signs that all this explosive growth is finally slowing; while land purchased for $10,000 an hectare has recently sold for ten times that, new plantings are tapering off (though the continuing work of bulldozers and the presence of wire-tied stakes on dozens of nearby hillsides superficially indicates otherwise). And while there are always new players, most of the region’s recognizable names started their work at about the same time, are approximately the same age, and possess similar oenological and viticultural training. Walter himself has worked and studied all over the world, with a special focus on quality pinot noir locales in Oregon, California and Burgundy.

We stroll down a neatly-ordered row of vines, much more tightly-trained than the sprawling bush-type viticulture visibly practiced at many neighboring wineries, while Walter runs down his agricultural philosophy. There’s deep concern at Felton Road regarding issues of soil, mesoclimate, clone, rootstock, and proper site/grape integration, and to this end the property has been turned into somewhat of a polycultural laboratory (one vineyard, called Cornish Point, is almost entirely given over to a systematic study of clone/rootstock combinations and European-style row spacing). Cover crops are employed, though early plantings of chicory proved too aggressive, and replanting to grass, rye, and triticale proceeds apace. Walter also notes that it nearly impossible to grow grapes without irrigation in this area, due to exceedingly low rainfall (which, when it does arrive, tends to be sluiced away by the deep gullies that crisscross the region), and that trials combining grass cover crops and reduced irrigation only resulted in lower-quality grapes; nonetheless, as little irrigation as possible is practiced. The lack of rain is paired with a general lack of fog, which means rot is rare, and this allows the winery to practice organic viticulture in its mature blocks; younger vines sometimes receive herbicide treatments.

As we talk, we arrive at a deep rectangular hole in the midst of one row, a hazard that could prove fatal to an bleary early-morning vineyard worker on a tractor. I, myself, am inclined to edge away from it, but Walter quite literally climbs right in and starts pointing out features. This is a crater with a purpose: to show the surprisingly deep root penetration achieved by what are fairly young vines, and to simultaneously allow a little deep soil analysis along the way. The subsoil does look properly dismal and forbidding, with river sands atop clay, though Walter notes that there are surface differences between the different blocks: here, schist gravels, and across the driveway that bisects the estate, windblown loess.

Felton Road makes marketing copy of its intention to produce site-revelatory wines, and so I ask Walter if the block-designated bottlings (one riesling, one or two chardonnays, and two pinots) come from specific subplots. He pauses to consider for a moment, then acknowledges that they do tend to come from predictable areas within vineyards, but that he’s “not yet ready to call the game,” especially because constant experimentation expands and contracts these areas on a yearly basis. Some vineyards have proven less than satisfactory due to simple mistakes in row alignment; “yeah, that one’s wrong” remarks our host, pointing across the property. Others have defined roles – Walter refers to the more dramatically-sloped vineyards at the estate’s upper edges as mostly providing “structure” – and still others await their eventual destiny as the viticultural experiments continue unabated. Walter believes that the very beginnings of terroir influences can be seen, and is certainly doing (in concert with viticulturist Gareth King) as much as anyone to field-research the issue, but also that it will take a long, long time before anyone in the region is ready to say much that’s definitive about what sites, clones, rootstocks, and methodologies seem best.

We leave the sunny warmth of the vineyard as the conversation turns to the current vintage; the poor fruit set in evidence elsewhere is once again on display here. Walter calls 2005 “late” and agrees that the set is poor, but says that the grapes left over should be concentrated, if somewhat rustic.

A pinot puzzle

Inside the winery, we assemble at a small table behind the tasting room for a brief sit-down examination of the wines, while discussion turns to matters of winemaking philosophy. Felton Road’s vineyards have what Walter describes as a tenuous hold on “ideal” ripeness, and both under- and overripeness are a constant concern. It’s the latter anxiety that most intrigues. Certainly the region is highly capable of producing blockbuster pinots to rival any New World behemoth, the evidence for which is on display at several other area wineries. But Walter isn’t so inclined, and proceeds to detail a litany of things that also don’t interest him: high-alcohol fruit bombs, overt oak, “heavy” winemaking, the philosophy of reserve wines, “Parker points,” heavily-crafted wines, fruity and upfront quaffers, and beverages made primarily to satisfy a price point. He has been encouraged by certain high-profile neighbors to double the price of his top pinots (one would presume so that said high-profile neighbors don’t appear to be the tallest poppies in the field, ripe for a good populist scything), and has flatly rejected the notion; he’s quite happy to sell wines for what he considers a fair price representative of their quality and demand, and sees no reason to have a boutique-priced “superstar” wine just to prove that he can produce one.

That said, the block bottlings – especially the pinots – do operate in what most people would identify as the “boutique” sphere. They’re sold primarily via a mailing list (which, inevitably, has a waiting list), though such things apparently work differently in New Zealand: people tend to make the list, stick with it for a few years, and then drop off, which means a high churn rate. This is an occasional blessing for Walter, who is unafraid of sacrificing quantity to preserve quality even if it makes a large portion of the aforementioned mailing list unhappy, but it does also reveal one important facet of the market for higher-end Kiwi product. “The top wines of the region, and of New Zealand, can’t be sold primarily by mailing list,” says Walter, comparing them to their American counterparts, “because in general, New Zealanders aren’t wealthy enough to support that many lists.” As a result, a full 60% of Felton Road’s sales are to overseas customers (mostly the UK, Australia, the USA, Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore).

The costs of exporting, of course, leads to Felton Road’s pinots playing – at least in the USA – in a price range higher than a large percentage of the top California and Oregon pinots, not to mention a large portion of high-quality village and premier cru Burgundy. This brings up another fundamental quandary in the marketing of high-end New Zealand pinot: who does one sell it to? Lovers of ultra-ripe pinot have plenty of domestic sources with lower prices, and will likely be dissatisfied with the more elegant, restrained products of producers like Felton Road. On the other hand, devotées of elegant pinot tend to think of Burgundy first and foremost, more often than not to the near-exclusion of other regions. The pinots of Oregon are a better stylistic comparison, but there one sees one relatively small wine-producing region competing with another for a very small niche market. So where does New Zealand, and especially the highly-reputed Central Otago, fit in?

Walter and I talk about this for a good long while, to no good conclusion (though it would be inaccurate to say that Felton Road has trouble selling its wines). At the recent Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration, with heavy international attendance and Jancis Robinson as a particularly enthusiastic guest of honor, affection for the best wines of the region was obvious. The key is to get that appreciation to the greater public. Walter is “intrigued” by the palates of several critics who seem to have a potential affinity for the style of wine he produces, and I immediately suggest that he should turn the attention of the region’s slowly-assembling cooperative marketing efforts towards Allen “Burghound” Meadows. Walter laughs, because Jancis apparently gave him the same suggestion at the 2005 Celebration. (It is with much amusement that I note, many months after this visit, that Meadows is the guest of honor at the 2006 version of this event. I hope he likes what he tastes.)

A sip off the old Block

After all this conversation, we finally get down to the business of tasting. Owner Nigel Greening briefly bustles into the room just as we’re commencing; he’s sweating profusely and quite obviously in the middle of no fewer than a dozen tasks. He chats very briefly (though amiably), then bustles out with an empty box and a chattering phone in tow. Walter seems fairly uninterested in talking about cellar processes, primarily because there aren’t any of any special note: grapes are destemmed, gravity is employed where possible, hand-plunging is practiced, and fining and filtration are eschewed. But really, the wines are as non-interventionist as one could wish while still working “clean,” and – as our tour up to this point has made abundantly clear – his real focus is on what’s going on in the vineyard.

We start with a trio of 2004 rieslings. The vintage featured a wet spring, but the rest was “pretty decent,” with high sugars due to late picking. Walter ultimately concludes that it was “not spectacular,” though on the following evidence I’m forced to wonder how much better his best riesling can get.

Felton Road 2004 “Dry” Riesling (Central Otago) – 12.5% alcohol, from a bottle that’s been open for three days, and is probably better for it; wind-blown dust and dried apple skin aromas with white plum skin and juicy acidity. Quite strong and vivid, with clear aging potential.

Felton Road 2004 Riesling (Central Otago) – 9.5% alcohol, and very slightly off-dry. Shyer on the nose, showing fine-grained sand, a smooth but flattish palate, and a very long finish tart with lemon and Granny Smith apple. Solid and ageable, but not as good as the dry version – or maybe it just needs to be open for a few days.

Felton Road 2004 Riesling “Block 1” (Central Otago) – Fuller-bodied than both previous bottles, and rich with a blend of powerfully ripe red apples and excellent acidity countered by light sweetness, then finishing long, full-bodied, and balanced. Terrific.

Matters may well change here over the medium-term, for the estate’s riesling vines will be grafted from Geisenheim to Allan Scott clones in the near future. Nonetheless, this is an entirely solid lineup of rieslings, from a region that probably doesn’t devote as much attention to this grape as it should (instead wasting endless time on largely indifferent pinot gris and the ever-ubiquitous chardonnay). And speaking of which…

Felton Road 2004 Chardonnay (Central Otago) – Mendoza clone, from stainless steel. Nut oils and rotten orange with a strange, slightly oxidized and stale finish.

Felton Road 2003 “Barrel Fermented” Chardonnay (Central Otago) – Clove, spiced tangerine and nectarine with denser stone fruit and pear on the palate. A better wine, and perhaps more evidence that most chardonnay really does benefit from a certain measure of wood.

Walter would like more riesling & chardonnay, though expansion on the red front will be limited: currently around 6000 cases of pinot are produced, and only a bit of growth (to around 8000 cases) is under consideration. Personally, I’d rather he reversed those estimates. I’ve never found the chardonnays here to be uniquely compelling, though that’s not to say that they aren’t sometimes good. It’s just that nothing is being said with this cliché grape that isn’t said just as well elsewhere, even within New Zealand.

Felton Road 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Richly-flavored, with strawberry, light tannin and smoky graphite in beautiful balance. Elegant, long and luscious; both pure and expressive yet intense enough to be clearly of its place.

Felton Road 2003 Pinot Noir Block 3 (Central Otago) – A stronger nose, showing more exotic Asian-influenced aromas…especially including star anise. More structured than the regular bottling, with both smooth tannin and firm acidity, lots of earth and an intriguing bitter orange seed note. Complex and long, with great ageability.

Felton Road 2004 Pinot Noir (tank sample) (Central Otago) – Ten days from being bottled, and just barely done with its malolactic fermentation, showing sweet red fruit, plum, and slightly hard tannin.

Pinot is unquestionably the star of the Felton Road portfolio, and the Block bottlings (3 and 5) richly deserve their sought-after status. They are clear candidates for the pinnacle of New Zealand pinot noir production, though they stake this claim at one extreme end – the elegant and delicate, and dare one say “Burgundian” end (though all such descriptors are, of necessity, relative and contextual) – and there are many who might consider the wines to lack force and concentration versus their preferred paradigm. But while there might be many other possible expressions of this most responsive of black grapes that will draw justifiable praise, even from me, I cannot in good conscience say that I know of a better New Zealand pinot noir.

TN: Searching for Barliman Butterbur (New Zealand, pt. 23)

[Arthur’s Point]294° and sunny

Four weather forecasts, four mistakes.

Not that we’re complaining. Most of the forecasts have been for heavy rain, and we’re happy to have missed the larger part of the precipitation. One immediately suspects mountain effects, as the jagged peaks of the Remarkables have gained new dustings of powdered sugar snow each morning, and now similar white-flecked pinnacles are starting to appear on the ranges to the west and north.

Anyway, today’s predicted clouds and cold rain have taken on the guise of warming sunshine and bright blue sky, and despite yesterday’s chill the immediate post-dawn weather is just warm enough to consider wearing shorts. We’re up early for something we do surprisingly little of on vacations, especially considering how much of our summers back home are built around the activity: a round of golf at the Queenstown Golf Club, a course on the Kelvin Heights peninsula, crowned by the rich golden-brown pyramid of Cecil Peak and surrounded by the sapphire-blue waters of Lake Wakatipu. We’re the first ones out today, and the course is – for the greater part of the morning – ours.

QGC is an inexpensive public golf course, and as such isn’t exactly in pristine shape. That said, it’s a lot better than Ringa Ringa Heights (though perhaps that’s not saying a lot), and all it really needs to improve is a good overseeding and more tightly-mown greens. Still, the views can hardly be surpassed, and a few hours walking such a beautiful golf course is in no way time ill-spent.

The Little Nell of the Southern Hemisphere

We lunch back at our rental, making quick work of a composed salad full of semi-local fishy delights and a decidedly local bottle of wine.

Gibbston Valley 2003 Pinot Blanc (Central Otago) – Shy on the nose, showing crisp apple and pear with light minerality. Dry, sharp, and surprisingly intense (structurally), but not as generous as it was in the Gibbston Valley tasting room. It probably just needs decanting, but the bottle doesn’t last long enough for us to find out.

Theresa takes a midday nap – such are the luxuries afforded by long vacations – while I wander the streets of Queenstown in search of a few gifts. The change in the town vs. just a few years earlier is striking, with construction thrown up on every available hillside and a bevy of trendy new shops slowly crowding out the more rough-hewn adventure-oriented and knick-knacky storefronts that had still held sway on our previous visit. Pizza and pasta dives have largely been replaced by middle-class restaurants, touristy swag has given way to jade-, opal- and paua-hocking jewelers, and functional (though sleekly-designed) adventure-wear shops are met in equal measure by the sort of upscale “hey-look-we’re-‘roughing-it’” clothing boutiques one can find in most any area where looking the part is as important as the activities represented by the outerwear. There’s also a good deal of Lord of the Rings merchandise; some of it tasteful and familiar, some of it shockingly inappropriate (“the Lord of the Rings four-wheeler off-road tour & commemorative Andúril replica”), and there is a still-low key but obviously emergent focus on the viticultural output of the nearby Central Otago wine regions. I note a few restaurants and wine bars worthy of further exploration, the locations and prices of local internet cafés, and return home to pick up my well-rested wife.

(Continued here)

TN: Lothlórien (New Zealand, pt. 22)

[Dart River lagoon]The Road to Isengard

“Daaaaaaa-daaaaaaa-da-da-daaaaaaa…da-da-daaaaaa-da-da-daaaaaa-da-da-daaaaaa…daaa-daaa….” The song enters my head, unbidden, and forces itself all the way to the tip of my tongue. Only a tremendous force of will keeps me silent. I glance at Theresa, and she at me, the simultaneous repression evident on both our faces. We grin, then burst into in the grandiose theme music from The Lord of the Rings, managing a few bombastically off-key measures before dissolving into fits of hysterical laughter.

We’d been warned. Twisty, at times precarious, and almost impossibly scenic, the Queenstown-Glenorchy road carries extra baggage these days; a rather striking portion of Peter Jackson’s magnum opus was filmed in this area. Worse, this is a fact immediately obvious to even the most casual observer; every expansive vista and secluded hollow is eerily familiar. I say “worse” because the aforementioned impossible scenery scarcely needs another way to distract the unwary driver from the task at hand. The road describes a long series of irregular swivels, hugging the rocky shores of Lake Wakatipu, then rising far above the water into steep, tree-covered slopes before plunging lakeward once again. After a sharp northern turn, the trees fade to be replaced by the smooth, grassy slopes of the Richardson Mountains, rising up several thousand meters to meet a cold, grey sky.

“It’s distracting,” the locals advise. “You’ll want to pay attention to the road.” I’m learning how right they are. Especially with my wife sitting next to me, now quietly humming a different theme from the movie. I shrug, capitulate and join her.

The Great River

I’m not sure if it would be uncharitable to describe Glenorchy as a frontier-town exurb of Queenstown, but as it doesn’t appear that a resident can survive without frequent trips to the markets of the bigger “city,” I think the characterization is accurate. But what Glenorchy lacks in infrastructure – though it is not without businesses, though most seem oriented towards the feeding, watering, and bedding of tourists – it makes up for in sheer enticement. It is, in one sense, the end of the road (the paved road, at any rate) that brings one to Queenstown, and it perches tantalizingly close to the end of the Milford Sound access road. Close, that is, but not touching; it is emblematic of the modern New Zealand symbiosis between commerce and environmentalism that the twenty-mile bridge, road, and tunnel system that would make the Queenstown-Milford journey a quick hour and a half (rather than at least four) remains unbuilt, and is likely remain so. Any other country would probably do it in a heartbeat, but not this one. Convenience would be…well, convenient, but it would be a tragic shame to spoil the remote beauty of this location.

As for us, we’re in Glenorchy for another of those seamlessly integrated tourist experiences that New Zealand seems to have perfected, wherein multiple modes of transportation are woven into a tapestry of activities that accommodate all levels of interest, adventurousness and athleticism. After our long, emotionally overwhelming day at Doubtful Sound, we’re up for no more than a half day’s excitement, and so after a early (and chilly) lunch under grey and gloomy skies, we make our way through Glenorchy’s few but well-ordered streets to the headquarters of Dart River Safaris.

Elsewhere in the region, jet boating is an activity built around speed and implied danger. Boats on the Shotover and Kawarau Rivers spin and skid at shocking speed, clattering over rocks in four inch-deep water and narrowly careening under low-hanging branches and away from razor-sharp shoreline cliffs. Here on the Dart River, it’s less about adrenaline and more about sightseeing. To be sure, there are face-soaking spins and perilous near-misses of both rock and branch, but the epic hour-and-a-half ride gives both speedy and still opportunities to gaze at the incredible scenery. The river itself is barely up to the name: a few meandering rivulets of churning turquoise glacial runoff over rocks and sand – certainly not deep enough for anything except these shallow-hulled speedsters – but the valley it describes cuts a deep and dramatic angle between the Richardson and Humboldt Mountains, and high riverbanks show that, during the springtime runoff, the aquatic story must be a very different one.

It’s early autumn right now, however, and it’s cold. We bundle up, take our seats, and with a ear-piercing roar head due north, into the teeth of the wind. Our driver stops, periodically and usually after one of those trademark jet boat spins has soaked us all in icy droplets, to point out some key feature of the landscape. Half of them are purely geographic, but the other half are – inevitably – somehow related to The Lord of the Rings.

“See that hillside there? That’s the backdrop for Isengard.”

“Remember when the Ents attacked Orthanc? That’s the edge of Fangorn right there.”

“That really pointy mountain…the one with all the snow on it…that’s Zirak-Zigil, where Gandalf smoked the Balrog.”

I can’t help but feel momentarily sorry for those on the boat who have no idea what he’s talking about. That said, of all the phrases I never expected to hear outside the confines of a fetid, acne-infested basement game of Dungeons & Dragons, “smoked the Balrog” must be very near the top of the list. In my mind, I see the opening to The Two Towers, and – digital creatures aside – it is in fact exactly as he describes it. Years ago, pulling into the Grand Canal of Venice, I’d felt like I was in the midst of an elaborate and impossible movie set. Here, I have that feeling again…except that it is the entire country that is the set.

The music wells up once again. Thankfully, no one else can hear me humming over the roar of the boat’s engines.

The Old Forest

We continue our race upriver, the snow-draped peaks of the eastern and western ranges looming ever closer, occasionally stopping for a brief and slow-paced detour into some crystalline-emerald pool away from the bubbling froth of the river, to simply enjoy the (relative) silence. Near the end of the trip, however, disaster strikes…or rather, it strikes our companion boat, which gets stuck on a midstream rock. Their driver jumps into the frigid waters in attempt to dislodge the vessel. No luck. Some negotiation ensues, and soon several passengers have joined him in an attempt to move the boat, which eventually succeeds. I wonder what level of compensation would be required to get me into that water, and fervently pray that I won’t have to find out. I do ask our driver what happens in situations like this.

(Continued here, with an extensive photo essay from the Dart River…)

The cathedral on the water (New Zealand, pt. 21)

[Doubtful Sound]Wake in heavenly peace

All is dark. The sky is an unbroken shroud of blackness into which the invisible outlines of mountains seamlessly melt. A few street lamps surround themselves with enveloping spheres of light, but otherwise the deep night remains unbroken.

All is silent. A lone truck Dopplers by, lit only by the flashes of isolated lamps, and in its wake a perfect stillness returns to the night.

All is anticipation. The weather is uncertain, the journey long, the destination unexplored.

It’s five a.m. We lock the door behind us, and disappear into the night.

Put me in coach

At half past six, the first blue-grey traceries of a gloomy morning cast Queenstown’s Steamer Wharf into chilly silhouette. We’re assembled amongst other early-risers at the Real Journeys office at one end of the usually bustling town, which this morning is still and quiet except for the rumbling and wheezing awakenings of coaches…like the one we’re about to board. It’s shaped like a wedge and done up in the company colors, with seats that ascend toward the rear of the bus along tall, clear windows, and an amusing rear exhaust grate with dozens of kiwi-shaped holes. Employees, themselves still working through their first few cups of degrogging coffee, assure us that the forecast is as opaque as it was the other three times we’ve dropped by to ask (which is as close to passive-aggressivity as a Kiwi will ever get). There’s nothing to do but board the coach.

The seats are comfortable enough for a long ride, and our part-Maori driver Paul – an affably friendly man who nevertheless tends to both ramble and pause at the oddest mid-ramble times – introduces us to the journey we’re about to undertake, giving us both the mythological and geographic history of our path and its destination. The road south of Queenstown is as rainy and gloomy as it is twisty, though the perilous turns along the eastern shore of Lake Wakatipu seem less stomach-churning in a large vehicle (that said, I wouldn’t want to be traveling in the other direction with our bus in speedy approach).

We stop in Mossburn – desolate except for one dimly-lit convenience store/café, clearly only open to serve the biological needs of passing coaches full of tourists – for a bathroom and sustenance break, and we begin to identify our problem fellow travelers; those who linger a bit too long, those who make the purchase of a bottle of water an inexplicable drama, those who ignore instructions to re-board the bus. Our ten-minute break becomes twenty.

Low-hanging clouds drizzle and spit sheets of rain for another hour. But then, just as we’re pulling into the haphazard hamlet of Manapouri, the clouds lift and brighten. While they continue to obscure the surrounding mountains, they no longer release more than brief bursts of precipitation. “Well,” I say to Theresa, “if we can’t see anything, at least we won’t get wet doing it.”

Real Journeys has another facility here, on the shores of Lake Manapouri, and it’s already abuzz with people delivered by coaches not unduly delayed by the dizzying wonders of Mossburn’s roadside cafés, who fill the warm interior seats of a surprisingly small boat and leave the stragglers from our coach to fill in the edges. We shrug and ascend to the top, bundling ourselves tight against the biting and misty morning air. Chugging away from the dock, our lake-crossing ferry makes slow and cold progress through a nearly-invisible inlet, emerging into the lake’s wider middle just as the clouds lift a little bit more. Now we can see halfway up the mountains (though we have to make frequent visits to our ship’s heated interior to survive the view). It’s as if we’re traveling through the lower half of an unfinished painting, with nary a revealing tease of the artist’s loftier intentions.

However, by the time we get to West Arm, the lake’s western terminus and the home to a rather jarring forest of electrical towers, the weather is looking decidedly better. Everything is brighter, warmer, more inviting, and the views now include the occasional glimpse at a towering mountain peak. We board another coach – still driven by Paul – and head up the shockingly non-precarious dirt road known as the Wilmot Pass. Impossibly steep mountains, heavily forested before rising further into waterfall-necklaced outcroppings and pearl-white tongues of snow, surround us in the distance, while mosses and ferns of every description form a lush embankment along scraped roadside walls. At the peak of the road, we disembark for pictures, and everyone soon crowds towards one particular sight. The moss-encrusted skeleton of a tree points towards the jagged blue line of a distant body of water far, far below us. It’s a picture we’ve seen so many times before – in guidebooks, on the web, on others’ travelogues – that it could easily be anticlimactic were it not for its shocking visual drama. But at long last, we’re finally here: Doubtful Sound.

(Continued here)