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