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waiheke island

Whites only (New Zealand, pt. 7)

Ask not what your winery can do for you…

The aquamarine rippling of the Hauraki Gulf throws shadows and highlights onto the trees below us. A breeze gently ruffles the leaves, then stills, freshening the quiet air but leaving nothing but memory in its wake. I hold up my glass of sauvignon blanc, which shines bright and clear in the sunlight, and take a deep, luxurious sniff. All is right with the world.

Though not quite as much is right with the wines.

We’re on the patio at Kennedy Point, looking down a rather precipitous cliff to the ocean, and working through a tasting conducted by a friendly young Californian. But after the sauvignon blanc, I’m afraid it’s all as downhill as the below-patio slope.

(Continued here…)

Man and machete (New Zealand, pt. 6)

[Stonyridge vineyard]

A cut below

A sweaty man with a machete approaches us. Bits of vegetation cling to the honed edge of the machete, and the bright midday sun sparkles on his sunglasses (and the beads of perspiration that surround them).

“Martin?” We eye the machete warily.

“Yeah. I’ll be right up. One more row.” He retreats, putting blade to leaf with a practiced vengeance. We shrug, return to our lunch, and wonder if he might not prefer to shower before he joins us. But hey…his giant knife, his call.

Nibbles and sips

We’re sitting on the restaurant patio at Stonyridge Vineyards, nibbling on a fantastic assortment of appetizers – raw tuna, green-lipped mussels, fairly decent local cheeses, slab bacon, something that may or may not be prosciutto but possesses all of its qualities – and waiting for someone from the winery to join us for lunch and a short tasting. Proprietor Stephen White was supposed to be our guide, as he was last time we visited, but he’s caught in a net of red tape on the mainland, trying to acquire an Indian visa, and so we’ve been passed to the actual winemaker of record.

Stonyridge is widely considered the best of Waiheke Island’s ever-emergent wine industry, though there are some relatively new contenders…and, as one might expect, a few naysayers. The dominant complaints seem to be that the wines are too expensive (or at least too expensive for the value they represent), and the always-classic “the wines aren’t what they used to be.” We’ve returned after a few years’ absence to see if we can justify or refute any of those complaints, though of course our experience is no substitute for years of careful tasting.

With our platter of goodies, we sample a few glasses of wine from the café’s rather extensive (Stonyridge-produced) wine list:

Stonyridge 2003 Riesling (Marlborough) – Crisp green apple, ripe melon, quartzy minerality and great acidity. A little underripe on the finish, but there’s striking fullness and length to this wine, plus a gorgeous balance; the minor sin of mild greenness can be forgiven. It’s not a delicate riesling, however.

Stonyridge 2004 Chardonnay Church Bay (Waiheke Island) – Balanced and soft, with oak-infused stone fruit. Pretty, but…well, chardonnay is chardonnay, and it takes a real effort to distinguish one from another. It’s pleasant, but no more.

A sizzling slab of flavorful and wonderfully rare beef arrives, accompanied by a decidedly Provençal-styled variation on ragout. Just as I’m threatening my ex-cow with the steely blade of a knife, winemaker Martin McKenzie appears tableside. Without his machete, praise Bacchus.

(Continued here…)

A well-oiled oyster (New Zealand pt. 5)

Pressed for time

It’s a rare traveler in wine country that will be able to avoid the lure of another ubiquitous dangling fruit: the olive. Wherever there are grape presses, there tend to be olive presses (save in the coldest of viticultural climes), and one of the most delicious accompaniments to the blood of the vine is the essence of the olive, extracted into viscous, greenish-gold sunlight.

At the lower end of the twisty, hill-ascending road that leads to our villa, Rangihoua Estate is an irresistible drop-in visit. We’re just a bit early for proper business hours, but the door’s open, and proprietress Anne Sayles finishes up a bit of backstage work and sets up an interesting tasting for us, featuring the estate’s four extra-virgin oils (two varietals and two blends), some delicious local bread which she warms in an oven, and a snacky preparation of cured and citrus-enhanced olives. Having done a little bit of professional olive oil evaluation, I always find the process fascinating in comparison to wine tasting. The functional similarities are obvious, but the descriptive palette is completely different, and there’s an inherent limitation on the exercise itself which doesn’t usually apply to the world of professionally-expectorated wine: only the strong of stomach can endure more than a few ounces of swallowed oil.

Rangihoua is, itself, a solution to a problem: what to do with the olives on the Stonyridge winery property that were, year after year, simply falling to the ground? Anne, then a Stonyridge employee, and her husband Colin decided to make a go of oil production (with a little bit of a nudge from Colin’s stint in Tuscany), and just a few years later are making oils that are gathering quite a bit of national attention, and even the first stirrings of international interest. Their olive sources are primarily 1000 or so trees near the property (including the aforementioned Stonyridge groves), supplemented with plantings all over Waiheke Island.

Rangihoua Estate 2004 Koreineki (Waiheke Island) – Smooth and silky, showing apple notes and a light, almost tannic bite on the finish. A pretty oil.

Rangihoua Estate 2004 “Waiheke Blend” (Waiheke Island) – Zingy, raw olive flavor with some midpalate bitterness and a brisk, sharp finish.

Rangihoua Estate 2004 Picual (Waiheke Island) – Peppered celery and a green, chlorophyll character with lemon rind and an undercurrent of minerality. Really striking and individualistic; our favorite of the bunch.

Rangihoua Estate 2004 “Stonyridge Blend” (Waiheke Island) – Raw peanut, pine nut, and more “oily” than the previous three, with a high-toned finish. This would seem to need food to tame its wilder qualities.

Anne, eventually joined by Colin, gives us a brief tour of their clean, modern facility, which has – and will probably need, given current trends – plenty of room for future expansion. We leave with a pair of oils and some of the olive mixture, weaving our way through a maze of ducks (different breeds, all of them) wandering the expansive yard and parking lot.

A moldy digression

Bread, wine, cheese and olive oil: the holy quadrity of Mediterranean staples. On the other side of the world, New Zealand needs a little help with two of them.

(Continued here…)

Fire and water (New Zealand, pt. 4)

The gift of morning

Mornings just don’t get much more beautiful than this one. Sun, blue sky, warm – but not too warm – air, and the freedom to do anything, everything, or nothing. Such freedom and its world of possibilities are truly a gift. Inspired, we express our gratitude for the gift of complete freedom by wolfing down several bowls of muesli and fresh fruit.

After all, what good is freedom if you’re not regular?

As we pack the car for relaxing, first-day-of-vacation beach slothfulness, Cliff (our host) emerges from his house toting a folding beach chair. “Here, you’ll want this,” he offers. Just then the phone rings; it’s Auckland wine writer (and friend) Sue Courtney, checking to see if we’ve arrived intact. And once more the refrain: New Zealanders are unbelievably nice, and though we should no longer be surprised by it, we are. Perhaps it’s the gift of the land they inhabit; a treasure in itself, and fertile ground for the cultivation of luxuries both prosaic and extravagant. Perhaps it’s remoteness from the more guarded, selfish centers of “modern” culture. Or perhaps it’s just the people, who approach life with an unstudied innocence that chips away at one’s cynicism and world-weariness. Either way, it’s exceedingly hard to be unhappy when it seems that an entire country is looking out for your well-being.

One with Onetangi

Onetangi Beach is a long, straight stretch of white gold gently lapped by a greenish-blue sea. Today, it’s completely empty, save for a few lonely seagulls. We park our car on the crumbling strip of sand-infused dirt between a narrow frontage street and the beach, park ourselves right in the middle of the sand, and begin the flesh-roasting process (though to be honest, we’re covered in enough high-octane sunscreen that a deep, dark tan seems unlikely). There’s no traffic, very little wind, only the soft murmur of waves, and even the gulls are mostly silent. It’s a little eerie, but it’s also profoundly relaxing, and every last bit of real-world tension drifts softly away, collected and carried to sea by the gentle motion of the tides and the winds.

We exchange brief naps and quickly restorative dips in the ocean, and oscillate between soft, sun-slowed conversation and the sweet silence of isolation. When hunger finally starts to gnaw, we climb back up to a street-side picnic table and unfurl a spread of garlicky green-lipped mussels and Ferndale “Brie” (absurdly simple, definably “cheese” but with no additional character beyond the bare fact of it) with a wine perfectly suited to the day and the location.

Onetangi Road 2004 Rosé (Waiheke Island) – Juicy raspberry goodness that’s big and slightly hot, but despite the slightly overweight character it’s a really fun, full-fruited summer quaffer. It will get you tipsy, though. I suggest a post-lunch layabout on an isolated beach.

There are no shops or hotels here, just a clean and functional public changing room/bathroom combination, but there is a manageable breadth to the waterfront, and so we decide to stroll from one end to another. Low-hanging trees shadow water-etched rocks on one end, boulders which conceal a collection of tidal pools and, behind, tiny little beach alcoves to which a few sun-bronzed locals have retired…perhaps fleeing the masses (which, today, are…I presume…us). At the beach’s opposite end, tangled vegetation supports a teetering cliff onto which a quiet, leaf-dimmed bungalow has been perched. And still, the great length of the beach remains empty. OK, it’s a work day, but come on…where is everybody?

(Continued here…)

The land of the flat white crowd (New Zealand, pt. 3)

Prism sentience

Don’t talk to me about rainbows. Those partial-arc terrestrial versions are, at best, pale imitations of what I’m seeing now. I rub the crust of a long airborne snooze from my eyes and gaze, dumbfounded, out the tiny airplane window at vivid lasers of color streaking across the pre-dawn horizon. Above and below are two themes on uninterrupted grayscale, but in-between is the most wondrous display of prismatic brilliance imaginable, the pure refraction of the planet’s encircling atmosphere unhindered by the distractions and diffusions of earthbound land and sky.

I fire up the in-seat video screen and thumb the controls to channel one: the overhead map. The long, island-dotted crossing of the Pacific is, mostly, behind us, and Auckland – our destination – inches centerward. As I twist and stretch stillness-abused muscles and joints, cabin lights stutter and stagger into illumination, while roasted esters of morning coffee drift from the galleys. It’s morning, and New Zealand approaches.

Energy crisis

Perhaps just a little bit of familiarity breeds ease, but this trans-Pacific crossing seems much less body-destroying than the last one, and we arrive at Auckland International Airport fairly refreshed and energized. That energy is tested a bit by a long wait at the other end of customs (a reminder to self: carefully clean golf shoes before flying to a country with obsessive agricultural neuroses) but returns as we step out into the sharp, sunny clarity of an early summer morning. The sky is blue, the grass green, the air clear, and after many months of endless snow, wearying cold, and dreary gray back in Boston, it’s a wake-up call to surpass all others. Our senses are alive, our anticipation peaked. The heart of our long-planned voyage is finally at hand.

A half-hour later, all our energy is gone…sapped by the deadening heat of an airport shuttle caught in a rush hour traffic jam and without compensatory air conditioning (or windows that can be opened), but with the noisy and unavoidable drone of two monitors blaring an endless litany of touristy advertainment. Only the entry into Auckland itself stirs our senses, as we point out familiar landmarks and remembered sites like old friends in a crowd. We’re deposited at the end of Queen Street just across from the glowing orange-golf of the Ferry Building, quickly cross a street that’s nearly devoid of traffic (where’d the rush hour go?), and purchase a small handful of ferry tickets. We’re headed for the sedate retreat of Waiheke Island, a half-hour ferry ride from the sailboat-and-shipping-filled waters of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbor and into the island-dotted expanse of the Hauraki Gulf. We’ve just missed the 9 a.m ferry – curses on traffic jams everywhere – and so, settled into uncomfortable red plastic chairs, we wait for the next…which arrives on the hour in a clanking, creaking din of metal against wood and a hissing vapor of choking exhaust.

The Gulf and its low-slung islands still glisten in bright sun, but every glance westward – back across the towered rise of Auckland and over the mainland – reveals an oncoming wall of rain. It chases us onto the ferry, pauses at the thermal barrier of the Harbor, and then rushes forward once again. It is thus that we have a clear, calm, and sunny passage – the brisk and sweet-smelling wind reviving our travel-dulled minds – but arrive at the sedate and rustic Matiatia passenger terminal on Waiheke Island just as a first few experimental drops of rain fall. The slow trickle of passengers through the cavernous and largely empty terminal is calming enough that the energy of the city already seems a distant memory. We collect a grossly expensive rental car (someone could make a lot of money offering a cheaper alternative to the island’s two rather larcenous automobile agents) and gingerly edge out of the parking lot, Theresa at the wheel and me repeating our British Empire mantra at each intersection and turn: “left…left…on the left…you’re driving on the left…left…left.”

(Continued here…)

Graves errors

Dubourdieu “Château Graville-Lacoste” 2003 Graves (Bordeaux) – Marlborough sauvignon blanc: tropical fruit, zingy gooseberry, and residual sugar (or at least something that does a good imitation thereof). At $15.99 locally, it’s about the same price as the mid-level “Cellar Selection” Sauvignon Blanc from Villa Maria, which actually has a little more verve. But I don’t mean to choose for anyone else.

Dubourdieu “Château Graville-Lacoste” 2002 Graves (Bordeaux) – Fairly tight, showing green-streaked citrus and apple aromas with a firm acidic foundation and occasional razor-slashes of minerality. It responds very badly to air, but for the first hour or so it’s quite nice, and laser-sharp with food.

(For commentary on these wines, visit oenoLogic…the site, the lifestyle, the cheese sandwich.)

(Notes below reposted from elsewhere, for tagging purposes.)

Onetangi Road 2004 Rosé (Waiheke Island) – Juicy raspberry goodness that’s big and slightly hot, but despite the slightly overweight character it’s a really fun, full-fruited summer quaffer. It will get you tipsy, though. I suggest a post-lunch layabout on an isolated beach.

Westport Rivers 2000 Brut “Cuvée RJR” (Southeastern New England) – I serve this blind, and it’s amusing to hear the guesses. I doubt there’s much Massachusetts wine served in Auckland’s French bistros…or Auckland, or New Zealand, or really anywhere outside New England. I find it lemony and frothy, showing ripe apple and a big burst of fruit with a rather abrupt finish, but it seems to be a bigger hit at the table. The ’98 was better.

Trinity Hill 2003 Tempranillo Gimblett Gravels (Hawke’s Bay) – New Zealand winemakers work from a very limited palette of grapes. From region to region, winery to winery, one finds so many of the same grapes (vinified with the same profiles in mind) that a certain ennui is inescapable. No doubt the market has much to do with this state of affairs, but one hopes that as the industry moves inexorably towards maturity, new varietal horizons may be reached by some adventurous winemakers.

Yet, thankfully, not all New Zealand wines taste the same. The most obvious separator of all these identi-grapes is winemaking, but also at work are the first stirrings of terroir. It’s hard to identify much of the signature of the land when a vineyard site is still in its teens (and an entire region, like Marlborough, is barely in its thirties), but some sites are older than others, and certain things may be said, or at least theorized, by those with viticultural and/or tasting experience. Mistakes will undoubtedly be made along the way, winemaking will continue to obscure and obliterate terroir, and marketing will wield its nefarious influence (putting brand identity ahead of site identity), but the attempt to identify emergent site-specificity is an absolutely necessary step in the development of New Zealand as a world-class wine producing country. The Gimblett Gravels are, along with the much more controversial Martinborough Terrace, early steps in that direction.

This wine, however, doesn’t do much to advance either notion. Raw plum, strawberry and rosemary are rather dominated by volatile acidity and goopy chocolate. It’s dark and juicy, but there’s just too much wrong with it. Points for effort, but a barely honorable mention for execution.

Johanneshof 2001 Riesling Auslese (Marlborough) – Massive acidity is completely and oddly separated from thick, lemon, apple and lime leaf fruit with a cardboardy texture. More strange than good at this stage, but a few years in the cellar will probably help.

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