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A well-oiled oyster

EVOO and Te Motu, too

by Thor Iverson

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.

[oystercatcher on Rocky Beach with Auckland in the distance]

Auckland and its oyster shortage
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.

That the land of the fat brown kiwi does wine quite well is known, and that it has a growing facility for olive oil is also less of a secret than it used to be. With olive farming inevitably paired with both wine and fruit production, and ample supply of all three up and down the length of the country, there’s plenty more on the horizon…though New Zealand’s oil faces the same international difficulty as its wine: not enough supply to entice or support an increasingly conformist and brand-devouring worldwide market. Despite all attempts and what seems like the daily emergence of new wineries and vineyards, Marlborough sauvignon blanc remains New Zealand’s only vinous commodity, and no oil is even close to achieving that status. And as ever, the really interesting stuff is in short supply.

Bread in New Zealand could use some work, though things have improved since our last visit. There are some really excellent artisans here and there, but they too labor in the obscurity of ultra-limited supply. The endemic problem seems to be either a lack of salt or a certain clumsy approach to the science of the art (and sometimes both), but in a country that seems to have as solid a grasp of agricultural fundamentals as anyone, and a much stronger grasp of matters culinary than people believe, bread lags behind the curve. Still, there are clear signs of hope.

[dead oysters]

The world was my oyster…
It is cheese, however, that invites and deserves a critical drubbing. A few blues, even of the mass-produced variety, show character and individuality, but the vast majority of the available cheese is one dreary wanna-“Brie,” soft (and mushy, and flavorless) goat log, and identically-insipid “Cheddar” after another. I’m shown the very occasional exception by a few equally-dismayed winemakers, but the lack of interesting cheese really defies explanation. The quality of basic supermarket butter is often excellent (especially compared to the equivalent Stateside product), the milk is pretty good, and yet the cheese remains boring. One might naturally point to the blinkered national prohibition against raw milk as the likely culprit, except that a similar prohibition doesn’t seem to be slowing the progressive march of Australian cheesemakers. A more insidious influence is that of the big, bland and corporate dairy concerns, who argue against raw milk cheese for the same transparently commercial reasons that they do in the States: the existence of better cheese hurts their bottom line.

Adding a final punctuation to the gustatory insult, most foreign-made raw milk cheeses are not allowed into the country. This is clearly an area that needs focused attention and some dedicated artisans, because the cheese in New Zealand is somewhat of a national embarrassment for a country with so much else to offer.

Te Motu Arai Roa

With a few spare hours before an early-afternoon appointment, we decide to explore the peaceful beach below our villa. Rocky Bay is certainly quiet, with half the beach and all the wetlands on the landward side roped off for the protection of several species of birds (primarily the dotterel), and yet again we’re the only people in sight.. We don’t see any dotterels, but we are greeted with a large number of deep black, orange-legged and -beaked oystercatchers plying their trade. The beach itself is a metaphor for their tireless work: aside from some coarse-ground rocks that even the most optimistic couldn’t call sand, the majority of the surface is layer upon layer of oyster shells, encrusted and fixed and an apparent testament to the tireless munching of the birds (though in point of fact, there’s some doubt that they’re actually capable of opening healthy oysters). In any case, the beach makes me wish for a bottle of Muscadet and an oyster knife. Across the gently-rolling deep blue waters of the bay and the shimmering, lighter blue of the Hauraki Gulf, the silver towers of Auckland cast a jagged shadow on the horizon.

Yesterday’s fire, seemingly history this morning, is back to an intermediate stage of smoldering, and a noisy helicopter is just starting its water-dumping circuit as we pull into a winery on its downwind side. But while the faint hint of brush smoke lingers in the air at Te Motu (Maori for “the island”), it doesn’t distract from the task of wine tasting as much as the first stirrings of sautéed garlic from the winery’s on-site café.

[oystercatcher at Rocky Bay]

“Hey, you…pass the oyster knife”
Wineries on Waiheke Island are, in general, not open to the public for casual drop-ins of the sort common elsewhere; the exceptions tend to be the lower-quality establishments. One suspects that the desire to pour limited quantities of (relatively) high-priced blends isn’t economically enticing for the island’s many smallish producers. What most have instead chosen to do is open some sort of eatery – one can find everything from delis and pizzerias to full-fledged restaurants, though casual cafés with wine-friendly small plates are the norm – and sell their wines by the glass or bottle as accompaniments. If one has to pay to taste, this is a much more civilized and enjoyable way to do so than merely handing over cash for a few ounces of wine at a crowded tasting room counter. Thankfully, Te Motu offers both options, and since we’re anticipating lunch at our next visit, we decide to pay for a full lineup of the available wines…which, unlike most wineries in New Zealand that charge for tasting (and many don’t) isn’t refunded with purchase.

Te Motu’s nomenclature is a bit confusing. The actual name of the winery is Te Motu Vineyard, and they produce two Bordeaux-styled blends, one of which is also called “Te Motu.” This is their top wine, which I’m told by the staff is made only in certain years but which appears to have skipped no years as of yet, and it’s self-consciously modeled in both viticulture and vinification after Bordeaux’s Château Margaux. It spends 18-24 months in new oak (a mixture of French, American, and Hungarian), and is intended to age, though whether or not it does so in a truly rewarding way is still a matter of some debate. The second wine is “Dunleavy,” which spends twelve months in older barrels.

Te Motu 2002 Cabernet/Merlot “Dunleavy” (Waiheke Island) – Balanced black cherry and chocolate, with a decently long finish. Simple but pleasant now, yet with enough structure for mid-term development.

Te Motu 2001 Cabernet/Merlot “Dunleavy” (Waiheke Island) – Herbs, coffee, dark plum, and bitter chocolate which turns milkier on the finish. Somewhat goopy, with clumsy, tobacco-scented oak.

[Theresa at Te Motu]

Tasting at Te Motu
Te Motu 2000 Cabernet/Merlot “Te Motu” (Waiheke Island) – Not, at the time of tasting, yet released for sale. There’s a lot of dirt here – ash, black dirt, coal – and that ashen note carries all the way through the finish, as if the fire on the nearby hillside had somehow gotten into the bottle. There’s also rosemary and dirty leaves, a lush but underripe and anonymous fruit character, and pretty decent acidity, but this wine just isn’t quite where it needs to be. Some more time in the bottle might help, but underripeness is underripeness.

Te Motu 1999 Cabernet/Merlot “Te Motu” (Waiheke Island) – This wine, swirled, coats the interior of the glass in rough droplets; something I’ve never seen before. It’s not the glass, because Theresa’s responds exactly the same way. This the best of the tasting, showing bright cherry, ripe strawberry, soft tannin and a fruit-forward, medium-bodied balance that lingers and expands on the finish. A fine effort with good upside potential.

Te Motu 1998 Cabernet/Merlot “Te Motu” (Waiheke Island) – Goopy and slightly burnt, with underripe green leaves marring big, lush blueberry flavors and an enticing graphite-textured finish. Neither balanced nor together. Maybe it’s just an awkward middle age, but I suspect not.

Te Motu 1997 Cabernet/Merlot “Te Motu” (Waiheke Island) – Ash and thyme-flavored candy, with ripe plum and the first stirrings of maturing fruit, including black cherry-drizzled smoked leaves. Tannin still lingers, but this wine is softening into form.

Taken as a whole, this is an iffy lineup. The ’99 “Te Motu” is a fairly complete wine, but all the rest have minor yet irritating flaws and inconsistencies, and there’s certainly nothing here to strike fear in their immediate neighbors (Stonyridge), much less recollect the beauty and elegant power of Château Margaux. We chat for a while with one of their winemakers – a very young man from Toulouse who speaks Kiwi slang in a dramatic southern French accent – purchase a few bottles, and make a quick journey to an adjacent road. The fire-fighting helicopter roars over our heads, carrying yet another payload of seawater, and just over the ridge, a pillar of gray smoke rises to meet it. But on our horizon, we can only see one thing: better wine.

And lunch. One can’t forget lunch.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.