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Man and machete

Sharp winegrowing at Stonyridge

by Thor Iverson

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.

[vines from the Stonyridge patio]

Stonyridge can be overlooked
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.

McKenzie country

“‘The winemaker’ makes me laugh; we’re winegrowers,” responds McKenzie to a query regarding his position and title. Self-identification with the English translation of vigneron is usually accompanied by a predilection towards European-styled wines, and while few would confuse Stonyridge’s best wines with their Old World counterparts, the inclinations and nods are certainly there. They start in the vineyard, where a blend of rootstocks and clones are used in lieu of the usual New World monoclonal viticulture, with rootstocks in particular aimed at what McKenzie calls “de-vigoration” and ripening, and clones preserved and supplemented without wholesale abandonment of the old (“you don’t want to waste your old vines”). The rootstock effect is immediately obvious; as we overlook one of Stonyridge’s winery-adjacent vineyards, I comment on a clear color difference between two rows, asking if one is chardonnay and the other something more pigmented. “No, just different rootstocks,” responds McKenzie. Also slightly unusual is a concentration on verticality; the vines are on fully-exposed clay, and thus require more slope than many other New Zealand vineyards. McKenzie would love to work with gravel and its elevated acidities (“it’s like hydroponics”), but is quite satisfied with what Waiheke gives him.

Rain is not usually a problem…unlike the inevitable winds roaring off the expanse of the Hauraki Gulf. People who believe Waiheke Island to be some sort of vinous “utopia” exasperate McKenzie; “it’s far from it.” Cold weather comes from the southwest (rain is usually, though not always, fully-shed by the time clouds reach the island), and the accompanying winds can be devastating. The 2004-2005 growing season, in fact, has been hugely delayed by a windy and cold November and December; the hottest January on record has only served to get a small percentage of the grapes to veraison, several weeks late. McKenzie prefers a late harvest to an early one, but wonders openly if this year’s crop will survive to any harvest. He is, like many of his compatriots (and, indeed, winemakers around the world), perhaps a touch too honest to mindlessly serve the marketing needs of his employer, and doesn’t hesitate to give an unvarnished opinion. For us, the candor is refreshing, and one rarely feels that opinions are being held in reserve. (Not that Stonyridge is particularly marketing-sensitive; if anything, they’re politically-incorrect to the extreme, as visitors to their tasting room or web site immediately discover.)

[grapes at Stonyridge]

Grapes, pre-veraison
Similarities to Old World-style winemaking falter a bit at the cellar door. “We’re very extractive winemakers,” McKenzie notes, but then somewhat contradicts himself by asserting that “we like elegance.” We discuss this for a while, and what it means for tannin and, less importantly, color. He ponders for a moment, then stakes out a third, and again somewhat contrary, position: “I’m not a color fiend, but Stephen is.” One hears behind this statement a dozen conversations and, probably, disagreements about technique, but if the process is more than informally collaborative, McKenzie doesn’t let on; he seems fully in control of all but the winery’s overall direction, a situation with which he seems pleased: “Stephen White was the first one [on Waiheke] to [truly] hit the reds’ potential.” I muse on what this must mean vis-à-vis his opinions on other well-known Waiheke stalwarts, but elect not to press him on this point.

The bigger reds, which are legion chez Stonyridge, come from Waiheke itself, but lighter reds and most of the whites are sourced from elsewhere in New Zealand. Stonyridge trolls the market for wines from elsewhere that will supplement its offerings, especially in lower price categories than their Waiheke reds. Why do they do this, rather than exercise their skills with a new palette of varieties? “The guys in Marlborough know a hell of a lot more about sauvignon blanc than us.”

Stonyridge 2004 Malbec/Franc (Waiheke Island) – “Potentially our worst batch of wine,” offers McKenzie. Quite the sales push. Nonetheless, I both see and don’t see what he means: there are rosemary-dominated herbs, roughed-up black fruit, and tar braced by great acidity in this very rustic witches’ brew. A tough slog for those in search of elegance, perhaps, but surely this is superior to the somewhat boring Church Bay chardonnay.

Yeasts are inoculated, not wild. Sulfites are minimized, but not avoided. And the closures are cork; McKenzie is somewhere between agnostic and very mildly hostile to the idea of alternative closures, and lectures on this at some length. Irony is such a cruel mistress:

Stonyridge 2002 “Larose” (Waiheke Island) – The Larose (formerly Larose Cabernets, though it’s actually a full Bordeaux-style blend of cabernet sauvignon, malbec, petit verdot, merlot, and cabernet franc that leans much more heavily on malbec than most other blends of its type) is the top wine at Stonyridge, and the one on which their reputation is largely based; its source vineyards get plenty of attention, with narrow rows, close planting, organic agriculture, under-vine weeding only, and reasonably low yields. I tasted this from barrel a few years ago, so I’m eager to revisit the released version, which McKenzie cautions is from a “lesser vintage.” What a disappointment: shy to absent, showing blueberry skin and little else, with a short finish…

I wait for an opportunity amid much vinous chit-chat, then: “do you think this wine is corked?”

McKenzie noses, swirls, noses again. He’s unsure, leaning towards “no,” then uncertain again. I explain how much more explosive this wine tasted from barrel, and why I think this wine must be off in some way. Opening another is not an insignificant expense at these prices, and I’m unsure if he’s on board with my theory. Instead, we descend to the cool, dark cellar for some barrel tasting. (I note for the record that this is the second time I’ve been served corked wine at Stonyridge.)

Stonyridge 2004 Franc/Pinotage (barrel sample) (Waiheke Island) – Shy on the nose, showing dense blackberry, rosemary, and chunks of black dirt. A chewy wine, and not for the faint of heart.

Stonyridge 2004 “Larose” (barrel sample) (Waiheke Island) – 80-90% new oak, 50% cabernet sauvignon, 15% petit verdot, plus the rest of the aforementioned gang o’ grapes. Chocolate-covered mixed berries, fragrant tobacco, and a mélange of earths. Long and balanced, showing good potential.

[Martin McKenzie of Stonyridge]

Martin McKenzie, sans machete
“Stephen likes the 2002 for its malbec,” McKenzie notes, echoing a preference for the star of Cahors and Argentina that I’ll hear from winemaker after winemaker in New Zealand (it’s an aromatic/structural thing, vs. the decidedly crankier cabernet franc that’s usually relied upon elsewhere), “but I like the 2003 for its power.” As for the 2004? It’s too early to tell, but the signs are positive.

Stonyridge 2004 Malbec Viña del Mar (barrel sample) (Waiheke Island) – Viña del Mar is a hot, steep vineyard near Onetangi Beach, and these grapes are vinified in American oak. The wine is intensely dark, showing concentrated dark berries and citrus with chewy, peanut butter-textured tannin.

Stonyridge 2002 “Larose” (Waiheke Island) – We do, after all, take the opportunity to reassess this wine. Night and day, big and rich, with blueberries and other dangling red/purple fruit, tobacco, rosemary, black dirt, and notes of espresso-infused chocolate on the finish. The palate is juicy and complex, with great acidity, and the long finish shows a fine-grained, dusty quality. Structured and terrific.

“Well, I was right about the other one being corked,” I slyly offer. McKenzie just nods, intent on the wine.

Back is White

We emerge from the cellar’s depths to a day that’s gotten no less sunny. Lingering fingers of smoke curl around to grasp the nearby hillside from the still-burning brush fire, though McKenzie doesn’t seem particularly concerned. As we’re preparing to leave, Stephen White arrives from Auckland, his visa quest successful. They both wish us well, and we depart in search of yet another wine tasting.

So does Stonyridge live up to its hype? At its heart, the question is unfair. Who’s to judge an appropriate level of hype, especially when not all of it is winery-created? The Larose is certainly one of the best red wines I’ve tasted from New Zealand, showing a complexity and self-assuredness that few wines of any composition can boast, and I’ll have the opportunity later in the trip to sample a nicely-aging example that shows the wine’s balanced concentration to much greater advantage than these callow youths and barrel samples. Yes, the Larose is limited and expensive, and few of the winery’s Waiheke-sourced wines are cheap. But their prices, at least in international terms, are not out of proportion to their perceived quality, and certainly not unaligned with demand.

A more germane question might be: does Stonyridge achieve a quality commensurate with its reputation? The answer there is an unqualified yes. And the winemaker doesn’t have to threaten me with a machete to get me to say so.

Disclosures: a free lunch at Stonyridge, including all wines, and a sold-out Larose is made available for purchase.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.