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Sheep attack!

Wild and wooly wines at Stony Batter

by Thor Iverson

Flocking together

A large, flightless mass akin to a colorful heirloom chicken scuttles across the yard, pausing every few feet to investigate a potentially edible morsel. Cliff and I emerge from our apartments at the same time to watch, which only serves to increase the velocity of its scampering and nibbling.

“It’s a weka, I reckon,” opines Cliff.

Swans, geese, ducks and gulls congregate in multiracial harmony on a beach that adjoins the Matiatia ferry wharf. Neither begging food from passersby nor twitching in fear from same, they bask in the sun, preening and squalling as the ferry noisily chugs, groans, and squeaks into its berth. Our guests have arrived.

A not-so-stealthy and rather ridiculous-looking black, blue, and white bird with a vivid orange beak and grossly un-proportionate legs stumbles around the roadside, occasionally veering onto our already too-narrow road. Were there ever need for a visual link between the bird and the dinosaur, this sight would settle all doubts. We slow down, then swerve as best we can to miss it, but it seems not-at-all put out by the cloud of dust that now encompasses it. Neil Courtney, concise as ever, answers my unspoken query: “pukeko.”

New Zealand is for the birds

Stony dancer

It’s a sunny, hot day on Waiheke Island, though cooling ocean breezes keep the temperature just a shade short of uncomfortable. We’ve picked up Auckland-area wine writer Sue Courtney and her husband Neil for a day of wine tasting, a reversal of our usual arrangement (in which they cart us around mainland wine regions), and definitely some sort of payback for Sue’s guidance on our previous visit. That is, assuming the Americans’ driving on remote gravel roads through the wilds of Waiheke doesn’t give them both premature heart attacks. I do note that Sue’s breath seems a little quicker than usual, though Neil is his usual stoic self.

Sue’s arranged for us to start our day with a tour at the reclusive and remote Stony Batter winery, and it’s impossible to turn down the opportunity. Built on the massive expanse of an historic reserve better known for its old gun emplacements and tunnels, Stony Batter is less a winery than a all-encompassing agricultural project that covers a rather large percentage of the northeastern quadrant of the island, a project unlike any other on Waiheke. The owner, apparently an unimaginably wealthy gent, has an obvious desire for privacy (the entrance to the reserve is blocked by a forbidding gate, though through apparent negotiation hikers are once more allowed on the property as long as they don’t touch, look at, smell or otherwise offend the vines), but has equally obviously spared no expense in covering the area with a crazy-quilt of experimental vineyards.

[grapes going through veraison]

Slow veraison
[Stony Batter view]

Some views are irresistible
[nets over vineyards]

A net gain in vineyards
[bad fruit set]

Lousy fruit set
We traverse a dramatic length of twisty, single-lane dirt roads – through washboarding and what seem to be minor sinkholes and roadside erosion (but no more suicidal pukekos) – to emerge at a dusty car park adjacent to the aforementioned gate. There are few cars here already, discharging hikers who balefully study the various instructions about what they can’t do and where they can’t walk. One car, however is for us.

Paul Sharp, the marketing manager for the winery – a lanky redhead with an easygoing manner and a laconic way of musing on matters viticultural – packs us into his automobile, opens up the gate (to the jealous stares of hikers), and proceeds to give us a bouncy, occasionally precarious tour of the facilities. The vineyards are dramatic, with steeply rolling hillsides punctuated on their perilous descent to the sea by jagged rocks and bent, twisted knots of trees; all else a sea of gold and green grass set against the rippling azure of the Hauraki Gulf. Looming over the waters are the majestic peaks of the Moehau Range on the shockingly nearby Coromandel Peninsula, a pointed reminder that here on Waiheke we’re surrounded on three sides by mainland. Shadowed in the hazy distance are the isolated points and ridges of the Little and Great Barrier Islands, guarding the entrance to the incomprehensible expanse of the southern Pacific. The view is so breathtaking as to make one forget that we’re here to look at vines, and even Sharp is occasionally moved to pause his low-key monologue and simply stare.

The first thing we notice, once our gaping at the horizon subsides, is the temperature difference; it is decidedly cooler here than at our villa or in Matiatia. Sharp notes that because of this difference, they do not necessarily share viticultural conditions with the rest of the island. Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc – the first difficult elsewhere in the area and the second almost nonexistent in Auckland’s environs – do well here, thanks to cool hilltops and longer, slower ripening. If vines elsewhere are, this year, showing a difficult mix of absent fruit and retarded veraison, what grapes that actually exist out here are positively backward; tight little balls of tart greenness, every last one of them, though Sharp says that the cabernets on their best (warmer) sites are less behind than other grapes.

Alongside the usual Waiheke lineup of grapes (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and malbec), Stony Batter has planted chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, syrah, and even some pinot noir, on a staggering total of 72 different sites. The vineyards spread across all different exposures, altitudes, and inclines, on a trio of soils (clay, volcanic, and volcanic ash) from which a lot of the area’s namesake rocks have been removed.

Battering rams

We visit a few vineyards, some exposed but most covered by protective, bird-rejecting nets, then angle back towards the car park. On the way, we have a vanishingly “true” New Zealand experience by getting caught behind, then in the midst of, a sheep muster. It’s a hilarious site, the animals’ serene faces belying their obvious and mindless panic as they scramble over hillsides and each other in their reckless need to flee in any direction possible. After a dozen wild and wooly minutes, we’re finally through, leaving a hoof-catalyzed cloud of dust between us and the retreating rears of the sheep, and pause on the other side of the gate just long enough to redistribute ourselves into a two-car caravan and proceed to the winery.

[Neil Courtney, Theresa Regli Iverson, Sue Courtney, Paul Sharp]

Neil, Theresa, Sue & Paul

Sheepishly approaching

The wool over our eyes

Sheep on the lam
Stony Batter’s facility, akin to a barn (especially apropos, guarded as it is by a “moat” of sheep dip-studded grass), doesn’t outwardly reflect the investment elsewhere on the property, though inside one does find the usual array of barrels and some shiny steel tanks. This is, one hopes, to the good; money is being spent in the vineyard, rather than on the latest technological trickery and deleterious doodads. Sharp introduces to yet another extremely young winemaker – apparently some sort of trend here on Waiheke – who guides us through an interesting three-wine tasting.

[Stony Batter bottles]

Building a Batter bottle
Stony Batter 2003 Sauvignon Blanc “Gravestone” (Waiheke Island) – Those expecting the zingy Marlborough style are going to be sorely disappointed by this wine, but those who get the wordplay in “Gravestone” will instantly recognize the intended model. Made with skin contact, barrel fermented in French oak, spending ten months on stirred lees and in 30-40% new oak, this is unquestionably an attempt at the “serious” white Graves style that they’ve also been exploring down in Marlborough (Cloudy Bay, Dog Point, Seresin, and others vinify alternative sauvignons in this general style).

The wine is indeed leesy and dense at first, showing stone fruit (mostly peach and apricot) and melon, with some crisper grapefruit and kiwifruit aspects emerging after time. Silkily-textured with interlacings of clover, this is a pretty marvelous but highly controversial wine that will shock and offend as often as it entices.

Guaranteed to shock: the price, a hefty $40 NZ at Waiheke’s one wine shop, which places it among the most expensive sauvignons in New Zealand. But it is better, though more extreme, than any effort in this direction that I’ve yet tried.

Stony Batter 2003 Chardonnay “Road Works” (Waiheke Island) – Despite light pink grapefruit and faint tropicality, this wine’s impression is mostly textural: smooth and thick-bodied, with moderate acidity and a shorter finish than one would like. A good chardonnay, with structure and a nod towards balance (and thus potential ageability), but not done in what I’d call a popular style, and probably also not the best they can do here.

Stony Batter 2003 Cabernets “Road Works” (Waiheke Island) – 88% cabernet franc, 10% cabernet sauvignon, 2% syrah (the previous vintage was mostly merlot). Well, this will happen with all their new vineyards coming on line. A burly brew of blueberry and black cherry with dark, wormy soil and layers of bitter chocolate tannin that finish with some green notes. Thick, sturdy and quite long, this wine shows more potential than it does drinkability, though the oak is a bit too slick and confectionary for my tastes. Still, a credible effort.

After only a brief tour and tasting, there’s every reason to expect success from this winery. Funds seem to be in liberal supply, winemaking is New Worldish but not immoderately so, and a proper amount of respect for the vine seems to be in play. The mesoclimatological differences between Stony Batter (the place, not the winery) and the rest of Waiheke would seem to provide as much of a marketing opportunity as they do a viticultural opportunity. The pricing may be a bit adventurous, but then this is true of much of Waiheke Island’s production. What remains to be seen, of course, is if the wines will retain and build on their early quality and individuality, or fall victim to conformity.

Leftovers by the bay

Taking our leave (and taking careful steps through and around the minefield of droppings ’twixt us and our car), we hit the dusty trail once more in search of a likely picnic spot. We find one in sheltered Waikopua Bay, on an eastern beach looking through Pakatoa and Rotoroa Islands and straight on to mainland, setting out a rather extravagant amount of food and wine for four people on yet another one of New Zealand’s endlessly convenient picnic tables. We’ve some leftovers from Stony Batter, from the other night’s offline (whence we discover that the Trinity Hill Tempranillo is just as sludgy a dessert topping as before), and even some Onetangi Road from our first night on Waiheke (tasting considerably worse for wear; heavily oxidized after just a few days). And Sue’s brought a new wine:

[beach picnic]

Wining, dining & sunning
Cloudy Bay 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – The allocation games played in the States aren’t as much in evidence domestically, so while this wine retains its reputation and its elevated price, it’s a lot easier to obtain. This version is very acidic – though this could easily be a matter of contrast and context in this company – with lime and crystalline tartaric sharpness. Finishes short and, to my palate, somewhat dull, though Sue appears more enthused. I’m open to the possibility that it’s just the setting, but retasting it later in the evening, I don’t find my impressions to have changed much. It occurs to me that it would be interesting to have Cloudy Bay’s “Te Koko” as a counterpoint to the Gravestone. Another time, perhaps.

Stuffed and re-energized, we bag up our refuse and wheel our way back to the road; south, briefly west, and then sharply north, describing a quick loop around the ragged hills of the Puke Range (that’s pronounced “poo-kay,” for the amused). This is, like much of Stony Batter, a largely uninhabited region of the island, and the feeling of isolation is intense. Our track eventually finds pavement again, which is a welcome relief from the noisy, skidding crunch of gravel (and its concomitant dust, which seems to cover everything), and climbs the western side of the hills in a gentle, winding swivel. Above us, the hills are pure golden-green pockmarked with scrubby trees; below us, field and forest flatten to the gentle roll of the blue-green Gulf. And in front of us, perhaps the only driveway on this entire stretch of road.

It’s a driveway we’ll take.

Disclosure: Stony Batter gives us the untasted remains of two wines for lunch.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.