A passage to insight
Viognier and philosophy probably don't mix
by Thor Iverson
A wrinkle in vine
“How do you go back to the place where everything changed…?” I asked, once, and from that question a travelogue was born. The “place” I had in mind was Milford Sound, on which much more can and will be written many narratives hence, but certainly other interpretations are possible. Here’s one:
David Evans Gander pokes his head around a doorway. He’s casual in working shorts and shirt, knee-deep in one of those endless tasks that consume every morning, afternoon, and night of a winemaker’s existence. “Just a moment.”
We wait. It’s dark and cool inside, strangely silent outside.
A half-dozen moments later, he re-emerges with bottles in hand, ducks behind the counter of the now-closed winery café (really more of a pizzeria, to the apparent delight of most visitors) to retrieve some glasses, and groups us around a picnic-like table.
“So…how was Stony Batter?”
Rock is their forté
My first day in New Zealand was a bit of a blur. Not so much from jet lag as travel lag, a sense-dulling miasma of displacement and the nasty, filmy feeling of twelve hours of recycled airplane air battling the onrush of a world of new experiences and sensations. Among those sensations was a marvelous little wine – just a glass – shared with Theresa and Sue Courtney at Nourish. I’d spent the morning at Goldwater and Stonyridge, tasting a lot of wines that were – whether better or worse than I’d expected – familiar. But here, at this terrific little bistro, was a glass of sun-filled viognier that rose above all my expectations, especially for this highly cranky grape. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
Passage Rock. Few wineries I’ve not visited hold a special place in my heart, and none whereat I’ve tasted only one wine. And yet, there was something about that deliciously brief taste of viognier…well, if I ever got back to Waiheke Island, I vowed to visit. To see what it was all about, to get at the heart of the matter…no, I must admit, my aim was more personal: to try to recapture and relive that memory.
Sue talks about our morning while Evans Gander pours the wine and I study our surroundings. Passage Rock would be, in the absence of Stony Batter, the most remote of Waiheke Island’s wineries, and the facilities obviously represent a sort of haphazard expansion; needs-based, rather than designed. And while the vines fanning out from the main buildings replicate a descent to the sea found at our morning visit, it’s a gentler, slower, shallower descent to a much more distant shore. Which only adds to the feeling of isolation.
Soon enough, however, the first wines are in front of us and we’ve work to do.
Passage Rock 2004 Chardonnay (Gisborne) – An unoaked wine from Mendoza clones, crushed in Gisborne but vinified here (this is, one quickly finds, a common practice all over New Zealand, despite the often striking distances and transportation hassles involved). Slightly buttery but otherwise flat on the palate, with juicy, lively spice emerging on the finish. It’s a bit hard to believe that there’s no oak, though certainly lees make their presence known. There is an overarching flaw, however, and that’s a bit of heat (the wine is 14.1%, but without oak probably doesn’t have enough stuffing to stand up to the alcohol). About as good as unoaked chardonnay outside France gets, but that’s mitigated praise.
Passage Rock 2004 Viognier (Waiheke Island) – It’s amazing how little ceremony can accompany these trips down memory lane. There’s thyme, lemon and peach with a faint reduction on the nose, a floral, oily palate, and a soft, almost sugary finish. Plus, there’s a strange spritziness to the whole thing. And this, too, is just a touch hot (14.5%, not necessarily out of line for viognier, but it’s still a matter of balance). OK, but no better.
It turns out that Evans Gander is familiar with my affection for the ’01, and watches me carefully as I taste. He can tell I’m a bit disappointed, and I’m forced to explain. He shrugs, unconcerned. “I quite like the big alcohol.”
And so begins the dissolution of a cherished memory. But a new thought emerges…
Passage Rock 2003 “Sisters” (Waiheke Island) – A blend of the cabernets, merlot, and malbec, showing leafy, dirt-flecked mint, blueberry, and an odd tar/asphalt note that heralds hard, somewhat bitter tannins full of nut shells and skins. Cranky and difficult.
Evans Gander explains that it can be difficult to get all the components right in the same vintage; merlot and syrah (see below) tend to do well most years, malbec runs at about 80%, but cabernet sauvignon is the tricky one.
Passage Rock 2002 “Forte” (Waiheke Island) – Merlot, the cabernets, and malbec given a gutsier cellar regimen to produce a bigger, more ageable result. I often prefer earlier-drinking cuvées because of the lavish oak and upswellings of fruit in their “bigger” brethren, but here the reverse is unquestionably the case. Tight, dense and chewy, with a firm, tobacco-scented texture and lots of that ever-compelling (to me, at least) graphite, showing blueberry, blackberry, black cherry, cassis and walnut amidst all the structure. A terrific wine with plenty of aging potential.
Passage Rock 2003 “Forté” (Waiheke Island) – Ever the nitpicker, I ask Evans Gander why the ’03 has an accent while the ’02 does not. This, it appears, has never been asked of him before. He studies the bottles with hunched brow, uttering the occasional “hmph.” Finally: “I never noticed that before.” Well, it’s no big deal, but he obviously pays more attention to the winemaking than the labels, which is to the good. Here, we’ve got a just-bottled wine that’s still shaking off some of the rust. Mixed herbs, dirt, blackberry soda and peanut butter are apparent, with more soda notes on the finish; it’s much softer than the ‘02 throughout the palate, then hardens on the finish. One would be inclined to write this off as far inferior to its older sibling, but then these are very early days, and it’s best to wait for bottle shock to wear off before saying anything definitive.
Passage Rock 2004 Syrah (barrel sample) (Waiheke Island) – Just racked, but showing better than such wines often do, with leathery blueberry, minted apple, and competing bites of acidity and tannin. Excellent raw materials in search of their potential.
Passage Rock 2003 Syrah (Waiheke Island) – My goodness, what a textbook syrah: blackberry, leather, lavender, some mild herbality, and pepper on the finish. A lovely balance and more of that enticing, graphite-like texture make this a stupendous wine that will age very well, but will be painfully hard to avoid in the interim.
Passage Rock 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (barrel sample) (Waiheke Island) – Mid-racking, and again showing better than one might expect. Spiced nutmeg and close, thick black cherry and blueberry, and exciting, graphite tannin and ripe, dense, almost sweet tones to the finish. Powerful and enticing stuff.
Somewhere among the last series of wines, I notice Sue’s eyes rolling back into her head as she noses a deep, dark purplish brew. Ecstasy seems at hand. Then she notices me looking at her, and grimaces.
“That wasn’t your best poker face,” I note.
Without a beat, she replies, “good thing you could only see my face.”
The laughter carries us out the door.
“A new journey begins the moment an old one ends,” I once wrote, itself a narrative beginning to precede all others. There’s no reward, I found, in clinging to a memory…whether of nature’s inspiring Fiordland cathedral or a delicately-perfumed glass of wine in a new country, with new friends. The past may be written…perhaps even in stone…but it is never inviolate. The present rewrites the past in a one inexorable, lifelong revision, memories are swept away by the editorial whims of experience – “now” replaces and recasts “then” – and we are never and can never be what we once were. It is the same for wine, the autobiography of a grape reborn into a new story, a new beginning…a new journey.
One that begins in this moment.
Disclosure: I ask to buy and am given, free of charge, a shipping container at Passage Rock.
Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.