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Mud and melancholy

Winemonkeys at the petting zoo,
Bambi on the terrace, and the perils of "fame"

by Thor Iverson

[Marty thieving wine samples]

Marty, Mudbrick winemonkey

Light petting

“Which turn is it?”

Sue consults her notes. “The one to the petting zoo.”

I press the brakes, glance in my rear-view mirror. “What?

“The petting zoo. Look, there,” she points, “up that road.”

“You know, I’ve driven this road a dozen times, and I’ve never noticed that.”

We turn. A few forlorn animals – mostly sheep, and where can one possibly find those in New Zealand? – stare balefully at us from behind a short fence. They don’t look particularly eager to be petted…but given a total absence of potential petters, there doesn’t seem to be much danger of that. Nor of ticket-taking, or indeed of any two-legged habitation whatsoever. So are these just a bunch of animals in a pen? “Hey, come pet them if you want!”

The sheep provide no answer, though they do continue to stare.

An end to summer

Most visitors to Waiheke Island’s Mudbrick will not set foot or wheel anywhere near a petting zoo. That’s because they’ll be at the winery’s eponymous restaurant, highly-regarded among Waiheke’s limited dining options, which is situated quite close to the Matiatia ferry wharf. Instead, we’re amongst tree-lined vineyards somewhere not too far from Stonyridge, still with Sue & Neil Courtney in tow, in a clean, functional winery completely removed from the touristed byways of the island. We’re joined by Nick Jones, co-owner of the property, and a youngish chap (yet another!) named Marty, who turns out to be the winemaker, and we’re here to taste some wine.

Nick wears a light blue “Playboy 50” t-shirt with studied insouciance, while Marty attends to the actual business of tasting. They’re relaxed, jovial, and inclined more towards humor than serious wine talk, which is just fine with us after a long day of wine visits. We thus skip the preliminaries and get right to tasting, with our quartet interjecting the occasional question into the casual levity.

Mudbrick 2004 Chardonnay (Waiheke Island) – Just bottled, and showing a little discomfort because of it, with leesy, lactic notes still lingering in the forefront. Behind them, there’s heavy peach, orange skins, and a good balance of welcome acidity. A bit hard to penetrate at the moment, I suspect this will be a perfectly nice chardonnay when it settles down.

Mudbrick 2004 Chardonnay “Reserve” (Waiheke Island) – 35% new oak, mostly from Mendoza clones, showing rancid butter, thick tangerine, and a long, tangy finish. That nose is pretty gross, however.

Marty ascends a nearby stack of barrels, thief in hand, to lead us though some barrel tasting. I’m consistently amazed that winemakers don’t hurt themselves more often doing this very thing, as the necessity of plugging a wine-filled thief reduces one’s available climbing arms by half, but our young winemaker seems agile enough.

Mudbrick 2004 Syrah (barrel sample) (Waiheke Island) – Resinous, gummy blueberry and leather – this is thick – with good balance and a polished finish. Solid. The final blend is assembled from a mixture of new and old French oak.

Mudbrick 2004 Merlot (barrel sample) (Waiheke Island) – From new American oak. Burnt coconut, light dill, big blue- and blackberry with chewy, leathery tannin. Not bad, though obviously (as these things will be) marked by the wood in which it sits.

Mudbrick 2004 Merlot (barrel sample) (Waiheke Island) – From older French oak. Sweeter than the previous wine, showing blueberry, plum, great acidity, and a beautiful overall balance. Barrel-specific tastings are so interesting.

With 2004 not exactly the best of vintages over most of the country, no one can resist talking about the horrible weather of early 2005, and we find ourselves in the midst of yet another conversation on this topic. The same concern – the extreme tardiness of the grapes and what it means for harvest – is on everyone’s lips, and the onset of cooler autumn temperatures cannot arrive too late for most winemakers.

[patio dinner]

Sue, Theresa, Neil & Al Fresco

Theresa asks, in response, “when do you consider the end of your summer?”

Nick looks at her, expressionless and dry. “When the weather turns to shit.”

Mudbrick 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (barrel sample) (Waiheke Island) – Fragrant leaves and bright blueberry/blackberry fruit infused with cassis and somewhat more exotic notes of mango. There’s also rosemary and black dirt providing a bridge to a ripe, yet solid structure. An outstanding sample, but of course as of yet it’s only a sample.

Mudbrick 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (barrel sample) (Waiheke Island) – From a block of vines near the winery in which we’re standing. Softer than the previous wine, showing blueberry, walnut, soft and drying tannin, and an ungenerous, slightly short finish. This definitely needs the other more than the reverse, though if one wants to avoid fruit-bomb cabernet, the opposite could easily be argued. And, in fact, probably will be at blending time.

Mudbrick 2004 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Sweet plum and fragrant strawberry with graphite notes and an excellent balance of structural tannin and acidity. One of the better Marlborough pinots I’ve tasted (though not in the league of, say, Fromm).

Mudbrick 2003 Pinot Noir (Nelson) – An interesting South Island comparison to the previous wine, albeit from a different vintage. Sweeter and prettier than the Marlborough pinot, showing leafy tarragon and a stony, delicate, fine-grained texture. Really lovely. While both pinots are excellent, the latter is unquestionably more refined, the former more powerful.

Mac’s & cheese

We take our leave of Nick & Marty, thanking them for an illuminating tasting, and make a quick pit stop at the local grocery mega-mart (sure, OK, it’s not really all that “mega”) for some last-minute supplies and a gift for the host at our villa. In thanks for all the generosity he’s shown, I’ve offered Cliff some wine, but he’s demurred; Mac’s Gold is what he’s after, and I pick up the last six-pack in the store. Perhaps Cliff’s been on a bender.

Back at the villa, we thank Sue & Neil for their planning and companionship in the way we know best: we cook for them. The leftovers of our lunchtime assortments of cheese, pâté and snacks are assembled on our patio table, and I converse with our guests as Theresa assembles a delicious dish of truffled gnocchi with sautéed mushrooms, garlic and fresh basil, a dish that would be no big deal in most kitchens but is a bit of a juggling act on our small stove and with limited pans. We trade off positions, and I follow this with some venison steaks aromatized with kaffir lime leaves and spiced up with some tamarind chutney, combine some other leftovers for a little dab of creamed spinach, and roast bell peppers which I toss with oil, spring onions, and more of the basil. For a thrown-together meal intended to use up the last bits of everything in our fridge, it’s pretty good, and we finish off the remains of several days’ worth of wines, while opening just one new bottle.

Melness 2003 Riesling (New Zealand) – Crisp apple and sharp minerality on the nose turn dull and insubstantial on the palate. Lightness is its chief virtue, and it’s not all that virtuous.

The limitations of fame

As the sun sets over the hills in swirls of vivid blue and yellow, Sue & Neil call an end to our marvelous day. A taxi arrives to collect them for their return journey to the ferry, and then home. As we’re watching them leave, Cliff emerges from his side of the house and thanks me for the beer. He’s got an odd look in his eye.


The sun sets on Waiheke
“Mate, you’re famous!”

Puzzled, I respond with eloquence: “huh?”

“I just Googled you.”

The number of ways in which that could go wrong pass through my mind, and I attempt to disabuse him of further explorations. “Oh, no, I just type a lot.” I don’t know that he appears to accept this explanation, but at least he doesn’t quiz me on any particular thing I’ve written.

Another end to summer

The encounter with Cliff puts me in an odd philosophical state, which my mind is free to explore as we tidy up the dishes from our small feast and repack our belongings. As with any good vacation, we already feel that we’ve been in New Zealand for weeks (rather than just a few days), and with all the exotic locales yet to explore, there’s hardly justification for melancholy…though we will be sad to leave what has become a most relaxing island retreat. But I think it must be Cliff’s mention of Google that has me a little out of sorts. Certainly, that search engine-cum-meme was a constant companion while planning this trip, but here it’s an intrusion of the very life from which we’re taking a vacation…a reminder that the “real world” continues around us, and that the enticing notion of escape is a purely mental one. Tomorrow, we leave Waiheke for our next destination, and a little bit of our escape crumbles into the dusty archives of memory. Tomorrow also brings us that much closer to a world in which things like a search engine matter. It’s a deep blue thought, and I’m filled with an unexpected and unwelcome sadness all out of proportion to the significance of our departure. I unburden myself to Theresa, who smiles in sympathetic comfort.

“You’re too moody. I had a fabulous time here.”

“Well, I did too, but I’m surprisingly down about leaving. One section of our trip is entirely over.”

She shakes her head. “Yes, but tomorrow brings us closer to penguins.” And with that, she’s off to bed, a renewed skip in her step.

Theresa, you see, loves penguins.

Disclosure: two bottles of pinot noir given by Mudbrick as gifts.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.