Smoke on the water, fire in the sky
by Thor Iverson
For the first fifteen minutes, she seems pissed. I’m not sure why.
We’re walking through the vineyards at Rimu Grove, listening to owners Barbara and Patrick Stowe wax lyrical on the subject of their winery. Actually, we’re mostly listening to Barbara, as winemaker Patrick tends to stay in the conversational background until the subject comes ‘round to, say, bottling chemistry. But as she talks, not really needing even an occasional prodding question, I sense a growing but palpable irritation with…well, me. Or us. It’s baffling; we’ve barely said anything, and we were on time. Theresa, sotto voce, asks if I know what’s wrong.
And then, like a valve closing, it simply stops. She’s just as loquacious, but the edge is gone. Perhaps I just misread the boiling intensity with which the Stowes approach their project here in Nelson, a stunning vineyard site (stretching out and down to a sun-sparkled bay) planted, worked, and harvested by this Californian couple. Or it could be Patrick’s roots in Napa; maybe after five weeks amongst relentlessly affable New Zealanders, refugees from the land of golden-priced wine seem more irritable than they otherwise would.
The vines through which we’re strolling are on the young side, and at the moment they’re draped in form-fitting nets that deny passing birds a tasty but highly unprofitable feast. Plantings started in 1996 on sites formerly occupied by apple trees, and even now the varietal palette is limited to just three grapes: the black and grey pinots, plus chardonnay. That’s it.
It’s clear, however, that there’s a good deal of attention being paid to pinot gris, and Barbara chooses to grill me at some length on the subject of Alsace and its skill with this perpetually disappointing grape. Eventually pressed for an opinion, I don’t hedge: of the various major white grapes planted in New Zealand, I have to say that pinot gris is probably the least interesting (with the occasional exception), and I find the widespread viticultural enthusiasm for it misplaced based on the results. I expect her to get annoyed again, but instead she appears doubly excited; certainly theirs, I’m assured, will be the version that will change my mind. Well, I suppose that’s one way to throw down a gauntlet.
Why Napa to Nelson? The Stowes saw some sort of similarity between the Anderson Valley (specifically Navarro’s vineyards) and here. Was it the local Moutere clay, the same soil type found at – among other places – Neudorf? While extensive thinning is still necessary given the vines’ youthful exuberance, Patrick says that they early characteristics of maturity are beginning to appear, ten years on. Grape-growing is not for the impatient, and the Stowes buy no grapes because (they claim) they can’t find any cropped as low as they would like. This is an assertion to which I’m immediately inclined to object, but after reflection it makes sense: it’s probably not that low-yield vines don’t exist, but rather that – as they say – those grapes are not for sale. As for Rimu Grove’s vineyards, the Stowes agree that the best soils are those on the (low) hilltops…which also happen to be the most difficult. No surprise there.
The winery facility is a low-key affair; a working environment rather than a fancy tasting room. There are four wines plus a barrel sample available for tasting, and in contrast to our lengthy conversational amble through the vines, our tasting proceeds with little ceremony or commentary.
Rimu Grove 2002 Chardonnay (Nelson) – 100% barrel fermented, whole-bunch pressed. Dense with spice (especially cinnamon) and semi-rich. Long and intense, but not showing much fruit at the moment; mostly, what one tastes is what’s been done to the fruit during and after fermentation. My belief is that the intensity of the winemaking has overwhelmed the fruit, though certainly not in an obscene fashion, and if the artifice mellows a bit, this could round into form.
Rimu Grove 2002 Pinot Noir (Nelson) – Medium-soft dried cherry, strawberry, and plum. Lightly tannic, with high acidity. The finish is seedy, and re-softens after the brief structural insurrection on the midpalate.
Rimu Grove 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample) (Nelson) – One year from release. Sweet vanilla, chocolate liqueur, ripe boysenberry, dark cherry, and plum skin. Oh, and mixed nuts as well.. This is a heavy wine that’s showing a lot of wood-influenced, almost fetal fat, but there’s great acidity, and the finish is long and ascending. There’s even a stony underbelly. Quite promising, as long as it can handle that oak.
Rimu Grove 2004 Pinot Gris (Nelson) – Hot. Ripe pear with a sticky consistency. Long. “Balanced” in the context of a pinot gris pushed to and slightly beyond its limits, but one wishes for a little more acidity and a lot more precision. I don’t think this will have a long life, but it’s pleasant (albeit somewhat angry) in the near term.
Rimu Grove 2003 Pinot Gris “Vendange Tardive” (Nelson) – Pear and burnt caramel. Soft. Balanced between sugar and acidity, but just not very interesting. For too many producers, “late harvest” only means excessive residual sugar, not the added concentration and complexity that comes with long, slow on-vine development.
Those of us who write about wine for a living know the problem all too well. The eager face of a press agent, or an owner, or (in the worst case) a winemaker, shines down upon us as they ask The Question. “So, what do you think of the wines?”
It’s a sad but true fact that the best producers never, ever ask. They don’t need to. They know…and even if they don’t, they’re confident enough in their work to let it stand or fall on its own merits. And so, the verbalized desire for an on-the-spot assessment is left to those whose wines are, invariably, lacking in some fashion. At which point, the writer must make a choice.
The most indifferent and the most brutally honest will say whatever they think, without mitigation. This is, I suppose, the most ethically defensible position, but it’s not much fun for anyone. Even aside from the issue of saying hurtful things about a person’s passions, the conversation that follows almost always turns into an increasingly useless argument wherein the winery representative claims, “oh, but Bob Smith gave it a gold star,” while the writer is forced to defend some grand notion of subjectivity. Of course, running off to one’s publication of choice with a previously-unspoken truth is, viewed uncharitably, a little bit cowardly. But it does help avoid those really unpleasant personal moments, and that’s why most choose to do it.
In the interim, however, something has to be said. An answer must be delivered, whether or not it satisfies. And so the clever writer will learn how to speak emptiness with eloquence. If it works well enough, everyone’s happy, and the conversation proceeds apace.
But sometimes, it doesn’t work. The writer knows it. The winemaker knows it. Each hapless attempt to avoid the truth is like a little drop of poison, slowly numbing and then, finally, killing the conversation and any connection that might have developed. It’s a slow, mealy-mouthed decline into morbidity. I’ve invented a word for it, and while subsequent research shows that I’m not the first to use the word, I might be the first to define it in this fashion.
Euphemasia. Noun. Elective conversational death by euphemism.
The sad thing is, I’ve already had to suffer (and inflict) it on this trip. The victim was a producer whose wines weren’t very good, but who was very generously providing dinner at his home. My attempts to avoid giving an opinion weren’t fooling anyone, least of all him. Yet we persisted for lack of anything better to say. I felt fairly miserable afterwards, and even more so in the aftermath.
…and so here I am at Rimu Grove, with Barbara and Patrick eagerly awaiting my opinion on their pinot gris. It’s not just a question of whether or not I like the wine. No, that would be easy to discuss, triangulate, and perhaps avoid. Instead, I’m being asked to comment on its quality in the context of every pinot gris I’ve tasted, from anywhere.
Euphemasia sets in, and rather rapidly. Or at least, it does for me. Thankfully, it’s soon apparent that nothing will permanently dent the Stowes’ enthusiasm, so if they’re comprehending my hapless hedge, they’re ignoring it. In any case, I’m soon sprung free of the hook, and we say our goodbyes. An hour later, we finally drive away
Did I mention that Barbara is adept at the art of conversation?
The Rimu Grove wines are okay. There is, as yet, nothing special within the lineup (though the ’04 pinot noir has potential), but there’s little that’s wrong, either. This is a winery that could still go either way, though I suspect that pride will eventually lead them down the correct path. On their side is their relentless enthusiasm, but working against them is a slight capitulation to pretension that goes beyond typical and necessary viticultural self-satisfaction; if they believe they’ve already arrived, they’ll never choose to go anywhere else. And they need to. The raw materials seem decent enough, but now they need to be shaped, cajoled, and crafted into something better. By which I don’t mean the layering on of deformative winemaking techniques, but rather the patience and skill to achieve their qualitative goals, which might mean doing more…but also might mean doing less.
Swiftly flow the days
Rimu Grove 2004 Pinot Gris (Nelson) – Sweaty and salty, with funky banana oil and rotten pear aromatics. Dried apricot, too. It’s more varietally typical with food, which is welcome, but nonetheless it comes off more like some sort of mediocre, teenaged chardonnay than a true pinot gris. Where’s the fresh, spicy pear? Alternatively, where’s the lightly fruity fennel note? And is there any acidity to be had? I just don’t think this wine is getting it done, and in comparison to the luncheon leftovers of a very solid pinot gris from Peregrine, it tastes and feels rather clumsy.
We end the evening as we ended our first here in Nelson, sitting on our balcony as the air rapidly chills, watching the sun set through riotous bands of contrast and color. And thus a day that began with the very foundations of the earth in unrest, now ends with a fiery rainbow.
It’s a pale shadow of what’s to come.
Copyright © Thor Iverson.