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Coups de Coeur

By |  June 2 2008

Readers will know that I’m easily smitten by a good bottle, but it’s a whole country this time, I’m afraid. Not every bottle in it, to be sure, but the whole Kiwi experience of meeting wines with familiar faces but fresh complexions.

It could only be New Zealand. Traveling there is like going all the way through the New World and finding yourself back in the Old. Not so long ago this meant a sort of retroworld, with old model cars matched by oldfashioned manners. But New Zealand has woken to find that its take on nature, its environment, and its inherited culture is unburdened by what others took for progress.

It changed millennia into something like innocence. "The clean green land" is what it dubbed itself. The almost-empty one, a visitor wants to add: empty, poised, a sort of spare Europe hanging below the rafter of the globe, waiting for enterprise to move in.

Of course it has been ransacked for raw materials: minerals and mutton. It didn’t seem the place to make industrial wine; Australia could do that. Marginal, they said its prospects were. Then the penny dropped. Aren’t all the best vineyards marginal? Isn’t marginal the definition of the environment vines need to give fresh, balanced, harmonious, food-enhancing wines?

Three weeks in late summer (March 2007) was far too short a time to explore all the margins. But short stays in Auckland, Gisborne, and Hawke’s Bay, moving south down North Island, then Waipara and Central Otago, in the center and south of South Island, showed me five regions each capable of exquisite wines.

Auckland has a winemaking history, and Hawke’s Bay is no newcomer; the others are completely groundbreaking. None of them, I suspect, has reached even half its full potential. The sort of quality we are glimpsing here is what France must have been discovering in the 19th century. In a world demanding better and better wines, it won’t take the Kiwis 200 years to catch up. So what were the heart-stopping bottles,

the future Cortons and Cheval Blancs? Greatness was not what I was experiencing- not yet, at least. Do you drink Burgundy because of DRC or because it is a well of refreshment and satisfaction? The Kiwi bottles I remember most vividly are the ones I couldn’t not have finished: wines tempting and teasing to the last drop. My daughter Kitty had told me not to miss a winery called "Te Fow"-at least that’s what it sounded like. Waiheke Island is a 40- minute ferry ride from Auckland. "Te Fow"

turns out to be the local pronunciation of Te Whau, known to most, it seems, for its striking restaurant on a cliff with the perfect view over the water to Auckland. The voice that greeted me gave me a moment of déjà entendu. Only German Swiss speak English so horribly. Where had I heard it before? Why did I instantly associate it with excellent wine? At Mount Mary in the Yarra Valley: it was Herb Freidli, winemaker to the late Dr John Middleton, whose reds and whites have confused Australians for years with their quiet, time-demanding quality. The 2005 Te Whau Chardonnay that Herb showed me seemed modeled on Corton-Charlemagne intense, introvert, finely structured. And The Point, a Cabernet/Merlot with, I understand, a measure of Malbec, was cool, savory, penetrating, and long. "A seaside wine," I noted, which was either a brilliant insight or an obvious statement. In any case I was impressed. These, and the already wellknown Stonyridge wines from the same island, mark it out as a distinctive (and, of course, seaside) terroir.

There was another reason to visit Gisborne, alias Poverty Bay, the easternmost point of North Island. It is an essential call for a dendrologist. Exotic (that is nonnative) trees have been grown here more successfully than anywhere else in New Zealand. Eastwoodhill and Hackfalls, on the road to Hawke’s Bay, are two of the best tree collections I have been lucky enough to see. The soil and climate that makes trees from around the world grow so rapidly to record size are (coincidentally?) just as benign to grapevines. A Promised Land indeed.

Organic growing principles seem the obvious answer in a country as healthy as this. I have no fixed view on biodynamics. If the results are good, I approve; if not, I forgive. Our visit happened to coincide with the launch of a new vintage from one of New Zealand’s most eminent biodynamic growers, the Millton Estate of James and Annie Millton, in the foothills just north of the Gisborne plain. It was an opportunity to meet a dozen of the country’s leading wine critics, at lunch in a tent among the vines.

Why do vineyards on slopes fill you with confidence? Not all of Europe’s best, by any means, are canted at the sun. The Millton vineyard, in any case, tilts steeply up an amphitheatre in the approved fashion. We tasted its Chenin Blanc, both dry and sweet uncannily close in style to Anjou. Then Viognier, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. "Teas, tonics, and attention" was the Milltons’ description of their biodynamic recipe. Their account of matching vine varieties to the land was intriguing: Chenin Blanc (rare in New Zealand) is on heavy land low down. Viognier is planted where the shade of a wood protects it for half the day, Syrah on a mid-slope plateau baptized The Crucible for the extra heat it collects. My impression of all the wines was a sort of unstressed purity of flavor. The Pinot Noir, from vines still in short trousers, is light in texture but as fragrantly supple as Savigny; the Chardonnay (these top wines are labeled Clos de Sainte Anne) as silky and subtle as something from the slopes above Puligny. I think my fellow guests liked the Syrah best of all. Syrah is high fashion, it seems, in this country that is gaining confidence in the grapes it can ripen (almost) every year.

Hawke’s Bay would be more predictable, I thought. The journey down the coast (we were ferried to the windswept halfway point by Gisborne friends, then taken in charge by Hawke’s Bayers) visits hilltops and gorges, forests and sheepwalks, and sees scarcely a soul. The vines begin near Napier on levels with a feature I found disconcerting at first:__ they are broken by immense terraces that look perfectly artificial-works, it appears, of civil engineering, regardless of expense. Why, you ask, have flood waters cut and pasted the landscape so precisely here? The perspectives of terraces perfectly level stretching for miles give a Dutch feeling to the wide sky and flotillas of clouds.

Cabernet and its kin

Te Mata is long established as one of the region’s leaders. Its range of wines is representative of what Hawke’s Bay does best, and it is deeply impressive. Sauvignon Blanc didn’t feature, I fear, in my list of Kiwi heart-stoppers. I was taught by my patron André Simon that a connoisseur "can distinguish good wine from bad, and can appreciate the distinctive merits of different wines." That rules me out: The taste and smell of Cloudy Bay makes me shudder. The Buck family of Te Mata showed me a trick, though, that others would do well to emulate. They ferment the too-pungent must in oak with a small measure of Semillon and a smaller one of Sauvignon Gris. Sauvignon Gris surprised me: It is the grape I grew in Central France with less than distinguished results. It is part of the old Graves Blanc recipe, though, and must give a little twist to Cape Crest, the Te Mata would-be Graves. It won me over.

Hawke’s Bay’s reputation is based, of course, on Cabernet and its kin, of which it was New Zealand’s pioneer. Tom MacDonald, who apparently first grew it here, has been locally canonized, and Church Road, where he worked, become a shrine. Te Mata has grown Cabernet with such distinction that John Buck recently gave a tasting of his first 20 vintages of Coleraine in London to the critical crew who only turn out for something extremely special. What I didn’t know was that the same soil ripens remarkable Syrah, Gamay, Viognier, and Chardonnay. Some of the Viognier goes in some of the Syrah. The result: peppered plums, leading into a long, smooth, structured wine of real class. Not such a heart-stopper, though, to my simple tastes, as unblended "Bullnose" Syrah. These river deposits seem to do something original with this grape. Good examples (Brookfields Hillside is another) have flavors that are both broad and bright, with a juicy acidity that makes the Barossa style look elephantine.

Perhaps if they grew Syrah in the Médoc it would turn out like this. The Médoc constantly comes to mind on these gravel levels. Te Mata’s affordable Cabernet, called Awatea, is quite simply claret-and a lot better than Good Ordinary. Thoughts of the Médoc disappear, though, when you reach the Chardonnay. Elston is Te Mata’s reserve bottling. (Are this and Coleraine unique among fine wines in having Ulster names?) Of course, vintages are key here. In some parts of Australia you can design a style and keep it going pretty much year on year. In Hawke’s Bay, 2005 seems to have had all the elements. Elston Chardonnay is just on the right side of sumptuous: memorable as much for drive and length as for mouth-filling flavors.

We missed Martinborough, alas, and reluctantly bypassed Marlborough, to fly direct to Christchurch in the middle of the South Island. On my last visit I had tasted samples so intriguing from Christchurch’s local vineyards at Waipara that I wanted to see more. The Donaldsons of Pegasus Bay gave the lead here. I remember vivid Riesling-something that always wakes my interest. The Kiwi trick, repeated again and again, is to exploit marginal conditions, this time the landward benchland of the eastern coastal range, in the rain shadow of the Main Divide (the strangely evocative alias of the Southern Alps) and the seaward shelter of the coastal hills. It works for Riesling. It also works for the Burgundy grapes: Pinot Noir lithe and fruity, Chardonnay silky and round, with just the necessary thread of steel in its core. After a week in New Zealand you expect excitement in a high proportion of the bottles you open. Perhaps the wine I would single out from Pegasus Bay was the newly released dry Riesling. Riesling with residual sugar has a loyal market, but Riesling without opens up new perspectives. How long can Sauvignon Blanc stay in business when something this much better (and with a similar taste profile) comes along?

Riesling was on the menu in Central Otago, too, when we reached the southernmost point in our journey. Books will be written (it’s certainly tempting) about this improbable outpost of viticulture. What was that bright-green rectangle in the distance, on a hill no sheep would bother to climb, eroded like the Badlands of Dakota? Only vines can do that, and as you drive into Bendigo (population, apparently, zero), a hoarding in the settling dust clouds tells you whose: makers of famously cool-climate wines.

We met four of their creators, whose statues may grace future avenues of Queenstown as industry founders. By a happy chance, my old collaborator Tony Laithwaite was visiting at the same time; our gathering at The Post Master’s House in Arrowtown to taste through the whole 14- year history of the region deserves a more detailed record than I can give it here.

Pinot Noir has from the start been the calling card of Central Otago. As Oregon has shown, any region that offers a plausible Pinot has the world’s attention. The four 2005s we tasted, before going back to earlier vintages, come from four scattered corners of the appellation (to use a term that seems far from out of place here).

Rippon, from Lake Wanaka in the north, was very much the natural wine: grainy, dense, and slightly wild, with a deep black-cherry flavor that promised a marvel to come. Mount Edward, from the Gibbston Valley, the pioneer vineyard, had beautifully pure fruit of almost stinging concentration. This, I felt, was a classic in the making: firm, confident, and long. Felton Road Block 5 comes from Bannockburn, a district of even greater extremes (and even more desperate-looking terrain). Deep, smoky, tight-grained, and savory, I noted. You can’t help thinking Côte d’Or here-in this case, Côte de Nuits.

Quartz Reef, the fourth ’05 of the set, comes from the seeming desolation of Bendigo, a spot last animated by gold miners in the 19th century. "Extracted" was my note, subconsciously drawing parallels perhaps. Peppery, with drier tannins than the fullfruit style that has made Central Otago famous. A range, therefore, in these four wines, of different styles within the region. Quartz Reef, I had already discovered, is extracting something else extremely welcome from its unpromising dust: bubbly with an almost uncanny resemblance to (and helping hand from) Champagne.

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