Tuesday, July 22, 2008

New Zealand: More Than "All Blacks" & Whites--Try The Reds!

When in Australia last week we started every meal with a glass of white from Aotearoa (the ‘land of the long white cloud’ as the native Maoris say). The Aussies are proud of their Shiraz – but from what I tasted of New Zealand’s Syrah, it’s a force as powerful as the “All Blacks” rugby team.

True, New Zealand is known for its whites and my friend John Bowen claims that the best Chardonnay in the world is from NZ (he’s given me a bottle to bring back home!). Sauvignon Blanc accounts for about 75% of NZ exports. But there are more than storm clouds off the rainy cost – competition. According to NZ winemaker Kim Crawford (in an article in The New Zealand Herald July 22), production costs are approximately US$40 per case for NZ’s Sauvignon Blanc growers, who could begin to feel pressure from Chilean producers who have increased plantings and whose cost of goods are reported to be only $31.50 per case.

“It’s been quite difficult to get growers to grow other varieties because Sauvignon Blanc is such a cash cow for everybody,” says Kim. “ But they are seeming to do that now.” I concur with that observation – where I have tasted fantastic reds on Waiheke Island, a 40 minute ferry ride from Auckland. (If you’re familiar with Seattle and its ferry system, then think Bainbridge Island.) There are about 20 wineries on Waiheke, some accessible by foot as soon as you get off the ferry.

Winter is an ideal time to visit the island if you don’t like crowds and enjoy the cold. On the Sunday I arrive, it’s pouring, and when I leave on Tuesday it’s pouring. Alas, Monday afternoon is clear – blue skies, green grass framed by the sea, and it couldn’t be New Zealand without the bleating of sheep calling for their missing lambs who have been harvested away.

The Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant is located on a hill about a mile from the ferry – a quick, two minute cab ride if you prefer not to walk. The views are spectacular, as is the restaurant, with its gardens, lavender, views and vineyard. The tasting room is open year round, 7 days/week, and no appointment is required.

While walking up the path to the Mudbrick, we pass Lance Blumhardt, owner of Jurassic Ridge Vineyard, busy pruning a block of 1,000 Montepucciano vines. We’ve made an appointment to visit Lance and his boutique winery after lunch; he welcomes the opportunity to meet with a fellow small producer from across the ocean. The vineyard takes its name from the exposed and eroded core of an ancient mountain ridge composed of Jurassic-age rocks.

The wind outside is brisk – a reason for the thickest end posts I’ve ever seen – but inside the Mudbrick a wood-burning hearth provides warmth. We order pressed lamb and a fine steak paired first with an estate Syrah then a Cab. My initial impressions of the Syrah is that it’s as fine as what I drank in Australia, but being new, will be softer with a little more age. It also opens up after being in the glass. For dessert, I order a plate of New Zealand cheeses, and ask the waitress – originally from Bourgogne, France who came to New Zealand to study, work and gain some Maori tatoes on her wrists – to select the wine – a Cabernet - Merlot blend, which when combined with the local cheese is too die for. We’re now in the mood to work this off and to ask Lance if he needs help with his pruning. (I know having guests stop by can be an interruption to the vineyard work that needs to be done – so I’m all for pulling up my sleeves and lending a hand with pruning – or any other task (sheering lambs?) as we talk.

Lance has just received a shipment of Flextanks (the breathable storage containers originally from Australia that are now available in the US) and I’m convinced by his testimony that I need to give one a try when I get back. Lance oaks his wine with Oak staves – used ones he has used to decorate his tasting bar.

He shows us his pruning techniques. One objective of pruning here is to cut away wood – the challenge in this area is wood disease – hence, the reason for not developing a strong cordon/spur method. To combat mildew, he employs a vertical trellis system, and during the season pulls away all leaves on the fruiting wire, exposing the fruit to sun (and making sure that mildew sprays reach the fruit and penetrate the leaves). Lance says that much effort goes into ensuring that each shoot is vertical – placing each shoot by hand vertically within the trellis. He runs the 4-acre vineyard himself, pruning all the vines himself – a two month job.

Lance is one of the first growers in NZ to “plastic wire” – instead of metal. The benefits: flexibility – the plastic wire stretches back to its original position – an important consideration given the constant – and strong -- wind from the bay.

He runs into some of the same regulations one could face in the US – the local authorities say that he has too much square footage already built on his property – so his cars are now parked outside; the garage has been converted into a tasting room. Lance has passed Question 5 of the Winemaker’s Quiz .

We taste the Syrah and the Cabernet Franc – booth good, and I fill up my bag with as many bottles as I can carry (and dare put in my suitcase for the flight back). We’ll organize a tasting party in Blue-Merle Country this weekend. If the impressions are favorable, we’ll look at becoming an importer of Lance’s reds, and the best Chardonnay from NZ. Stay tuned for the tasting notes.

(Editor's note: One day later I've returned to the US and open the 2006 Cabernet Franc, which passes two important tests: 1) after tasting the first drops, I know I want to finish the bottle that evening 2) when we're down to the last glass, I will fight my wife for it. The Cabernet Franc passes both tests. And the olive oil Lance produces invites me to keep dipping bread and avocados into a pool of it....)

New Zealand Wine Industry Facts:

  • *285,000 ton harvest in 2008.
  • *Wine exports forecast for US$800 million in 2010.
  • *Known for Sauvignon Blanc – accounts for 75% of exports. Try the reds.

When You Go:

Waiheke Island Bus Tours & Vineyard Tours: http://www.fullers.co.nz/

Jurassic Ridge Vineyard: (09) 372-6602


Mudbrick (09) 372-9050 www.mudbrick.co.nz

Places to Stay:

The Sebel, a suites hotel, located right in Auckland’s Harbor, next to restaurants and pubs. Given the busy location, the hotel is well made, and sound does not penetrate to the rooms. Tel: (64) 9-978-4000. http://www.mirvachotels.com/ Hint: Book on-line through a discount hotel service, and ask for a room with a view. Half the hotel faces the harbor with outstanding views!

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