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!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Melbourne Australia Wine Country: Mornington Peninsula

July in Melbourne is winter. The rains are welcome, as the area is in a stage 3 drought. After lunch of oysters, lamb brains, raw steak tartar and “wagu” Kobe beef at the Wine Room in St. Kilda, we head to the wine country on Mornington Peninsula, town of Mt. Eliza. We follow the coastal road – Melbourne is situated at the back of a very large bay. We pass Canary Island Date Palms and Protea “bottle brush” trees that rise as tall as 4 story buildings.
First stop is Morningstar Estate – picture perfect for weddings. We pull into the driveway where grazing sheep catch my eye. This is what we need at the Blue-Merle Vineyard for weed control and dog control. (Our shepherd needs something to do – so not only would a pair of sheep keep Bluey occupied, they keep the weeds down and don’t eat the vines.)
The winery has a tasting room, restaurant and hotel , and I’m thinking this is the place to stay on my next trip to Melbourne. From the terrace, you catch glimpses of the bay. My first thought: mildew.
“I don’t like red wines,” says our pourer, a young man of 23 years.
“How’s the mildew around here?”
“I’ve never heard of a problem.” Yeah, right.
The Pinot is drinkable. The Cabernet-Merlot blend is not. According to Derek Barton, author of “Australia’s Best Wine Tours” which I purchased from one of the many book stores in St. Kilda, the peninsula is known for good Pinots. We head outside to the vineyard. I’m struck by two things: the way end posts are supported (see picture), and the pruning. The end posts are not put in at angles; rather, they are straight, given extra support by another end post placed at the top. (See the picture.) The pruning method is to prune back to a single shoot, which stretches across the cordon wire. This is to control vegetative growth in this challenging microclimate (surrounded by water).
Whereas Morningstar Estate is a beautiful castle, our next stop across the road is a bohemian hole in wall with attitude, the Under Ground, where the yard is littered with barrels and the grounds could use a good cleaning. This is the place to have fun and to talk with the winemaker who describes in great detail the challenges of mildew and the pruning techniques. I notice they are using the breathable, oxygen permeable plastic drums, which are reputed to allow wine to age with a slow oxidation process similar to barrel aging. The winemaker concurs with the assessment and gives me the name of the Flextank supplier. According to the Flextank’s website:

“Chemical analysis of wine stored in Flextanks has shown that there is no difference in the general wine quality parameters for wine stored in Flextank, oak or stainless steel. Of particular note, chlorophenols, a concern often expressed with the use of plastic materials in wine production, were not found in Flextank-matured wine. Flextank maturation tanks require the addition of oak to allow the wine to develop oak-derived flavours that occurs in the barrel maturation process. High quality staves are recommended for this process. Further, the Flextank maturation process with staves will be less at risk from other problems, including losses due to evaporation and development of Brett off-flavours, than can occur during oak barrel maturation. On the other hand, if oak staves are not added to the wine in Flextanks, the maturation process becomes similar to that occurring in a neutral or spent barrel: the advantage of Flextank maturation, apart from much improved hygiene over use of old barrels, is that oxygen ingress is closer to that of a new barrel, allowing wine development to occur to a more normal timetable.”

We have fun sampling the sweet muscat wines, and I am especially keen on trying the Duriff, which they have named “Dr. Duriff.” We know this back home as Petite Syrah (no, it is NOT petite shiraz, mate), which is a thick, dark, chewy, big wine – of which we have a barrel full back at the Blue-Merle vineyard, maturing nicely. Dr. Duriff does not disappoint, and I purchase a bottle to bring back to the artisans of Blue-Merle Country. Next stop, New Zealand.

When you go:

Place to stay: Novotel, St. Kilda. Located about 5 miles or so from the Melbourne City Center, along the bay. Jog along the beach in the morning. Enjoy breakfast and a “flat white” coffee at the racer’s café (where all the cyclists hang out).

Lunch or Dinner: Melbourne Wine Room The George. 125 Fitzroy St., St. Kilda. Tel: (03) 9525-5599. Reservations recommended. Everything delicious. Ask the waiter what’s good the day you go.

Morning Coffee: Racer’s Café, St. Kilda. (1/4 mile from the hotel.)

Sails on the Bay. Restaurant. Despite being located right on the beach with a bay view, the food is good. 15 Elwood Foreshore, Elwood, Victoria. www.sailsonthebay.com

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Troubling Signs: Vineyard Pests

There were troubling signs in the vineyard. Namely, a number of the Tempranillo vines were starting to show red leaves (which I thought may have been due to their age and some stress). More worrisome was the Zinfandel vine putting out brilliant red leaves combined with abnormal growth. So, we called in an expert, an entomologist from Valley Center.
The major concern in Southern California Vineyards is Pierce's Disease (PD) which will kill the vines. The vector is the glassy winged sharpshooter. These are interesting and crafty bugs. When they detect your hand, they move to the other side of the stem (so you can't see them). But, they're easy to trick ... put your hand on the "hidden side" and they'll come into your view.
Shortly after we planted our vines a year ago, we had an "infestation" of sharpshooters in the vineyard. We found them on many plants, and also on the "yellow sticky things". We definitely had them. When we spoke with our vineyard consultant about this, he recommended waiting until the vines had reached the cordon wire before applying "admire" -- a treatment against sharpshooters. The application was done on the last day of August last year -- what I don't know is if any of our vines are "infected" (because they were certainly exposed to the pests last year) -- and some of the red leaves I was seeing was a cause for concern.
On July 4th, we walked the vineyard with Matt, the entomologist. Good news about the Tempranillo -- the red leaves were just showing signs of age. (Picture at left.) Matt did observe some signs of stress, most likely caused by the heat wave two weeks ago -- and, as suspected, we have not been watering enough (I was trying to make the vines hunt for their water -- perhaps a little too much. In any event, no harm done -- and perhaps even stronger vines.) In the Aglianico area, we found signs of mildew, but nothing to be alarmed about -- the temperature has been well in excess of 85. Another reason we are not so concerned with mildew this year is we are not planning to harvest grapes for wine -- just a little for the farmers market.
The Zinfandel caught his attention -- but he's not 100% sure it's PD -- so, he cut samples from the vine, and will ship them to the lab for testing. We'll know in a couple of weeks if we have a problem.
We've upped the watering -- giving each vine approximately 8 gallons of water once a week.... the Petit Syrah at the bottom of the hill (which is where the rich soil is) have turned into a jungle. Within this tropical rain forest I found the King Kong of Grapes, a Godzilla cluster which was 10 clusters bunched together, on a second year vine whose trunk resembled the Ent Trees from Lord of The Rings. Since we're concerned with root growth this year -- it looks like we've got it in this area. I wonder if some of these vines have found their own source of water: the leach field?!

Friday, July 4, 2008

"Meadowlark" Newspaper Reports on Blue-Merle's & Sunrise Vineyards Awards

The Meadowlark newspaper of Hidden Meadows reported on the awards won by the Blue-Merle Winery and the Escondido Sunrise Vineyards at the June 15 winemaking competition of the San Diego Country Fair in its July issue. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)