Flat Whites, Icebreakers, Canterbury Lamb and Riesling: March 9, 2009
Just a few of my favorite things I’ve found this short while down here in New Zealand. Although not necessarily in that order. In the relatively short week I’ve spent here in the southern part of the world, I’ve seen my first blue penguin, had amazing lamb prepared several delicious ways, tasted a wild goat meat pie, sampled some of the best and most undiscovered Rieslings from this part of the world, and drank my weight in pints of Tui East Indian Ale while enduring a grueling 8 hour cricket match. In the blazing sun. Which, after 6 hours, turned into a frigid bowl of southerly gale force winds. I’ve also learned to drive on the other side of the road. Harrowing, considering that at every moment you are anticipating a head-on collision. And now, looking out onto High and Manchester streets in the center of Christchurch, I’m finally calm and settling into this new lifestyle, relaxed with my favorite Kiwi invention, the Flat White, as I watch the last of the Monday morning commuters buzz around me in a hurried attempt to begin their day-to-day cubicle life. Not me. Today, I travel with fellow Craggy Intern Patrick south of this Gateway To The Antartic to the Aroaki/Mt. Cook National Park. I have to admit, I couldn’t be happier to leave the city behind. For me, this is where the real New Zealand is discovered.
It’s freezing down here. And it’s March – I was expecting weather not unlike San Francisco in late August: warm, but with a slight chill in the evening. Not the case. So, after a necessary stop at one of the many outdoor stores (which are conveniently placed on every corner in the major intersections in South Island towns like Christchurch, Queenstown and Dunedin), I’m now all suited up with my North Face Ice Blue Fleece, my Mont goose-down sleeping bag and comfy ThermaRest camping mattress. I’m a fricking walking REI ad. NZed, here I come!
It’s a good thing that I got some civilized R&R in before embarking on this Great Unknown Journey. Prior to meeting Patrick in Christchurch (and witnessing way too much blood out in the streets for an average Saturday night), I escaped the City for a quick minibreak up to the Waipara Valley. Only an hour’s drive north of Christchurch, it is the perfect little getaway from the city. This is a region that is quickly becoming known for it’s delicate approach to Pinot Noirs and it’s ability to produce dry, off-dry and sweet Rieslings. I was able to taste at a few of the wineries in the region: Muddy Water, Pegasus Bay, Waipara Springs, and a little winery outside the region in little Waikari, Bell Hill, who are doing some absolutely fabulous small block, yet densely planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on limestone rich soils.
As for the Rieslings, where Pegasus Bay is king in the region, there are plenty more nipping at their heels. The Rieslings of Muddy Water were outstanding, with their dry Riesling showing delicate aromas of peaches, pears and lychee with a bit of hazelnut on the long finish. At 6gr RS, this is the driest style of the region, but the intense acidity and minerality helps to erase any sign of sugar on the palate. My preferred wine of the day. Their medium-dry, the James Harwick, was again just as minerally, with a distinct white floral nose, but a zesty Key Lime pie palate that kept me diving back in for more. Quite yummy. As for their sweeter style, the 2006 ‘Unplugged’ had a bit of Botrytis-affected fruit included, from a block that sits a little lower than their other blocks near the river. At 53gr RS, the wine was definitely more of a dessert style, but you won’t find any cloying fruit notes with this one. A very expressive nose of rose petals and a hint of petrol, the palate was more glycerine in style verses sticky sweet, and again the presence of the minerality and acitidy helped the wine to be focused and present. Other producers I was able to check out included Waipara Springs, Where I had one of the most delectable lamb salads on the terrace with a bit of dry Riesling.
Although the Riesling was quite expressive and lovely, it was the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from little producer Bell Hill that really stole my heart. Built upon a former limestone quarry and production facility, it is evident why Marcel and Sherwyn decided to turn the property into a home for Pinot and Chardonnay vines. The backdrop was luscious, with a light rain falling on the densely carpeted clover-green peaks and hilly ranges while the spun sugar clouds dotted the sky, tinged with a bit of gray, looking down onto the grazing sheep below. Upon a bluff overlooking all of this extravagance sits Bell Hill.
More vineyard than production space, the love is definitely felt in the dirt, where the vines are planted close together in tough limestone soils, perched on ridges and slopes and fight to be the very best they can be. The soil is actually three distinct layers, with the topsoil consisting of dark clay, the mid section, and largest section, all limestone, and the deepest layer a very fine, packed greensand soil. Wilco, vineyard manager from Holland via Martinborough, shows me each block and expresses just how carefully each row is cared for.
To taste with owners Marcel and Sherwyn is a magical experience, to say the least. After a quick tour of the tiny but functional crushpad and production room, I am escorted though a door in what looks to be an outhouse shaped like a mushroom, down a metal spiral staircase to a magnificent, yet ‘Lilliplutian’ cellar below. 12 oak barrels and a wall of mostly Burgundian wines line the inside of this submerged container. There, Marcel pulls samples of their 2008 Chardonnay, recently finished with ML. It tastes fresh and new, yet resplendent of limestone and mineral. Key lime, kiwi and honeysuckle with subtle tropical fruits accented the palate and finish. A gorgeous texture of Chantilly cream finishes it off. Delightful.
For the Pinot Noirs represented, all were pulled from the barrel, Marcel blending blocks together, and offering tastes of single block samples. All had beautiful expressive fruit, with the resplendent acidity and minerality gained from the soils. A hint of herbality and gaminess was something I could definitely sink my teeth into. The most expressive of the 2008 Pinots was that from a block affectionately dubbed the “Problem Child” block. It was one of the first planted, and so the most mature; however, the soils have been turning up curious deposits from its former life as a limestone processing plant, so each vintage presents new challenges and discoveries. If what was tasted from the barrel is any indication, this block is the one to look out for. The texture was both of lace and satin, with strong expression of fruit tannins and limestone, and the complexity of all the components was outstanding for the wine’s young age. Upon bottling, I can see this particular Pinot becoming even more elongated and defined, with years of aging giving it even more complexity.
Upon returning to Christchurch, I needed to find the perfect dinner experience to compliment the wine experience I’d just had in Waipara. Walking in awe in the shadow of the Arts Complex, directly across from the Botanical Gardens and the Canterbury Museum, I notice a sign for Annie’s Wine Bar. Intrigued, not only because the place looked like Oxford and Hogwarts all rolled into one, but because it also featured a Wine Bar, I headed straight to the hostess stand. A beautiful space accented by the cut stained-glass windows and soaring beams, the ambience was a 10. Apparently, open flame is acceptable in dining rooms throughout New Zealand, and the white tapers at the tables and ledges definitely tricked me into thinking I was in fact dining in the Grand Hall at some prestigious English university. Looking out through the beveled glass onto the green grassy commons with the last bit of afternoon sun filtering in, I felt very much at home, and like I should have a copy of Keats as my dinner partner.
The staff was quite young and friendly, and displayed quite a bit of knowledge about the local Canterbury wines featured on the list, as well as the flavor profiles for the wines found outside the immediate area. All of the wines poured by the glass were presented in the wine list with the actual label pasted onto the parchment page, with handwritten descriptions listed beneath the artwork. It actually created a sense of excitement to be ordering a glass of wine instead of a sense of dread.
To start, a Nobilo ’05 Method Traditionelle paired with ‘Annie’s Breads & Spreads’: Mint & basil, EVOO & Balsamic & Hummous. Quite non-descript, save for the excellent New Zealand Olive Oil. For the main, the South Pacific Grouper with Red Pepper, Japanese Radish, Tempura Pears & Cardomom. Wonderful flaky texture on the fish, if the spice was a tad bit lacking. To pair, the Aurum ’07 Pinot Gris from Central Otago. A nice pairing, that actually helped to bring out the spice in the dish. With a bright stone fruit nose featuring apricots, lycee, melon and flint, there was a hint on spice on the med-dry finish. A lovely, long citrus and floral palate assists the persistent finish. With the Grouper, the flavors seem to be more pure. Delicate, slightly sweet, and a savory texture that is definitely highlighted by the Pinot Gris.
So, although I have not done the bungee thing or the skydiving thing or the rafting thing, or even the work thing yet, I seem to be LOVING NZed, as it were, and can't wait to try all the above things (and perhaps eat a live worm or two). Provided that working down here is half as fun as playing down here, I should be in for a very good time indeed.....
Cheers and Kai Ora