Friday, 25 February 2011

Tolkein about New Zealand wines

“It's not my hobbit to be star struck but I was thrilled to meet Gandalf recently, (Ian Mckellan, the actor, that is) though sadly he was minus his flowing white locks. I am a huge Lord of the Rings fan, since being introduced to Tolkein's masterpiece in my youth and becoming totally bewitched by his allegorical legends.” enthused Heather A.  Like many afficionados she was sceptical about how these fantastical tales could be translated to celluloid, as nothing can ever hope to compete with our imagination, but she applauds director Peter Jackson for his masterly and magnificent effort.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy was famously filmed in New Zealand’s South Island, the stunning scenery providing the perfect backdrop for the trials and perilous journey of the Ring Bearer, Frodo Baggins.
In recent months there has been a public outcry in this far flung outpost of “British-ness”, as it has been mooted that another Tolkein tale, The Hobbit, is to be filmed  - but not in New Zealand.  This news has prompted a national outcry as a whole tourist industry has grown up in the wake of this land being designated Hobbit Holme.  We await the outcome.
In the meantime life goes on apace (or actually quite slowly in NZ it must be said), with the other relatively new “industry” that has captured the world’s imagination – New Zealand wine.  Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc is cited by many as the first Kiwi wine to make its mark on the world's wine fashion stage.  It is still popular and has become the model for the multitude of follow-on-ers who have since appeared. 
Sauvignon blanc must be a contender for the world's most easily recognizable grape variety:  that pungent, nettley, gooseberry fruit that jumps up out of the glass to meet you could not be mistaken for anything else.  New Zealand made its mark with what you might call “fruit salad” style sauvignons, which packed a punch, but perhaps lacked subtlety.  More recently, though, a greater deal of diversity in taste and a far more sensitive touch from the winemaker has allowed more subtle nuances of flavour to emerge.  A sauvignon much-rated by those in the know is Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc, from Marlborough of course.  Here  lively, herbaceous and lightly floral fruit dances across the palate.  More of an elegant pas de deux than a Highland fling.  Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2009 is available from the Vineking (Reigate and Horley) for £15.99, or £14 as part of a case.  The Vineyard in Dorking has the 2008 for just £9.99 – a steal, but as this is generally not a wine style that suits ageing, try a bottle before you grab a case of it.
Success breeds confidence and where once apple orchards exported fruit to the northern hemisphere, the new crop is the grape.  Many a brave decision has been made by colonial farmers to turn their lands and their hands to viticulture, and the result has been an upsurge of individual and family owned vineyards enthusiastically producing uniquely styled wines.  However, success can also breed over-production, as New Zealanders have found as they now wrestle with a glut of sauvignon blanc and vineyard sell-offs.  
Rieslings are being talked up as the vine variety à la mode by those of us who write about wine and those who try to sell it.  A variety that originally found fame as a light, floral wine  from Germany, and something more muscular and mineral in Austria and Alsace is now being championed by the newcomers from “the land of the long white cloud.”  Try Wild Earth Riesling 2008, £13.50 at Godalming-based Imbibros.   It has lively acidity and a combination of flowers and peachy fruit on the palate.  The flavours are delicate but have enough presence and the hint of sweetness (don't panic!) makes it a great choice with Thai dishes and Malaysian lightly-spiced curries.
Many people equate New Zealand with white wines, but for some years now really exciting reds have been emerging as a new world force and we urge you to try these hot contenders whilst they are still relatively inexpensive for their quality.  The wines from Te Mata Estate are a superb example and mentioned in the esteemed Robert Parker’s Buyers Guide as one of the top five outstanding wine producers.  Te Mata is in the Hawke’s Bay area of North Island and is well established as New Zealand’s oldest winery going back to the 1890’s.  Their 2005 Awatea Cabernet/Merlot blend with 92 Parker points is stunning – if you can find it, as it's not commercially available here.  However, the 2007 can be yours for £19.15 from online merchant, New Zealand House of Wines. 
Heather A was lucky enough to visit the Te Mata vineyard and to sample these wines recently and thought it would enhance your enjoyment of the wines to hear the love story legend of Te Mata:
Long, long ago when the world was young and warring tribes fought for land and sustenance, a plot was hatched by the Heretaunga tribes to conquer their main adversaries by using the womanly wiles and beauty of the chief’s daughter, Hinerakau.  She was sent to win the heart of the opposing giant chieftain Te Mata and, having accomplished this task, was to set him impossible feats to benefit her own tribe. In the meantime Hinerakau fell in love with this mountain of a man but that fact didn’t change the pact, and poor lovesick Te Mata died in his labours of love.  Today his prostrate form is known as Te Mata peak, and at sunset, when the mists form, a beautiful blue cloak (or purple-tinged mist) is seen to cover the body, put there by the grieving Hinerakua, who then leaps to her death.....  Sob.
On that sobering note (please excuse the pun), a Maori fare-thee-well, until we meet again.
Haere ra, Ka hoki mai ano

Friday, 4 February 2011

Do you come from a land downunder?

No, not that one, the other one. New Zealand, whose Maori name, Aotearoa, translates to “land of the long white cloud” is famous for a few things: having more sheep than people, having one of the most feared rubgy union sides in the world and being home to more flightless birds than any other country. OK, we may have made one of those up, but they do have quite a few flightless birds, including their national symbol, the kiwi, and the endangered kakapo, the world's largest parrot.

The All Blacks have long made a big impression on the rugby pitch with their haka, the ritual Maori dance that involves rhythmical chanting along with thigh slapping, eye-rolling and tongue-poking – and we only have God Save the Queen. No wonder they run our guys ragged.

Nowadays New Zealand is spreading its wings (excuse the pun) beyond the world of flightless birds and rugby and adding wine to its list of famous exports. Sauvignon blanc has been the Kiwi calling card of the past decade and it has truly struck a chord with the UK's wine gluggers.

However, no-one wants to be a one-trick pony and New Zealand's wine producers know that today's Top of the Pops white can rapidly go the way of Liebfraumilch and Lutomer Laski Riesling, which today you would only encounter in a strictly ironic way at a Seventies party, along with the prawn cocktail and steak Diane, washed down with a Demis Roussos LP. The Kiwis do not intend to be consigned to merely providing the alcoholic accompaniment to Noughties parties, along with a Jamie Oliver pukka pasta dish and Lady Gaga or JLS on the ipod.

So while we've been busy slugging back the sauvignon, they have been beavering away, planting new varieties, experimenting with growing techniques and exploring which of their variations of climate and soils best suits each one.

Pinot noir has triumphantly emerged as THE red grape best suited to this cool climate land – which is great news for any wine producing country, as pinot noir is notoriously picky about where it will grow. Too hot and it turns fat and blowsy, with nothing to recommend it. Too cool, though, and it will fail to ripen, succumb to rot and generally be economically non-viable. New Zealand, though, is clearly the Goldilocks country – it's just right.

And why all the fuss about a grape variety? Well, once you've been bitten by the pinot bug, you appreciate that no other grape is the same. It's light in colour, with soft tannins and fresh, crisp acidity. The fragrant cherry, raspberry and strawberry fruit, often combined with a subtle lick of spicy oak is charming, beguiling and the opposite to a blow-your-socks-off blockbuster red. It combines elegance with understated power – a ballerina rather than a prop forward.

Decades ago, there was no choice but to head to Burgundy to indulge your pinot habit – and at Burgundy prices it can be an expensive one. Now, you can look to places like Leyda Valley in Chile, Walker Bay in the Indian Ocean-cooled far south of South Africa, isolated cool pockets like the Mornington Peninsula in Australia – and to New Zealand.

Because New Zealand is two long islands, with climates ranging from warm enough to ripen syrah in the north of the North Island, to cold enough for penguins and icebergs in the far south of the South Island, there are many places in between that provide happy sites for the pinot grape, producing different styles of wine.

Some notable New Zealand pinots from north to south:

The Society's Exhibition Martinborough Pinot Noir 2008, £12.95, The Wine Society
Martinborough lies at the bottom end of the North Island, just across the narrow straits that separate it from the cooler South Island. Pinots here are typically more masculine, deeper in colour, with more tannin and spice than Marlborough – but it's all relative and you could never mistake this for a shiraz, with its red fruit and silky feeling in the mouth.

Ata Rangi Crimson Pinot Noir 2008, £15.99 The Vineyard, Dorking
Ata Rangi were pioneers of pinot and their years of experience show in this fragrant delight, which somehow has depth without weight.

Craggy Range Te Muna Road Pinot Noir 2008, £19.99, Taurus Wines, Bramley
Another Martinborough pinot! This wine is so silkily and spicily seductive that it was one of our favourites at last year's Taurus wine festival.

The Crossings Marlborough Pinot Noir 2009, £9.75, The Wine Society
Finally we cross to the South Island. This is so light in colour, you could mistake it for a deep rosé, but it has bags of bright cherry fruit and soft tannins which are typical of Marlborough pinots. It would be a treat chilled down once the weather warms up.

Wild Earth Central Otago Pinot Noir 2008, £22.99, down to £20 as part of a case, The Vineking (Church Street Reigate branch), £119.94 for a case of 6 from M&S, £234 for a case of 12 from Tesco Wine by the Case
Central Otago is the world's most southerly wine region – any further south and you swap vines for glaciers and fjords – and makes some of the most delicate, perfumed pinot around. There is plenty of charming cherry and raspberry fruit in Wild Earth, with a pleasing, meaty note on the finish.

Felton Road Central Otago Pinot Noir 2008, £24.99 from The Vineyard, Dorking, £32.49 from Les Caves de Pyrene, Guildford
Biodynamic winery Felton Road has something of a cult following – let its haunting, ethereal charms win you over.

Next time we'll unveil the white wines that New Zealand is counting on to score a hit with UK wine drinkers – until then pop-pickers, we suggest you seek out one of those pinot noirs to keep your spirits up.