Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Dying for the Vine

Visiting the wineries that cultivate the zingy, fruity Sauvignon Blancs which I adore was something I counted down the days until in New Zealand. Especially as we traveled through countries with exactly zero good wine; I craved just one delicious sip to savor with Andy over conversation and atmosphere. [Note: I refuse to count wine coolers as a viable option, though they were available in Laos.] So as we finally journeyed, tasted, swirled, smelled and sipped our way through Central Otago and Marlborough in New Zealand, I was in grape heaven.

Since I probably push the edge of the blog with my near-neurotic food descriptions, I don't want to bore you all by waxing poetic on noses of passion fruit and goose berries and velvety finishes of coffee, cocoa and spice.

In summary:

The bad news is that we couldn't afford to ship any of the fine wines home. Look for Akarua, Kathy Lynskey, Huia, Seresin, Lawson's Dry Hills, Aurum, Chard Farm, Bald Hills and Bladen in restaurants and wine stores. They scored a near 100 points with us, especially Kathy Lynsky and Huia.

The good news, however, is that we didn't crash while riding our bikes through the acres of vines and that we're off to SE Asia and NOT Betty Ford after our days of tasting!~> read more (with photos)


Oh, and Kim Crawford of the ubiquitous Kim Crawford label and screw-cap pioneer, is a guy!

In greater detail:

After drinking in the wines and scenery, it's time to set the record straight on New Zealand's wines: there is a hell of a lot more there to quench the palate than just "savvie" (their term for sauvignon blanc). Whether pinot noir, riesling, rose, bubbles (champagne-method) or gewurztraminer, the Kiwis are concocting some delicate yet definitive, fresh and food-friendly liquid poetry that woos and satisfies the palates like both Napa and the Loire.

We loved our days in the vineyards not only for the wine, but because the lush yet rocky landscapes and charming people enhanced every sip. Central Otago lies on the South Island not far from Queenstown and is filled with rough-hewn, gravelly, bald hills that contrasted beautifully with the autumn leaves blooming gold and crimson halfway up the steep sides. (Remember, we're in the Southern Hemisphere and it's the cusp of autumn there right now! Craziness!) There, the water is a mineral-enhanced blue-green and people bungy jump off single-lane bridges that connect the small, curvy roads that wind through acres vineyards and farmland. It's the world's southernmost wine region and we were on the 45th Parallel...of the southern hemisphere! Marlborough sprawls along the salty sounds and cloudy bays of Cook Strait and gets more days of sunshine than anywhere in NZ. Biking through rows and rows of vines, roses and olive trees on stony soil, we were cooled by the fresh breezes that influence its wine. I believe it's a similar landscape to California's North Coast, but with better 'fush 'n chups'.

Save for the biggies like Cloudy Bay and Brancott, the wineries are small and all about quality instead of quantity. At Kathy Lynskey, we had an awesome tasting with Kathy and her partner Kent, enjoying everything from their renegade and risky (because of the climate) merlots to their fruity, velvety olive oil on warmed-just-for-us ciabatta. While visiting Huia, we spent over 30 minutes talking with a Czech lady who's apprenticing there and hopes to return to Bohemia to develop the industry, and at both Bald Peak and Olssens, we met their respective dogs, Jack and Nola. We also tasted wines with Judy Finn of Neudorf (co-owner with her husband Tim) and heard about her teenage daughter's love of sushi and the fact she feels it pairs beautifully with rose!

My personal favorite interaction, however, was at Aurum, a small family-owned winery in Cromwell. There, we tasted with Joan Lawrence, the wife of the owner, and while swirling their Burgundy-style pinot noir in fancy Riedel glasses, her vintner husband Tony came racing in with a carafe of something that looked like very light beer -- pale yellow and cloudy. "Here," he cried jubilantly while pouring all three of us a taste, "try this! It's next year's Chard!" And indeed it was...young chardonnay, hazy with yeast and sugary like kicky grape juice. Tony was out in the tanks in their barn tasting his future, and we all got to experience it, along with his enthusiam, first hand. A few minutes later, an eight-month old toddler crawled across the tasting room floor and Joan scooped her up without missing a beat in her detail of their worry about rain in the last days of harvest. Baby Mathilde is the Lawrenece's granddaughter, and their French daughter-in-law came through the door next. She and the Lawrence's son are the next generation of Aurum and focusing on pinot noir. In the most hilarious, human moment, Andy and I learned that Joan and the daughter-in-law don't agree on cheese: one is partial to NZ's hard cheddars and the believes singlemindedly in the superiority of French fromage.

As with most great art, the wines of New Zealand are personal. Visiting there, we experienced it intimately in first person and tasted the art-meets-science liquid that is wine in a setting as charming as the old world, yet as unique as the new. Both Andy and I later talked about all of the information we gained at the wineries and how we can't wait to surprise a sommelier who doesn't expect we actually know something about natural yeasts and what a little oak can do to sauv blanc. However, what truly stood out for us and will linger is the appreciation and respect we gained for the people who live and die by the vine to make it.

We have a few photos from central otago here, which includes us doing some other fun things in Queenstown: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Queenstown

AND we've also put together a very short gallery from the famous Marlborough region: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Marlb


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