Monday, February 15, 2010

Wines of New Zealand

(Feb. 7, 2010) Another happy occasion to travel to a unique wine country – New Zealand. This was my second visit – the first occurring in 2003 – and I was looking forward to returning to sample some excellent wine and cuisine. The event that brought me back was the 5th International Wine Business Conference. Academics from around the world attend this conference every two years in a new wine region. The last conference was in Sienna, Italy – and is described in the 2008 portion of this blog.

We arrived in the capital, Auckland, on Sunday morning, Feb. 7th after a 12 hour flight from Los Angeles. It is a 21 hour time change from the west coast of California because of crossing the International Date Line. However, we found that we barely had jet lag, because I slept 8 hours on the plane in a coach seat courtesy of Ambien. When we arrived at 7am, it was 10am in California the previous day….so it wasn’t that difficult to adapt.

The weather was sunny and warm in Auckland – in the mid 70’s during our 4 days here, with an occasional light shower. The city is clean and friendly, with a shiny harbor on both sides. They call it the City of Sails because of all the beautiful sail boats on the bay. We caught the Super Shuttle ($37NZ for 2) to The Quadrant Hotel which we had booked on for a good rate ($87US). The hotel was modern and clean, with a beautiful marble white floor and walk-way along a Zen rock garden. They gave us room 1808, which was small, but came with a nice compact kitchen and a small balcony with a lovely view of the harbor. I was impressed with the hotel service, and would stay here again. When they discovered our luggage had been delayed by one day, they upgraded us free of charge to a room with a washer/dryer.

We wandered around downtown Auckland and eventually found our way to the Waterfront Restaurant where we had a late breakfast and enjoyed the sunny weather while watching the sailboats. We also did a little shopping and then rested in our room until it was time to walk the 4 blocks to the Business School at University of Auckland where the welcome wine reception was held at 5pm on Sunday evening. The business school is in a very impressive new building with modern architecture and black walls. Most intriguing was a huge chunk of the local jade that graced the entrance. We were told to touch the stone for good luck, and that it served as the “soul of the building.” This unique NZ jade is revered by the Maori’s, who are the original inhabitants of NZ.

The wine reception featured 7 wines from around NZ, as well as some excellent appetizers of which my favorite was the huge tempora prawns. We started with a Lindauer Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc which was refreshing and unusual. It didn’t have the usual catpee aroma associated with most NZ sauv blancs, but smelled more like a sparkling Riesling with some floral notes and green peach. On the palate it was fuller than I expected with med++ acid and a tart green apple finish.

Next was a 2007 Fossil Bay Chardonnay made by the university wine science students. It reminded me of a big, blowsy, fruity California Chardonnay – NOT the delicate white wine I was expecting of NZ. My favorite of the tasting was the 2009 Michelle Richardson Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. It had the classic dusty note of the region with high acid and passion fruit. Very elegant! After that we had two pinot noirs, which were huge, dense and bursting with raspberry fruit. The first was the 2008 Montana Terroir Series Corbett’s Legacy Pinot Noir from Waipara, and the second was a cleanskin (no label) which they called a 2008 Incognito Black Label from Central Otago. It was supposedly made by one of the top suppliers in the area.

Approximately 65 professors from 14 countries came to the conference, with many bringing spouses. My husband, Mike, came as well, and we happily joined a large group of around 20 people who were headed to find a restaurant with no reservations. We walked down the hill from the university to the harbor and were pleased with Cin Cin Restaurant in the Old Ferry Building took us in and gave us a private room. New Zealand is known for its excellent hospitality and service, and we found this every place we visited in Auckland. They offered us a choice of fresh snapper, NZ duck, or lamb. As I was craving fresh fish, I ordered the snapper, and it was exquisite with the 2008 Neuodorf Riesling from the Nelson region. This turned out to be one of my favorite wines of the trip, and I can still taste the bone dry, complex notes of lime, green peach, diesel, and an electrifying acidity that sent tingles of pleasure along my spine. We also ordered a bottle of the 2006 Nevis Bluff Pinot Noir from Central Otago, which was a big fruity, chewy wine which paired perfectly with the duck.

I suppose I should pause here and provide a brief overview of the wine regions of New Zealand. On the North Island, which is warmer and more tropical than the South Island (which is closer to Antarctica), there are 4 major regions: 1) Hawkes Bay is the largest, and is also considered to be the warmest. They are known for crisp fruity chardonnay and intense merlot and syrah from the Gimblett Gravels vineyards. It is about 200 miles south of Auckland. 2) Kumea River is 30 -40 minutes north of Auckland, and is warmer and more humid. Despite this, they manage to make amazing chardonnay, which constantly wins global awards. I visited this region on my last trip to NZ. 3) Waiheke Island, which is a 40 minute ferry ride across the harbor from Auckland, and one of the most charming wine islands I have ever visited. It is known for Bordeaux varietals. See separate blog posting on my daytrip here. 4) Martinborough Region on the southern tip of the North Island outside the town of Wellington. It is famous for pinot noir. I visited here in 2003 and was very impressed with their complex savory pinots.

The South Island also has 4 major regions: 1) Marlborough is the most famous, and is located in the northern part of the island. It is world-renown for its distinct dusty passion fruit sauvignon blancs which put NZ wines on the map. At the same time, they also make a lighter, more delicate pinot noir. I visited here in 2003 and stayed in a wonderful cottage in the vineyards. 2) Nelson –to the west of Marlborough, which produces similar varietals, but with a sharper acidity and cleaner edge. They also produce some excellent dry Rieslings. 3) Waipara Region – on the east side of the island near the town of Christchurch, which is known for pinot noir; and finally 4) Central Otago which is the most southern vineyard in the world, and is known for its big dense chewy pinot noirs with depths of fruit and intense concentration. See separate blog posting on my visit to Central Otago.

The next 2 days in Auckland were taken up with the wine business conference, and there were fascinating papers from around the world. We had another NZ wine reception that Monday evening where I was blown away by the 2007 Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Merlot. It was a very concentrated, textured dark berry with complex spice notes and fine tannins. It was so big and fruity, I thought it was from Napa! This turned out to be the best Bordeaux varietals wine I had on my visit. We also tried the Bilancia Syrah 2007 from Hawkes Bay. It had delicate ripe fruit, but was missing the massive body most people expect of Syrah – especially those from Australia. We also tried the 2008 Discovery Point Dry Riesling, which I enjoyed so much that I returned for a second glass. Very refreshing. Finally, they served a 2007 Auntsfield Cob Cottage Chardonnay, which was bigger and fruitier that others, but with some good complex notes of hazelnut.

That evening we had a celebration dinner at the Harbourside Restaurant. It was a perfect evening, with balmy weather and a lovely mauve sunset across the harbor. I started with a fresh green salad, which I greatly enjoy ordered in NZ because everything tastes like it was picked that day, and they keep the salad dressing simple and to a minimum. This was followed by a John Dory fish, which was moist, buttery, and absolutely divine. For our table of 10 people, we ordered 2 bottles of dry Riesling and 2 different pinots, but unfortunately I didn’t write down the brand names. However, they were all delightful.

The conference ended on Tuesday evening, and we had the traditional grand celebration dinner in the Spices Restaurant of the university. It has a lovely view of the harbor, and everyone brought a wine from their country. As usual, I wanted to taste every wine there, but it was impossible. Some interesting standouts were a sparkling wine from England; a chardonnay from Queensland in Australia; and an unusual wine from Puglia made of the Nero de Troie grape – huge, inky black wine with depths of complex anise and chocolate notes. I brought the 2005 Clos de Bois Marlstone from Alexander Valley. It is a massive Bordeaux blend with plenty of earth and dark muted fruit. It is one of my favorites, and received good reviews from the Europeans who tasted it. Even the Italians – who in past years have insulted the fruity Napa cabs I brought - liked it!

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