The Most Southerly Vineyards

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Central Otago Mt Difficulty view from terraceBungy jumping, white water rafting and jet boating through the Shotover Gorge – 3 reasons for visiting Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island. But regular Bristol Wine Blog readers won’t be surprised to hear that we avoided all three during our recent visit! Instead, we took in the spectacular countryside while visiting some of the most southerly vineyards in the world: those of the Central Otago region.

As with Martinborough (see my previous blog), Central Otago specialises in Pinot Noir, but the two regions couldn’t be more different. No chance here of walking round all the vineyards in a day or so; the 80 plus estates shown on the very informative wine map are spread over more than 100km (60 miles) of wonderfully scenic (but very twisty) roads. So we were grateful to spend our time with Lance of Queenstown Wine Trial (www.queenstownwinetrail.co.nz) who guided us around, all the time sharing his infectious enthusiasm and vast local knowledge.

The Central Otago wine region is as diverse as, say, Bordeaux or the Loire. Its steep hills and deep gorges give a range of different aspects and micro-climates leading to identifiably different flavours. The Chard Farm and Gibbston Valley estates, for example, have their vineyards on the slopes and terraces of the spectacular Kawarau Gorge (the home of bungy jumping). Their Pinot Noirs, in particular, have a delicious spicy, savoury character we didn’t find elsewhere.

Continuing further east, we were just in time for a lunch stop at Wild Earth, one of many vineyards in the area with an excellent restaurant. Their beautifully presented food and wine matching platter included some pairings I wouldn’t have thought of, not least a hare confit with a dry Pinot Gris. But full marks to them as the combination worked perfectly.

The main centre of Central Otago production is around the Cromwell and Bannockburn area, home to such famous names as Felton Road and Mt Difficulty. We visited the latter where the stunning view from their terrace (pictured above) provided a great backdrop for some delightful wines including a Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay as well as a pair of excellent Pinot Noirs.

And then we had to turn for home. No time to visit the less well-known vineyards around Alexandra, to the south-east or Wanaka, to the north. But dinner at Amisfield Winery and Bistro, who hosted William and Kate a week after us, really was too good to be late for.

A Day in Martinborough

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2014-03-28 09.48.04One village, just 1500 permanent inhabitants, but 22 vineyards – that’s Martinborough in New Zealand. Just about everyone in the village works in the wine industry or in trades supporting the wine-loving tourists that flock here to taste and experience the unique atmosphere.
Little more than 30 years ago, there wasn’t a single vine planted commercially in the village; Martinborough was a sleepy backwater and meeting place for the local farming community. And it still has something of that feel about it: there’s a rail in the village square where people used tether their horses and I kept expecting to see someone riding in for their daily newspaper.
But, in another way, Martinborough has changed totally; those 22 vineyards now produce high quality Pinot Noir as well as a little tangy Sauvignon Blanc (this is New Zealand, after all!), some interesting Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling and a few other assorted specialities. Visitors are welcomed at virtually all of the vineyards (some by appointment only), and you can taste (and buy if you want) and often talk to the winemaker, too. A few also have cafes or restaurants where you can enjoy a glass over a delicious lunch. And no problem with drinking and driving; almost all the vineyards are within easy walking distance of the village square (or you can hire a bike if you prefer). The only problem is deciding which to visit and which to pass by – at one point I started thinking how a dog in a forest must feel! But, we eventually decided to make it a leisurely day and tasted at just 4 estates: Te Kairanga, Ata Rangi, Palliser and Martinborough, leaving us plenty of time for a wonderful light lunch at a 5th (Tirohana). We could have easily fitted in another 1 or 2 if we’d have pushed on. But Martinborough just isn’t that sort of place. You don’t feel inclined to rush around.
Favourite vineyard of the day? Favourite wine of the day? It’s impossible to pick just one; we were welcomed everywhere and many of the wines we tasted (not just the Pinot Noirs for which the village is renowned) were quite exceptional. Sadly, some are made in tiny quantities and so are not available in the UK, but, given the consistently high quality of the wines we tasted, I’d recommend trying anything from Martinborough you see in your local shop. You’re unlikely to be disappointed.
A couple of tips if you are thinking of visiting: firstly avoid the weekend when this tiny place can get very crowded indeed. Martinborough is barely an hour’s drive from the capital, Wellington, and it’s an easy and very popular day trip for many from there. And secondly, do check opening times, as many of the vineyards close for a day or two each week, more in winter. But, if you are in New Zealand, you must visit Martinborough, it’s a wine village like no other.

William and Kate follow Bristol Wine Blog!

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Exploring the Marlborough VineyardsWilliam and Kate’s visit to New Zealand is getting plenty of coverage, but they’re just following us around! We got back yesterday and hope they are having as much fun as we did although our focus was on wine and wildlife, rather than formal functions. It’s a fascinating country with some spectacular scenery, unique plants, animals and birds – and some pretty good wines, too, of course! But perhaps the main impression we’ve brought home is of the lovely, friendly people who made our stay there very special.

We visited just as the harvest was taking place – for me the most interesting time to see any vineyard area – and started in Martinborough – best known for Pinot Noir, but, as we found, with a lot more than just that one grape to offer. Walking the wine trail was amazing, but we also spent a day with Simon of Martinborough Wine Tours, who after a lung bursting climb of 250 steps to Cape Palliser lighthouse, took us to one of his favourite producers, Schubert Wines. What a treat! And not just because I’ve finally found someone who can make a quality wine from Muller-Thurgau, better known as one of the varieties used for Liebfraumilch!

After that, we relaxed on remote and beautiful Stewart Island. Never heard of it? Nor have most Kiwis, but pristine rain forest and native birds made it a must-see and Iris and Peter of Sails Ashore generously shared their love and knowledge of the island with us.

Then back to wine with a visit to Central Otago and more Pinot Noir, but a real revelation of diversity and style. Lance of Queenstown Wine Trail shared his knowledge and passion for the wines over 2 delightful days, including Amisfield Winery (who will also be hosting William and Kate) for a tasting and dinner. Amisfield was undoubtedly a highlight, firstly due to Renee’s bubbly enthusiasm for the wines (promised you a mention, Renee!), but also for the outstanding tasting menu in the restaurant, ably hosted by David, who shared some of the estate’s Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc with us – by some way the best sweet wine we enjoyed on the trip.

And finally, a visit to Northland, its tiny production from just a handful of growers hardly known outside the immediate area, but actually the place where wine making began in New Zealand almost 200 years ago with the earliest settlers and where a new generation of pioneers are developing new styles and tastes, including a wine from the rare French variety, chambourcin.

I’ll be looking at some of these areas in more detail in future blogs so if you have any New Zealand wine related stories or pictures you’d like to share with Bristol Wine Blog readers, please let me know.

Further details of agencies mentioned:

Martinborough Wine Tours: http://www.martinboroughwinetours.co.nz
Sails Ashore: http://www.sailsashore.co.nz
Queenstown Wine Trail: http://www.queenstownwinetrail.co.nz
Amisfield: http://www.amisfield.co.nz

A Weighty Question

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Quebrada SecaHeavy bottles contain better wine than light bottles: True or False? If, like me, your instinctive reply was “False”, then read on!

I picked a bottle off the shelf of a local wine merchant a while back and nearly dropped it! It wasn’t just a little bit heavier than I was expecting, it was a real monster and it set me thinking about how much wine bottles vary in weight. So I decided to carry out an experiment: over the last few weeks, I’ve weighed every bottle I’ve opened (after we’ve drunk the contents, of course – being a Wine Educator has its upside!) The results are interesting – to me, anyway, and, I hope, to you.

A supermarket own-label wine I bought for about a fiver weighed in around 350 grams (gm) or about 12½ ounces and this was the lightest bottle. Not surprisingly, I suppose – with tax and duty taking up almost £3 of the purchase price, the producer needs to use the cheapest bottle they can find – and that means the lightest, too.

At the other end of the scale, the 4 heaviest bottles (each weighing over 600gm or more than 1¼lbs) all cost upwards of £10, but, before jumping to the conclusion that heavier bottles do, indeed, contain better wine, it’s worth noting that these 4 had something else in common: all were from the New World – USA, South Africa and, the heaviest of all at 870gm (almost 2lbs!), from Chile (pictured above). By comparison, a group of equally expensive European wines ranged from just under 500gm to 570gm.

One possible explanation for this is that most European wines reach their market by road, where weight is at a premium, whereas most New World wines are brought by ship to their destinations, so weight is less important. But, even so, the cost of producing such mammoth bottles must be significant – a cost that is clearly being passed onto the consumer.

And, that’s before we consider the (arguably more important) cost to the earth’s resources. A few ecologically-minded producers are now making a conscious decision to put their wines into lighter bottles for this very reason, but, in my view, this message needs to spread much more widely.

But, until that happens, heavier equals better. It isn’t a perfect guide, but it’s more accurate than you might think.

Pinot Noir – So Versatile

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Camel Valley Pinot NoirPinot Noir is the grape used to make some of the world’s most sought after and expensive red wines. Top examples, such as Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée Conti, sell for hundreds – if not thousands – of pounds a bottle. And even relatively modest wines from Burgundy are often seen on the shelves at £50 plus. But Pinot Noir is not just the preserve of this one region. Wherever winemakers detect the right sort of climate and conditions – not too cool, not too hot – they’re keen to try their hand at this most demanding of grapes. So, California, Oregon, Washington State, New Zealand, Chile, Germany, Italy, all have their plantings of Pinot Noir – and not forgetting that other French regions are keen on the variety, too: Alsace, Sancerre and, of course, Champagne among them.

With this many to choose from, you won’t be surprised that we drink Pinot Noir quite often at home. We did this weekend. And which of these illustrious countries or regions did our bottle come from? None of them! It was from Cornwall in England! And it wasn’t a red wine – it was a rosé! From the Lindo family’s award-winning Camel Valley vineyard (Waitrose, £12.49).

I chose it in what can only be described as an ‘I wonder if that might work’ moment. I was trying to think through what might go well with a dish including some particularly tricky flavours in the sauce: fennel with its distinct aniseed character, sun-dried tomatoes which would contribute plenty of acidity and some red and yellow peppers, which were going to be cooked until well caramelised adding a certain sweetness to the dish.

And – somewhat to my amazement – it complemented the food perfectly! It had just enough crispness and freshness to balance the tomatoes and the lovely delicate fruit character of the wine went well with the peppers and fennel.

I always knew that Pinot Noir, in the right hands and in the right place, made some outstanding wines; this experience has only confirmed my thought that it’s marvellously versatile as a food match, too.

Wine from a Remarkable Lady

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Glenelly Cab S Sth AfricaWhat do you think you’ll be doing when you’re 82? How about moving to South Africa to run a wine estate? Well, that’s exactly what Mme May de Lencquesaing decided to do! It’s quite a story!

May was brought up at one of Bordeaux’s most prestigious wine estates, Château Pichon Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande. Its wines sell for close to £100 a bottle, more in a great vintage, and it’s officially classified as one of the 14 “Second Growths”, the 2nd highest ranking in Bordeaux; (there are only 5 estates in the top division above it). In 1978, she inherited the task of managing the property and its wines. For most people, that would have been their work until they decided to retire. But not Mme de Lencquesaing!

In 2003, she visited South Africa and decided to buy the Glenelly Estate near Stellenbosch and arranged for some 160 acres (65 hectares) of vines to be planted and a new winery to be constructed. Then, four years later, aged 82, she sold the Bordeaux château that she’d lived in all her life to the Roederer Champagne house and moved to Glenelly.

The winery was completed in 2009 and officially opened the following year on her 85th birthday.

But what of the wines? I’ve been lucky enough to taste two: the ‘Grand Vin’ (obviously not abandoning the French heritage completely) and the ‘Glass Collection’ Cabernet Sauvignon. The Grand Vin is a blend of Syrah (Shiraz) with 3 Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot with lovely cassis and plum flavours backed with toasty oak. The 2008 is still very young and tannic and will certainly improve with a few years in bottle.

The Cabernet Sauvignon from the same year is much more approachable now with its deep, rich blackcurrant, cherry and spice flavours and aromas and, despite its 14% alcohol, is very drinkable and balanced, with no alcoholic ‘burn’.

A couple of outstanding wines from an exceptional lady. I wonder what she’ll be doing if she lives to 100?

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Water and WineThis Bristol Wine Blog is all about water, but please don’t stop reading!

22 March was United Nations World Water Day which aims to draw attention to the 780 million people worldwide who lack access to safe drinking water. In the context of that, linking water and wine in a blog may seem at first to be trivialising a serious problem, but, perhaps, by understanding that link, we can appreciate better just how important water is to us all.

As a wine educator, I spend my time talking about different aspects of wine, but I find that, whatever the particular subject that day, it almost always involves talking about water, too. Wine and water are inextricably linked. In fact, without water, there’d be no wine. Not a happy thought!

The link begins in the vineyard. Vines, like all growing things, need water to survive and thrive. Too little and they will shrivel and die, too much and the roots will rot and they will die that way. But it’s not just the nutrition that vines get from water that is important. Water, whether in the form of lakes, rivers or the sea, has an impact on the climate close by. It cools the warmest days, preventing the grapes rushing to ripeness before they have developed the interesting and complex flavours that we expect in quality wine.

In the winery, too, water is important. Fermentation is a chemical process during which yeast converts the sugar in the grapes into alcohol. It’s a process in which a lot of heat is produced and, if this heat isn’t controlled, you can end up with vinegar instead of wine. In the past, some winemakers would throw an ice block into the fermentation tank to cool it. Today it’s much more sophisticated and relies on cold water being pumped through pipes to maintain the right temperature.

And water is essential for hygiene, too. Everything in the winery must be spotlessly clean so, if you ever visit while the winemaking is going on, you’d better wear waterproofs and wellies!

But the link between water and wine doesn’t finish there. One question I often get asked is how do you avoid a hangover? And the answer, again, is water: drink at least one glass of water for every glass of wine. In that way, you can help avert the dehydrating effect that results in a hangover!

Let’s be thankful for the wine we enjoy – and that we have access to the water that makes it possible!

Water and Wine