We scoff at jet lag. The thing about a 12-hour "overnight" flight, even one crossing the International Date Line, is that daylight comes pretty much when the body expects it to come. And thus, awakened to a bright morning free of all the laggish semi-consciousness of our first day in New Zealand, we feel refreshed, enthusiastic, and ready to meet a day full of flightless birds and malolactic fermentations.
Our in-room breakfast – a creamy plate of butter slightly thickened with scrambled eggs is the centerpiece – dutifully consumed, we snag a taxi headed for Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World & Antarctic Adventure. Sure, the name is littered with the potential for touristy cheese, but Sue Courtney's malbec fetish is easily surpassed by Theresa's penguin fetish, and KT's promises penguins aplenty.
We're fairly early, ahead of whatever teeming crowds may come later. Which is nice, because aside from the aforementioned tuxedoed waddlers and their adorable new offspring, some sharks and stingrays gliding over a submerged glass-covered walkway, and a series of exotically fishy exhibits, this isn't a place that's really worth more than a little bit of one's time. Nearly as enjoyable as the exhibit is the view of Auckland from across the harbor, though an icy wind threatens to blow away all the otherwise temperate sunshine. We wait nearly forever for a very-delayed bus back to the city, and hike up crowded office-district hills to the Sky Tower, where we have our first encounter with the insanity that permeates Kiwi life.
Very cold nuns
Dangling from the graceful concavity of the Sky Tower's upper commercial levels are four long cords. And sure enough, upon emerging from an ear-pressurizing elevator onto the tower's observation deck, there's a small group of obviously lobotomized adventurers waiting to abseil down these cords. Who in their right mind would want to do such a thing?
Rather than lingering on the observation level itself, we instead head for Orbit, the rotating restaurant atop the Sky Tower. I've never had a great meal in any restaurant that moves (via rotation or floatation), and this is no exception – overcooked salmon in a watery spiced tomato sauce, a good salad, average wines, and all of it overpriced – but we're here for the view, not the food. And certainly not the wine.
Omaka Springs 2001 Pinot Gris (Marlborough) – Like a thin sauvignon blanc, whereupon one asks: what's the point? Why not just grow sauvignon?
Millton "Grower's Series" 2001 Gewürztraminer McIldowie Vineyard (Gisborne) – Good, if underripe, lychee and stone flavors, reasonably crisp. All treble, nothing else.
Lincoln 2002 "Ice Wine" (Gisborne) – Light and mildly sweet with good acidity supporting near-total anonymity. Apparently, this is muscat, but it might as well be water.
The view, however, is well worth the cost of the meal. Auckland is a bright, light-colored city nested amongst dramatic green hills, and the sparkling turquoise-blue harbor is a city itself, populated by thousands of rigid masts swaying in the wind-driven waves. In the hour the restaurant takes to complete a revolution, however, clouds begin to move in and dull the vistas. In any case, it's time to depart downward, then westward.
Gannet get any windier?
I guess it can
In the tiki, tiki, tiki, tiki, tiki room
Sue meets us downstairs and takes us on a driving tour of the twisty mountain roads west of Auckland. It's our first New Zealand road experience on anything other than the easy curve of Tamaki Drive, and it's more than a little unsettling. But we reach our destinations alive and intact, and perhaps it's better to jump into New Zealand driving with both feet; it turns out that this experience will help prepare our unsteady nerves on the much more precarious roads of the South Island.
Ferns both verdant and massive line the road, but it's the towering and thoroughly untamed kauri trees that dominate the view. Well into the Waitakere Ranges we stop at the Arataki Visitor's Center near Titirangi, with majestic views and precipitous nature walks on all sides, and guarded by a giant totem. We explore the center for a while, then get back in the car and wheel back downhill, finally passing through a lushly-gardened series of beach-style villas before arriving at a bluff overlooking Muriwai Beach. The black sand and its attendant cliffs are polka-dotted with teeming colonies of gannets, and the few that remain aloft soar and duck against a wind that whips and lashes the beach with hissing waves.
A calmer drive through hilly farmland backroads eventually deposits us in Kumeu wine country, where Sue has arranged a late-afternoon rendezvous with Kumeu River owner/winemaker Michael Brajkovich, M.W.
Brajkovich is tall. Frighteningly tall. His gentle speech is thus somewhat surprising, though there's a firmness and a backbone to what he says that's supported by both extensive knowledge and a quiet confidence in what he does. These characteristics extend to his wines, and most especially to the chardonnays through which Kumeu River has achieved its lofty reputation.
Ferns of endearment
The thing that most identifies Kumeu River as different from many surrounding wineries is that they've embraced primarily Old World theories of viticulture winemaking. Grapes are hand-harvested, yeasts are indigenous. Vineyards are stressed and culled to concentrate flavor, but balance and maturity rather than maximum ripeness are the ultimate goals at harvest. Winemaking follows a very self-consciously Burgundian path, and the results speak for themselves; these are wines that express their terroir, but not in a brash, New World sort of way. Though they don't lack for fruit.
We're given a very brief tour of the facilities – there's some sort of major assemblage of important people on the way, for whom the winery is busily setting up a tasting – and end up in a bright, modern laboratory where Brajkovich proudly shows off his new drawback screwcapping machine. Kumeu River is a leader of a surprisingly enthusiastic change to screwcaps that's sweeping the country, and in fact Brajkovich himself is the chairman of the New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative. But he doesn't need to convince Sue or me of the merits (though Theresa is a little more skeptical), and so we get right to the tasting.
Kumeu River 2002 Pinot Gris (Kumeu) – Screwcapped, 25% barrel-fermented and 25% aged in old wood (the rest in stainless steel), with 7.5 g/l of residual sugar. There's medium-fat pear on the nose that battles a slightly rubbery note, and a very light sweetness gracing a long melon and tangerine finish. Brajkovich believes that his new bottling technology will eliminate the rubbery character, and we briefly chat about the results of the much-discussed AWRI study and the flawed capping methodology that often leads to this characteristic.
Kumeu River "Brajkovich Signature Series" 2002 Chardonnay (Kumeu) – Part of a somewhat new line of lower-priced wines, and partially designed to siphon off both owned and purchased fruit that does not meet the standards of the upper-tier wines (younger vines, etc.). But for a "second label," it's awfully tasty. Orange, tangerine, and nectarine with a little mushroomy complexity dominate this full-bodied and rather striking wine. The acidity is bright, bringing the whole package into balance. Long and almost frothy with exuberance, and a perfect quaffing chardonnay. (Screwcapped.)
"Theresa, you wouldn't believe what I've screwed in this room!"
Kumeu River 2001 Chardonnay (Kumeu) – Very ripe orange and tangerine fruit with a blend of mineral and sea salts, and a fascinatingly flaked acidity. Terrifically full-bodied and very long. Great wine. (Screwcapped.)
Kumeu River 2000 Chardonnay (Kumeu) – A few moments of hilarity ensue when this older wine, still under cork, can't be opened because Brajkovich can't locate a corkscrew. Eventually, one is supplied. Loamy mushroom and rich, slightly spicy orange on the nose, with a long, perfumed earth palate and an incredibly long, acid-supported finish. This went through less than 100% malolactic fermentation, unlike most KR chardonnays, and Brajkovich considers it "the best we've made."
Kumeu River 2001 Chardonnay Mate's Vineyard (Kumeu) – From the well-marked 3.5 hectare vineyard across the road from the winery, picked at 20-25 tons/hectare and spending 9 months in oak (none of it new), then bottled under screwcap. It's a bit shy at first, though this is apparently normal for Mate's Vineyard chardonnay. The palate is slightly less bashful. Full and brooding dark blood orange flavors with a faint walnut skin-like element, perhaps a bit of tannin, showing a lot of concentrated complexity, and waiting to emerge many years down the road. Desperately in need of cellaring.
Kumeu River 2000 Chardonnay Mate's Vineyard (Kumeu) – Carries it's 14% alcohol with unbelievable grace, but again this is a testament (says Brajkovich) to the excellence of this vintage (which, like most of their 2000s, is under cork). The nose is chillingly ethereal, with wisps of lavender emerging after enthusiastic swirling, but otherwise defying characterization. Full-bodied, mouth-filling and complex on the palate, showing rich mixed soil characters with nectarine, tangelo, and hazelnut. This is simply a beautiful wine, even better than the majestic "regular" 2000 chardonnay. And there's still lots of improvement yet to come.
Kumeu River 2000 Pinot Noir (Kumeu) – From clones 105 and 777, under cork. A little light black dirt, raspberry, red cherry, and red apple gritted up by some lightly chewy tannin and strawberry menthol on the finish. Not nearly the wine that the chardonnays are.
Kumeu River 2000 Merlot (Kumeu) – 5% malbec in this screwcap-finished wine. Some classic varietal notes come via walnut-spiked blueberries, though there are also fennel seeds and a some odd beef soup flavors. A touch raw, though structured, and while there's more obvious potential here than in the previously-tasted pinot noir, more work remains to be done.
I don't really need a caption, do I?
Kumeu River 1999 "Melba" (Kumeu) – A blend of 70% merlot and 30% malbec, under cork. Full of structure, showing violets and thick blueberry fruit (with no soup this time) on the nose, then lavender, blackberry, boysenberry, and black cherry on a chewy, dense palate. Finishes medium-long. A very nice red, and perhaps a bit surprising given the weaknesses of the varietal merlot. Worth cellaring over the medium term.
Thanks to the upcoming group tasting, there are a few library selections floating around, and Brajkovich disappears, then reappears with two of them.
Kumeu River 1996 Chardonnay Mate's Vineyard (magnum) (Kumeu) – Smooth and in the middle of its development curve, showing the tail end of some primary peach and orange skin flavors fading into the beginnings of some earthy-spicy complexity.
Kumeu River 1991 Chardonnay (Kumeu) – Hazelnut, peach, strawberry, cassis; this fully-mature wine is concentrated and long, showing fascinating aromas and flavors that really express the uniqueness of this terroir. The finish turns a little kirschy, and so I probably wouldn't hold it too long lest the wonderful fruit becomes too spirituous, but it's an amazing glimpse into the cellaring potential of these wines.
Smoke gets in your glass
There's just enough time for Sue to get us back to Auckland (giving us a brief driving tour of the university and the beautiful clock tower at the Old Arts Building), and though she complains about the traffic all the way I suppose all such things are relative; the traffic is free-flowing by Boston standards. She drops us at our hotel and heads home to collect Neil for a dinner later that evening, while we quickly clean up and walk up the street to one of the ubiquitous Internet cafés that litter New Zealand towns both urban and remote. Soon we're once again waiting for Sue and Neil, who pick us up in front of the hotel and drive us a short distance up the hill to dinner, where we've commandeered the private upstairs room at Number 5 for our first Southern Hemisphere offline.
The other windy city
The most interesting thing about these road-trip offlines is the opportunity to meet completely new people. The first guests arrive, and I stare at the male of the pair. He stares back. We shake hands, somewhat hesitatingly, still staring, and immediately begin two sides of a one-sided conversation.
"I've met you…"
"…at a tasting at Federal Wine & Spirits…"
"…with Robin Garr…"
"…and Bruce Cole from Dreyfus Ashby."
It's Martin Greig, formerly of Corbans and now somewhere in the behemoth Montana group, one of the very few people in the New Zealand wine industry I'd have recognized before this trip, and we both marvel at the insularity of a world in which we've both been invited to the same event nearly all the way across the globe. Soon other guests are arriving, and a nearby table is quickly filling with all manner of New Zealand wines, with a few foreign stragglers here and there. Like us.
Our room is fronted with a cozy, welcoming fireplace; unfortunately, the heavy wood smoke aromas and waves of heat prove quite distracting as the night progresses, and soon we're opening windows and occasionally retreating to their cooling breezes both for refreshment and better wine analysis. After some menu-related confusion, a series of solid and tasty, if slightly uninspired, dishes follow – some excellent raw scallops, the inevitable lamb – served by our perhaps overly-enthusiastic host/proprietress in somewhat staggered fashion. But it's our own room, and we can be as loud as we want, and it's hard to judge a restaurant's performance in such distracting circumstances. Certainly the wine list, which I peruse at the end of the night, is excellent.
Deutz Champagne Brut "Classic (Champagne) – Frothy and flowery, with rich, lilied bananas and some slightly intrusive geranium notes. Solid and strong.
Stoneleigh 1996 Riesling (Marlborough) – A slightly papery but very aromatic nose gives way to chalky powdered sugar dusting a moderately fat and increasingly ashen palate. Odd, probably falling apart.
Dry River 1993 Riesling Craighall Estate "Dry" (Martinborough) – Sweet honeydew served in a river of molten steel. Yet it's lightening, and starting to fade into pepperiness. I don't catch the lot number.
Dry River 2002 Gewürztraminer Dry River Estate (L221) (Martinborough) – Light sweetness on a stealthy petrol nose; softly spicy pear syrup follows through a moderately lithe finish. Nice enough, but this isn't even the best New Zealand gewürztraminer I've had.
Trimbach 1997 Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – We've brought this one and serve it blind, knowing that the Dry River would be in attendance, and interested in the comparison as viewed by New Zealanders. Well, there isn't much of a comparison, really, and this is only Trimbach's regular négociant bottling. Vivid lychees and peach syrup with huge, lightly sweet cashew notes lingering through a big finish. It's starting to turn slightly hot, as I suspected it eventually would, but it's still an awfully impressive wine, even though it's not at all in line with the classic Trimbach style.
Te Mata 2000 Viognier Woodthorpe Terraces (Hawke's Bay) – Sweaty mint leaves. Very odd, and not particularly good.
At this point in my notes, I have "Nancy (Japanese) TV presenter in Philly" written in the top margin. Like many things scribbled down in the alcoholic bonhomie of social tasting, the meaning of this phrase is lost to the ether, and it's hard to imagine that it would have meant anything even as early as the next morning. But I like reading it, and I like seeing it here in print. It lends the whole experience an air of inscrutable mystery.
Perret 2000 Condrieu (Rhône Valley) – Lightly fat and very floral, though still slightly reduced, with a spicy mineral finish. Another victory to France in the dual-bout varietal grudge-match, though New Zealand's best pugilists clearly aren't represented.
You forgot a limb
Aussie pinot noir tasting
Ridge 1991 Zinfandel Lytton Springs (Sonoma County) – Our second contribution, and extremely popular at the table. It's not hard to see why. Spicy coconut dominates the palate, which is redolent with fully-baked (as in a pie) dark fruit, and the tannin is still obvious. Long and delicious, though I'd drink it soonish as the oak is starting to really take control.
Pegasus Bay winemakers Matt Donaldson and Lynette Hudson (Matt's fiancée), in town for some tastings, join us halfway through dinner, and we immediately catch them up on the highlights (and a few of the lowlights). They both look as if they'd just as soon be napping, but Matt manages to rustle up the energy for a bit of flirting with my wife. Thus and ever go our vacations.
Arlaud 1999 Chambolle-Musigny (Burgundy) – Leafy raspberry and peach, balanced with lovely fruit and yet holding marvelous intensity fully in reserve. Closes into a slightly synthetic shell after about an hour, however.
Ata Rangi 1994 Pinot Noir (Martinborough) – Earth, of the black dirt variety, with a little syrah-like funk (as opposed to mourvèdre-like funk) and a rosemary-smoked pork character. Somewhat like a beautiful old Crozes-Hermitage, which is an odd fate for a pinot noir, but it's quite delicious nonetheless.
Neudorf 1999 Pinot Noir Moutere "Reserve" (Nelson) – Structured (though slightly candied) red apple, raspberry, and cantaloupe dosed with strawberry liqueur. The structure beautifies on the smooth, slightly tannic finish. Mostly potential at this point, but a very nice wine.
Gibbston Valley 2001 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Good structure, but the kirsch-like palate is far too lollipop-like.
CJ Pask 1998 Merlot Gimblett Road (Hawke's Bay) – Stewed herbs and black cherries with a mix of ripe and hard tannins. Difficult now, but could age into something less aggressive, though there will always be an underripe side to it.
Pegasus Bay 1995 "Late Picked" Riesling "Aria" (Waipara) – Our duo from Pegasus Bay are sure that this wine (not brought by them) is over the hill, and they're right: there are some lightly sweet minerals, but it's mostly fiercely acidic and thin.
There's a cheese course, and a dessert tray, but I'm too full of wine, food, and conversation to sample either one, and soon we're stumbling down the steeps of upper Queen Street towards our hotel. It's a cool evening, though dry this time, and we need to get an early start. Tomorrow morning, we're flying to Middle Earth.