Back in Auckland (a bustling city with more than a slight resemblance to Seattle in its sailboat-rich harbor setting, modern downtown and Space Needle-like tower, where the natives render the name of their town as something mighty close to "Oakland"), we couldn't end my whirlwind tour of New Zealand without a couple more winery visits. We take in two quick ones: An old and well-known property, Kumeu River, known for its Chardonnay and one of the first wineries in the Auckland region; and tiny but excellent Kerr Farm.
1999 Kumeu River Chardonnay - Citric and vanilla. Fresh, pleasantly lean. $35
1999 Kumeu River Maté's Vineyard Chardonnay - Figs and chestnuts aromas, tropical fruit and butterscotch flavors, full and rich. $45
2000 Kumeu River Pinot Gris - Pear and lime, intense aromas. Full and fresh, very good balance. $25
1999 Kumeu River Pinot Noir - Hazy ruby. Tobacco leaf, herbal. Very smoky, some bacon fat, tart, light on fruit. $35
1998 Kumeu River "Melba" - Garnet. Grilled meat and black fruit. Deep and plummy, tart and tannic. $27 (65% 13% 5% merlot, malbec, cab franc)
2000 Kumeu River Pinot Noir (barrel sample) - Ripe red-cherry fruit aromas. Sulfury reductive qualities make it hard to judge fairly now, but the signs are promising.
Owner-winemaker Jaison Kerr and his wife, Wendy, offer a warm welcome amid the bustle of visiting tour groups on a busy Saturday afternoon. I express surprise to find Pinotage grapes growing outside South Africa and receive a quick education: This red grape is rather widely grown - and does quite well - in New Zealand's soil. Jaison presents a glass of Kerr Farms Pinotage and offers a bite of spicy fruitcake to demonstrate the surprising affinity that these unexpected partners show. At day's end, no more need to spit out each taste, we enjoy a glass and happily accept a second before heading back to Sue and Neil's home to get ready for dinner.
Kerr Farm 1999 Pinotage - Inky garnet, almost black. Earthy, gamey black fruit and fragrant white pepper. Surprisingly good match with spicy holiday fruitcake. $15.95
Dinner at Merlot in Auckland
Wrapping up my all-too-short New Zealand visit, we summon a cab to downtown Auckland where we meet Wine Lovers' Discussion Group participant Craig Thomson (who hosts the first-rate Kiwi Wine Fan Club site, http://myweb.ecomplanet.com/KWFC4971/) and his wife Melanie for dinner at Merlot, said to be one of Auckland's top restaurants, where we enjoyed the following wines.
Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé - Palest rosy hue with persistent bubbles. Rising dough and milk chocolate; creamy, rich texture, fresh and long.
Dry River 1995 Craighall Dry Riesling - Petrol, minerals, a hint of tangerine. Full flavors follow the nose, uff-dry and steely acidic.
Babich 1995 Hawke's Bay Irongate Chardonnay - Chestnuts and apples; big, rich and full. Oak well integrated. Fine Chardonnay, holding up very well.
Stony Ridge 1994 Waiheke Island Cabernets - Black coffee and cassis, structured and tannic.
Providence 1993 Matakana Merlot Cabernet Franc Malbec - Ripe black cherries and plums, menthol and leather notes; fruit-forward and appealing.
That wrapped up the New Zealand leg of the tour. In the morning I would head across the Tasman to Sydney and a week of judging at the Sydney International Wine Competition.