Sunday, August 31, 2008


Here in New Zealand we have made a phenomenal movement from crappy jug and quart bottle beer, watered down spirits and very ordinary second class wine to drinking and appreciating some of the best boutique beers in the world (and the two major brewers have been pressured into getting their acts together and giving us much better options),having greater appreciation of the best imported spirits (and starting to produce some damn good local ones)and producing and drinking in greater quantities some of the cleanest and freshest wines in the world.
re Wine that is good. We have greatly increased our wine consumption and awarness and nowadays a BBQ is more likely to have a predominance of wine rather than beer (even though if a lot of it is cheap and cheerful NZ and Oz wine).
But, in our wine growth we have become a wee bit arrogant, thinking that all NZ is good, all other countries wines bad. Why is this? Well, winewriter and media enthusiasm counts for a lot but also, the decline of the traditional wine merchant structure in New Zealand and the rise of the simple format- offering supermarket and surviving liquor chains is another reason. (Forget nearly all of the myriad of small operators who used to be select wine shops but are now RTD and cheap beer and spirit suppliers to our children). Thank God for the handful of serious specialist wineshop operators around the country who, whilst stocking and actively supporting the best of Australian and New Zealand wines are brave enough to offer us some of the best wines from the rest of the world. They are replicating, in a small way, the role of the traditional wine and spirit merchants of years gone by. Now any fool can research and import the world's celebrated wines. They will unfortunately be prohibitively expensive. The serious wine operator goes a bit further in his/her reserach and finds us the world's best affordable wines (and believe me there are plenty of those).
In this Post I will talk about a Spanish wine, a Rioja (North East Spain). The Rioja region is comprised of the hilly Western Rioja Alta and the flatter Eastern Rioja Baja with the Northern Alavesa. Each component of the region has different degrees of heat and cold, wind, rainfall and soil conditions. The normal Rioja is a blend of different varietals (Garnacha, Tempranillo, Mazuella and Graziano)from more than one of the regions components. There are some producers however who concentrate on one region and almost one varietal with a view to making unique terroir-driven wines.
Contino Reserva Rioja is a good example of one of these. This individual estate wine is 80% Tempranillo from a 45 hectare vineyard in the Northern Alavesa region. The grapes are fermented in stainless steel (as in New World) and matured in French and Amereican Oak (also like New world wines). The result is rich, intensely fruity and beautifully balanced wine. A treat and one of life's true pleasures. I wish we could see more of these types of wine available in the supermarkets and bigger chains who spend a fortune trying to convince us that they cater to all of our needs.


If we eventually discover the end of the Universe, I wonder what wine they will be drinking there?
The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Universe said that the best drink ever invented was the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. As I have never tried a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster I can't compare with the best drinks I have ever had and as the drink was a kind of cocktail it doesn't count as wine.
The oldest recorded wine style is Commandaria, a sweet fortified wine from Cyprus. These 'nectar-o-the-gods' style wines have featured over the last couple of thousand years so it is not impossible that something similar could be found at the end of the universe.
The trouble with sweet fortified wines is that they are easy to drink but can end up giving you a powerful hangover not unlike that provided by the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, described by Douglas Adams as having an effect similar to having one's brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Richard, a friend of mine has said that a Wine Guy should write about Chardonnay. He obviously has a poor memory because in an earlier Post I wrote that the best Chardonnay I have ever tasted was a Montrachet and likened it to a Maserati Quattroporte - beautiful, stylish but very very expensive.
Richard, who almost single handedly keeps the Australian Chardonnay industry going, discovered Chardonnay when some wag told him there was a 'hardon' in every bottle. He took it literally and is still looking for it.
Chardonnay is rightly described as being one of the classic varietals, in the first division of wine (other team mates are Riesling, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc). Some fools have recently disparaged Chardonnay and coined the term ABC - Anything but Chardonnay. I think this must have been some Pinot Gris growers somehere. Chardonnay has so many different forms that one should never become tired of it, all one has to do is look at another style or country of origin.
I am in Australia at present and have attended a Wine Event where there were many styles of Chardonnay being shown - most of them very good. The stand-out was a very expensive 2005 Grand Cru Chablis from the Les Clos vineyard which has always been a favourite of mine. Good Chablis has a flintiness or minerality about it that gives it an interesting middle palate. The second most favoured Chardonnay amongst many from Australia, France and New Zealand was 2007 Man O' War Valhalla Chardonnay from Waiheke Island. This also had minerality which gave it an extra dimension - fruit, minerality and Oak in perfect proportion - Yum!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


When we are interested in something and it becomes a big part of our lives we can forget that others, who don't share this interest or degree of enthusiasm, are bored when we 'go on' about it.
I have an excellent LyncBob cartoon in which a classic wine bore is holding court over some guests in his lounge.
He pontificates " ...of course I've drunk up most of my '29's...I'm still waiting on the '28's...but aren't we all. Heck, I'll probably finish the '53's before I get to the '28's. '61? Don't even talk to me about '61"

When you look closely at the guests sitting in lounge chairs it can be seen that they are all dead - died of boredom.

Which reminds me...the best wine I have ever drunk was a 1953 Ch√Ęteau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, a Grande Cru class Pauillac. The wine was from a magnum and was drunk in 1976 making it 23 years of age at the time (only 1 year younger than I was).
This was not the 'best' wine (on ratings) I have ever drunk having been fortunate to have experienced many first growth Bordeaux, top Burgundies and other wines in my lifetime, but this wine was my best because it was drunk at the perfect moment to drink it.
What does this mean?
It means that in my lifetime of drinking wine I have felt that I have been lucky to have drunk only a dozen or so wines at their optimum age - maybe less. Aging wine is a hit or miss affair even with the best cellaring and record keeping. It is one of life's great pleasures to experience a wine at this stage of its development. It is also very hard to describe what it is like given that taste is different from person to person. The best I can say is that with the Pichon it had the texture of milk but still with fresh berry characters - everything had come together in harmony. There were no rough edges, no hard tannins, no drying -out of fruit. It was delicious and I still remember it.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


The New Zealand wine industry is based on varietals sourced from elsewhere. That is no surprise as we do not have native grapes in New Zealand.
We built our industry on importing these varietals, planting and growing them and then trying to produce similar wines as those made in the countries the varietals were sourced from. Usually the result was a poor imitation.
Over time, our viticulturists and winemakers learnt to; select best sites; match best varietals to those sites; and to make the best possible wine from the resultant excellent fruit regardless of what the 'parent' company produced.
From this new attitude we got New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that, to the chagrin of the wine world is acknowledged as the best performing and most acceptable style.
Add to that New Zealand Pinot Noir with freshness, lovely cherry characters and complexity without the associated crappy characters that the 'old world' can produce, plus New Zealand Chardonnay with true Chardonnay varietal character and freshness and zing (as long as the winemakers don't over-oak the wine)we have some world leaders in style even though we are not traditional in approach.
Now, after several false starts we have an emerging New Zealand classic - the Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc/Merlot/ blend which will get the world noticing us once they get over the snobbishness that is associated with this style of wine.
Years ago, New Zealand (and Australia tried to replicate claret - that great Bordeaux wine that has done more for interest in wine (and priciness of top wines) than any other style. Early attempts were to concentrate on the 'backbone' of claret - Cabernet Sauvignon. This hard-skinned varietal can, when growing conditions are right and site selection is ideal, make intensely coloured and flavoured wine with big tannic structure. When growing conditions are not right (too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry etc) and/or site selection is wrong (too shady, too exposed, too far North, too far South etc)then the result can be porty high alcohol soup on the one hand or green, vegetal crap on the other. Early New Zealand attempts were generally the latter. More recent experimentation has led to site selection (generally geographic as well as vineyard orientation) and a recognoition that great claret does not rely on Cabernet Sauvignon alone. Other varietals principally Cabernet Franc and Merlot with supporting Malbec, Petit Verdot and others add texture, flavour, elegance, colour, aroma and other contributing characteristics in varying degrees.
The modern New Zealand clatet style wine now best comes from Hawkes Bay and Waiheke Island. There are obviously variations in quality from these regions but the best have careful site section in mind coupled with the ability to blend the correct proportions (variable by vintage year).
Now here's the interesting thing. Whether it is due to the ordinary, herbacious offerings from New Zealand in the 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's, or to the comparatively big, gutsy, high alcohol offerings from Australia we have seen recently, there is a popular misconception that New Zealand 'claret-style' wines are light, thin and inferior to other countries similar styles particularly those from France and Australia.
Add to this the fact that we struggle when trying to explain this style of wine and generally refer to them as 'Bordeaux blends' because 'claret' as a descriptor has been bastardised over the years with the crappiest and cheapest Australian and New Zealand red wine blends being named 'claret' and it can be sen that we are not getting anywhere.
Bordeaux claret can be sublime in good years and indifferent and overpriced in others but when we (in the wine industry) describe our Cabernet Merlot blends we call them 'Bordeaux Blends'.
We need another meaningful descriptor, one that sums up the power and elegance that can be achieved with these red varietals in New Zealand and as I am convinced that this wine style, especially from Waiheke or Gimblett Gravels in Hawkes Bay will be the greatest wine coming from New Zealand it is important to name it propery without a "Thank ee Guvner" approach to the French.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Ah Spring. Daffodils, little lambs, longer daylight hours, new release wines and...Sauvignon Blanc/Asparagus pee!

Not everyone can smell this for some reason but those who can will never forget the unnusual smell that your pee has after eating fresh asparagus.
Drinking fresh Sauvignon Blanc has a similar effect and, as new release Sauvignon Blancs coincide with asparagus season there is usually some food and wine matching going on that exacerbates the effect.

What we are smelling is mercaptan (or thiol) which is is a compound that contains the functional group composed of a sulphur atom and a hydrogen atom. Thiols give Sauvignon Blanc that pungent 'cat's pee' character that we all love (or hate).
Mix this with the mercaptan character that comes from eating asparagus and wallop - you certainly know when someone has been..