Last week we had a few days off from our job at the diary farm in Spain, and instead of hanging around talking to cows we decided to hop on a bus down to Porto, Portugal for a brief visit. It was pretty much two days of travel for one day in the city, but it was worth it because Porto is beautiful (art nouveau and classical architecture with a rough edge), unique (dozens of port cellars and signature sandwiches? yes please), and cheap (killer wines for 2.60 euro per bottle).
If you have the chance, visit Porto! And send me an email if you do, I’m happy to give you a few more detailed tips.
In the last year I have:
Served as a guest judge in a lamb competition.
Delivered pizzas while loudly singing along to classic rock radio.
Learned a variety of food preservation techniques including fermentation, curing, dehydrating, and jarring.
Relaxed in natural, mud-bottomed hot pools after a seven-hour trek across treacherous swing bridges.
Learned how to make butter, cheese, bread, and whiskey (kind of).
Spent hundreds of hours climbing the schist cliffs around Wanaka and the limestone boulders of Castle Hill.
Failed (twice) to solve very simple problems with our van, which in my defense was of legal drinking age in the US.
Saw the sunrise on Mt. Cook/Aoraki with avalanches falling on peaks around me.
Harvested oysters, mussels, and red snapper from the ocean.
Learned how to skin, gut, and butcher poultry, small game, goats, and pigs for consumption.
Met dozens of new friends from all over the world (England, Australia, Argentina, Germany, France, Chile, Israel, New Zealand…) that I’ll share the rest of my life with. (But don’t worry, old friends, I still love you and miss you all.)
Got engaged to be married to the woman of my dreams.
It’s been a good year.
On a recent weekend, the dozen-ish vineyards in the Gibbston Valley held their annual wine and food festival. I like wine. I like food. I like festivals and sunshine and fun. Count me in! The event proved to be an awesome experience, but it wasn’t without a few disappointments.
The Gibbston Valley is home to a small sub-class of New Zealand’s Central Otago wine region. Like the rest of the region, it’s known for growing pinot noir, but a range of white wines are also produced. The valley is a short drive from Queenstown and about an hour from Wanaka, where we originated.
After we paid our entry fee ($15) we were given a tasting glass for the event that contained three small cards with winemaker logos. These represented free tastings at the corresponding tents. This was a nice touch; if we were just given three free tastings at the vineyard of our choice we would have probably picked the most well-known or critically acclaimed vineyards; or, actually, the first three we found. Their specific free tastings forced us not only to try new wines, but walk around the grounds searching for specific vineyards and seeing all else that was on offer in the process. Also, because there were four of us attending together, we were able to share tastes and get a bit from nearly every vineyard in the region. Standouts were: Highgate Reserve Pinot Noir 2009, Kalex Dry Riesling 2011, Kalex Medium Riesling 2011 (though I do have a bit of a sweet tooth).
In addition to the tents offering taste and glasses, there were blind tasting events and workshops throughout the day, led by winemakers and vigneron of the region.
The absolute highlight was the blending workshop ($10) lead by Sean Brennan. It was an opportunity to taste the 2012 Brennan pinot noir vintage straight from the barrels and create our own concoction. We sat down in front of four bottles from different clones and barrel types (old and new oak) and then blended them like mad scientists into a “finished” wine. They began as fizzy grape-like juice with biting tannins and emerged as something resembling wine! Sean tasted our concoctions, offered his opinions and we went back to the drawing board. It was amazing to see how a bit more of one kind of clone from old oak adds a completely different character. We really got to play winemaker for an hour.
So while the “wine” part of the festival was completely satisfying, the “food” part wasn’t. It’s not that the food was bad (it was good!) but when I think of a food festival, I imagine the best local chefs coming together to show off their finest creations. This was more a collection of the same half dozen food trucks that I’ve seen at events all over the area. They were good, but didn’t leave me wanting more. The event was definitely wine first, food second.
I’d recommend the festival to others and encourage you to attend the discussions and tasting events, but I suggest the organizers drop the “food” part of the name. It’s just a little misleading. Expect small crowds, lots of great Gibbston Valley wines and really knowledgable people giving you straight answers on both simple and complicated questions.
James Brodie demonstrated how to tie down the canes, or branches, of the Pinot Noir vines in the vineyard behind the house he shares with his wife Anne, here at Brodie Estate. He grabbed the cane, twisted it around the wire, snipped off the end, and secured it with a twist tie, like the kind you would find next to the plastic bags in the produce section of the grocery store. “So, you think you got it?” he looked at me and Zach.
“Uh. Yeah.” We all kind of looked at each other.
“All right then, I’ll leave you to it,” and he lumbered off to buzz around the property on his ATV. Zach and I spent the day twisting the canes, initially wincing at the cracking sound they made as we wrapped them around the wires, but growing more confident in our ability to handle the vines without knocking off the precious buds that would ultimately produce the Brodie Estate 2012 Pinot Noir.
Between the opened bottles leftover from the weekend’s Cellar Door tastings and those opened for prospective salesmen, there is always a selection of Brodie wines at the dinner table that need drinking. Their 2008 Pinot Noir was my favorite from the moment I stuck my nose in the glass. One of those wines that doesn’t require any thinking. I like it. That’s it. I don’t need to try any others. It has dark berries, mushrooms and a rich earthiness on the nose and palate. With smooth tannins and a finish that lasts into the next topic of conversation, it is a wine that feels special. I wish we could afford a case to keep in the back of Serena Williams.
And though I found the one that I like, we did go and try the neighboring vineyard’s wines. Just to make sure they weren’t making something better.
Brodie Estate is located in a Martinborough, a boutique wine town. Not boutique as in snobby, but as in small and full of people who put everything they’ve got into their wine. After the morning’s work and lunch with Ann and James, we have the afternoon to ourselves. Guess what we have been doing? I’ll give you a hint: not running. That’s right, we have been judging, er tasting the neighbor’s wine.
Pinot Noir is the red and Chardonnay is the white in this town. People grow other grapes, but these two are where it all starts. We visited 10 out of 15 vineyards in town, and of those a few stood out from the rest.
Is a 3 acre vineyard in town that produces very fine wines. 3 acres is tiny. Basically a backyard operation. Except that the product of this backyard operation tastes better than many of the large scale vineyards around. The winemaker’s eccentric wife led us through a tasting of three of their wines, which took about 45 minutes. If you have ever tasted three wines, you know that it doesn’t take 45 minutes. Between each sniff and swill, she yammered prolifically on topics from organic wine making to property prices to god knows what; we couldn’t understand half of it. And then she offered us a job to take over when they “inevitably get too decrepit to run the place.” I respectfully declined. It was the first thing I’d said in 45 minutes.
The Chardonnay was awesome and I rarely say that. It was full bodied, smelled like vanilla cake, and was kind of funky like a Viognier can be. It had more character than your typical full bodied California Chard and has me thinking about it days later. I’d give Cabbage Tree Best Chard in Town.
Other than Brodie Estate, this place is producing the most distinct and exceptional red wines in town. Their Cabernet Merlot blend (which usually does not excite me) smelled almost like a spicy, jalepeno pepper. It warmed you up with a familiar, dark berry taste and stayed with you after drinking.
Another place that was run by a real character. An older guy in a red and black plaid flannel shirt that fell almost to his knees, led us through a tasting of nine wines. He asked us if we wanted to share a glass because “it is just so hard to pour a small amount.” Melissa, I smiled at you here. This seems like a problem you could appreciate.
“Thanks, but we’ll have our own,” we told him. Five of the nine wines were Gewurtztraminer, which happens to be one of my personal favorites. No one else in Martinborough is growing Gewurtz. From dry to off dry to sweet and dessert wines, these were what set him apart. They all had hints of lychee in them, with varying degrees of sweetness and weight. The off dry was almost like a floral Pinot Grigio while the same vines produced a wine a few years later that tasted more like a Sauterne dessert wine. It is crazy how much the wines varied from year to year, while the only variable was the weather. We stood around and picked his brain about wine and his vines. He told us stories about how he and his wife split a bottle between two big glasses and go for walks around the vineyard to “check on vines.”
And then when it was time to go, he waived the tasting fee since we were WWOOFing at a neighboring vineyard. What a pleasant surprise. And yet, it fits so nicely with Kiwi hospitality.
When I asked Zach if I should mention any of the other vineyards in this post, he said, “those are the places I’d take people to,” which I think says it all. There is a lot of very good wine grown in Martinborough, and amongst the good wine is some really exceptional wine. It is a shame that it is such an expense for small winemakers to ship to the US. With each of the wines that I get really excited about, there is a friend or family member that I wish I could share it with.
Maybe I’ll come home with no clothes and a backpack full of wine.
I have a complicated relationship with wine. I probably don’t need to explain why I like it, but the flip-side is more subtle. It’s just that its impossible not to sound like a snotty sophisticate when talking about wine. I feel like every time I open my mouth I’m saying “mmmyes, Alfred, I’ll have the ninety-nine Chateauneuf du-Pape. Post haste!” Why can’t I talk about the way something smells without sounding like an affected debutante? Wine is way too wonderful to have artificial barriers erected around it. Some producers agree with me, and I’ll go out of my way to support them. Goldie Vineyards on Waiheke Island is one of those producers.
Goldie came recommended, and was steps away from our afternoon work at the burger truck. We checked out the website and found they offer tastings for just $5! Giddyup. This was way more our pace than some of the ritzier places on Waiheke.
We coasted down the dirt drive and tossed our bikes against a nearby tree. Hmm, the tasting room was empty. Not just of clientele, but staff too. No problem, we’ll find someone that can help us. We hunted around a bit until we found Heinrich, who greeted us warmly. He was a young man in his early thirties, hair unkempt and wearing a weathered sweatshirt. We felt right at home.
Heinrich, whom we later found out was actually the winemaker at Goldie as well, expertly guided us through four generous tastes of wine, detailed below. More than just a wine tasting though, we got to know him a bit. He and his wife emigrated here and he was interested in our plan, or lack of plan as it were. The conversation veered to and from the wine, and we learned not just about what was in the bottle, but what went into making it.
Chardonnay (2011) – awesome. very smooth, buttery, oaky. High praise from Stina: “There’s no chardonnay I’d rather drink.”
Rosé (2011) – Good. Big strawberry nose. Almost candy-cane on the nose, but not an unpleasantly sweet taste. A totally different rosé.
Syrah (2011) – Delicious. Light bodied, heavy vanilla and smoke nose. Smooth, silky tannins. My favorite.
Cab/Merlot (2010) – Good. Medium/full body. benchmark of the style. Plum and dark berries. Soft and velvety. “Silky.”
Heinrich highlighted the difference in body between the two reds. It turns out 2010 was a very wet year on Waiheke, while 2011 experienced a drought. I prefer lighter reds anyway. I loved the syrah and found the 2010 very good.
The Goldie experience was excellent. We felt welcome and at home. Maybe because it was a weekday in the winter, but it was an uncommonly casual wine tasting experience. Wine shouldn’t always be so stuffy and sophisticated. It’s a beverage, not an investment opportunity. Well, I suppose for some its both. I sincerely hope its not only the latter. But many vineyards strive to achieve a certain caché that drives consumers like me away. I’d rather feel welcomed than part of some exclusive club. Goldie does that perfectly.