Sunday, April 15, 2007

Central Otago Wines and Secondhand Adrenaline

After skipping the Marlborough region famed for their Sauvignon Blancs, Tyler and I consoled ourselves with the fact that New Zealand seems to have wine regions just about everywhere, including Queenstown where we've stationed ourselves for the past few days. After a day of cold and two days of hiking, it was time to dive into a few local wineries.

The Central Otago region is fairly new to the wine scene. There are quite a few wineries now, but they didn't really get started until the late 1980s. Apparently, it's also the world's southernmost winemaking region, specializing largely in Pinot Noirs. On a weekend trip to Portland the last year or so ago, Tyler and I stumbled upon a food and wine festival. With your entrance ticket, you could taste wine from nearly 50 local vintners and taste appetizers from local restaurants. We decided to focus on Pinot Noirs, and though we surely stopped tasting with any kind of palate after our sixth sample, it proved to us that Pinot Noir seems to be a more versatile grape than many others. It can range from really light to deep, juicy to dry, young and fun to deep and serious. So a fun grape to taste a range of, whether in the shop or at a few different vineyards.

In other wine regions we've visited, we've blindly visited whatever vineyards had an interesting name or was convenient. Tyler mentioned the great tasting wine shop we visited in Queenstown, already, but it was a great way to taste local wines and then seek out those we liked best. (It was also pretty fun to see so many wines we recognized from our previous excursions; we need to do more of this in Washington!)

Here are a few of our thoughts and observations:

We tried the Mt. Difficulty Long Gully Pinot Noir at the urging of the helpful counterperson at the Queenstown wine shop. The most expensive of the ones we tasted ($95 NZD), it was smooth, with good fruit and the bit of earthiness I enjoy in my Pinot Noirs.

We tried two Pinot Noirs from Waitiri Creek. One was a really young Pinot, 2006 aged for only a few months. It was almost like a rose, fun, fruity and very easy drinking. The 2003 had ended up being our favorite of the seven we tasted (outside the Mt. Difficulty one noted above), with a good earthiness. Waitiri Creek was the first winery we decided to visit based on this, and the tasting room and restaurant are located in a cute, converted old church building. The cheeky Irish waiter confirmed that, indeed, you could taste the "funk" of the Gibbston earth in the Pinot Noirs. While there, we also had a refreshing rose and another Pinot Noir vintage. The rose, a bottle we decided to take with us to enjoy with dinner tonight, also seemed to have a unique winemaking approach. The grapes were left to soak uncrushed, then pressed later.

Our next stop was a winery I recognized from our wine shop visit (we didn't taste since a tasting pour cost more than $7)--Gibbston Valley Winery. Unfortunately, I think they are also listed in Lonely Planet and must make it onto many wine tours since they do a winery tour, and the facilities lacked personality. Among the many random tchotchkes for sale (soap, scarves, mugs, not wine related), there was a small bar where you could buy a tasting tray for $5 with four of their wines. Two (a reisling and Sauvignon Blanc) I wasn't crazy about. But they did have an intersting Blanc de Pinot Noir (which I'm pretty convinced is just a fancy way of saying they make a Pinot Noir rose)--lots of candy-ish watermelon flavors. While it might be a bit much after a glass, it did go down easily. While we were tasting, and Tyler was flipping through a Lord of the Rings Filming Location book on sale at the shop, I noticed that they produced a Pinot Blanc. Since they are related to the Pinot Noir and grow well in the same conditions, it's a little surprising we don't see this more often. It was an intersting and assertive white wine--bolder than a Chardonnay, with a little spice, a little dried fruit, and a lot of flavor. The most interesting of the bunch, and I was glad they let us taste something not on the tray.

Then we wound along a narrow precipice of a road to Chard Farm. I have to be honest; at the wine shop I had almost steered clear of this based on name alone, which I at first took as a bastardization of Chardonnay. But the tasting notes enticed me, and their 2004 Sugar Loaf Single Vineyard Pinot Noir ended up being my second favorite Pinot of the batch. After a quick game of toss with the resident dog in the front yard, we went in to taste a handful of really good wines: a minerally Sauvignon Blanc, an oaked and unoaked Chardonnay, their Pinot Noir rose, and two 2005 Pinot Noirs, the Finla Mor and the Viper. As we had tasted in Martinborough, the two were made from different areas and different aged vines. The older and more expensive Viper was a great example of what I like my Pinot Noirs to taste like--weighty in the mouth, silky, with some good taste of the earth thrown in as well.

To break up the wine tasting parts of the day, Tyler and I decided to eat a sandwich at the original bungy jumping site: Kawarau Bridge. If we weren't going to engage in the extreme activities, we could at least get a contact adrenaline rush from those willing to shell out $150 to jump off a bridge. The scenery was fantastic, and it was somewhat thrilling to watch people take the dive, even if we weren't actually doing it ourselves.

Someone takes the plunge!

The bridge and jumping off station--we only saw one person get to the edge adn then decide not to jump

Sign on the women's restroom

Well, that's probably all the reports from wine country, at least until South Africa!

On a side note--we did taste a fantastic Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough's Cloudy Bay Vineyard. I recognized the label from a delicious Pinot Noir I had enjoyed for dinner in Seattle, and the minerally Sauvignon Blanc makes me believe my memory of the good Pinot is true. Just thought I'd mention it since it might be easier to find than many of the others' I've mentioned on our wine journey through New Zealand!

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