Recently I wanted to show a visiting now-northern hemisphere academic with an interest in wine just how far the New Zealand wine industry had come in the last 15 years. The approach would be apparently unstructured, via a straightforward / traditional evening meal with a nod to Christmas, the first and last courses at home, the middle two in a BYO restaurant.
At moments like this one turns to wine reviewers, and the leading wine judgings. One of the issues about judging which really taxes thoughtful judges is: will the results of the competitive line-up in fact translate into recognisable quality at table ? Such judges look forward apprehensively to the months following the results, when a well-rated wine may turn up at a social function, and everybody finds it pretty unsatisfactory with food, or even on its own. Only then when the label is revealed, is the question posed: so how on earth did you lot give it a gold medal ? Sometimes this happens within a few days of the judging, at the high-key 'awards dinner'. Assessing wine meaningfully, either solo or in a panel, really is not easy. Then matching wine to food, in the sense of each augmenting the other, can be difficult too.
Consequently, for our low-key evening meal, I gave the wines a lot of thought. We would need four: a bubbly with nibbles; a sauvignon (of course !) with a fish-oriented entrée; a red with sufficient age to be civilised with the main; and then the tricky one, a sticky to go with a centuries-old traditional west-of-England Christmas pudding with lashings of brandy butter and whipped cream.
Nibbles: 2000 Daniel Le Brun Blanc de Blancs Methode Traditionelle ($36) 18.5 +
Bubbly as a class has sometimes not been well judged in New Zealand. It is for example easy to confuse subtle reduced sulphur characters with yeast autolysis. At the other end of the oxidation / reduction equation, alleged aldehydes can be confused with appropriate baguette-crust aromatics. Sometimes the notion of total wine style achieved can be lost sight of due to over-concern with technical purity – as can happen with brett in red wines too. So it is good to say that in the 2008 Air New Zealand judging, the judges were right on the button. The 2000 Le Brun Blanc de Blancs is one of the top three bubblies ever made in New Zealand. I tasted it alongside Piper-Heidseck, and though the latter is obviously pinot noir-influenced, the total style achieved in the Le Brun is superior. Colour and appearance for a 2000 vintage wine is superb, the precise quality of the baguette-crust yeast autolysis is exemplary, while the brut finish is a delight. And the wine has had an appropriate time to marry up in bottle since disgorgement, as shown by the mushroom shape of the cork. Do try and taste this wine: if you like Lindauer Blanc de Blancs Reserve, this Le Brun at twice the price is four times as complex and good. It will cellar 5 – 8 years at least. [ A few days later I was able to compare a remnant with one of the other top three implied above, 1996 Pask Brut, and both of them are totally of good grande marque standard – New Zealand wines to be really proud of. ]
Entree: 2008 Astrolabe Sauvignon Blanc Voyage ($22) 19
Some self-debate here whether to go out on a limb and show the marvellously complex 2005 Te Koko recently commented on, or use something simpler and more classical. In the end, hoping the foods would be simpler (I had green mussels in mind), I went for the deceptively simplest, purest and most perfect Marlborough sauvignon readily available, the Astrolabe Awatere & Wairau blend. The only choice then was, would it be 2007 or 2008. Either would be ideal, with their superbly fresh citrus, black passionfruit and sweet basil complexity, but on this occasion I bowed to conventional wisdom and used the current offering. A great result, a marvellous New Zealand sauvignon with the body and dry extract to be remarkably versatile with food.
Main: 2001 Neudorf Pinot Noir Home Paddock (current 2006, $69) 18.5
Colour has softened on this wine since I last reported on it, but for a seven-year pinot it is still attractively velvety and ruddy. But the key thing is, unlike some other bigger darker pinot interpretations in New Zealand, this wine still smells explicitly floral, varietal and fragrant, a vanilla component like cherry-pie creeping up in boronia-like aromas. In mouth the wine shows great texture, still rich, more a Corton-like wine than Cote de Nuits, long and velvety in mouth. It accompanied the range of foods selected well, from salmon to chicken to lamb shanks, beautifully mouth-filling yet not heavy to the finish. It cannot be repeated too often to the instant-gratification generation, that if red wine is to complement and augment food, as opposed to just accompanying it, then appropriate bottle age, which means cellaring red wine, is essential.
Dessert: 2005 Forrest Noble Riesling John Forrest Collection ($50 per half) 19
As New Zealand wine has become more and more international in character and capability, richer sweet courses have remained the food class where it has been hard to find a local wine that really measures up. Many of the rieslings have been too light and total acid too high for food comfort. Latterly with the move towards sauternes styles in Hawkes Bay, fruit ripeness has sometimes been less than perfect, with just a little mean green thread inappropriate to the lusciousness and balance desired. Or sometimes the wines are over-developed and the oak is too assertive to complement food. And throughout the class, VAs have often been too high to sit happily with food.
What a pleasure it is to record therefore, that even against a near-impossible traditional olde English Christmas pudding more suited to an old sweet fortified wine such as madeira, this remarkable Forrest Collection Noble Riesling is of sufficient substance, complexity and botrytis purity to be magical. Apart from its perfect ripeness and purity, the wine's key feature is the dry extract and body, additional to the sweetness at 220 grams per litre. Food purists might argue that it is still too light for this assignment, but I thought it worked because of the body, and it refreshed the nose and palate beautifully. Also the subtlety of the oak component (if any) allowed the almonds in the pudding – a key feature – to show through delightfully. This Collection Noble Riesling is again one of the greatest sweet wines ever made in New Zealand. It will cellar for a decade at least, and maybe much longer.
Conclusion: All in all, the wines represented our emerging wine and food culture in New Zealand even more perfectly than I had hoped. Each was magnificent in its setting, so much so that some of the food in a reputable Auckland BYO appeared a little pedestrian alongside. But the great thing is, for all the courses of a standard meal, finally there is no need to go off-shore for any accompanying wine at all. For three of these wines, closely comparable quality where possible would cost significantly more from France. For the red, food-appropriate wines in related but other varietal styles could be found within and beyond France at a lesser price than the New Zealand one. For the sticky the choice is wider at or below the cost of the Forrest, but few could match it for finesse coupled with richness.