Where do I begin with New Zealand?
I had been working up on the North Island, where business supposedly gets done here, in both Auckland and Wellington. These two cities are populated by over half of the four million people who live in this scenic country. Some good restaurants and importers reside in Auckland, and I did all I could to visit all of them with my Thorpe Wines. I also had a thorough visit to Kumeu River and had ham and split pea soup with proprietor Melba and Michael Brajkovich, her winemaking son. Chardonnay not too far off in style from Puligny, that stalwart Burgundian chardonnay village. I got some good feedback about my wine, made some solid contacts, and decided to head to the South Island for a closer squiz (look) at the wine regions.
As soon as I got off the ferry and into my car, I pointed it towards Marlborough. As a wine buyer I had tasted a lot of NZ “sevvy” (kiwi slang for sauvignon blanc), however, recently I’d been drinking gallons of shiraz in SA and was pleasantly surprised by the refreshing acidity of these well made whites. I intentionally got lost driving amongst the vines with the soft tan hills folding in the background. I spotted Fromm Winery and had heard they were a point of difference since they eschewed sevvy, and made pinot and syrah. The winemaker there, William Hoare, heard me chatting with the cellar door lady and asked me where I was from. Next thing I knew we were outside and he was describing the geology of the valley, where the best sevvy came from and why pinot worked so well in this microclimate to the southwest of Cloudy Bay. Then we were tasting barrel samples and the word Burgundy came up again and again. They make delicious pinots (yes, Burgundian, particularly the Clayvin) and syrahs reminiscent of Hermitage in the Northern Rhone. A very good first visit, and totally unplanned.
From there it was lunch at Highfield, then a drop by Spy Valley and Cloudy Bay, just because. Ironically, Cloudy Bay was out of sauvignon blanc, their bread and butter, for another 6 weeks.
After Cloudy Bay, I gunned it to Christchurch to meet Duncan Wilcox co-owner of London Street Restaurant, one of the loyal Thorpe supporters in NZ, and a restaurateur/ex-pat. Duncan also has a wicked cellar, and he was generous enough to open a 1990 Chateau Rayas Chateauneuf du Pape that was aged to perfection. On the floor of my guestroom, behind the door, he had lined up his casual drinking wines for the week. They were some of the icons of Burgundy, the Rhone, and Bordeaux from brilliant years. It was here that I learned the true meaning of the word “restraint”. It was here also, and more importantly perhaps, that I heard about Fleur’s Place a few hours south along the east coast from his girlfriend and gifted cartoonist, Alex Hallatt.
Fleur Sullivan was a restaurateur in the old sense of the word. She worked hard and has a deft touch with people. Her place on the bay in Moeraki became well known because she stood up to the fishing practices of the region, which were geared towards Japanese exports, and demanded that she got the best fish first. She won and I was hooked. It’s the kind of place where a combination of locals and visitors collide and real fireworks are possible. The place rocked. I was there on a Saturday night and a Frenchman and Fleur’s chef, named Gilbert, caught wind that I was in the wine biz and joined me for a bottle or two and a chat. He liked the Fromm “Clayvin” pinot noir I opened for him. He said, “finally something that doesn’t taste like a lollipop.” I think what he really meant to say was that it reminded him of his home, many miles away: Burgundy. This gift made all the difference, however, since it opened the door to a conversation only a chef and sommelier could have about the current state of food and wine. He accepted my invitation to stay at my table. He ordered some cheese, another bottle was opened (one of his favorites a 2004 “Rock ‘n’ Pillar” pinot from Central Otago), and I was let into the inner circle. I had a great meal of a Blue Nose fish and cabbage with bacon in a cider sauce. Then I watched with amusement as everyone danced and drank the chilly night away under billions of stars out in the middle of nowhere in this little fishing village of Moeraki. And everyone looked completely at home.
I was off the next day to see Gilbert’s nemesis for myself, the home of “lollipop” pinot noir; Central Otago.