Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Bay of Islands Beauties

Bay of Islands Beauties…
Michael & Barbara Webb of Cottle Hill Vineyards
Cottle Hill has an idyllic setting which sets an indelible stamp on your memory and I almost missed it entirely due to an address typo on the Northland Wine Trail flyer.  Situated on the corner of State Highway 10 and Cottle Hill Drive on the outskirts of Kerikeri, its cute potager garden filled with corn, herbs and vegetables and sweeping balcony overlooking acres of carefully tended vineyards makes you ache for it to be a restaurant.  But for owner Barbara Webb they’ve decided from experience that they’re much better to focus on their core business of being a winery.  “We’ve done a couple of weddings and big parties and that’s great because we think it’s a great venue for it, but we’re not going full-time into food”.  Barbara and her husband Michael sailed into Kerikeri on board their 35ft packet yacht Sprig from San Diego California back in the mid 1990’s.  “We fell in love with the Bay of Islands and were inspired to get into the wine industry after a road trip to Hawke’s Bay and seeing what was going on down there.  With vines sourced from Joe Corban our vineyard was planted in 1996 and we started making wine that same year” says Barbara.  In the ground they’ve got Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Chambourcin and Dolcetto plus they make a syrah from fruit grown closer to Kerikeri.  Made in a deliberate “old-world style” according to Barbara, the Cottle Hill 2010 Chardonnay has delicious butterscotch and grapefruit aromas, loads of white peach and creamy, leesy flavours fleshed out with vibrant acidity and great persistence of flavour. 

Barbara and Michael planted all sorts of other varieties in the early years, however after much experimenting and replanting they feel they’ve hit on the right combination of fruit for the future.  This part of New Zealand is notorious for having a climate that acts as atmospheric root burst to most plants, including grapes.  “We are lucky in that the early part of the summer was really dry and that kept growth in check, but we’re constantly out there leaf plucking and trimming – the vines just grow like weeds up here” laughs Barbara. She hand over a glass of their famous Dolcetto, and I instantly fall in love with its soft cocoa, mint and lavender aromas and supple, plummy, juicy flavours on the finish.  “Everyone told us we couldn’t grow pinot up here, but we love pinot so we put some in the ground and it’s done incredibly well” shrugs Barbara.  “We just trust our instincts and it seems to work”. 

A few minutes away on Wiroa Road is the world class cellar door and restaurant at Marsden Estate.  Back in the 1990’s Marsden and Cottle Hill were the only wineries in Kerikeri and not being trained winemakers meant the first few years consisted of experimentation and trial and error.  Today Marsden Estate, under the cool-hand Luke approach of owner/winemaker Rod MacIvor is one of Northland’s most highly awarded producers.  “One thing we have to remember up here is not to let things get too ripe” says Rod as we tuck into a heaving plate of juicy Asian prawns, “because of the climate if we go for higher sugar we inevitably lose acidity that creates distinctive wines.  Some Northland whites have a history of being a bit flabby, but we know how to fix that now, in fact we’re learning all the time”.  Rod remembers 1998 “which was just nuts, an incredible year, but a lot of the wines just tipped over too quickly because we were seduced by these huge sugar levels.  But we’ve got the experience now to exercise restraint”.   
Sauvignon Blanc has Rod really excited, “we have a different style up here, its super tropical and really juicy” he says, but I think the boutique varieties like Chambourcin will end up becoming Northland’s signature.  Chambourcin is a red hybrid that’s only been around since the early 1960’s, but it boasts brilliant resistance to fungal disease making it an ideal grape for Northland’s humidity.  “Chambo’s also great eating ” offers Kelvin Mowat from Pukeko Vineyard down the road who’s come to join us at lunch, “I was taking bunches down to the local lunch bar in Waipapa and they were selling heaps every day”.  Chambo aside, I recommend trying the Marsden Estate Cavalli 2008 $25.  Named after the Cavalli Islands, it’s a delicious, juicy blend of Chambourcin, Pinotage and Merlot that cries out for roast lamb.  

L-R Kelvin & Christine Mowat with a fan
After lunch I follow Kelvin up SH10 to Pukeko Vineyard, a 7 acre block he owns with his wife Christine with 4 acres of grapes and 3 acres of miniature ponies, an odd combination, but undeniably cute. “I bought the place 3 years ago when it was an overgrown kiwifruit orchard.  The plants were skyscraper high, untended for over 6 years so I just got a bulldozer, pulled them all out, rolled them up and burned the lot – but we still get kiwifruit plants popping up amongst our vines even now” he says handing me a glass of syrah.  It’s solid, pepper-driven and fleshed out with plum and violet notes and it’s very good.  Prepare yourself for pukeko’s everywhere – hats, t-shirts, stuffed toys, ornaments and umbrellas even, but if merchandise isn’t your thing don’t fret, his sauvignon, chambo and chardonnay will provide plenty of entertainment for your tastebuds. 

Hang a left into Puketotara Road and you’re at the home of Bruce and Sue Soland, owners of Fat Pig Vineyard.  Sporting a goatee, black t shirt and black wraparound sunglasses, I’m not surprised to learn Bruce was born a Westie and he worked on vineyards as a kid before spending 20 years as a golf pro.  Opting for a life back amongst the vines he purchased an old kiwifruit orchard in 2003 and converted it into a vineyard which now produces Syrah, Pig-o-gris (also known as ‘cougar juice’ according to Bruce), Char-boar-nay and Sow-Blanc.  If you need a touch more fortification you could give his Wild Boar Port a go, or if something more delicate calls, try the hugely popular Runty Rosé. 
Bruce Soland of Fat Pig Vineyards
The cellar door is rustic and raw, and yes there is a pig (named Jenny Craig) that I don’t get to meet, but I can certainly smell.  “We have our own wine and food fest up here, which” he whispers “is really just a rage up.  We have a big marquee housing all the vineyards in the area, 5 chefs cooking and a fabulous band – it’s just awesome”. 

Four of the Best

Marsden Estate Syrah 2009 $36 (4 stars)
Strong, masculine spice and dusty, earthy, peppery notes herald the arrival of a rather delicious syrah.  Beautifully balanced, with just the right amount of cedary oak and juicy plummy, berryfruit notes, this is one red that oozes personality and charm.
Redwood Cellars Old Mout Scrumpy Cider ($16x330ml 4pk) 
Recently repackaged with the tag line “we think it’s pretty good”, I think the team at Redwood Cellars are on the money.  This scrumpy has solid apple fullness, generous alcohol (8%) and clean, vibrant, tangy length of flavour.  Pronounced ‘Old Moot’ it’s definitely a new favourite.
Pukeko Vineyard White Tail Pinot Gris 2010 $22 (4 stars) 
A super-cute pinot gris that shows jazz apple, pear and quince flavours combined with crunchy acidity and fantastic length of flavour.  Crisp, clean, elegant and totally drinkable. or 0274933458

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