Monday, 27 June 2011

Au Revoir Les Beaux Cailloux

Homesick for my old stomping ground, one thing guaranteed to fill me with jubilation and fluffy rays of sunshine is being given the chance to spend a few hours back in my beloved Hawke’s Bay. But a recent sojourn to check on how things were looking in Craggy Range’s Gimblett Gravels vineyard had me reaching for the Prozac.  Adjacent to their state-of-the-art Highway 50 Winery and smack in the middle of some of New Zealand’s finest syrah and Bordeaux reds is a collection of vines responsible for one of my favourite New Zealand wines, the Les Beaux Cailloux chardonnay.  French for ‘the beautiful pebbles’, it’s a chardonnay which oozes elegance and sophistication and its so sublime I’ve actually been known to dribble a little bit whenever a glass is poured in front of me. 
Rod Easthope, Craggy Range
And yet the vines which have given me so much pleasure over the last decade have been reduced to little more than stumps. “You might’ve noticed some severe pruning going on” says Rod Easthope, Craggy’s chief winemaker.  “We’ve chain-sawed them off and they’ll be removed” he says as I stifle a wail.  “When you plant a 100ha vineyard it’s hard to predict what you’ll need in ten, twenty, fifty years time and you’re not always going to get it right.  But I reckon Steve (Smith MW, and Rod’s boss) got it about 80% right in terms of our varietal mix here which is a good first stab at it”. 
Some of these chardonnay plants were also being affected with leaf roll virus year after year.  “This chardonnay was good but it wasn’t the best in the world; and if it’s compromising the rest of your vineyard containing potentially world-beating reds, then it’s a no-brainer that you’ve got to sacrifice it.”  I reluctantly concur. Then Rod adds “and hopefully the next generation can be standing here next to a 50 year-old healthy merlot vine producing something pretty special.”
Ensuring consistent quality fruit isn’t an easy task.  “But the interesting part of the Gimblett gravels is tens of thousands of years ago when these rivers were actually flowing and creating the gravel, there was very little volcanic activity in New Zealand. So there’s no real fertile topsoil, it’s just silt and stone. This provides some amazing benefits because when the rain does come it drains straight through the soil.  We’re always trying to confuse our vines into thinking that they need to ripen their fruit quickly or they’ll cark it”. 
But surely that’s not all it takes to eke out the best from your vines? 
Oyster shells reflect valuable UV rays back up into the canopy.
"Think about New Zealand wines being ripened by the sun rather than by heat"
 says Rod Easthope, Winemaker.
According to Rod there’s also a lot of cultural work to be done to make sure their fruit reaches ideal ripeness and intensity, and it doesn’t come easily.  One thing I immediately notice is the high-density planting with narrow rows and short spaces between each vine. “This increases the number of vines per hectare which is a good way to utilise our site” Rod explains, “it kick-starts inter-vine competition which exhausts the available resources and you begin to see a ‘bonsai’ effect. Everything becomes dwarfed, creating smaller vines and most important for us - smaller bunches and smaller berries. That means more extract, more colour, more tannin and more flavour.” 
“We also train our vines slightly lower than what’s considered normal in New Zealand to take advantage of the ‘electric blanket’ effect from the stones. This gives the canopy some extra warmth which might just be the thing that gets you across the line.  We also bunch-thin to one bunch per shoot.”  
Left unchecked they’d happily sprout 3 or 4 bunches per shoot, but with grapes the correlation between yield and quality is definitely less is more.  Part magpie, my eyes are also drawn to the sparkly white things scattered underneath a row of merlot.  “We’ve got a little bit of an oyster shell trial here” he explains.  “Over in Bordeaux they’ve got similar gravelly sites, but there’s also lot of ‘white stone’ material there as well so we thought we’d have a crack at it”.  Remember that scene in ‘The Young Ones’ where Neil the hippy, fearful of nuclear bombs, paints himself white to deflect the blast?  It’s the same concept; the whiteness of the oyster shells reflects the suns rays away from the soil and back up into the canopy to help ripen the fruit faster. 
We may not reach the same high temperatures that other countries do, but one thing we do have plenty of is UV. We’re about 30% higher in UV here than our corresponding latitudes in the northern hemisphere, so it’s a significant factor. Rod agrees.  “When I host people from overseas I tell them to think about New Zealand wines being ripened by light rather than heat and suddenly a light goes on.  That freshness, vitality and brightness in our wines suddenly all makes sense.  People get that.” 
Bonsai vines, low-training and oyster shells.  These tiny little things all have a cost and they all take some management, but collectively they help grapes ripen in a marginal climate.  “We like sites and vines that make winemakers look clever” Rod adds as we leave.  “There’s actually no accountability in my job because when the wines are really good I’ll happily take the credit and when the wines are crap you just blame the weather.  It works out well for me most years anyway.”
And now for something completely different…
Having lived in Christchurch for the last five months I’ve grown to expect the unexprected.  But when a bottle of Rex Attitude Peat Smoked Strong Golden Ale by the Yeastie Boys Brewery arrived on my doorstep it threw me into a spin.  It smelled a bit like old-school 1980’s plasticine, grandad’s tweeds and whisky-soaked silage.  It tasted super-smoky and had an unmistakeable malty tang to it.  “They said that we couldn’t use more than 5% heavy peated malt in a beer” says the back label.  “So we carefully considered their advice and went with 100% instead.” According to the Yeastie lads it’s the first time a beer has been made this way in the entire world as far as they know.  It’s got a green T-Rex on the front and is “inspired by French Techno and the whisky of Scotland’s west coast”. Confused? Me too – but in an “I like you because you’re strange” kind of way.  I’m confident that serving this beer will either win you friends or get you sent to the loony bin.  To purchase visit
Craggy Range Les Beaux Cailloux Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay 2009 $62 êêêê½
“2009 was a tough year for chardonnay, in fact it came incredibly close to being a total disaster” says Steve Smith MW, but clearly there’s some talent in the winery because the last-ever version of this wine boasts delicate peach, spring florals and brulée aromas on the nose and a fresh, citrus-forward minerally elegance on the palate.  Crunchy-fresh, it’s still very young so I’d really love to try it again in one year’s time.
Mission Estate Hawke’s Bay Riesling 2010 $16 êêêê½
Already a gold medal winner, this snappy little riesling is scented with beeswax, honeysuckle, and white peach while crisp, clean lemon-lime flavours explode in the mouth.  It’s just sensational value for money and wickedly good with sweet chilli chicken.
Waimea ‘Trev’s Red’ 2010 $23 êêê½
This very drinkable blend of Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Malbec from Nelson is named after the godfather of grapegrowing on the Waimea Plains, Trev Bolitho.  It’s a food-friendly red that’s packed with personality, so if you’re a fan of plums, spicy dark berries, cocoa and coffee then this has got your name on it…well if your name is Trev that is…

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