I had lunch this week — o.k., 25 other people were there — with Daniel Schuster, an owner and winemaker of the winery in New Zealand that bears his name, and he had so much to say about wine and winemaking that made so much sense that I could hardly keep up with jotting down his words of wisdom. Let me lay out three sentences, however, that seem to me to be essential and timeless in their relationship to this beverage that we love.
1. “Wine is always part of something bigger than yourself.”
2. “Wine should be shaped by the environment where it grows.”
3. “Great wine has structure, a beginning, a middle and an end.”
Founded in 1986, in the Waipara district of North Canterbury, Daniel Schuster Wines is owned by the Schuster and Hull families. The vineyards are farmed organically, and all processes in the winery are kept as simple as possible. Moving and racking of wines is by gravity; as Daniel Schuster said, “Gravity has been here for a long time, and it’s free.” The down-to-earth nature of that statement, with its hints of practicality and wit, summarizes Schuster’s character. With his bristling mustache and casual clothes, his gruff, hearty and friendly manner, he looks and acts like a farmer, not like one of the world’s great winemakers and consultants.
How is wine a part of something bigger than ourselves? A glass of great wine exists at the apex of a pyramid of historical, geographical, culinary and psychological factors. It encompasses the history of the people who made it and the land they inhabit and where the vineyards exist; it involves the food with which it is consumed, whether a grand four-course meal or a heel of bread, a hunk of cheese and a handful of olives, and the myriad sensual and emotional aspects which it appeals to and appeases.
Those factors have something to do with Schuster’s second aphorism, that wine should be shaped by its environment. This statement is a simple way of expressing the notion of what the French call terroir — the congeries of specific geographical and climatic influences that affect a particular vineyard — but the word “shaped” possesses a lovely implication of gentle malleability. Being shaped by the environment also implies that the winemaking process should be as gentle and non-manipulative as possible, more nurturing than demanding. To that end, Schuster eschews the use of small oak barrels and instead employs large casks, hence avoiding the undue influence of wood.
It would seem logical that great wines possess structure — beginning, middle and end — yet too many wines, especially made in California, feel the same in the mouth from start to finish, bursting forth and then collapsing wearily in a welter of toasty new oak and super-ripe fruit. Winemakers seem to have forgotten the importance of precisely balanced acid, the constitutional element that lends wine life and backbone; too much acid and the wine is thin and nervous, too little and it turns soft and flabby.
Here are my notes on the Daniel Schuster wines we tried with lunch at Erling Jensen: The Restaurant in Memphis. Executive chef is the Danish Erling Jensen; his chef de cuisine is Justin Young.
*Daniel Schuster Sauvignon Blanc 2006, Marlborough. This scintillating wine was served as aperitif. It’s terrifically bright, clean and vivid, bursting with lime, grapefruit and limestone jazzed by electrifying acidity that touches to life hints of tarragon and dried thyme, fig and sunny currant. The limestone element expands in the glass, turning the whole package almost crystalline with purity and intensity. Excellent. About $20.
*Daniel Schuster Petrie Vineyard Chardonnay 2002, Waipara. “Huge, oily, buttery chardonnays are barbaric,” said Schuster, and by contrast offered this amazingly clean, vibrant and buoyant rendition of the often-abused grape. This version seethes with classic chardonnay intensity and flavor yet it’s individual too, its grapefruit-pineapple flavors given a sheen of peach and mango, though there’s nothing cloying or overwhelming here. The acid cuts a swath on the palate, lending the wine refreshing liveliness through a lovely, silken texture. The finish is lovely, pure limestone. Excellent. About $28. The dish: House-smoked salmon belly salad with Bibb greens.
*Daniel Schuster Riesling 2006, Waipara. Very clean, pure and intense, with incisive acidity arrowing through beguiling flavors of peach, pear and white pepper permeated by dried spices and limestone. The texture is seductive, crisp, yes, but almost talc-like in softness, and overall, the balance is exquisite. Excellent. About $18, Good Value. The dish: Roasted monkfish on curried parsnip puree.
*Daniel Schuster Pinot Noir 2005, Waipara. As much as I liked all of these wines and the food they accompanied, this pinot and this course were the highlights of the event; the wine points the way to the future of pinot noir in New Zealand, where much has been proclaimed about the grape without the performances yet to back up those assertions. This, however, is superb, an entrancing satiny, smoky and vibrant amalgam of clean earth and minerals, moss and new leather, black cherry, currant and plum flavors, roses and violets, all shaped by subtle and supple wood notes and a bright line of acidity that would make a Burgundian proud. Exceptional. About $28 and Cheap at the Price. The dish, which sticks in my memory: the succulent and deeply flavorful roasted pheasant breast with truffle-risotto croquettes.
*Daniel Schuster Hull Family Vineyard Late Harvest Riesling 2006, Waipara. This is a romantic version of most late-harvest dessert wines, lovely and delicate but with plenty of acid structure, tender pear, peach and apricot flavors — spiced and macerated — and a super-clean, dry finish to round off the hint of sweetness on the entry. Excellent and Very Charming. About $34 for a half-bottle. Dessert was an individual apple-rosemary Charlotte with caramel sauce.
For information about Erling Jensen: The Restaurant, visit http://www.ejensen.com