New Zealand

There really is a Mount Beautiful in New Zealand’s Canterbury region, on the South Island, and one can hardly blame David and Leigh Teece for borrowing the name for their label, produced at Teece Family Vineyards in the Cheviot Hills, from this geographical feature. Canterbury lies to the south of New Zealand’s best-known wine area, Marlborough, which produces about 70 percent of the nation’s wine. The Treeces’ bios read like triumphant stories to inspire and abash all the tribe of ill-paid ink-stained wretches: He, a native New Zealander, is Tusher Professor of Global Business at University of California, Berkeley, and a founder and vice chairman of Law & Economics Consulting Corp., while in New Zealand he is known as the co-owner of the CCC rugby brand and so on; she, from California, has degrees in international relations and business from USC and University of Michigan and worked in international banking and venture capital. I admire the decision of these wildly successful people to locate a winery not in a bustling region but in one of New Zealand’s youngest and least-known areas. That said, I found only one of the Mt. Beautiful wines that I tried truly compelling, while the other two were attractive and enjoyable but not essential. The winemaker is Sam Weaver.

Mistarr Wine Importers, Orinda, Cal. Samples for review.
Refreshing as all get-out, the Mt. Beautiful Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Cheviot Hills, North Canterbury, was delightful with tequila-lime salmon burgers from Whole Foods. More restrained than most sauvignon blancs from New Zealand, or at least from Marlborough, this all stainless steel wine delivers subtle traces of lime and grapefruit, dusty shale, pea shoot, tarragon and guava before segueing to flavors that feel even more spare with tones of pineapple and roasted lemon wrapped in tingling acidity and a moderately silky texture. The finish pumps up the spicy and stony aspect a bit and brings in a flash of lime and grapefruit crispness. 14 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2011. Very Good+. About $18.
The best of this trio is the all stainless steel Mt. Beautiful Riesling 2009, Cheviot Hills, North Canterbury, which displays pinpoint varietal qualities and exactitude of character — one might even call it rectitude –in nose and mouth. The color is very pale straw/gold with faint green highlights; aromas of softly spiced and macerated peach and pear, lychee and mango are accented by touches of petrol (or rubber eraser) and limestone, that admit, after a few moments, a spare hint of honeysuckle. The spareness is built-in to the spicy lime and peach flavors all a-tremble at the portals of neon-bright acidity and bastions of limestone and shale, which do not, however, come across as formidable but deftly, riskily, ultimately perfectly balanced and integrated. I served this wine at a dinner party with an entree of salmon roasted with leeks, bacon and shiitake mushrooms; talk about perfection! Drink through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $19, Good Value for the Price.
The Mt. Beautiful Pinot Noir 2009, Cheviot Hills, North Canterbury, offers an attractive bouquet of black cherry and cranberry, cloves and cola and rhubarb with a touch of brown sugar. The wine aged 11 months in French oak barrels. The appealing texture is supple and satiny and enfolds black cherry and red currant flavors that grow spicier and earthier as the minutes pass. Hints of potpourri emerge, along with foresty elements of briers and brambles; some fine-grained tannins lend the necessary substance. 14 percent alcohol. Tasty, correct, drinkable. Very Good+. About $23.

Some friends came over a few nights ago for a meeting of a committee that LL and I are chairing for an animal-related fund-raising event, and of course I pulled out a few wines to slake their thirst and accompany a selection of cheeses and grilled vegetables. These friends are not “wine-people”; they just like to drink wine, though when they taste something good they can tell the difference between the good stuff and some bland, innocuous fluff. The temperature was a bit chilly for late March — the month came in like a lion and seems to be going out like one too — so I made it a red wine occasion, to which no one objected. I thought diversity in country and grape variety would be interesting, so here’s what I opened: Gainey Vineyard Merlot 2007, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County; Inurrieta Sur 2007, Navarra, Spain, a blend of garnacha and graciano grapes (maybe; see review below); and La Valentina Spelt 2006, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Italy. These wines were samples for review.

When I poured a few glasses of the Gainey Merlot 2007, Santa Ynez Valley, someone said, “Ymmmmm, so glad you chose this one!” The wine is a blend of 95 percent merlot, 4 percent cabernet franc and 1 percent cabernet sauvignon; it aged 19 months in French oak, 38 percent new barrels. Boy, this is deep, rich, glittery yet impeccably balanced merlot, permeated by black currant and black raspberry scents and flavors thoroughly imbued with notes of mint and cedar, smoke, graphite-like minerality and polished oak that takes on a bit of toast. The smoky quality, which unfurls to reveal hints of bitter chocolate, black tea and lavender, intensifies as the moments pass, as does the more profound depth of dusty tannins, earthy loaminess and shale. Not that the wine is forbidding; oh, no, these serious qualities, along with vibrant acidity, are necessary to temper, if not tame, the wine’s profuse sensual attractions. Quite a performance. 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $20, Great Quality for the Price.
There’s a bit of confusion about exactly what grapes go into the Inurrieta Sur 2007, from Spain’s Navarra region. The back label tells us that the wine is a blend of garnacha (grenache) and graciano; the printed matter I was sent with the wine says 60 percent garnacha and 40 percent syrah; the winery’s website asserts that the wine contains garnacha, syrah and graciano grapes. O.K., people, let’s get the story straight! The point is, when I poured our friends a glass of the wine, a chorus of “whoa” and “wow” filled the air. The wine is a dark ruby color, while the bouquet is deeply spicy, sooty, smoky, ripe and funky in the fleshy, meaty sense. This is a delectable quaff whose residence in American oak barrels for six months lends a combination of suppleness and sinewy power to the flavors of black currants, black raspberries and mulberries, all slightly macerated and roasted. The whole effect is sleek, burnished, highly drinkable, now through 2012 or ’13. I almost wish I had saved it for pizza, but I’ll find something else, don’t worry. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Very Good+. About $15, representing Great Value.
The Wine of the Week on Feb 18 was La Valentina Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2008; now it’s the turn of that wine’s slightly older cousin, La Valentina Spelt 2006. Also made from 100 percent montepulciano grapes, Spelt 06 — the wine is named for the region’s dominant grain crop — ages 18 months, partly in stainless steel; partly in French barriques, new and one- and two-years old; and partly in 25 hectoliter barrels. Nothing rustic here; this is a lovely, balanced, eminently drinkable red wine notable for a beguiling bouquet of mint and eucalyptus, slightly spiced and macerated black currant, black raspberry and plum fruit; and a deep dark woody/spicy/chewy/dusty/tannic/graphite/minerally texture and structure etched with delicate tracings of licorice, lavender and potpourri. Alcohol is a sensible 13.5 percent. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $22.
Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Cal.

What, oh what to drink with fried soft-shell crab sandwiches?

The preparation couldn’t be simpler. Clean the little creatures, dip them first in milk and then in bread crumbs (with salt and pepper and maybe a squeeze of chili powder) and fry them in olive oil. We like these sandwiches with ciabatta rolls because they have a nice chewy texture and stand up well to any grease or drippiness. (And what’s a soft-shell crab sandwich sans a bit of grease and drippiness?) A dollop of remoulade sauce, layers of lettuce and tomato, and voila! mighty fine eatin’ as they say in Gay Paree.

I cast about looking at this wine and that wine, taking a sip here and a sip there, and finally settled on the Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2009, from New Zealand’s well-known Marlborough region. This is a delicious and eloquent expression of the sauvignon blanc grape, but I’m as fascinated by its making as by its lovely qualities, so if it doesn’t totally geek you out, allow me to mention a few factors. The grapes ferment in a combination of French oak barriques and stainless steel tanks, 12 percent of the former, 88 percent (of course) of the latter. The oak barrels themselves are a combination of new barrels — a bare 4 percent — and “seasoned” barrels, that is, previously used, so they have largely lost their toasty character. After fermentation, the wine ages in these carefully chosen vessels for four months, on the lees of spent yeast cells.

So, what do we have?

A sauvignon blanc from New Zealand that avoids the excesses and exaggerations that we have come to recognize instantly in so many sauvignon blanc wines from that nation of narrow islands. The Craggy Range Te Muna Road Sauvignon Blanc 2009 displays fine balance between stone fruit and citrus fruit, meaning the lushness of peach and nectarine, on the one hand, poised with the zesty, lean and slightly bitter nature of lime peel and grapefruit on the other; a touch of apple blossom in the nose serves as a bridge to a hint of green apple in the mouth. Lively acidity, like a clear bell-tone, lends the wine sinew and nerve, while a prominent mineral element — soft as talc and sharp as limestone — builds the structure from mid-palate back through a clean, spicy finish. Now through 2012, whether with soft-shell crab sandwiches, sushi, grilled shrimp or fried trout in a classic brown butter and caper sauce. Excellent. About $22.

Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y. A sample for review.

As I mentioned recently, LL works on Tuesday nights during the Spring semester, and I try to have dinner ready for her when she arrives at our door about 9 p.m. Last Tuesday, I chopped or sliced a beet, a parsnip, a red onion, a sweet potato, a carrot and a hunk of knobbly celery root, doused them with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted them at 425 degrees for about 45 minutes. I got the idea from the March Food & Wine magazine; the intention in the recipe is to make a salad. Instead, I cooked some wholewheat fuselli, tossed it with the roasted vegetables, shaved feta cheese and a dollop of a thyme-mustard vinaigrette I had on hand, and, Voila! a really delicious and healthy pasta dish. I didn’t take a picture because I thought the thing was going to be unphotogenic, but actually the roasted vegetables looked like little glowing jewels nestled amongst the corkscrew-shaped pasta.

I opened a bottle of the Craggy Range Fletcher Family Vineyard Riesling 2009, from New Zealand’s Marlborough region, and was glad that I did. Made completely in stainless steel, this riesling is dry, crisp and juicy, a bundle of lime, roasted lemon and spiced peach twined with the requisite pungency of petrol/rubber eraser. A reticent touch of pear and lanolin (and a hint of jasmine) lend sleekness and suavity, while a seductive texture neatly balances keen acidity with moderate lushness. An intense tide of limestone rises from the finish, moving forward as the moments pass and preparing the palate for a final squinge of bracing bitterness, like the tang of grapefruit skin. A very attractive and tasty riesling, yet with a strain of seriousness. Excellent. About $22.

The wine served as a refreshing complement to the sweetness and earthiness of the roasted root vegetable pasta.

The next night, following the trail of The New York Times food section from that morning, LL prepared fillets of cod — the recipe called for halibut, but the stores I tried had none — topped with rosemary, black olives and thin slices of lemon and roasted in the oven. For all its simplicity, this was a terrific dish, deeply tinged with the Mediterranean spirit of freshness and savory, herbal qualities. Those thin slices of lemon were browned and crisped by the oven and brought a touch of citric nerviness to the dish, all of whose elements worked together in fine style. We’ll cook this one often.

The Craggy Range Fletcher Family Riesling ’09, closed with a screw-cap, was still in the refrigerator, so I brought it out and tried it with the cod. This was an even better match than with the roasted root vegetable pasta. Something about the combination of the dusty herbal quality of the rosemary married with the lemon and the earthiness of the black olives brought out both the juiciness and the mineral structure of the wine. It also acted as a foil to the slight bitterness of the sauteed broccoli rabe on the plate.

Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y. A review sample.

Mystery Sauvignon Blancs
I can go along with a stunt with the best of them, so when the offer came from Terlato Wines International to sample three sauvignon blancs wrapped in black paper so I would, if I wanted to, taste them blind, my response was, “Oh, sure, what the hell.” Lined up on the kitchen counter, they looked sort of cool and elegant in their black habits, like monks with marathon numbers.

LL works late on Tuesdays, and I usually cook dinner — late enough to be called supper since we sometimes don’t sit down until after nine — and last night I decided to make a sort of spring-like dish of eggs on toast with mushrooms and onions cooked in Fried Eggs on Toast with Sherried Mushrooms sherry. You scatter chopped flat-leaf parsley on top .This is from the April 2009 issue of Food & Wine magazine. You can see in the image of the dish that I added some basil oil for color and piquancy. On the side, I served a simple mixed green salad. Oh, for mushrooms, I used crimini, porcini and a few precious, pungent morels.

I tasted the wines in the kitchen, while I was cooking the mushrooms, put the bottles back in the fridge, and then got them out and LL and I tried them during dinner.

A hitch occurred when I unwrapped Wine #1, and there was the cork, with the winery name printed on it; so much for subterfuge! The other bottles were closed with screw-caps, so I truly did not know what they were. To keep to the program, I won’t mention what the first wine was yet.

So, Wine #1 offered a fresh clean, vibrant bouquet with green apple, citrus, baking spice, thyme and tarragon. Touches of grass and hay came into play, along with, in the mouth, citrus and green plum flavors. This had attractive heft, a sense of textural authority that comes from oak, though obviously held to a minimum.

Wine #2 gleefully cried “New Zealand!” with its audacious lime, gooseberry, fennel and grapefruit aromas and snappy acidity.

Wine #3, however, immediately won my heart through its winsome pear, honeydew and jasmine bouquet, its hints of almond blossom and orange zest, its engaging liveliness and immediacy.

While we ate supper and tried the wines again, going back to each several times, details and dimensions were filled in. Wine #1 fleshed out with notes of leafy fig, a rich hint of currant and a layer of slightly dusty yet clean earthiness. Wine #2, unfailingly exuberant, added touches of green pea and fresh-mown grass, while Wine #3 continued to impress with its lovely balance and integration, with piercing purity and intensity. It was clearly my (and our) favorite.

All were quite delicious, in their different manners, with the eggs and sherried mushrooms on toast.

The wines? Ta-dah! hanna.gif

#1. Markham Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Napa Valley. With 10 percent semillon grapes, this is fermented in stainless steel and then given 3.5 months in wood tanks, not small barrels. Excellent. About $17.

#2. Wairau River Family Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Marlborough, New Zealand. Made completely in stainless steel. Very Good+. About $19.

#3. Hanna Winery & Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Russian River Valley. Also made completely in stainless steel. Excellent. About $19. If I hadn’t already posted a Wine of the Week, this would be it.

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.” danny_01.jpg
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

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