Is wine an “essential service”? – Covid-Day 1

Does alcohol consitute “the necessities of life”? How important in these troubling times is it to have access to alcohol? Yesterday the morning breakfast show, The AM Show, polled New Zealanders as to how important this is in life:

The final results are not surprising to me – and yet when all the panic buying started last week (we still have not managed to get any flour) I turned to one colleague and said “Well I hope the breweries are pumping out more product.”

Aotearoa has, as Robert Joseph said to me yesterday, a rather chequered past with alcohol. We nearly voted in Prohibition in 1919. A hundred years later, our appalling domestic violence cases are probably fueled in part by alcohol, as is our growing road toll (though NZ is not a safe place to drive for a number of reasons that I won’t go into here.)

But alcohol is so ingrained in our social norms.

This came to the surface after the March 15 terror last year. I have lots of friends who are Muslim and I did my best to contact as many as I could, but it is not as though I could go over to theirs, open a nice bottle of wine and share some personal time that way. And yet one Central Otago producer took the opportunity to post a promotion on their Facebook pages saying that profits from cellar door sales that weekend would be donated to the victims’ funds. I know that they meant well, but how tone deaf can the wine industry be to the rest of the world???

Anyway, there has been a surge in alcohol sales in the past few days. I even panicked yesterday when I realised that I had some back vintages of Kumeu River in my rented cellar, which meant a mad dash across town to retrieve some. But I thought I would summarise what the rules are here, now that we are in Day 1 of lockdown:

wine and beer will still be available in supermarkets for the time being

all liquor stores have been told to close

however we have some parts of NZ which have district licensing trusts, so they will remain open and, curiously, they sell spirits as well, whereas our grocery stores cannot (and nor can supermarkets sell Port or Sherry)

wineries can remain in business, but the cellar door must be closed – not sure what that means for individual businesses, some will be hurting

because wine is now one of our key exports, vintage is continuing, however with rules around social distancing and even greater sterile requirements (if you are hand harvesting… well, must be stressful) – but the rules on this have been quickly cobbled together, and we have heard that some places are having problems – everyone is doing the best that they can

2020 looks like being an amazing vintage here in Middle Earth

Stay home,

Save lives,

Kia kaha!

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NZIFF 2019 Film Review – The Empire’s New Clone – “A Seat at the Table”

I have received so many questions about this film that it may pay to get a few out of the way asap:

Was this the best movie (slash) documentary you saw at this year’s Film Festival?

NZIFF this year was perhaps lacking some of the big names of last year, so overall the quality of the films was not as good as it as been. But I saw a couple of amazing features (I could not get to Vivarium, nor the feature about the Stalinist purges, which sounds dire but I suspect may have been THE best film this year…) Notable among these was The Art of Self Defence, which is not for the faint hearted, but if you get black humour a small masterpiece. Best doco was Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, which was a straight up (and fascinating) look at an overlooked part of production, though Mads Brugger’s wacky conspiracy theory doco Cold Case Hammarskjöld was also lots of fun. A Seat at the Table was certainly in my top four or five (I went to twelve Festival movies, most of them documentaries), pretty good, especially given the fact that the producers had to self fund the project. Hopefully it gets a general release!

The story about the Abel clone is amazing, isn’t it??

Yes, but perhaps not as amazing as it was painted on the screen. So, a definite “Yeah nah.” Abel remains one of my favourite Pinot Noir clones in Enzed, and great to see it has a cameo here. Should this have been a movie on its own? Probably, because the message about Kumeu River Chardonnay standing up to the great Chardonnays of Burgundy got a little lost in translation…

Is New Zealand Chardonnay that good?

Oh yeah.

Is this “the definitive New Zealand wine story benchmarked against some of the greatest producers in the world”?

Well the minds behind would themselves have to be honest and admit that this was an ambitious undertaking and while I think the storytelling was fine, the benchmarking itself got cut short. We did not get the whole story – but at least the ending was sound!

Sounds like you are less than impressed, should I go see the film?

Most definitely, hopefully this will help get another one off the ground, but if you want your modern history of the New Zealand wine industry please read Michael Cooper or Warren Moran.

The story begins in 2015, when Stephen Browett, principal at UK wine importer Farr Vintners organises a blind tasting, in London, pitting Kumeu River Chardonnays against some of the finest Chardonnays from Burgundy. The tasting panel includes two MWs, Jancis Robinson and Derek Smedley, plus other wine writers, notable among them Neil Martin from The Wine Advocate.

You can read the results here:

Short story first, Kumeu River Chardonnays “won” this taste off.

This is where our movie begins, with the question: Does New Zealand wine deserve a seat at the table?

First problem is, the filmmakers were not around when this all happened, so the film picks up the trail at a vertical tasting of Kumeu River Chardonnays at Farr Vintners, with Kumeu River marketing director Paul Brajkovich, Stephen Browett and thank, thank, thank Bacchus, Jancis Robinson MW, who really saves the day (I believe.)

One of the things that they do mention here is that Kumeu River seals all its wine under screwcap, which provides a significant advantage, especially with a variety such as Chardonnay. I have spent so much money buying white Burgundy, only to find that it is oxidised and oxidation can vary from totally dead to almost undetectable. But screwcaps remain a huge advantage for certain styles of New Zealand especially whites. The movie later on discusses this, but this is not mentioned when this tasting is described.

I love white Burgundy, I drink a lot of it (in fact, as I write this I am enjoying a glass of 2006 Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru “Les Chaumees” and it is lovely wine, so nice, but it could be that much grander, more precise, just fresher if it had boasted a screwcap.)

Now for my overseas friends, we need to take a diversion here and discuss “cultural cringe”. Is that a thing in the Northern Hemisphere? Does the Empire of wine ever suffer self doubt?

Well, Kiwis are very insecure birds, with good reason. I know a spot on Motutapu where a good number have perished because although they are very good at seeing at night, they really do not understand coastal geomorphology and what cliffs are, and so they have literally gone off the edge.

New Zealanders really are obsessed with how the outside world sees us. I guess that makes us the Anti-America? I am not kidding. For those of you who have never been here, you will be asked within a short time of arriving here, “So, how are you finding us?” This happened to friends of mine who were still in the Arrivals Hall at Auckland International Carpark and Airport.

This is the premise for A Seat at the Table – how do we compare to the rest of the world, or, more specifically, French wine.

The movie then jumps to Sancerre, in the Loire Valley and discusses why French wine is considered the pinnacle of the wine world. It visits Henri Bourgeois, which also has an Estate in Marlborough. And we get an explanation of why Bourgeois invested in New Zealand. Later a caption talks about French investment of around a billion dollars in Marlborough (or New Zealand?) but no mention that the bulk of this hails from conglomerate drinks giant Pernod Ricard, who are happy to churn out mass market wines at sharp prices, but not necessarily trying to “beat” French wine. An interesting oversight…

This is the strongest part of the movie, Bob Campbell MW gives some very clear analysis around the success of New Zealand, and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. But then, there is no taste comparison of Marlborough Sauv and Sancerre. And, well, supposedly we make the best Sauvignon in the world, so why do these fools in Sancerre bother with vines, when they could be building luxury condos for bored English gentry on that land…

This is where the film starts to come apart at the seams. There are too many stories. Good stories, yes! But the cast of characters is vast and it is difficult keeping up with play.

The filmmakers tell us that they take some NZ wines of the same ilk (same varieties, or similar wine style) back to France to show French winemakers, in an attempt to show that our wines are deserving of a seat at the table.

This is a movie with a lot of talking heads. I have seen plenty of wine movies. Vineyards make stunning photos. For me, the best way to understand a high quality, or single estate wine is to go to where the grapes are grown. You do not really get a sense of what the wine means until you can stand in those vines. But a lot of wine movies have endless drone shots and slow mo this and filter that, and you do not really get a sense of the site.

The local vineyard in this movie which gets special attention is Pyramid Valley. Unfortunately for the producers, Country Calendar did a whole episode on Pyramid Valley a year or two ago and you posdibly get a better sense of the whole site from that half hour tv show (perhaps they ought to have filmed next door at Bell Hill, which is also mind blowing as far as site and viticulture.)

The “tastings” with the French winemakers are by and large fairly standard, standing in front, or behind barrels

So, thankfully, the drone shots are kept to a minimum. There are a couple in France, but brief. Instead, this is a movie with a lot of talking.

But wait, where this movie excels and what we have to admire as pure genius, is in the interviews with the Kiwi winemakers. These are all shot, framed, staged slightly differently. Each of them is set in a setting totally appropriate to that person. The settings reveal a lot about each vigneron / vineyard. You can even see the personalities, large as life as the massive screen at the Civic Theatre. Brilliant.

Problem is, there are too many Kiwi wineries featured and there are too many stories that detract from the main theme.

So, we have the story of the Abel clone. In the movie, the caption reads “Able” which is a terribly unfortunate error that I hope is corrected immediately.

I never met Malcolm Abel, who tragically died early, but I did become friends with a family member (and sometime vineyard volunteer) at Uni. The local bottle shop near our student hostel sold Abel Pinot Noir and Abel Pinotage. I preferred the Pinotage, sorry, and meanwhile my new found friend taught me about Jimi Hendrix and The Who Live at Leeds (his favourite album, still one of mine…) and surf music, and well, he didn’t know much about wine, but he did know Malcolm’s Waitakere Road vineyard… Who knew it would become so important?

The story about the “gumboot clone” is for the large part true. Malcolm was a customs office at Mangere Airport (in the days when landing fees were more profitable than carparks and shops.) Malcolm did confiscate Pinot Noir cuttings. He did basically skirt the quarantine rules and back then most of the Pinot Noir clones had been sourced via the government run viticultural research station in Te Kauwhata and many were of Swiss origin. There were other clones that had entered via California.

And then there was Bill Irwin, who sounds like the Johnny Appleseed of NZ viticulture but seems to have largely been ignored, except by us geeks who revere the guy as one of the giants of the modern NZ wine industry.

I will return to Irwin at a later time, and in another blog post, but back to the Clone to Rule Them All.

We do not know whether the cuttings Abel confiscated were from the famous walled Romanee-Conti vineyard, or the equally famous walled vineyard (or “clos”) La Tache. In fact, there is very little evidence that supports this view. The cuttings WERE from Burgundy, for sure. But whereabouts is still uncertain.

But eventually Abel cuttings ended up with Clive Paton and his three partners in Martinborough, as one of the clones planted in the first block of Ata Rangi vines in the early 80s.

And we do know that Abel is very distinctive, has a definitive tone or note. But as to being superior to Clone 10/5 or Clone 5 (aka “Pommard”) which were also good quality clones used in Martinborough in the 1980s when Ata Rangi was established, well my jury still wants more evidence before convicting…

But what we did was we eliminated some of the “lesser” Pinot Noir clones like Mariafeld and, um, Mariafeld… Well people used to diss 10/5, and praise Pommard, but over the last umpteen years, I have changed my mind on that and now I do not trust 5 at all. A tricky plant.

This is important to the film’s story, because there are  a couple of memorable shots of Clive Paton hugging his old-ish Abel vines. Good for him.

Abel is now planted around New Zealand and it certainly was a major influence on the style of Pinot produced at Ata Rangi. But its significance is perhaps overrated – because it is a good shaggy dog story (and, yes, I am not a fan of Disney movies.)

But the Abel story, it loses air, sorry.

So, now (if you are still with me) you may think that I have digressed from the message, and where am I am going with this, and what is my point, and you would be right, this is what happens in the film, also. Yes, occasionally they cut away to French winemakers standing around a barrel or a table with some random Kiwi wines displayed in front of them (one of them being NZ’s most prestigious blend of Bordeaux varieties, Coleraine, wow, is that a slap in the face to Te Mata, or what?)

But the problem is, there are far too many bit players in this film. Steve Smith MW makes one amusing analogy, but he is outplayed, dare I say it trumped, by my dear friend Claudia Elze, who was one of the founders of Pyramid Valley, with her former partner Mike Weersing.

Mike provides the very, very best quote in the movie. “People say that Chardonnay is a blank canvas – but I do not agree with that. No, I see Chardonnay as a window, which shows where it comes from, the terroir. Me? All I am doing is cleaning the glass.”

With that brilliant explanation of something that I have always known, but never quite been able to express, combined with Jancis near the end of the film stating: “I have always maintained that New Zealand Chardonnays are amongst the best in the world”, well, hell, this could have been an amazing sixty minute film about New Zealand Chardonnay. But no.

In fact the whole film could do with some savage pruning, more precision, less waffle, please.

So we meander around for a while and eventually end back at the beginning, and Michael Brajkovich MW, who is the genius behind Kumeu River’s winemaking (ably assisted by the amazing Nigel Tebbitt who has been working for the Brajkovich family most of his life) who is asked: have we earned a seat a table?

Humbly, as always, and diplomatically, Michael admits, “No.” I love Kumeu River wines – to the extent that my friends are getting sick and tired of hearing from me. But, like their custodian (or guardian) Michael, I too defer to white Burgundy as the definitive Chardonnay, and I love how far we have come, and I am excited by the journey to come.

Some quick takeouts:

Alan Brady’s story about the early struggle in Central Otago, at Gibbston Valley, was very touching, but would have been nice to have had one long section devoted to this, and the even earlier Pioneers (Ann Pinckney, the Mills family at Rippon, and the amazing Verdun Burgess)

Stars of this movie were Michael Brajkovich MW and Mike Weersing (ex Pyramid Valley), Claudia Elze (ex Pyramid Valley), Sherwyn and Marcel from Bell Hill (why, oh why, did you not show us any outside shots of this vineyard?!?), Paul Pujol (Prophet’s Rock) the humility of all of these people was very moving, as was John Hancock’s (another Chardonnay maestro) ability to be provocative and challenging – more Hancock in the sequel, please

Why do so many local winemakers use sexist language? In particular the guy that supposedly has a background in marketing and advertising? – there were more female vignerons from France in this film than New Zealanders, that is what it is – but the blokes should still think about changing their mindset

The OTT “Turangawaewae” references, sorry blokes (again it was just guys) but that is BS, yes, calling up our kaupapa and our sense of place is cool – but so many people are appropriating this Maori word to connote “terroir”, yet how many of you are genuinely of Maori heritage??? looks like tokenism? sounds like tokenism? Well that don’t impress me much… May have been more appropriate to consult the Maori winemaker’s collective? Did nobody contact Steve Bird?

On that note, it seems a bit naff that our industry’s preeminent historian, as well as one of our leading wine writers, Michael Cooper, was not in the film

Not sure if this was deliberate, but… Australian wine writer Mike Bennie was made to look like a yobbo…

Terry Dunleavy’s rant about methoxypyrazines being sucked up out of our gravel soils and how fantastic this was for our Sauvignons Blanc well… this was something straight out of the chemtrails, anti-vax, “windfarms cause cancer” playbook

okay, I get it now, THAT clip may have been deliberate!

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NZIFF 2019 – Film Festival FOMO

One of my sadly dear departed friends once went to 47 films at the Auckland Film Festival. I do not know, but the following year he smashed the 50 or 60 movie barrier. I managed 24 myself, but ten of those I had not had to pay for. As a volunteer for the Film Society, you got to staff the information desk at movies of your choosing and once the opening credits started rolling you were allowed to sneak in and sit at the back.

I once spent an entire Sunday inside darkened rooms – starting with a crazy documentary about making a film at 11 am and ending up stepping out on Queen Street after midnight dazed and confused, having just sat through one of Jacques Rivette’s last spellbinding features.

That was back when there were 70 or 80 films in a festival. And at most a film might screen twice during the two week Festival. There were inevitably clashes to navigate, apart from the Civic or St James (the Festival used to alternate between them each year) there were “overflow” screens at the Regent and the Academy. Some films, mostly the documentaries, only screened once, so you were out of luck if one of your feature film clashes occurred on a Saturday or Sunday, when the docos were shown and which you knew were never coming back.

We remember the stunning success of 1981’s Diva, which screened in the international film festival first, then came back and screened in Auckland for over six months.

So even then we used to play Film Festival Lotto. And predicting what would come back was a relatively straightforward game.

These days that is almost impossible.

Last year I just gave up second guessing entirely and went and watched a couple of classics, re-screenings of former glories, and a couple of docos. Thankfully we now have websites, so the festival organisers can keep us up to date with what is going to sell out and what is not. But we know that even sold out FF movies do not necessarily come back.

This year it is really tough – all the films that look vaguely interesting are screening at odd times, or odd places and times (Westgate at 6.30 pm on a Friday night?)

I have tried to navigate a path through this year’s schedule – but I cannot get a handle on it. Also there are no obvious “Thou must see” movies. Apart from Agnes Varda, no highlighting of great directors. No edgy new wave stylists. And few risks taken.

Why does the festival catalogue feature so many actors wielding hand guns? Why does every second movie seem to feature Juliette Binoche?

Perhaps the most anticipated session for me, the one I am looking forward to the most, and which I suspect is going to “wow” me, will be a re=screening of Koyaanisqatsi in the same film festival that I originally saw it at back in 1983. Has film making not advanced anywhere? Where are the risk takers? Kind Hearts and Coronets? Are you kidding me?

So – no Film Festival FOMO for me – what will be will be. And if something I really wanted to see but was not able to because it was a middle of the day sleeper does

This may be one of the sleepiest programmes for some time. Perhaps the highlights will be the docos (as usual.) Midsommar was added at the very last minute – and I am very confident it will come back – but many of the other feature films here come with no hype. Has the NZIFF lost its soul? I do not know, but we need to get back to excitement.

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Review – Morningside Tavern

Kim Knight’s review in Canvas, 9 Feb 2019, contained several errors, so I thought it would be nice to set the record straight.

We have been to the Tavern twice now, once for casual drinks and a snack and once for brunch. It is fairly standard pub fare, but the food is mostly pretty good and the hit job Knight is trying to pull on the kitchen is not deserved.

Where the problems lie is in the front of house experience. Like a lot of outlets in this Morningside precinct, the tavern is relying on foreign, mostly white people on the travels who apparently lack hospitality experience, or who were sick on the day they did the customer care training. Things take a while to get to the tables – like cloths and trays for cleaning up after previous guests, or water, which is an essential out in the front garden, as it is a north facing death trap and this has been one heck of a summer.

The wine list is ok – pretty good, in fact, though I am not sure of the wisdom of offering pours in small, standard, or super sized (does Homer Simpson like fine wine?) Though the wine is priced to the max – you will get better value wine by the glass at Soul Bar (with actual service, too.)*

And the changing beers on tap is a neat idea too. Basically, major brands are represented, Lion and DB (not sure how they managed both, but good for them) with guest taps, including Goose IPA when we first visited. Goose IPA sponsor my favourite podcast, Sound Opinions, and comes all the way from Chicago, so of course we had to have that, even though it was pricey. Problem though, this keg had seen better days and I cannot remember a more oxidised tap beer in my short craft beer life.

The fries come in either regular (pricey) and super sized, except they seem like they have been sitting around for a while, they definitely come out of a packet, probably the same kind that you get from Countdown and serve mainly as a sponge for the alcohol, rather than an appetising food.

But the fries are the weak link here – the rest of the food is pretty good, sorry Kim.

Her complaint that the burgers are too large is nonsense. These burgers are the same size as those served at Galbraiths, the Dominion, Doolan’s, in other words, all their similar compatriots. Yes, a brioche bun, but so what. I do not normally like cheese on my burger, nor is bacon really necessary, but both worked really well, and I was hungry. This was an excellent way to brunch, well done.

As for the eggplant parma, it is NOT over cheesed, far from it. Knight has got this dish all wrong too. The onion in the accompanying Greek salad is NOT raw, it has been blanched. Yes, there is lots of onion, but this is pretty moreish stuff. Sure could have used feta, but this is a really good main.

Do not believe everything you read in the papers, I guess.

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Review – Castellani Chianti DOCG 2016

Castellani Chianti DOCG 2016 ($16.95)
Bright fruit, wild berry and savoury tomato, with an undercurrent of licorice. Medium bodied, supple tannins with Sangiovese’s characteristic freshness on the finish, this is a concentrated, vinous wine at an excellent price.

I tasted this alongside a 2016 Chianti from a much more famous producer and established brand in this country, which retails for $24.95 (Rocca delle Macie) and in no way was it overshadowed. The wines were different in style – but both enjoyable in their own right.

Good Chianti under $20 a bottle? You betcha!

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A note on DIAM

I have been meaning to post this for a while now, but the issue is becoming more and more prominent that I need to say something now, before any more wines get hurt.

Some years ago I was fortunate to taste some trials which Michael Brajkovich MW (with some industry colleagues) had conducted comparing Diam corks with other closures. In that instance, me and a couple of my buddies were able to identify which sample had been closed by Diam, against screwcap and natural cork.

The problem with Diam then was flavour scalping. There was a definite loss of something – it was very difficult to say exactly what, but the Diam bottled wine seemed less bright and less aromatically interesting than the wine sealed with other closures.

I had completely forgotten about this until a couple of years ago when I purchased some white Burgundy from one of my favourite producers. I got the case home, whipped the top off and poured some wine to my dinner guests. Immediately I noted that something was wrong. This was a 2012 and obviously not nearly an alike vintage with the 2010 that I had been drinking up to that point, but it was vastly different from how I remember the wines from this producer.

Then I took a look at the cork that I had pulled out of that bottle. It was a Diam. This was the same cru, same wine, no change in production methods, just a different vintage, and a different means of sealing the bottle.

I had not thought that a closure would make such a big difference, but there it was. I was especially surprised that with a wine style like white Burgundy this would even be a critical factor, but thinking about it, one of the things I love about white Burgundy is the aromatic profile. Using Diam can be a massive compromise to that.

We are increasingly seeing Diam across a number of different regions and styles. J J Confuron is now using it for Premier Cru wines (I cannot afford the Grands Crus from this domaine so cannot tell you what kind of cork is there.) Diam may well be an ok alternative to lower value or entry level products, but for fine wine there has to be a big question over its long term viability. Michael Brajkovich MW tells me that there are higher grades of Diam now that may have better bonding agents and therefore less potential for scalping, but the highest grade that I have seen here so far is Diam 10. But I recently opened a case of a very flash Piedmontese wine from a famous producer and that had a Diam 6 in it. And the wine was not how I remembered it from last year’s vintage (which had a natural cork.)

My preference is either a screwcap or a good (i.e. uninfected) natural cork. From now on at this blog I will be noting whenever a wine is sealed under natural cork, Diam, or any other kind of cork. If I do not mention the closure then please assume that it is under screwcap.

And I would be interested to hear of anyone else’s experiences with Diam.

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Two Finos (and a postscript)

Have been offline for a couple of weeks, but been working on some tricky material, so humble apologies.

Meantime, I am currently in the South of Spain and just enjoyed two cracking wines that I must share with you. After a succession of disappointing Ruedas, a couple of solid, but not mind blowing Cavas, this is the good stuff, finally. Have been in Spain almost a week and taken that long to hit the jackpot.

One a Montilla, the other a classic Sherry, Manzanilla from one of the best of the big houses.

Both of these wines are under screwcap and, given the beautiful day we have just had, deserve to be served well chilled.

Manzanilla Solear Barbadillo (Non Vintage) 15%

Pale gold, yeasty, salty nose, a punchy, lemony fruit tone. In the mouth, savoury, briny, earthy characters, but all balanced by firm acidity and that generous alcohol finish. Classic Manzanilla, under screwcap this sings, punchy, but crisp and fine. Benchmark Manzanilla in fabulous condition.

Toro Albala Rama Sin Filtrar Montilla (Non Vintage) 15%

Very pale, light coloured with ever so slight green tinge, the nose here is very expressive, new season’s green apples, citrus blossom, fruity, yet fresh. Light and crisp to taste, gently breads, but also delicate and fine, with classic Fino “bite” on the finish. I was surprised to learn – after having enjoyed two copitas of the stuff – that this is 100% Pedro Ximenez, but then I guess Palomino has never been widely planted in Montilla and I do not know what the other varieties are like there as far as making these styles.

At dinner I enjoyed a Verdejo from Montilla, better than any Rueda I have had thus far on the trip, exactly what the variety should express, creamy mid palate, yet crunchy acidity, perfect food wine.

That’s what I love about wine – always learning new stuff.

POSTSCRIPT – have just been for a walk around Cordoba (which is where we are right now.) Found a wine shop selling the Toro Albala En Rama wine – for 8,90 Euros. Amazing value. And yet, I purchased a bottle of Fino Los Naranjos from Bodegas El Monte for 9,00 Euros. The wine shop owner was really keen for me to buy this – and then wrapped it up for shipping (I told him that I wanted to drink it…) I do not like it as much, more smoky and savoury, perhaps showing a lot more yeast character and thus more true to type? Perhaps I just need to chill it down more? The other talking point is that when I laid this bottle down at dinner in a restaurant the stopper began leaking, now my hands all smell of Fino (another great reason for screwcaps.) En Rama Sherry (and En Rama Montilla and/or Moriles as well it seems) has become all the rage around the world, and yet it is nigh impossible to buy in NZ, because the importers will not risk it. This is crazy. With all the manic attention on natural wines, on specialist or nice styles of wine, it seems ludicrous that you cannot buy these products retail in our country. We can buy Toro Albala Montilla in Aotearoa, we can get Alvear Montilla as well, but we cannot buy En Rama style Fino???

Vino Los Naranjos Vino en Rama San Filtrar Autentico Moriles Alto (Non Vintage) 15%

Much more colour than the Toro Albala and more aromatic breadth as well, savoury, smoky, almost oily in character, much more developed yeast autolysis, starting to get into the nutty area, green walnut, marizpan. And yet, this is full flavoured, funky wine with great acidity, really dry finish. Lovely, but pretty full on.

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MW trip to Peru and Bolivia, Days 4 and 5 – Laguna Volcan

After our amazing barbeque under the stars at Samaipata, we all piled back on the bus and headed back down the gorge road to our hotel for the night, Laguna Volcan, stopping about half an hour into the gorge.

Laguna Volcan is a resort set within the crater of an ancient volcano, but to get up there you need to take a four wheel drive up a bumpy and rather slippery dirt road. This meant having to ferry the eleven Masters of Wine and baggage in several trips.

We had pulled over at a clearing outside a local store. For security reasons, our bus driver was going to have to spend the night there in the vehicle. I ended up in the last group, though my hacking cough had returned. This was about half past ten at night, but there was a group of farm workers outside the store with wheelbarrows full of fresh fruit and produce. We were not sure who was going to buy fruit at this time of night (especially not slices of watermelon that looked like they had been cut open half a day earlier.) Eventually the hawkers started packing up their produce, but it just seemed so desperate to us. A tough way to make a living.

As the last group, one of our number suggested we try and grab a beer from the store while we waited for our ride up the mountain. They had to go hunting in one of the fridges for it, but they eventually managed to dig out a few cans, brewed in Brazil unfortunately.

I couldn’t resist taking this picture of Che Guevara in a compromising position.

We are very close to the Amboro National Park. And there is some spectacular scenery around. By the time we got up to the resort it was well past eleven and it was eerily quiet, there were bird calls and the sounds of frogs (toads?) Someone had managed to rustle up the bartender, but as we had just had a drink it was straight to bed.

This resort is very atmospheric, with a line of cabins stretching out alongside the named lagoon. There are other rooms in the main building, a pool area and a long covered deck that doubles as a restaurant.

The next morning I got up early and went for a walk around the lagoon. At the far end of the crater there is a huge drop and a lookout to another nearby volcano. There were a few issues with the water in the cabins, seems that this is an “eco resort” in lots of different ways. There were so many exotic birds – the place was alive with insect life. You feel like you have been airlifted in a Tarzan story (wrong continent, I know), a small oasis of civilisation in a remote jungle location.

The cabins have two bedrooms and are self contained, so a whole family can take up residence. There is a small golf course here somewhere, apparently, but that is not really the attraction.

A beautiful, peaceful place to catch our breath. I can see why our hosts were so determined for us to stay here.

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MW trip to Peru and Bolivia, Day 4 – Bodega Uvairenda, Boutique Wines of Bolivia and El Pueblito Resort

Bodega Uvairenda markets its wines under the brand Vinos 1750, in recognition of the altitude at which the estate is located.

Their vineyard is on a moderately steep hill overlooking the town. Our bus somehow managed to get all the way up, but wisely, no attempt to turn into the driveway. On my previous MW trip we had a problem with one winery gate (turned into an insurmountable issue for the bus and bus drive, sadly.)

But this gave us the chance to walk through the property and down to the winery.

Bodega Uvairenda is steep, steep enough for contour planting, overlooks the town, and is vaguely reminiscent of somewhere in Europe? In several places on the property they have installed the traditional pergola system and planted Pedro Gimenez, one of the ancient varieties that was planted around these parts and which Francisco Roig has decided to specialise with. But otherwise the vineyard employs traditional VSP training, with each block planted to the variety that they believe suits it.

The winery itself is small, but perfectly formed. A small lab area up on a mezzanine, a corner for a few barrels and the company’s first tentative steps in oak maturation.

We enjoyed a wonderful lunch on the winery terrace, featuring traditional dishes from this part of Bolivia, then had a brief tour of the winery. We were then treated to a walkaround tasting of some of the boutique producers of Bolivia, a blend of producers based in Samaipata and others with their holdings in the south of the country, near Tarija. All the wines were extremely interesting and there were several absolute standouts.

After our tasting we went downtown for a coffee presentation and tasting (more on that later) and a fascinating stroll around the town. Lots of interesting things to see and do here, and tourism is expanding all the time.

Finally we finished our day in Samaipata back up the hill, this time at the property just above Uvairenda, with a traditional Bolivian barbeque at El Pueblito resort. Our very generous hosts put on a folk band, an open fire and we got to sit out under the stars for a memorable meal.

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MW trip to Peru and Bolivia, Day 4 – The Road to Samaipata

We did not land in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, or just Santa Cruz as everyone calls it, Bolivia, until a little after 2am. It is a three hour flight from Lima, Peru, but there is a time difference of one hour, so we lost an hour on the way.

By the time we had cleared immigration, located our bags and got to our hotel, the beautiful Los Tajibos, the clock had just ticked past 3am. Bolivian immigration officers are not terribly friendly and although it was just one medium sized plane, it took over half an hour to get through the queues. One of our party got held up – and they had to apply for an emergency visa.

It would have been lovely to have spent more time in Santa Cruz. Los Tajibos is a gorgeous hotel, centred around the inviting swimming pool (but sorry, no, no time for a swim!) – and I would certainly love to go back there.

Apparently the downtown area of Santa Cruz is very picturesque, based on the old Spanish settlement, which is laid out in a grid. A lot of the old buildings have been retained and there are bars and restaurants and lots of things to see. Apparently. Unfortunately our schedule was so tight, we didn’t have time to go downtown and wander around, but we had to get on the road to our next destination as soon as we had finished breakfast.

Santa Cruz itself is becoming a large sprawling city. Until the 1960s, it was a sleepy provincial town of no more than 60,000. All the major urbanisation had taken place elsewhere in Bolivia. However, due to the entrepreunerial outlook of the residents, there has been massive expansion and it is now considered the business centre of Bolivia (trick question: what is the capital of Bolivia?) These days the official population count is 1.5 million, but as it begins to swallow up nearby towns Santa Cruz is rapidly approaching 2 million.

Near our hotel there were lots of universities and polytechnics, and there are a number of private high schools (as well as good state schools) in the city. Municipal utilities, such as water and power, are run by local trusts or coops, which makes the tapwater apparently “almost drinkable” (no, still not taking that bet.) But there are also large groups of ethnic minorities, such as Jews, Europeans and Asians in Santa Cruz, which makes this the most ethnically diverse city in Bolivia.

Apparently after World War 2 there was organised immigration of Japanese wanting to escape the horrors of their bombed out towns and cities. Santa Cruz even has a suburb called Okinawa, would you believe. Because of this, Asian cuisine is quite popular in Santa Cruz, sushi (I have no idea where the fish comes from), various styles of Chinese cooking, southeast Asian, they have it all.

Santa Cruz is the most cosmopolitan city in Bolivia, and would be a great kick off place for a tourist. Quite different from the towns on the high plateau (altiplano), such as La Paz by all accounts.

Having said that, Santa Cruz is already at 1200 metres above sea level. However the start of the Amazon Basin is just a couple of hours drive north, while the foothills of the Andes are just to the west of the city.

It was this route that we took to Samaipata, up Highway 7 and following the Rio Pirai. Highway 7 leads into the interior of Bolivia, eventually ending up at Cochabamba, one of the cities on the high plateau at 2500 metres, or you can turnoff and head to Sucre, one of the capitals of Bolivia (yes, Bolivia has TWO capitals…)

But this road has another significance, because up this gorge Che Guevara marched his troops in July 1967, briefly capturing the town of Samaipata (he was desperately trying to find some insulin to ward against asthma), before the fled into the hills south towards Vallegrande.

Another hour or so driving west of Samaipatha, Highway 7 connects with Highway 22, the road to Vallegrande, and onto the town of La Higuera where Che Guevara was eventually captured and famously shot on 9 October 1967. It is amazing to think that is now just over fifty years ago – and it is interesting that the “Che Guevara Trail” is now being promoted by tourism operators. Certainly this gives me yet another excuse to come back to Bolivia and Santa Cruz.

The Pirai Gorge road is already a busy tourist route, with lots of adventure activities in these foothills. Many of the young people from schools and colleges in Santa Cruz come up here during the holidays, to camp out, swim beneath waterfalls and see the stars come up.

There is commercial kayaking on the river, with different grade rapids. Right beside the river is a national park, with lots of day hikes, on some spectacular mountains. Ancient volcanoes dot the landscape interspersed with lush vegetation. We are at altitude, but it is also very temperate, climate wise.

And on one of these mountains, there is even a condor viewing hike. It is recommended to only do this with a guide, as the condors are quite ferocious close to their eyries.

And at the top of the gorge is the little town of Samaipata, which has vineyards in and around it, and several small wine producers based there.

The leading producer is Bodega Uvairenda, which was originally founded by Francisco Roig and now he has one of his best friends as a business partner.

Francisco was educated in America and is a corporate finance expert, so his English was flawless. He himself is not from a wine making family, but his wife is French, which is how he got the bug for wine. And because he still had connection in the US when he did his winemaking degree he did it through UC Davis.

Our bus (which was apparently kitted out for Catholic bishops when the Pope visited Bolivia) slowly wound its way out of Santa Cruz and passed through the outlying towns, now virtually swallowed up by the city. Then someone asked whether we had any water, so the decision was made to stop at a roadside store. While we were waiting at the side of the road, I noticed that there were lots of people outside the shop pounding away at something under an awning. I got out to have a look.

What they were pounding were coca leaves – the shopkeeper was filling little green bags of coca leaves for sale and the customers would then take these wooden mallets to crush the leaves and liberate the essential oils. Some of our hosts purchased a few bags of leaves and so we got to try coca on our way up to Samiapata. I had been very sick for a week or so and was coughing really badly – the coca not only helped clear my sinuses and supressed the coughing, for a short while at least. Yes, your tongue goes a little number of you chew the wad of coca in the appropriate place.

It seems that coca leaf chewing is frowned on by polite society, but a lot of truck drivers rely on the stuff to keep them awake. Seems to be a habit among poorer people, a little like smoking. We saw these little green bags elsewhere in Bolivia. It was certainly an interesting experience.

The gorge road is very windy and in places tight. Our journey was slowed somewhat by the work going on, it seems that this road is being upgraded, with new culverts and bridges and some much needed widening around several bends. There were workmen everywhere the day we went up, with a couple of one way Stop/Go sections. It will be great when it is finished (although some of the engineering in places looks a little questionable.)

I asked Francisco about getting to Samaipata from Santa Cruz. There are several local buses, though they do not look especially fast. He thought it about a little, then advised that the cheapest (and most direct) option would be to catch a cab. Apparently this is not outrageous as it seems, even though it would be an hour and a half to two hour drive. It is a lot slower by bus – believe me.

The little town of Samaipata looks like your typical Bolivian town, with traditional walled courtyards and verandahs, but there are heaps of tourist operations advertising their wares on footpath signs and several budget hostels. Apparently they recently got their very first luxury B&B, followed shortly after by a second. The local wine bar is run by a couple of Aussies and there is very good 3G coverage here apparently (but not if you are a customer of Vodafone NZ, it seems.)

Samaipata, and the other agricultural valleys surrounding Santa Cruz, was where some of the earliest wine was made in Bolivia. The Catholic Church sourced altar wine from this region, since grapes couldn’t survive on the high plateau. Conditions are kinder here, it is more temperate and there is enough water for vines to thrive. Pretty much everyone in Samaipata grew grapes during the Spanish rule. Even today, walking around the town you can see some of the walled gardens at the back of people’s houses where wild vines are growing.

Samaipata is a cute place – and I cannot wait to return.

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