The joyful paradox of non-icon wines and New Zealand chardonnay

Everyone makes chardonnay. Chardonnay is therefore ubiquitous and boring. Everyone makes chardonnay. Chardonnay is therefore endlessly diverse and interesting. If you like chardonnay, you’re never going to run out of wines to try, and with just a little effort they’re all (okay; mostly all) going to taste different.

Having an iconic variety is good for marketing: consumers can latch onto a recognizable and rememberable identity that, once tried and liked, they can come back to over and over. Willamette Valley pinot noir. Napa cab. Marlborough sauvignon blanc. Without such a regional brand, wines have a harder time finding a place in consumers’ memories and, consequently, wine lists and store shelves. Washington state…riesling? Merlot? Syrah? 

But having an iconic wine brings on a paradoxically both-and problem and joy that looks a lot like the paradoxical both-and problem of chardonnay. Stand-out wines tend to overshadow other, very interesting but minor wines that remain less well-known. But because they’re less well-known, interested persons can enjoy all the loveliness of finding a hidden treasure that, frankly, would be less of a treasure were it not so hidden. Oregon chardonnay and it’s clamor-inducing annual symposium, despite chard being less than 10% of the state’s production, is an excellent case in point. So is New Zealand chardonnay.

None of the three New Zealand winegrowing regions I recently visited on my dissertation-data-collecting tour is especially well-known for chardonnay, but they’re are among the wines that interested me most everywhere. That’s not to discount the balance of some Hawke’s Bay syrahs (and even one or two pinots there), or the fun of non-standard Marlborough sauvignon blancs (and a few pinots there too), or the diverse pinot gris of Central Otago (and, yes, even some pinot noir in that iconic pinot region). But it is very much to say that Kiwi chardonnay can and should be “hidden treasures” worth digging under the icons to find.

The unsurprising problem remains that these wines are hard to find outside of New Zealand. The only good thing I can say about that is that were New Zealand churning out as much chardonnay as standard mass-market sauvignon blanc, it might develop into a similarly iconic style that would quench so much of the non-standard joy that seems to come through these wines.

Elephant Hill Chardonnay 2013 (Hawke’s Bay) – Elephant Hill is ripping gewürztraminer out of it’s coastal vineyard to make room for more chardonnay, which is a real shame — the last vintage of the gewürztraminer is beautifully rich with magnolia apricot jam and an unctuous finish — but makes sense when you try the chard. Writing about big zesty lemon flavors backed up by oak and vanilla with some pleasant green notes sandwiched in between sounds fairly ordinary, but this wine isn’t: it’s briny, extraordinarily fresh and zesty, but still full rather than sharp in the mouth.

Fromm Clayvin Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 (Marlborough) – It’s hard to say too many good things about Fromm’s chardonnays. Savory, with lots of lime and some herbaceousness over a fairly big wine carried by enough oak that I’d appreciate seeing this again in a few more years. Great, long, lime zest-driven finish. The LaStrada remains complex and bordering on savory in a lighter style.

Felton Road chardonnay 2014 (Bannockburn, Central Otago; barrel tasting) – Some of the chardonnays I encountered in Central Otago felt disjointed, like someone was trying to tow the line mid-way between creamy weight and steely acidity and instead ended up making something with elements of each that didn’t quite fit together in the end. Felton Road’s tries and succeeds, with interesting and well-integrated acidity keeping from flabbiness a wine with definite mouth-filling creaminess and palate weight.

Story and strategic choices in talking about Central Otago subregions

Central Otago went from zero to international recognition in less time than it takes to test the merit of a great Burgundy vintage. Good for them. It’s occupants had the advantage of a favorable climate, enthusiastic pioneers, and in many cases an enviable lot of capital investment, but they also experimented generously and — most importantly — became polished storytellers. The stories may in fact have outpaced the wines, which is less a criticism of the latter than an acknowledgement that they are very much still figuring out what they’re about. And so, while it’s obvious that subregional differences are dramatic enough to shout about, not much shouting actually happens on that account. One: they don’t yet have the maturity for more than broad subregional outlines. Two: it might not be part of the story they want to tell in any case.

Driving through Central makes it clear that subregional differences should be important. Driving in from coastal Otago (the Dunedin area, where I live), the first substantial growing area you encounter is Alexandra, a dry, flattish valley with a large (for this area) town. Cross the hill and drive past the dam and you’re in Cromwell, where many vineyards enjoy the mitigating effects of Lake Dunstan. North at the top of the lake, the Bendigo vineyards are widely known as seeing both the hottest and the most extreme weather. Go east toward Queenstown and the Bannockburn vineyards are perched above the Kawarau river. Through the pass further toward Queenstown, the Gibbston valley has the highest elevation and the coolest climate. And then there are the outliers: dear Nick Mills at Rippon in Wanaka; vineyards in Waitaki closer to the coast. These are obvious differences. Central Otago doesn’t tend toward subtle.

Plenty of conversation is happening about subregions, none of them questioning whether they’re significant. The questions instead are about what is significant. Are site differences principally related to soil differences as you move up the “terraces” from the valley floor? Or is the elevation more significant? Maybe it’s enough to talk about those big subregions. There’s that first problem: it’s hard to tell in part because vines are young, but maybe even more so for want of continuity. Vineyard managers, winemakers, owners, directions, and styles have flexed enough here that two challenges become significant: creating distinctly regional pictures independent of those other factors, and passing down sensibly kept records and knowledge gained from experience. The openness to experimentation and international flux that has helped these folk find a niche in the pinot world so quickly has, at least in some cases, come at the expense of some stability. Point the first.

Point the second: wine, and Central Otago, is all about story. Subregions may not be the story people want to tell here. Yet. Adept storytelling is a stand-out feature of many successful wineries here: to justify selling $70 pinot noir with nearly no history behind them, it has to be. Telling a story doesn’t mean talking about everything that goes into making a wine; it means carefully curating elements that create a specific image. Subregionality may not be part of that story. In some respects, that choice is about market readiness, which is obvious. They’ve succeeded when someone in Louisiana or Newcastle knows where Central Otago is; talking about Bannockburn is too much.

But it’s also a choice about style and direction. Some wineries here bottle from estate vineyards. Many blend fruit from different vineyards for balance and complexity and, no doubt, economy and ease. Matt Kramer told producers in 2013 that using many clones was (one; he had a few other interesting points) key to making exciting pinot noir, and it could be said that blending across multiple vineyard sites is similarly looking for complexity. As those vineyards age, and maybe as they’re planted with increasingly diverse clones, maybe

Back to choosing a story. Wineries here have mostly built their identities around concepts other than subregions. If that’s working for them, serious investment may not go into defining, refining, and emphasizing subregional stories.

Since differentiating yourself is ever necessarily the new world winery game, it makes sense that a (but not all) winery here is built expressly around exemplifying subregional differences. That’s Valli, where Grant Taylor bottles separate pinots from Gibbston, Bannockburn, and Waitaki. Tasting those three wines, made by the same winemaker in essentially the same ways, is an education that makes me wish Taylor’s portfolio included bottles from Bendigo and the other subregions as well. The Gibbston wine is the sharpest with the highest acidity, the Bannockburn the biggest and smokiest, the Waitaki the spiciest with the most prominent tannins. The Waitaki stands out to me as the most interesting wine, possibly because it’s the least standard and, dare I say, maybe the most complex: while the Gibbston and Bannockburn are well-made and enjoyable wines, the Waitaki has the thing that makes me want to keep coming back to the glass.

That’s the direction I hope Central Otago pinots take as they grow up: not just well-made wines with fancy labels and nice stories, but intriguing and maybe even intellectually satisfying wines. Whether they find that intrigue in multiple clones on single vineyard sites, blending across regions, or even just older vines under winemakers who decide to stay put, I’ll hope that Valli keeps doing what Valli does, and maybe more of it.

**By the by, “Central Otago” is a “district” within the “region” of Otago, where a “region” is roughly equivalent to a province or a state. Central Otago is a recognized Geographical Indication — it can be used on labels going to the EU, with a defined meaning — and various subregional names are allowed as “Appellations of Origin” on labels going to the States.

 

Finding unboring wines in Marlborough, part 1: Seresin Estate

If you don’t live in New Zealand, Seresin Estate is a producer you should know, or know better. They’re a largish (if you’re not comparing against Yealands) biodynamic producer in Marlborough, and the biodynamics is one reason you should know them: Seresin proves that fresh, approachable, frankly delicious biodynamic and even no-sulfur wines are possible. But you should also know them because their wines are worth drinking with no labels attached, like the vegan carrot mole salad good enough to make the omnivores reject their roast chicken.

Perhaps the best way to describe Seresin’s core wines (the winery also produces a second label, Momo, and several higher-end pinots hovering around NZ $100) is that they’re easy to drink without being boring. These are biodynamic wines you can serve to people who don’t like weird wine. More importantly, these are interesting wines you can serve at a dinner party: you won’t be bored; your non-oenophile guests won’t be turned off. And you can probably even find them whereveryouarenotMarlborough.

The following are rough-cut notes from the tasting room; more important than the specifics is that all were delightful and eminently drinkable.

2011 Memento riesling – Seresin has in the past produced a dry riesling but has (at least in part because the style is such a hard sell in New Zealand) scaled back to this single sweeter bottling. Robustly aromatic with a rich honey apricot nose accurately foreshadowing its dominant flavors. Rich and honeyed, but well-balanced by bright acidity (and lots of it). Something to pour with the lovely array of chêvre- and nut- and fruit-adorned salads in perpetual vogue.

2013 sauvignon blanc – One of three S.B.’s Seresin produces under its main label, and the most regionally typical. Combines classic sweaty armpit, passionfruit, and asparagus notes with typically bracing acidity, but underpinned by enough body to keep things pleasant. A simple grilled fish kind of wine.

2012 Marama barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc – Easily the most challenging wine on this list, in part because it strays from easily recognizable styles. Obviously sister to the stainless S.B. in aroma, though bigger and rounder. Clear oak presence especially in the mid-palate with some oiliness lasting through on the finish. I’d like to see it after another few years’ integration time.

2012 pinot gris – Splendid bright acidity carries throughout without being overwhelming over apple-dominant fruit. Slightly sweet, but on the crisp rather than the oily side of what gris does. More roast pork tenderloin than seared salmon.

2012 chardonnay – Light, fresh, relatively understated aroma emphasizing the green apple-lemon side of the chardonnay spectrum. Crisp, fruit-focused but still with some dimension, and lots of acidity on the finish.

 2013 Osip pinot noir – Osip is Seresin’s sulfur-free line: no sulfur sprayed (as a de rigeur anti-fungal) in the vineyard; no sulfur used in the winery. Proof-of-principle that a sulfur-free wine can be (here, at least) fresh, fruity, and easy-to-drink. Fresh, bright raspberry aroma with an equally exuberant impression in the mouth. Not wanting for intensity, but light on its feet. At the risk of using the word “yummy,” it is. I’d like to try this with sushi.

2012 Leah pinot noir – The flagship and least expensive of six (excepting the Osip) pinot noir bottlings. More intense, darker, and brambly than the Osip, but still unquestionably fruit-driven. Silky up-front but with prominent tannins dominating the finish. Duck pastrami comes to mind, though an herby smoked-salmon pasta is a lot more likely in my kitchen.

The perfect Thanksgiving pairing (has everything and nothing to do with the wine)

My favorite Thanksgiving pairings are pinot noir with Burgundian leanings and sparkling brut rosé. (I’m not aiming for points on originality here). Since I’m a member of the drink-American-on-Thanksgiving club, the pinot noir is likely to lean Burgundy without actually being so in the form of an Oregon pinot noir that remembers that Oregon isn’t California. The sparkling is likely to be Schramsberg if I can get it and Ch. Ste. Michelle if I have to share. That being out of the way, my favorite Thanksgiving pairings have everything and nothing to do with what’s in the bottle.

Growing up, dinner came in two general forms. “Dinner” was eating. I was sometimes allowed to bring a book to the table (don’t judge), my parents talked about business or watched the evening news, and we didn’t have wine. “Nice dinner” was dining. We lit candles. We had wine. The conversations were longer, more thoughtful and, silly or serious, involved more stories. “Dinner” could be over in 45 minutes. “Nice dinners” sometimes took three hours. I blame the wine.

Thanksgiving (and Christmas) was the paragon “nice dinner:” just the three of us, the nice plates, and a meal that took most of the day and a spreadsheet to prepare — because what is Thanksgiving but an excuse for excessively social cooking for a family that doesn’t watch football and does own three mortar-and-pestle sets? And definitely wine. We sometimes thought about a movie afterwards, but as often as not we just talked and listened to music until everyone was warm and sleepy and full of pumpkin pie and single malt and ready for bed. Again, I blame the wine. And the single malt, but mostly the wine.

Thanksgiving and nice dinners have everything to do with science and science communication. I remember the evening when my father first explained color spaces (a fundamental element of color theory) to me. I was somewhere in the second half of my teens and I’m pretty sure the bottle on the table was a Dr. Frank merlot from New York’s Finger Lakes, because that was our house red at the time. We talked about F-stops or the zone system, how sub-woofers work, the finer points of gardening or birdwatching. Later, we talked about my research and I practiced science communication on my father, for whom “cell” was more likely to refer to a battery than a bacterium. Sometimes we were mundane and just rehashed old stories. We always talked about the wine at least a little.

I’m sure that I would have been interested in science and communication and maybe even in wine without those dinners. But “nice dinners,” and holidays especially, were the crystalline form of the stuff that taught me to be inquisitive, to value good conversation (and to hold up my end), and to understand why wine isn’t just about flavor and definitely doesn’t need to be about prestige. Good wine meant good conversation, and good conversation means everything.

I’m all in favor of thoughtful wine and food pairings that reveal exquisite and otherwise-unseen elements of each, or even simply pairings that taste good. But the absolute best pairing with Thanksgiving is just wine, whatever wine makes space for conversation, whether at a quiet table for three or a potluck affair for thirty. Because that, not an exquisite flavor experience, is the wine’s real job.

Rotundone: Is there anything new to learn?

Having a spare two days in Auckland last week, I paid an all-too-short visit to Waiheke island which — thankfully, if you’re like me and are always looking for an excuse to get out of a big, crowded city — is only a pleasant 40-minute ferry ride from downtown. While the island is still best known for Bordeaux-style blends, syrah has of late become the island’s new darling. So, as it will when wine science geek meets winemakers in a spicy red zone, rotundone came up.

Rotundone is, quite fairly, one of the better known contributors to wine aroma. Unlike so many other more or less mysterious molecules, rotundone produces a specific, distinct, and very characteristic aroma: the black peppery note we associate strongly with Syrah (or Shiraz, if you’re speaking Aussie). We’ve only had specific evidence of that rotundone-pepper-syrah correlation since 2008, when an Australian group identified the compound, showed it to be the heretofore most powerful wine aroma compound (i.e. the one with the strongest impact at the lowest concentration), and demonstrated that 20% of their experimental syrah-drinkers couldn’t smell it at all even while the other 80% were being overwhelmed. In 2008, it was “an obscure sesquiterpene.” Six years later, I had a winemaker ask me whether there was really anything more to learn about rotundone.

Two articles have been published on how rotundone develops in the vineyard in 2014, both from Australia (including researchers involved in the original rotundone research), both confirming that viticultural practices and vineyard conditions generally can affect rotundone concentrations. One, working from a precision viticulture stance, gave evidence that rotundone concentrations vary across a vineyard in ways that might be related to how soil differences and topography affect temperature. The other showed that rotundone concentrations decreased with leaf pulling (which increases grape sunlight exposure and therefore temperature) and increased with irrigation; dropping unripe clusters (as growers do to control yields and even out ripening) didn’t have an effect.

The winemaker’s point was: “Um, duh? We knew that already.” Whether or not he could, in fact, have predicted all of the details of these experimental results matters less, I think, than that he perceived the research as useless. Vineyards on Waiheke aren’t irrigated. The estate vineyards with which he deals are small enough and local enough for him to walk and taste regularly, observe when and where the peppery flavors he wants (or doesn’t) are happening, and give picking orders accordingly. None of this rotundone research changes what he’s going to do in his vineyard so, to him, it’s pointless.

His comment highlighted a question increasingly on my mind of late. Who is wine research for? It’s obviously for scientists, and there’s nothing wrong with that: knowing about the world is a worthwhile goal on its own merit apart from any specific practical outcomes that knowledge might have, and long live basic research. Scientists and the community at large say that it’s for the benefit of “the wine industry” and, in part, that’s true. For a large operation manufacturing a specific wine style calling for a “dialed in” level of pepperiness and relying on fruit from many vineyards, that rotundone research might change things. Maybe they think about calling for a different leaf plucking regime on some of their syrah vineyards that aren’t quite meeting quality targets. But is the research for small producers, like this skeptical Waiheke winemaker? Call him provincial or even selfish for thinking that research doesn’t continue to help “us” understand more about rotundone, but he still knows what he needs to do to make a syrah that, by all indications, sells like roses on Valentine’s Day, out his cellar door, at prices that folks without the million-dollar views find hard to justify.

The syrahs I tried, at Mudbrick and Obsidian, were pretty convincing. Both relied more on freshness than power to make their case and certainly didn’t lack for rotundone, even minus irrigation and with leaf plucking common across the island. Obsidian’s 2013, carrying enough fruit and tannin for its lightness and brightness to be delightful and refreshing (and a pleasant alternative to the overpowered, clumsy or pretentious syrahs too easy to find in many New World climes), would accompany a sweaty Waiheke summer afternoon as nicely as a grilled lamb chop.

Is there anything more to learn about rotundone? Unquestionably. But, maybe, the more pertinent question for a Waiheke winemaker is whether there’s anything more to be learned about making well-balanced, pleasantly but not overpoweringly peppery syrah. Realizing that those two questions are in fact different is key, I think, to furthering both goals.

 

Pairings with pinots and the futility of looking to science for answers

I have a horrible (given my current location) admission to make: Central Otago pinot noir is, to date and as far as I can tell, not my favorite thing in the world. That said, Otago pinot noir is lovely and fulfills a completely different function at table. One of the best meals I’ve ever had with an Oregon pinot was the whole salmon I roasted with a bunch of herbs and various alliums for my last Thanksgiving in the States. A guest serendipitously brought a Lange pinot, and it was memorable. On the other hand, Grasshopper Rock’s example — grown on the Clutha River in Alexandra, Otago — didn’t really grab me on its own, but was just lovely when I tried it alongside some smoked hoki that I’d brought home from the Auckland fish market (yes, in my backpack, on the airplane). Those rather robust smokey flavors emphasized the wine’s structural and savory notes and took the focus off cherry flavors that were a bit more candied than I prefer.

What I just offered you is a lay theory. To make it more than that, I’d need an empirical study or three to examine the interaction of smoky foods with various potential sensory qualities found in pinot noir. The problem with that idea, apart from it having nothing to do with my current main priority, i.e. the PhD, is that food and wine pairing research is obnoxious. .

Food and wine pairing articles (I’m quoting this one) are full of statements like this: “This research found that eating cheddar cheese before drinking Shiraz reduced some of the negative characteristics of the wine and enhanced the preference for the wine. This indicates that consuming food and wine together can minimize some of the less desirable flavors of both.” And hypotheses like this one: “Certain food and wine combinations will be perceived as significantly better than others.” The latter of which, I suppose, points out that food-wine preferences could be completely personal, like favorite colors (except that favorite color preference isn’t random, either).

Perhaps this sort of research really interests sommeliers who could think about the benefits of a shiraz and cheddar pairing in a tasting menu, though I doubt they need reassurance that their choices will work for someone other than just themselves. The question still arises: is science, in all its reductionist glory, really the best way to attack food and wine pairings?

First, let’s get a methodology point out of the way. Apparently, the best way to evaluate food and wine pairings is to ask people to eat and drink at the same time rather than, say, munching a bit of cheese, swallowing, and waiting thirty seconds before taking a sip of wine or vice-versa. Because that’s the way people usually eat.

Moving on. Research to date says that wine sweetness and astringency, but not its acidity, are significant in determining ideal food pairings. The most recent food-wine pairing article I’ve encountered tried to suss out whether acidity was in fact important, and the role of wine expertise in food-wine preferences, along with moving beyond many previous studies by pairing wine with foods other than cheese. The chosen foods? Chevre, brie, salami, and milk chocolate, paired with an Ontario chardonnay, an Ontario sauvignon blanc, an Argentinian cabernet sauvignon, and an inexpensive LBV Port. Needless to say, this study isn’t going to give me any insight into my pinot noir pairing theories. Or, for that matter, any insight into any real food and wine pairing conundrum anyone ever faces anywhere.

I’m poking fun, but I’m not being wholly fair. The authors of this article have more expertise in what they’re doing than I do. It’s obvious to any wine or food nerd which of the above pairings will and won’t work, but that evidence is anecdotal, not scientific, and maybe those assumptions are worth testing. But when the authors begin asserting that this study provides evidence that acidity, sweetness, and tannins are all important in pairings, just from showing that milk chocolate works better with port than with chardonnay? No. Four examples aren’t enough to allow for that conclusion, not near enough to weed through and rule out all of the other things (confounding factors) going on in both the wines and the food.

So we’re back to where we started with pairing food and wine. What says our weight of accumulated, non-scientific wisdom? And does it taste good? The reductionism of sensory science may have useful ways to tackle the hyper-complexity of food + wine (don’t ask me whether that’s more or less complex than, say, the human immune system, which science seems to tackle with at least some success), but I’m not sure they’ve figured them out yet. And when I’m trying to decide what to serve with my next glass of pinot noir — Oregon, Otago, or otherwise — the only research I expect I’ll do will be on my favorite cooking blogs.

**All sorts of other fascinating alternate-scientific approaches have been taken to food and wine pairing, Chartier’s fascinating Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor being perhaps the most interesting example. What I’m talking about here is the mainstream pairing science found in peer-reviewed journals.

Rippon’s Gewürztraminer and the quandry of white wine fermentation temperatures

I opened a bottle of Rippon’s lovely 2011 Gewürztraminer a few nights ago in a small act of celebration upon having an academic manuscript accepted for publication (hooray!) As I bathed my nose in pretty peach and lime and rose notes, to my surprise, my very non-oenophile husband commented that he didn’t find it very aromatic. (I blame the tahini-miso oca, or New Zealand yams if you prefer, that he’d just noshed). Conversation ensued about white wine aromas. Conversation turned technical, as it’s inclined to do around our table (he may not be an oenophile, but my partner is unmistakably an academic and a knowledge-hound), and an interesting conundrum turned up.

Modern winemaking dogma says that white wines should be fermented at fairly cool temperatures to maximize their aromaticity. Aromatic molecules are, by definition, volatile — they can leave the liquid and travel into the air, where we can sniff them into our nostrils and bring them into contact with aroma receptors. Fewer of those volatile molecules will leave the liquid at cool temperatures than at warm ones because (to simplify), warmer molecules have more energy, are moving faster, and consequently have a better chance of flying off the liquid’s surface. Fermenting at cool temperatures, then, keeps more aromatics in the wine for you to enjoy on a later occasion rather than liberating them into the atmosphere of the winery.

Fermentation creates heat, sometimes even enough to kill off the yeast and stop fermentation in mid-stride. To keep that from happening, winemakers have a few different options. Smaller containers have higher surface area to volume ratios than large ones, release more heat into the surrounding air, and generally stay cooler. The old-fashioned solution, moving small tanks or barrels outside to take advantage of cool night-time temperatures, can work for small operations in cool places. Keeping the room where fermentation is happening cool helps, though that’s a pretty inefficient and energy-expensive option. Far and away the standard contemporary solution, the jacketed stainless steel tank, lets cellar staff dial in specific temperature programs and is near-ubiquitous in modernized operations of decent size. Near-ubiquitous, but not entirely so. Two of my favorite wineries near my old home and my new one, Eyrie in the Willamette Valley (an Eyrie pinot blanc would have been on my celebratory table if I’d had any) and Rippon in Central Otago, both do without. They’re expensive, and they also don’t fit with the low-manipulation philosophy both espouse.

So here’s the quandry. Both Eyrie and Rippon turn out deliciously aromatic whites. Neither uses sophisticated temperature control during fermentation. Both McMinnville, OR and Wanaka, NZ are coming on cool roundabouts harvest time and both operations use small tanks, but it’s still safe to say that those ferments are exceeding the UC Davis-endorsed temperatures.

Why don’t they (and every lovely white wine made before the advent of modern refrigeration) seem vapid, empty, and unappealingly burnt out? I can’t be certain. When I asked Jason Lett, winemaker at Eyrie, this question, he suggested that I do an experiment to try to find out. Having left my lab days behind me, I’m not in a position to do so (it would be a big project in any case) so I’m left to speculate.

The situation is too complex with too many variables for me to evaluate with any chance of accuracy. Yeasts produce different arrays of aromatic compounds at different temperatures, for example. But I also speculate that these wines would, in fact, be more aromatic if they were kept cooler. They don’t seem to be lacking anything, I suspect, because spontaneous fermentations, excellent grapes, and attentive winemaking are already contributing plenty of aroma in any case. A recent study (that actually concerns itself with the possibility of using non-Saccharomyces yeasts to alleviate some of the potentially harmful side-effects of fermenting at low temperatures) suggests that the microbial diversity that comes with spontaneous ferments is probably helping hold up aromatic diversity, and it’s not the only one (this excellent article on sauvignon blanc aromas points to advantages from yeast diversity, too).

In other words, I can’t help but wonder if fermenting at artificially-controlled cool temperatures is something we’re told we need to do because modern industrial practices strip aromas in other ways; that is, if we’re not compensating for less-than-ideal winemaking. Cooler fermentation might (or might not) make that gewürztraminer I enjoyed more aromatic, but it wasn’t wanting. The $15 mass-market version, on the other hand, probably needs all the help it can get.

Those oca, incidentally, threatened to steal the show from the wine. (I think the wine won, though: a bit off-dry, but well-balanced, with the sort of creamy richness I look for in a gewürztraminer and, of course, plenty of peach-lime zest aroma.) Should you catch some of these unusual almost-potato tubers in the market — or, like me, should the house you’ve rented have a patch of them resident in the back garden — here’s a suggestion. North American yams take well to the same treatment.

Tahini-miso oca for four (or two plus leftovers)

1 lb (450 gm) oca, washed and cut into approximately 1″ pieces if large

2 tbsp tahini

3 tbsp white or barley miso

2 tsp butter

~ 1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, if available (or substitute 1 tsp dried thyme)

Heat about an inch of water in a medium-sized saucepan over moderate heat until steaming, then add the oca, cover, and steam over moderate heat for about 10-15 minutes or until tender all the way through when prodded with a fork. While they’re cooking, combine the miso and tahini in a small bowl. (The purpose of doing this, rather than just adding both to the pot individually, is to help the miso mix more easily into the oca. If you’re really interested in saving dishes you can just do the former, but you may end up with miso-lumps.) Drain any remaining cooking water from the pan. Add the tahini-miso mixture, the butter, and the thyme and toss gently until all of the tubers are coated in the sauce. Serve immediately.

Waiheke Island and why I’ll probably never be an entrepreneur

Before I arrived in Auckland on Saturday evening, I’d planned to spend Sunday at the art museum and wandering around town. I was there for a two-day “PhD Research Innovation and Commercialization Course” hosted by the University of Auckland Business School on Monday and Tuesday and flying in on Saturday proved the least expensive and most reasonable option. Having never been to Auckland before, I figured that I’d enjoy the extra day in the city to explore. I was wrong. Walking from the bus stop to my hostel was more than enough of crowds, air pollution, and garish shops, thank you. Fortunately, I was also wrong about how easy it was to get out to Waiheke Island, as I discovered upon realizing that the ferry terminal was a five-minute walk from the hostel with ferries leaving nearly every hour. So, on Sunday I discovered that my favorite view of the city is from a boat headed away from it.

Waiheke Island is about 40 minutes by ferry from Auckland and home to something along the lines of 12 wineries, additional vineyards, and the inevitable mix of eccentric artists and rich people one finds on beautiful little islands. Being a completely spur-of-the-moment decision, I unfortunately didn’t have time to call in advance and arrange for proper winery visits. Also unfortunately, it was Mother’s Day and I was on foot. Not an ideal visit, and I’ll have to remedy its deficiencies with a better-planned future one (and one that includes visiting some of the island’s olive oil producers, I hope). But I did learn something interesting that, as it turned out, helped me think about what we were doing at the business school’s course.

Vines at Te Moto, Waiheke Island

Vines at Te Moto, Waiheke Island

I walked into Te Moto at the same time as a trio of Oregonian girls who’d just finished working harvest in Marlborough, and the tasting room host kindly offered to show the lot of us around their itty bitty production facility. As the girls cooed over the adorable little tanks, she explained that winemakers didn’t come to Waiheke unless they were interested in staying small and hands-on. An expanding business model just isn’t going to work on a 36 square mile island with astronomical land prices: at the most basic level, you can’t afford business here unless you can afford small, expensive, and precious. But you’re also not likely to plant roots (or rootstock) in this place unless you want a lifestyle that’s a little bit precious. Te Moto was founded in 1989 by the Dunleavy family, notable because patriarch Terry Dunleavy was the first CEO of the Wine Institute of New Zealand (one of two parent organizations to the present-day New Zealand Winegrowers), and though they’re clearly doing well, their crush pad-cum-open-air fermentation space is barely bigger than my office. And they’re doing something that’s the envy of many winemakers: holding on to their vintages until they think they’re ready to drink. The tasting room is currently pouring the 2006, 2007, and 2008. Even with their second label, Dunleavy, for more immediate cash flow, holding onto their flagship wine is an expensive proposition and an interesting choice.

A day later, I was sitting in the Owen G. Glenn building on the University of Auckland’s campus (a structure that could have been dropped into Starfleet Academy without anyone thinking twice about it) listening to a business professor tell me that my chances of becoming a successful entrepreneur increased with the size of the city I called home. Per capita, more start-ups are born in Sydney and Melbourne than in Auckland. Auckland fosters more than Wellington or Christchurch (the second- and third-largest cities in New Zealand, respectively), and Christchurch more than Dunedin, the seventh-largest city (and less than a tenth the size of Auckland) that I currently call home. The moral of the story was three-fold: first, aspiring innovators should live in densely-populated places; second, New Zealand innovation is hamstrung by its relative lack of large-scale urbanity; third, connections between people lead to innovation, and connections are easier in big cities. The prof was trying to convince us that making connections was easier in big cities than in smaller ones, simply because more “talent” was readily available, and that connectivity is important for business growth. Sure. But he ignored an important complicating factor: what kind of people choose to live in big cities versus small towns? Moreover, what kind of place would New Zealand be if we had six Aucklands and a Melbourne?

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Te Moto’s tiny winery/restaurant/tasting room complex

I can’t but wonder if part of why big cities grow small businesses is because the kind of people energized rather than irritated by the bustle, people who value or will tolerate constant motion, people willing to give up quiet porches for dirty pavement, are the kind of people willing to trade freedom of information and generosity of spirit for fatter wallets. I work hard, but being the person I want to be and living a good life is more important to me that climbing ladders, closing deals, and building an investment portfolio. I wouldn’t have come to New Zealand — and I dare say neither would most of my American friends here — if more of the country looked like Auckland.

And so I think about what Waiheke. Te Moto’s definition of success involves a couple of compact car-sized fermenters with no plans to expand. You’re not going to start a winery on Waiheke unless you have money, but you’re still making a deliberate choice in favor of a particular kind of lifestyle. And so the community develops a particular flavor because the place attracts people with similar values.

My experience with Kiwis, at least outside of Auckland, is that they take time to enjoy the outdoors, sit with friends to drink their coffee, and spend money on experiences more than on fancy houses. Most folk I know in Dunedin wouldn’t live in Auckland because it wouldn’t afford them the lifestyle they treasure. Start-ups and entrepreneurs can do great things, and Villa Maria and Kim Crawford and Cloudy Bay are tremendously important for the New Zealand wine industry. But as for me, I’ll be watching the bell birds splashing around in the bird bath on the porch of my quiet little cottage on the bay, hopefully sipping something from a winemaker who’s decided to find the space to do her own thing.

 

 

Felton Road’s low-tech precision winemaking

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Gareth King at Felton Road

“Precision viticulture” refers to a technology-laden mission to optimize and equalize grape quality at a local level, decreasing variability plot-by-plot, potentially even plant-by-plant. By collecting data on water use, vine vigor, temperature, soil conditions, and other parameters at multiple points across a vineyard, vignerons can understand how different areas of the vineyard are differing in their performance and, consequently, irrigate or fertilize or prune or harvest or what-have-you differently to suit. Affordable GPS systems, high-tech mapping with geographic information systems (GIS), and lots of spiffy little wireless sensors have made all of this possible and even reasonably practical for vineyards within the past several years (Australia’s national Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has been notably pushing PV adoption in that country). Oddly enough, though, I hadn’t really thought about what an equivalent “precision winemaking” strategy might look like before a week or two ago.

A week or two ago I paid my first visit (of many, I expect) to Central Otago, New Zealand’s most southerly wine region, famous for pinot noir, Wild West-style scenery, and hordes of international backpackers. When I made arrangements to stop by Felton Road, I was warned that I wouldn’t be able to meet Blair Walter, the winemaker, because he planned to rack that day. (Rack = remove wine from one container to another, most often for the purpose of separating it from the lees, the dead yeast cells and other particles that collect at the bottom of the barrel or tank.)  When I learned how he was racking — he found a few minutes to come out and talk in between barrels — the first thing that came to mind was, “gosh, this sounds like precision winemaking.” If precision viticulture is approaching the vineyard on a vine-by-vine basis, then precision winemaking seems as though it should be approaching wine on a barrel-by-barrel basis. Far from technology-laden, though, Walter’s method is simple, elegant, and light on gadgetry.

Their pinot noir is made like this:

1. Crush grapes into stainless steel fermenter tanks. Ferment.

2. Press and transfer wine to barrel. Let wine sit in barrel until February (in Otago, that’s about ten months after harvest).

3. Rack wine off lees, out of barrel and into tanks.

4. Bottle.

Racking happens only once. Walter says that everything that comes out of the barrel during that single racking goes into the bottle. With that single control point before bottling, he sounds fairly obsessive about ensuring sure that he sees everything that comes out of those barrels. Unsurprisingly, he uses a Bulldog Pup, a clever little racking wand that  moves wine by positive displacement instead of active pumping. Positive displacement functionally pushes — “displaces” — the wine out of the barrel by filling the barrel with gas. The barrel is sealed save for a tube pushing the gas in and the tube letting the wine out so that pumping in gas increases the pressure inside the barrel; the wine has nowhere to go but out the exit tube. Bulldog Pups are far more gentle than any pump. They can also virtually eliminate oxygen exposure during racking when nitrogen or argon is used to do the pushing.

Neither of those is Walters’ main reason for using the Pup. He even uses plain-old forced atmospheric air, replete with oxygen, to push. After ten months undisturbed in barrel, the wine can use the oxygen exposure. His reason for racking this way is so that he can watch the wine as it comes up the tube (through a conveniently placed sight glass) and decide on a barrel-by-barrel basis what to leave behind. Bulldog Pups have a foot that will automatically shut off flow at a pre-set level: a winemaker can decide to leave four inches of lees in each barrel, set the foot appropriately, and then leave the cane to mind itself while his attention is elsewhere. Walters doesn’t automate, and the only person who racks is him.

Walters’ approach reminded me of what his colleague Gareth King, Felton Road’s viticulturist, said about how he practices precision viticulture. The man doesn’t seem to want for much, but when we encountered the harvest crew coming in from a morning vineyard walk, he said, “You know my best technology? They just walked past us.”

I can’t say what difference GPS sensors versus summer interns might make, but I can say that Felton Road’s pinots were among the best I tasted. Central Otago pinots can be a bit clunky, but Felton Road’s are texturally lighter and more elegant, with plenty of clean raspberry and strawberry aromas up front backed up with enough earthiness and tannins to keep things interesting. The 2012 Bannockburn and 2012 Cornish Point bottlings seemed to walk that balance of lightness and structure particularly well.

Precision viticulture is veritably new. It’s downright revolutionary, really, in terms of how it changes the way vignerons can think about vineyard management. But technology isn’t the only way to pay attention to details. The old-fashioned strategy of carefully and consistently observing what’s happening with individual vines isn’t an exact substitute for GPS-enabled water uptake meters: the technology is more precise and lets the vineyard manager put his eyes in a lot of different places at the same time — and collect data in his sleep or during family meals, which has to be a real boon. And I can imagine monitoring individual barrels with some kind of wireless oxygen sensor that can track and measure differences between how each barrel transmits oxygen — since every barrel is unique in this respect — and lets winemakers make corresponding individualized adjustments. No amount of careful personal attention could do that.

But Walters’ version of precision winemaking and King’s version of precision viticulture will serve as a good reminder for me every time I read a journal article or press release about some nifty new precision gadget. Some of the best technology comes on two legs.

A Humanist Rationale for Wine Science

Wine writers have all manner of reasons for writing about wine: the people, the moments of beauty, deciphering complexity for the hapless consumer, a passion for free samples. Why I write about wine is a question I perennially reconsider – the answer seems to keep changing – but I can always take the easy (and true, if not exclusively true) cop-out: wine is a fantastic vehicle for helping people learn about science.

Still, that answer begs the question: why is it good or valuable or worthwhile to help people learn about science? I’m currently studying in a department called the Centre for Science Communication, a magical place where everyone cares about bringing Science to the Everyman in accessible and entertaining ways. Some reasons for teaching people about science are pragmatic: better-educated people should make better decisions. Show people the beauty of the penguin or the wild orchid and empower them to care more about how their lives affect the natural world. It’s the democratic argument for why we have compulsory education: educate everyone enough to make them good (enough) citizens. Educate them more and make them better citizens. Or, if you prefer, the capitalist argument: people who know more science can do jobs that involve more science and generate more revenue than the ignorant. All good.

But I chose a small liberal arts college for my undergrad years, where I studied music and philosophy along with my molecular biology. I’m not all pragmatist; I believe in my heart of hearts in a liberal education. Learning makes us better people because it increases our appreciation and enjoyment of the world, because men were made to live and living is more than mere work and production. Moreover, learning makes us able to see. We only see what we can conceptualize, things for which we’ve created mental boxes. The Inuit can see twenty different kinds of snow; the educated oenophile can see twenty different kinds of pinot noir. The more we see, the more we are able to observe and to strive to understand, the more able we are to seek truth in all of its forms, and this is the highest calling of man. I don’t really write about wine science because it helps people learn about science. I write about wine science because I want to help people see and seek to understand.

I’ve been sipping on the taMt. Beautiful 2011 North Canterbury Pinot Noiril-end of a bottle of Mt. Beautiful 2011 North Canterbury Pinot Noir as I’ve been writing this. The wine is pretty (see below). The website gives me more than the usual information about how the wine was made, and that makes me happy. Can I taste the seven days of cold soaking or smell the twice-daily punch downs? Heck no. By knowing these details, am I thereby prompted to see and seek to understand more about the wine? Yes.  

Mt. Beautiful 2011 North Canterbury Pinot Noir (NZ $29.90) – smells like flowers and raspberries; very fresh, very nice. Fruity, but enough acidity and astringency to save it from being just fruity, with helpful if unexpected tannins on the finish. If not wildly complex, a pleasant iteration of a light, cool-climate style Pinot Noir.