A Day At West Brook


James Rowan tasting the barrels at West Brook Winery Auckland, September 2013

And so it came to pass that I returned once more to the winery that is closest to my heart in New Zealand…a return which involved a morning and long afternoon of intensive sampling, laughter, learning and eventually lurching. What wines! What fun! What a gem in the Kiwi wine firmament this amazing little Auckland winery is.

There’s a reason why I have such a soft spot for West Brook, – when I arrived in NZ it was the first winery I visited properly. It is the result of more than 70 years and four generations of hard work in the pursuit of wine excellence by the Ivicevich family – a boutique winery where compromise is avoided and detail is everything. Within about a week of arriving I was invited, nay dragged, down to the estate by their extraordinary winemaker James Rowan to sample the wonders of Ararimu Valley Road. We spent a couple of hours buzzing about from tank to barrel to bottle, James’ pace never letting up as he explained his winemaking philosophy, the tricks of his trade…it was a hell of a morning, an absolute privilege, and a time of wonder when I realised the sheer joy of living in a winemaking region.

When I returned with Auckland wine luminary Nastajia Bourke a couple of weeks ago to check out the 2013s, we were treated to a whole day of nuances, the nuts and bolts of a New Zealand vintage simmering away in quiet wood and steel, the first aromatic delights of a great year already in bottle, squealing and gurgling in the very first flush of youth, while their bigger Chardonnay and red brothers lay dormant in the womb of the winery under the careful supervision of James and his excellent team.

On arrival James ushered us up to his laboratory – the sense of being in the presence of a Roald Dahl/Wonka like figure was never far away as James tweaked and checked his lab toys and talked to us about the chemistry of winemaking – it all made me very thirsty indeed, so what a delight it was to kick off the day with the 2013 Riesling bottled just the day before (10th Sept) – (11% abv with residual sugar of 14g/l) – it is going to be a classic: honeycomb and grapefruit, this has settled down and fattened up considerably since I tried a tank sample at Wine Circle not so long ago. Candied lemon, great balance…mouthwatering and very moreish. We followed that up with a look at the 2013 Gewurztraminer – a hip flask sample just ready for bottling. Freshness and light abounded – hyper gentle with wisps of lychee and ginger. No soapiness at all – a lifted, racy, graceful Gewurz with great length and mineral freshness. We were ready to hit the floor…

First up was the 2013 Pinot Gris, a wine with two distinct Pinot Gris components, one with a ripe custard cream, pear and mascarpone richness and softness (85.2% of the blend), the other with a distinct CO2 spritz, fennel and prickly minerality…the “pea under the mattress” as Nastajia put it. James described this blending technique as “playing in the shadows”…nudging and tweaking the palate for balance and structure. It was a fascinating lesson.

Before hitting the barrels, James showed us some fizz – we blind tasted an utterly delicious 90% Cabernet Franc 10% Chardonnay Waimauku blend…lush red fruit, lively and floral, but cramant in character…less fizz imparting a creaminess that was so more-ish, reminding me of Mumm’s famous example. However, while that was a great fun wine, the 100% Waimauku Pinot Noir fizz was altogether more serious – phenolic with a leesy grip, it is but a babe and will need plenty of time but it is so full of promise. A brave wine, but no better man than the bearded one to make it!

The afternoon was spent sampling the barrels, hearing  how old oak barrels define texture in a wine but allow the purity of the fruit to sing while new oak defines the texture and flavour…across barrel after barrel we tasted the differences, the components that would be put together and polished in to Westbrook’s fabulous Chardonnays…different levels of toasting (charring), barrels from different forests in France…all of these things created the flavourscape James will ultimately use to blend the finished product, a product that is invariably West Brook and pure Kiwi – gently oaked, toasty, with pure fruit expression and incredible focus and elegance.

The soundtrack to our tasting was magnificent, blaring out from the sound system and keeping the barrels happy – Canned Heat, The Lovin Spoonful…and a spot of late 70s colour…James remarked that he had wanted to install a disco ball in the winery for ages – I think he should…and the 2014 vintage at West Brook could be done on Roller Skates with everyone sporting an afro…instantly becoming the coolest winery on earth…

The Pinot Noirs tasted like an exercise in multi-track recording. Whereas a studio engineer will use fade, echo and other techniques to build the flesh and bones of a recording, so James works with different clones, different expressions of Pinot Noir…a core of wine seasoned and enhanced by layer after layer of interesting components as barrel after barrel is added to the blend – perhaps a bright cherry pie and rose petal splash of Pinot Noir followed by some brooding, more serious gear from another block. The energy required, the nuanced approach of the winemaker is amazing – there is a school of thought that insists minimal intervention on the part of the winemaker is a good thing, but by shaping nature in to particular building blocks and components through the use of oak, stainless steel, malolactic fermentation to varying degrees, and other techniques which don’t compromise the integrity of the fruit, I think that the end result is incredibly satisfying, as you will be able to discover by checking out these wonderful , finished, wines for yourself soon.

We ended the day in high spirits, with James showing us a vertical of four older vintages of his signature grape variety – Riesling. All of them were superb, the 2007 did it for me – its oily, layered fatness and racy acidity hit the spot and freshened me up for a foray in to the nearby Auckland night. The library Chardonnays were no less awesome – the collective memory not only of the soil and weather of this land encapsulated, but also the quiet stories that took place in barrels here at West Brook many years ago.

West Brook wines are available from Wine Circle Huapai or from West Brook’s Cellar Door near Waimauku (be sure to bring a picnic on a sunny day – it’s absolutely beautiful!)


Dessert wines aren’t for everybody.

In the same way that the world is populated by strange people who thrive on Brussels sprouts, test cricket and collecting stamps (often all three at the same time, no doubt), there are weird folk who don’t like super sweet wines.

How can people not enjoy those waves of honey, pineapple, crème brulee, nectar, sugar, and all that is heavenly about the universe super-compacted in to a liquid of exquisite poise and beauty? The cold, black heart of the non-dessert wine loving human is a dreadful thing to contemplate…they are like carcasses left behind after a dementor kiss, empty shells full of misery, wailing and gnashing of teeth (and oh the lack of sugar has left plenty of teeth to be gnashed)…but that isn’t you, is it?

Anyway, Wine Circle’s latest tasting pitched New Zealand against Aussie, but mostly France (and in particular Bordeaux), for it is in the land of garlic, grumpy waiters, outrageous accents that the finest sweet wines known to humanity are to be found. Our line up all had one thing in common – to a lesser or greater degree they were all affected by botrytis cinerea, a miracle of nature. It’s a fungus which infects the ripe, healthy grapes, and removes water but leaves behind the essence of the grapes, including minerals, sugar and acid. It takes very specific climatic conditions for this to occur, so at their best these wines are treasured and coveted. When the time comes to pick the job is necessarily done by hand, often berry by berry and across many forays in to the vineyard as the rot affects different bunches of grapes at different times. Yields tend to be miniscule, especially at the top level, but at those rarified heights the quality can verge and sometimes tip over in to the realms of the miraculous.

(Click on the names to view images and get more details at our online shop)
Sileni Late Harvest Semillon 2011   $23.90

Honey citrus and barley sugar, a good nose with pretty good weight, hints of fresh rhubarb, orange and nice acidity. Nowhere near as full throttle botrytised as the wines to come, but the lightness of touch made this a real charmer, and an excellent starter wine on the night.

Ch. Belingard Monbazillac 2007   $18.90

Aromas of plasticine, orange, peach and apricot. Fruit driven, oily and viscous (but not viscious) with good texture and lovely acidity. Excellent for the money, seriously good value, but this wine split the room; many people thought the Sileni was miles better, but the victors write the history, or the bloke with the job in the wine shop…so I say it was goooooood!

Ch. du Cros Lupiac 2009   $26.90

Similar nose to the Belingard – that indefinable botrytis whiff, that reek of gold, fairy sweat and angel dust mingled with pineapple and cream. Very gentle, slightly savoury, giving the impression of apricot crumble. Great length. A real bargain!

Ch. Villefranche Sauternes 2010   $29.90

Classic Sauternes! A lovely bright nose, crème brulee, botrytis with honied cream, lovely body, a touch of Sauvignon prickle, excellenet acidity and lift. A hint of lemon eucalyptus  on the finish. Great energy.

Sichel Sauternes 2010    $34.90

Ethereal…almost floats on the palate. Gentle, caressing, a whispering wine. Gorgeous structure and complexity, like a spider web made from heavenly treacle. This is declassified Sauternes from one of the very greatest estates, and it just sings a song of nature at its most intense. A wondrously good drop.

Ch. Rayne Vigneau 2009    $79.90

Gorgeous spiced peach, strawberry and raspberry on the palate. Angelic fruit salad, oily and unctuous with a wickedly devilish spicy kick on the finish. Lovely stuff but feels a bit overpriced.

De Bortoli Noble One 2009      $48.90

Deep honey and very viscous, like golden syrup, rich, ripe baked apples and rhubarb crumble, the texture of liqueur muscat and gigantic, mouthfilling sweetness. Hugely impressive and a real treat, but the sheer weight and power of this wine makes it a fish out of water in this tasting. Seriously recommended though!

Ch. Coutet 2009     $219.90

Sensational. Imagine toasted brioche with cherry crème brulee infused with blue cheese. Perfect balance between the savoury and the sweet. Satin texture with voluptuous curves, but also nervy and full of amazing tension and energy. Still bubbling away in its youth as it melds together in to what promises to be a wine of staggering beauty in the next 5-10 years.

*all wines were 375ml bottles, except the Coutet which was 750ml 


Last night Chris (and the lovely Natalie) laid on a spot of nosh and some splendid wines for no other reason than when he is not being grumpy and putting the world right  he is an exceedingly generous old sod and it was high time we had a fabulous night of fabulousness. Roast Beef was served, then a delicious dessert that was rather lost in the glory and majesty of the Muller Catoir, and a cheeseboard that just couldn’t be left alone – hacked at endlessly…whiffy wonderfulness wafted wound the woom…

So this was a night for a bit of serious wine contemplation – certainly not everyday wines…the company was wonderful, the food superb, the wines (all tasted blind) unspeakably awesome  … so I thought a little blog to retain the memories might be an idea…

Here’s what we enjoyed…

Au Bon Climat Nuits Blanches au Bouges Chardonnay 2010

This was a sure thing – top end Puligny Montrachet, perhaps a little something even from the fabled hill itself. Extraordinary power and precision, but the lightest paint strokes of delicate flavour – nutty lemon-apple on a textural bed of dense, throbbing minerality and acidity, buzzing and dancing on the tongue like a faerie ballet before Bacchus himself! Alive with twitching morning sunlight, but full of promise for a glorious afternoon to come. Flabbergasted to discover this was Californian, butit is arguably the most thrilling wine producing area on Earth at the moment. A phenomenal curtain raiser.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 2005

The super-premium label from Stag’s Leap, Warren Winiarski’s legendary Napa winery. The 1973 SLV (now nominally below this in terms of quality) won the Judgement of Paris in 1976, an achievement so momentous that a bottle now resides in The Smithsonian. Decanted five hours previous to serving, this is essence of Cabernet Sauvignon. The very slight bretty, meaty funkiness I had picked up when tasting this a year ago has now gone – a creamy cassis nose leads to a profoundly deep, dry palate with surging blackcurrant and pencil-lead aromas and searing minerality. The oak is exquisitely integrated with the fruit, even at this young stage; the whole wine is seamless and glorious, a touch of feminine perfume giving it an almost Margaux like sensuousness.

Muller Catoir Herzog Rieslaner Trockenbeerenauslese 2007

This absolutely threw me – an outrageously exotic nose of Turkish tea, ginger, Christmas spices, orange marmalade and Turkish Delight – the latter made me suspect this was a great SGN Gewurztraminer from Alsace…wrong. The aromatics almost smelt Art Nouveau – a belle époque, fin de siècle, gin palace aroma – Golden Brown by The Stranglers become liquid. Incredibly alluring, almost supernaturally sweet but with astonishing acidity playing the wine like a puppetmaster…such deftness, butterfly delicacy and lift on the finish…all of the sweetness washing away to leave pure, haunting, magical aromas echoing in my mouth. Spellbindingly brilliant.

Quinta do Noval Vintage Port 1994

An absolute giant of a vintage port – at first the nose seems aggressively alcoholic and spirity (it turns out to be 20.5%abv) but this soon turns out to be a positive, winding and weaving its way through layer after layer of incredible aromas of dusty Bourneville chocolate, dates and blackcurrant pie. Keeps evolving – spectacular with Roquefort, rather demolishing my objections to blue cheese with port – the creaminess sliced away and vanilla soaring with each bite and sip: incredible!

Noval is one of the very greatest names in Port – their almost mythical Nacional cuvee is almost impossible to source, but this noble and wonderful “lesser” Port was magnificent.

Berry’s Own Selection Bowmore 1999 (56.4% abv)

A seriously good dram. Drawn from a single cask at Bowmore,this is  a whisky that lifts its kilt, waggles its bits, and charges at your senses with a saltire-painted face, a cry of FREEDOM!! and a Mendelssohnian crash of orchestral waves across ancient freezing rocks…classic Bowmore iodine and hospital corridor aromas, surging citrus salinity, huge warmth and mind-expanding length breadth and depth – so many dimensions Stephen Hawking would have trouble pinning this baby down. This was bottled at a little over ten years old – not that long at first glance, but they must have tasted it and thought it pointless to age it any longer – perfection!

And so to the taxi and to bed – amazing drinks shared with amazing company…a tipsy head…boozy heaven.

Until next time…!

The Joy of Port


Foot treading at Graham’s – a practice still widely carried out by many Port houses 

AUCKLAND winters are really easy. Having experienced the psycho-stabbing screech of endless Irish winters, where gale force winds spiked with Siberian ice descend like swarms of frosty locusts, I can safely say that the dainty chill of a South Pacific winter is an absolute joy. A few logs a day to take the worst bite, or should I say puppy dog lick, away is all that’s required, and it’s always great fun to hear the screams of WEATHER BOMB!!!! and see panic buying and a mass retreat to nuclear shelters by the locals. I will never forget my first experience of a weather-bomb – the anticipation, the fear, the pervading sense of the impending hammer of nature approaching…the reality was a rather breezy day and I had to put on a jumper. Traumatised I was not.

Still, a bit of cold is necessary to really enjoy one of the world’s great drinks – Port. From gorgeously sensual tawnies to the magnificent power of the great Vintages, Port has the ability to warm and caress the soul simultaneously.

So what is Port? In a nutshell it is fortified wine from the Douro Valley in Portugal – New Zealand “Port” is a misnomer. It must come from the Douro to be known as Port, just as Champagne must come from Champagne and Rioja must come from Spain – otherwise it should only be known as fortified wine. It is made using indigenous grape varieties like Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesca and the production process is quite simple. A wine is made, but when it is only 5 or 6% abv and it is still rich with sugar while in the process of fermentation up to the level of a dry, standard table wine, grape spirit is added. This instantly raises the alcohol level to around 19-20%, killing the yeast and the fermentation and preserving the bright, sweet wine in almost amber like state – et voila…fortified wine. White port is made using exactly the same process with, believe it or not, white wine grapes.

Then the fun really begins as different styles emerge. Ruby Port is the result of the blending of a number of vintages, aged in stainless steel, concrete and/or oak and then aging this blend for two or three years – the blend usually reflects a house style and it tends to be very accessible and easy drinking. Tawny Port is golden brown after extended aging in oak barrels – an average of ten to forty years creates varying degrees of figgy, nutty, complex characters (standard house tawnies can be a blend of ruby and white ports). Vintage Ports, only 2% of overall production but certainly the most coveted, must come from fruit picked in a single harvest – usually only about three vintages per decade are declared by the major shippers, always after about eighteen months in barrel when the true quality can be assessed. After a maximum of 30 months in barrel, this great classic tipple is bottled and then continues to develop for many decades. Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV) is port which had the potential to be declared a vintage, but ultimately missed the cut for reasons including lack of demand and not making the vintage “cut”. LBV Port is usually bottled 4 to 6 years after the vintage, enough time to give it a hint of the evolved character of a vintage port, but without the singular character of Port’s most famous style. These are probably the most readily available styles in New Zealand but there are loads more – Colheita, Crusted, and so on…all of which are well worth researching and trying out.

So what do we at Wine Circle recommend you drink in front of the woodburner over the next month or two? Well, if it’s value to quality you are after, there is really only one Port house in the running – Quinta da Romaneira. It’s right next door to the greatest of the great, Quinta do Noval, and has seen serious investment and effort put in by the Noval team since their parent company purchased it in 2004. But because it ain’t Noval, it’s only a fraction of the price Romaneira’s ports keep winning awards in New Zealand – the most eye-catching being a Top 10 spot out of several hundred wines tasted by Metro Magazine last year. Any of the following tipples will leave you rosy cheeked, hale and hearty and in love with all of mankind…

Romaneira Fine Ruby Port                      $42.90

A really robust Ruby Port, with loads of concentration – think plums, milk chocolate and earthy spice. The acidity is balanced and it is not too sweet. A great Ruby that will rival many LBV Ports.

Romaneira Fine Tawny                   $42.90

Rich, rounded and smooth this Tawny Port has luscious caramel and nutty flavours, with good acidity to keep it fresh. It has a lovely level of sweetness and a long textured finish.

Romaneira Fine White Port                $42.90

An absolute revelation. Toffee apple and nutty characters with a perfectly balanced sweet/spirit component. A chilled bottle of this in the fridge is a must once Spring rears its lovely head!

Romaneira 10 Year Old Tawny               $64.90

Cooked plums, orange peel, raisins and red berries on the nose are followed on the palate by delicious flavours of orangey toffee, caramel and spice. The Port is full and complex, is dripping with sheer class and has huge length. Astonishing with proper blue cheese. Metro Magazine Top 100 Wine for Winter 2013.

Romaneira LBV 2005       $54.90 (only a few bottles left, then on to the 2007!) 

Striking aromas of dark fruit, plums, dark chocolate and earthiness here. In the mouth there is sweet, ripe, plum and dark chocolate fruit, with some spice. Good structure and acidity hold the wine together and the finish is long and chocolately. Metro Magazine Top 10 Wine for Winter 2013

Romaneira Vintage 2007                         $109.90

“The purple/black 2007 Romaneira Vintage Port offers up an expressive nose of Asian spices, espresso, blackberry, and fruitcake. Very concentrated on the palate with excellent depth, volume, and focus, this well-balanced offering will evolve for 8-10 years and drink well through 2027. It is a sleeper of the vintage.” Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate

Great Bourbons…

sam snead

Sam Snead in full flight at the Wine Circle Bourbon Masterclass

And so it came to pass that we treated ourselves to a tasting of the Westiest drink in Westiedom. That’s right…Bourbon. So  we fired up our V8s, pretended to know about rugby and fishin’, called everyone bro, and ended every sentence with “aye”… we were ready…

There’s no doubt this tasting was a hard sell – people had visions of sugared-up bourbon and cola RTDs, ghost chips, burn-outs and baseball caps put on the wrong way round, that it was going to be a disaster of an evening ending in nude debauchery with questions in parliament afterwards, but they couldn’t have been more wrong. The 24 hardy, liquor-lovin’ souls who took a chance had an experience to remember, thanks in no small part to the walking library of whiskey knowledge Nigel Kelly, and his partner in crime Sam Snead from The House of Whiskey in Auckland, a Montana boy showing off some of his homeland’s finest, and holy moly was it fine…?

Most bourbon is around four to six years old – it normally doesn’t have an age statement like Scotch as producers tend to blend batches from different years because the seasons are so unpredictable. This is key to producing a consistent style, offsetting older and younger whiskies to create a drink which is always up to scratch. Ah, but I hear you ask, why is it relatively young when compared to Scotch? Well, the cold climate of Scotland dampens the “angel’s share” considerably – every year a barrel of Scotch will lose about 2% to the atmosphere, but the severe heat of Kentucky summers can mean as much as 10% a year is lost, more than a few years of that and they lose silly amounts to the staggering and wobbling supernatural entities – throw in the fact if left in the barrel to long it gets unpleasantly woody and you’ll understand  that’s why there aren’t any 30yo Bourbons knocking around.

Most Bourbon is made from a mix of grains, but they all must be produced from no less than 51% corn. The corn provides a thick, viscous texture and distinctive aromatics – the best distillers will frame, lessen, or augment this with the use of the other grains, rye (which gives a sharp focus, spice, power and bite), barley and/or wheat (which can add further sweetness). The distiller can also use the amount of charring in the barrel to influence the final product – a lighter char for a more delicate and brighter spirit, right up to alligator charring (so named because of the mottled condition of the wood after burning) which can permeate the whisky and give it a deeper colour and rich, toffee aromas.

So here’s what we tried on an evening when the JD, Woodstock and Jim Beam were politely left to one side, and the serious business of sippin’ on single batch, even single barrel, Bourbons took place…don’t forget, they are all currently available at Wine Circle Huapai – just click the name of each whiskey to be directed to its page on our online shop!

Kentucky Vintage Original Sour Mash (45%abv)

This beauty has a bit more age than usual: 7-9 years. Fiery and dry, a big wave of spirit. Intense but smooth. Deep mid-palate…a touch of grassy herb, visions of endless prairie. Slightly earthy as well – we are instantly put to rights about the “sweetness” issue. This is serious gear ($71.90 per bottle)

Willet Reserve (47%)

Very fruity – orange, spice, carrot cake, pine, with notes of citrus. This is a single barrel number and the Rye shines through. Hot and piercingly lively, tangy and dry. According to Sam this is the perfect Bourbon with which to make Mint Julips. Amazing still-shaped bottle as well! ($109.90 per bottle)

Pure Kentucky XO (53.5%)

Much sweeter than the Willet. A touch of tawny, sherry rancio. This is a 12 year old, which is getting pretty extreme. Deep caramel, a whiff of cognac which wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but I loved it. Seriously delicious and incredible value – so complex. Almonds, mixed nuts, vanilla – soft, chewy wheat. Yee haa! ($81.00)

Johnny Drum Private Stock (50.5%)

Pause for thought – this is priced in the scavenging foothills of Single Malt Scotch. The value screams out. Creamed rice, custard and vanilla on the nose. Saline, ripe, sweet and chewy at first, then hot rye with no wheat to soften the texture. Laser-like, and perfect for a whiskey sour. Old fashioned Bourbon; alligator charred. ($75.90)

Rowan’s Creek (50.5%)

Pure tawny on the nose; plenty of rye in this beauty as well. No wheat and 65% corn – classic bourbon. Hickory , sweet and sour, fat and silky – the corn very apparent in this one. Medium charred, so fruity spiced characters to the fore. A gentle giant. ($84.90)

Noah’s Mill (57.15%)

A monumentally brilliant whiskey which transcends nationality. Caramel toffee, perfect balance of the grains. A 57% Scotch would overpower, this holds its own without water. Not super-hot at all. Soft and true with tsunami length. Can almost hear the crickets and blues guitar on a hot summer evening in Kentucky. A real legend. ($114.90)

So that was it – an amazing dive in to the deep end of artisan American whiskey and out the other side. Are they as subtle and profound as the best single malts from Scotland? Certainly not, but then some days you want to wear a skirt, eat haggis and fight with your shadow, other days you want to ride route 66, eat grits and talk like Boss Hogg. In other words, there’s a time and a place for everything. My overriding impression was that Scotch comes in to its own on shorter nights, when fires are little and the world is cold, but three parts Bourbon on the rocks with one part cola (if you must, that’s the blend!) is the perfect drink on a hot summer night.

And why shouldn’t we Westies enjoy perfection?

Six Of The Best


Edward Leung and his grandson Fletcher at Ma Maison, Martinborough

Since arriving  in New Zealand eighteen months ago to work at Wine Circle in Huapai, I have learned a lot. I found out very quickly that creative automobiling is a national pastime, and I have enjoyed many splendid moments screaming at people who don’t look over their shoulder when reversing, those who have an allergy to those dreadful indicator things, and I have marvelled at the race to get from A to B 0.0002 seconds quicker than the next bloke because it’s really, really important to win – eye of the tiger and all that.

I have revelled in the glories of the New Zealand Pie – when mince and cheese didn’t cut it, I moved on to stronger fixes (double cheese…mmm), but I also had a rite of passage when I tried a “steak” one from the Dairy – Pedigree dog food sprang to mind…

I have enjoyed hearing an MP admit to being a dickhead after calling someone else a dickhead, and then one of his party colleagues defending his drunken behaviour by saying “we all make a bit of a tit of ourselves at times” – a bit more honest politicking like that back in my native Northern Ireland might just cure the age old troubles after all. Because if there’s one thing we have plenty of over there, it’s dickheads.

There’s been so much to savour – the beauty of Maori culture and mythology, the company of pugnacious Pakeha and bold immigrants planting roots, the shiny Sky Tower, the amazing drive over the harbour bridge, Once We Were Warriors, blissful and blistering summers, breathless kids running and laughing barefoot for half the year, the gorgeous landscapes entwined in amazing Kiwi art and sculpture … the singular sound of Moana and The Tribe…Muriwai…driving beyond the Bombay Hills for the first time…exploring. And of course the wine…

Here are Six of the most memorable New Zealand wines I have tried since I arrived:

Mountford Estate Pinot Noir “The Rise” 2009 (Waipara Valley)

The pinnacle of my New Zealand Pinot Noir experience – only a few hundred bottles of this magnificent wine are produced every year, and it is the real deal. Fantastic structure, Burgundian opulence and power are the firm base on which legendary winemaker CP Lin weaves a tapestry of cherry-candy fruit, raspberry truffle and oriental spice. A very important wine with international stature.

Aotea Malbec 2008 (South Kaipara)

Just a single (new oak) barrel of this stupefying Malbec from Shelly Beach is made every year, and it is a perfect example of the exciting new frontiers still to be explored in Kiwi viticulture. So smooth and silky you could swear there is cream in it, and explosively fruit driven, I was introduced to this oddity by that great champion of all things local Peter Brennan in Porcini’s restaurant a few weeks after arriving. I thought Malbec = Argentina. One sip of Aotea and I knew differently. Still a few bottles of the 2010 left at Wine Circle.

Ma Maison “Fletcher” Pinot Noir 09 (Martinborough)

In January 2013 we headed off on our first North Island road trip, and one of the highlights was an afternoon at Ma Maison in Martinborough, where we enjoyed a memorable lunch with dentist/winemaker Edward Leung and his wife Marjory at their pristine property. They were the perfect hosts, and the highlight of the day, the sort of day we had long dreamed of enjoying during the emigration process, was this sensational Pinot Noir. Serious and brooding, dark cherry, saddle leather and fine oak, constantly evolving in the glass. What a wine. What a winemaker. What a day…

Kumeu River Maté’s Chardonnay 2009 (Kumeu)

The 2009 jumps from the glass; a primal surge of ripe, fleshy, mineral brilliance. It’s like top class Blanc de Blancs Champagne on the nose – nervy, wild, dangerous and passionate. On the palate it is big, very, very big. So elegant, so sensual, the prickly Champagne character settles and the richness starts to build. Extremely layered, and even at this young age it is seamlessly integrated with everything working in harmony. Unbelievably fine and persistent. This is a fabulous expression of Kumeu first, New Zealand second.

Framingham Select Riesling 2011 (Marlborough)

Pure Rose’s Lime Cordial on the nose. Mineral crush, like rushing water crashing against granite rocks. Fantastic verve and and nervy acidity. Off dry, weighty, a touch of honey and layered like a German classic. This just edges Mountford’s Volupteux 2011 for me, and it has to rank as my favourite New World Riesling. Amazing value for money.

West Brook Barrique Fermented Chardonnay 2007 (Waimauku)

Winemaker James Rowan loves wine – he scampers from barrel to barrel like a Willy Wonka of  booze, thrusting glasses of brilliance your way, watching each delighted expression on your face then moving on to the next…and the next…. This is a true masterpiece, nutty praline and dollops of creamy lemon lime lollipop fuzz and buzz on the palate. A champion wine from a champion winemaker. West Auckland is lucky to have such an amazing wine heritage, and West Brook is a shining example.


blanc al

L-R Sam Brannigan, Al Portney & Amy

An Evening With Al Portney from Chateau Ste Michelle

Wine Circle has steadily increased its selection of American wines over the past six years for two reasons – firstly the unparalleled quality (and we mean that – any Frenchmen who wish to place their wines up for consideration in a blind tasting against their American peers please step forward … what? Nobody?) reflected in wines of unerring focus, laser-like precision and purity but with boundless charm and character, and secondly because of the price.

Ah…the price! Is $40 too much to spend on a bottle of wine? Perhaps, it all depends on personal circumstances of course, but what about spending $40, $50 or even $100 on a wine whose direct counterpart from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Australia and even New Zealand is three times the price but not as good? In our opinion that’s the bottom line – extraordinary value within a price range is what we are after, and the United States delivers in abundance.

We are therefore very proud of the very special wines we import, and we can’t resist any opportunity to show them off, hence our decision to hold a gourmet evening with Eugene at Ribier Restaurant next door to our shop. On this occasion we had a very distinguished guest indeed, a real legend of the wine trade – Al Portney, the Vice President International of Chateau Sainte Michelle Wine Estates from Washington State.

There were two things I learned within minutes of picking up Al and his lovely wife Amy from his Auckland CBD pad:

1)      My sense of direction in Auckland is still absolutely hopeless and I cling to my GPS like a child to its teddy.

2)      I have been pronouncing our biggest imported winery wrongly for a year and a half. Instead of the normal “saint” pronunciation I have been pronouncing it like an Irish Gerard Depardieu, but there you go. At least I can still pronounce “notre dame” correctly…he he.

Ste Michelle is a hell of an operation. Its production is gigantic; the overall turnover of the company runs in to the billions of dollars, but the quality is almost spookily great, even in the case of wines with a million case production like their Columbia Valley Riesling. Al explained that the secret is Total Quality Control, a management ethos which means that whether the company is making a single barrel or ten thousand barrels of a particular wine, the approach to the job is always, always fastidious and quality driven. Corners are never cut, quality is never compromised. For once this is not just market speak – the wines really do reek of care, class and character. It’s an amazing feat.

Washington State itself is wine paradise. With a multitude of climates from extremes of rain forest to desert, its microclimates and terroirs and an absolute absence of phylloxera allows it to produce everything from the crispest Sauvignon Blancs to the deepest, warmest Syrahs and everything in between.

On this night we were fortunate to try a selection of upper tier wines from the range, some wines like the Ethos Syrah representing the top 1% from the estate, quality wise, of that particular grape variety. The food was exquisite, the matches were perfect – I will give my impressions of the wine but let you imagine Eugene’s food in all its glory and humbly recommend that you visit Ribier Restaurant to experience his brilliance yourself…

Domaine Ste Michelle Blanc de Noirs NV served with Canapé: King fish, milk prawn, Nori short bread

100% Pinot Noir – classic party bubbles with ravishing aromas of summer berries, a lively bead and a lovely mousse. So jazzy and charming, nothing aggressive about this at all but it still has an elegance and sophistication well beyond its $25 price point.

Chateau Ste Michelle Canoe Ridge Chardonnay2010 served with Spaghetti, green olive crème, winter truffle

A taste bud-achingly beautiful wine, and for many people this was the star of the night. An extremely pure and linear deep well of Chardonnay fruit, no superfluous butteriness, just clean, perfectly weighted fruit salad with a steely Burgundian structure. Flutters its eyelashes all the way down. Sensual and so memorable.

Chateau Ste Michelle Cold Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 served with Hashed wild boar, Italian artichoke emulsion, sautéed mushrooms

This is still very much a baby, but it is already so expressive. Huge nose of wine gums, graphite and blackcurrant follows through to the palate. So primal, taut and powerful at this stage but the tannins are inviting and silky and the oak (which from experience will sing a little in a few years when this settles down) is all present and correct. A glorious mouthful and a brilliant value wine for cellaring.

Chateau Ste Michelle Ethos Syrah 2009 served with Venison filet, chocolate potato gratin, eggplant, lemon scented jus

My favourite wine of the evening. This is really remarkable – a Barossa-like throat grabbing fist of peppered mulberry pie swarms over the palate and coats the mouth. Warm and inviting with beautiful secondary aromas of smoky bacon with hints of paprika. That Old World/New World straddling sensation is very much to the fore again. This is a must have wine for all NZ lovers of Syrah.

Chateau Ste Michelle Eroica Riesling Ice Wine 2006 served with Lemon pudding cake, wild rice salted ice cream

As a measure of the astonishing impact of this wine, in Auckland last night we instantly sold all our shop stock (at $80 per 375ml) within 30 seconds of our guests tasting this. Absolutely electrifying, like an orange and honey drenched magnet humming and buzzing on the tongue. Incredible density, but light as a feather, dancing and beguiling. The bees wept tonight.

All these wines are available from Wine Circle Auckland. Please contact us for further details.

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