Justine Tyerman learns the finer points of wine tasting at a trio of vineyards on the Meet the Makers’ tour, a prelude to the Feast Gisborne Wine and Food Festival at Waiohika Estate.
The Meet the Makers vineyard tour is the perfect solution for those nostalgic for the good old days of the Gizzy Wine and Food Festival when we gathered up groups of friends and bussed around the vineyards, sampling the latest vintage while reclining in the shade of the vines, studying the terroir, letting a handful of dirt run through our fingers and learning from the winemakers and the growers themselves how the qualities in that soil determined such distinctive flavours in the wine.
The day offers a chance to relax and be transported to three vineyards - Spade Oak, TW Wines and StoneBridge - with nothing more arduous to decide than which four wines to select from each venue to make up a personalised Winemakers' Dozen.
Spade Oak vineyard owner, winemaker and viticulturist Steve Voysey is such an unassuming fellow and looks more like an affable South Island high country farmer than a pointy-head of the wine kind but when he speaks about the qualities of wine, I hang on his every word - barely remembering to sip my wine at all.
"I detect nuances of the green stem of a freshly-picked tomato in this albarino," he says. "Buttered toast and grilled lemon character in this chardonnay - and dried apricot flavours in this viognier."
Whether it is the subtle power of suggestion combined with the strong desire to become a sophisticated taster of wines, I'm not at all sure - but after listening intently to Steve and sampling the wines he is talking about, the associations are suddenly there - fleetingly but absolutely clear.
So what sets this man's smelling and tasting gear apart from the average quaffer of wine? Upon inspection, his taste buds and olfactory equipment look perfectly normal to me. Possibly his eight years as judge of the Romeo Bragato Wine Awards - combined with his 25 years in the business of making wine himself.
He says there is a simple trick to it really - just associate what you smell with a fruit or food and it becomes an aroma memory.
I can't wait to impress my dinner party guests.
Steve also explains the process of autolysis, leaving the wine in contact with the yeast for at least a year to impart a creaminess and fresh-baked bread aroma in the Spade Oak Blanc de Blancs (which means white of whites, the traditional name used in champagne for wine made from 100 per cent chardonnay). He demonstrates the technique of removing the yeast from the bottle along with corking and wiring, followed by a superb flourish when he whacks the top off the bottle with a machete in his own version of sabrage, the decorking of champagne with a ceremonial sabre.
We meet both the T and the W at TW Wines - a partnership between two old mates - grape growers Paul Tietjen and Geordie Witters whose vineyards have a blessed location on the Golden Slope, a narrow, five-kilometre strip between Ormond and Hexton, the terroir where most of Gisborne's gold medal-winning chardonnays are grown.
TW's winemaker of 11 years, Anita Ewart-Croy speaks the same peculiar language as Steve, and we learn about pears and cardamom in the verdhelo and peaches and honey with a lychee after-taste in the Double Happy, a chardonnay-gewürztraminer blend.
Paul and Geordie are the fellows who brought such celebrities as Elle (McPherson), Dolly (Parton), Britney (Spears) and Lilly (Langtree) to Gisborne - in bottled form. Elle - a long, lean, leggy chardonnay, expected to age beautifully; Dolly - another chardonnay, forward, up-front with a nice little finish; Britney (at the time) - young and still to show her full potential like the chardonnay named after her; and Lilly (who died of alcoholic poisoning) - a vibrant, seductive, spicy rosé.
At an earlier Wine and Food Festival I happened to be wearing pink and was given a bottle of rosé and a sticker to prove I'd been "licked by Lilly" - I still have the sticker on my mirror.
The art series featured at the Meet the Makers tour displays a series of tasteful nudes such as 2010 Innocent Chardonnay, untouched by oak, young, light and fruitful. Summer, a 50/50 chardonnay-viognier blend, evokes images of gorgeous young things lying on the sand at the beach.
"It's perfect with BBQ seafood - clams, scallops, prawns," says Paul.
To keep the gender balance, TW are now looking for suitable male models to grace their next series of wines. They have already named a 2010 barrel-fermented malbec, Dr Rod Malbec, in memory of the distinguished Dr Roderick Bonfiglioli (1953-2009), who had a passion for malbec and carménère. "Dr Rod" was a brilliant researcher in the field of grapevine virology and played a vital role in the development of laboratory diagnostics at Linnaeus Laboratory in Gisborne and in the creation of the New Zealand Winegrowers' Grafted Grapevine Standard and the Virus Elimination Project. He was also instrumental in bringing in new clones and old varieties of grape vines.
Anita describes the malbec as a flavour explosion "with aromas of dehydrated cranberries, pink peppercorns and sweet tamarillo chutney. The rich, velvety palate gives wonderfully intense flavours of blackcurrant, liquorice and mixed spice".
I absolutely agree - especially the liquorice!
StoneBridge, owned by David and Mairéad Hart, has the distinct advantage of having a touch of the Irish giving the spiel at their cellar door. Just listening to Limerick-born Mairéad telling the story of their boutique wine business is a treat in itself.
"The StoneBridge label was born from David's passion for growing grapes," Mairéad says.
"He is the viticulturist who manages the day-to-day demands of the vineyard.
Working literally from the ground up, a vineyard owner makes a myriad of decisions before the grapes reach the winery. Those decisions are always with the end wine in mind, such as low cropping to intensify the flavour in the fruit."
Their first vintage was in 2005 and all the wines are produced from grapes grown on their own vineyard at Newstead Lane, with the exception of 2012 Sauvignon Blanc sourced from Kahikatea Vineyard on the Back Ormond Road.
"All our wines are made using the wonderful facility at EIT Tairawhiti Waimata Winery," she says.
Mairéad also explains the vital significance of soil type and why clay soils are particularly good for chardonnay.
She serves four wines and talks about the distinctive flavours associated with each variety: "the crisp gooseberry note in the sauvignon blanc, the creaminess of the chardonnay, pear aromas in the pinot gris, peppery notes in the merlot and rich raisin characters in the 40fied tawny-style port".
"However, wine is subjective and the truth is in the taste - as a wine consumer, if you like it then it's a good wine," says Mairéad in her lovely Irish lilt.
Her simple approach appeals to me - I like it therefore it is good.
Mairéad and David clearly have an intimate relationship with their vines and wines.
"The grapes are hand-harvested. Being so hands-on in the vineyard, tending to the vines makes the attachment to the wines even more personalised," says Mairéad.
"Good wines only come from good fruit - it really is all about quality in the vineyard."
American couple, Richard and Mary Davis, who spend part of the year in Gisborne, were delighted with the personalised tour and particularly enjoyed that the key people from each vineyard travelled on the bus to each location, providing an informative commentary along the way.
"The atmosphere was intimate, relaxed and personal with the unique opportunity for one-to-one contact with the grape growers and wine makers," they said.
"At TW, Geordie Witters hitched up his 4WD bike to a trailer decked out with seats and took small groups of us around the vineyards pointing out 30-year-old chardonnay vines as we sipped the wines from the vines," said Mary. "Others mingled in the old barn or just soaked up the sun on the warm grass."
Richard was intrigued with the Geordie's old barn where the tastings were held.
"Upstairs, there's a big room with old black and white photos along the walls showing previous generations of the Witters family. It gave us a great sense of the history of the place. There was a tree trunk acting as a centre post - that was pretty cool too," he said.
"At Spade Oak, we were fascinated by Steve's full demonstration of how to make the blanc de blancs. He explained in detail the 'method traditionnelle' process of riddling the bottles, disgorging them and then dosing them to refill what was lost. He then corked, caged and labelled the bottle and finished by cutting the top of the bottle off with a machete and serving up the bubbles," said Richard.
"He also pointed out some cork trees on the property, something we had never seen before. After his talk we settled into our picnic lunches and sampling wines - it was all very relaxed and pleasant," said Mary.
"When we arrived at StoneBridge, people were in nap mode having just had lunch and sampling wine for the previous two hours. However, Irish Mairéad and her serving team really livened things up. She served four wines with an enthusiastic introduction about what we were drinking and what we should be tasting. The staff were fun, friendly and chatty as they made the rounds filling everyone's glasses, with upbeat music in the background," said Mary. "We really enjoyed the vineyard tour and hope they run it again next year."
Next day, we joined the thousands at Waiohika Estate, the world-famous Rhythm and Vines venue, for the newly-branded Feast Gisborne where 15 vineyards were represented along with 12 gourmet food outlets and music by top-class acts, Dragon and Hello Sailor. While there was none of the intimacy of the previous day, nor the opportunity to chat one-to-one with the winemakers and growers, the atmosphere was thrilling - a massive outdoor party where everyone was bursting with energy and joie de vivre as if released from hibernation after a long, lonely winter.
We will go again next year - but in the meantime, I'm putting some serious time into practising my wine-tasting. I must confess, I'm still searching for the elusive green stem of a freshly-picked tomato.