Thursday, 2 August 2012

New Zealand Wine Tour - Huia

Back in November I had the pleasure of visiting an old colleague of mine, James MacKenzie, who has made his new home in Marlborough, New Zealand. Nestled in the small town of Blenhiem, the area is awash with vineyards which have become household names back home.

Marlborough vineyards from the sky

For me, the experience was somewhat like wondering up and down Hollywood Boulevard looking at the stars on the pavement (with the obvious difference that I actually recognised the names).
Happily, one winery I had been very keen to visit was the one where James is now employed: Huia.

Huia was established in 1996 by Claire and Mike Allan, after both of them had already spent six years working in wineries in the region. Both Mike and Claire share a passion for 'natural' wine-making, which is to say they don't use any synthetic chemicals and rely entirely on natural processes, working with the land to produce their wines. The difference this makes is immediately obvious upon walking the vineyards, which is exactly where we started, guided by James, with a glass of almost absurdly refreshing Blanc de Blancs2005 in hand.

Walking between the vines two things were immediately apparent: the lush grass and wild flowers allowed to grow between them, and the lack of a strip of 'scorched' earth surrounding the roots of the vines which is more commonly associated with 'modern' viticultural practices. Their approach to wine-making is known as 'biodynamic'. I know lots of people out there are very sceptical of the practices, expecting to see men decorated with goats heads chanting as they wave crystal lined stag's bladders in some moonlit pagan ritual. The truth, I'm afraid, is far less amusing.

Pinot Noir to the left, Sauvignon Blanc on the right, me in the middle

Whilst Huia use no pesticides, no herbicides, and no synthetic fertilisers, they obviously still need to use something, and I'm prepared to admit some of this does sounds a little weird. Biodynamic 'preparations' involve using natural ingredients to stimulate the ground. They are numbered 500 to 508, and I'm going to directly quote Wikipedia's description of Preparation 500 so you don't think I'm being sarcastic:

"500: (horn-manure) a humus mixture prepared by filling the horn of a cow with cow manure and burying it in the ground (40–60 cm below the surface) in the autumn. It is left to decompose during the winter and recovered for use the following spring"

With this in mind, you can perhaps understand why people carry certain preconceptions about biodynamics, but all they are doing is using natural alternatives to modern, synthetic chemicals, which are invariably expensive to produce and can also produce negative side-effects. It's also worth remembering that it is precisely these naturally occurring compounds which scientists in laboratories are so busy trying to emulate. Who's laughing now?!

For temperature control, the Huia team harvest their grapes at 3am under headlights, pulling in around 400 tonnes each year. They are then brought into the winery which Mike quite literally built himself. By hand.

Inside the Huia winery

Inside the winery things were, again, almost disappointingly normal. I was beginning to think that maybe I'd got the wrong end of the stick with biodynamics. The walls weren't painted with astrological symbols, dream-catchers did not adorn windows: it's a winery not unlike many I have visited in France. Just the odd detail hinted at the provenance: a dartboard on a door belying the laid-back Kiwi ethos.

I have written before about the wines produced at Huia, but there were two in particular we tasted that day which I simply cannot omit from this post. Firstly, the 2009 Pinot Noir. Bearing in mind my love of Burgundian Pinot Nor, I was fully expecting to enjoy this wine. What surprised me was the extent to which I enjoyed it.

The nose immediately challenged the pre-conceptions of Pinot from the New World. It was complex, intriguing even, with delicate herbaceous character and rounded soft spice - the result of 11 months in french barriques. Fresh red fruit, racy acidity and a very definite note of rosemary combined to make this literally my most enjoyable Pinor Noir moment ever. I cannot recommend this highly enough. Upon our return to the U.K I immediately ordered a case of this wine. It didn't last long.

The Huia wine range

The other honourable mention must go to the Blanc de Blancs 2005. The was not the first time I had encountered this wine. I, along with a room full of other wine professionals, had once identified this as the only 'real Champagne' in a flight of a dozen sparkling wines. We were all wrong. But for all the right reasons.

This is a traditional method Blanc de Blancs (100% chardonnay) with bags of fruit and fresh, crisp acidity, laced with delicate vanilla notes from the French oak used in fermentation. Although nothing can ever compare to the experience of tasting a wine whilst stood right between the vines where the grapes were grown, this has become a real favourite back home.

New Zealand made a huge impact on both my wife and I. We've said many times since we returned that if it were only closer we would move their in a heart-beat. Our first trip there was a magical experience, and it certainly won't be the last.

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