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Wine of the Week for week ending 26 December 2004
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Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay 2003
Martinborough, New Zealand

When it comes down to what I'd most like to drink on Christmas Day, the choice has to be between bubbles, chardonnay and pinot noir. As to what tipple it is actually going to be, it's hard to say at this stage because the weather is just so horrible, so cold and unDecember-like for New Zealand, that the pre-luncheon aperitif might just have to be mulled wine to get the blood and body quickly warmed.

Mulled wine is evidently a traditional aperitif in countries that celebrate a traditional white Christmas, where snow covers the ground, where people wrap up in their winter coats, wool-lined hats and gloves, and waterproof overboots, where Christmas holly with its red berries is a natural occurrence. In my imagination I can see a glass of mulled wine being handed to guests as they walk in the door out of the snow, which they sip on before they start stripping off their overgear then bring into the lounge to finish in front of the fire. A glass of chilled bubbles seems out of place, somehow.

But in New Zealand we are not used to this weather and hope the forecasters are right when they say it will be back to normal summer temperatures for Christmas Day and a glass of bubbles will quite likely start the day. As for fires, the only fire I want to see is the one under the coals of the BBQ.

This week I've been looking at Chardonnays in one of my last tastings before Christmas in preparation for the big day. According to my database twenty-five bottles had accrued since I last had a taste-off. So as normal, the handsome tasting steward, or Neil as he is usually called, collated the bottles and poured them for me so I could taste them blind. All I can say is thank goodness I have a good collection of tasting glasses.

Blind tasting is fun and it is also fair to the wine in the glass and to the producer as well as allowing me to make an honest and unbiassed assessment. I then know I like the wine because I really do like it, not because the label tells me I should be liking it. As Terry Dunleavy says in the latest New Zealand Winegrower, the country's wine industry magazine Ö. "It is easy to write a wine column with knowledge of the identity and provenance of the wine. But can such evaluation be described as fair or dispassionate? Can they ever compare with the detached independence of blind tasting, especially in a class of like wines?".

So I know I have Chardonnay and I know most of them are from New Zealand. I know some of the wines that are in the tasting after all I have to unpack any wines that arrive and record them in my database. But I donít know what order they are being served in and to remember the names of all 25 wines at this stage of my life, would be a bit of a feat. So the wines are lined-up and they range in colour from almost water pale to bright lime yellow.

Cork-closed wines are becoming easier to detect. Possibly because I now taste so many wines that are closed with screwcaps when cork flavour intrudes it stands out like a lying Pinocchio's nose. "Has number 8 got a cork in it", I ask the handsome steward who had finally got to sit down and taste his own line-up of 25. It wasn't corked, but it had random oxidation. "Yes", he said. What a shame. Ah, but there was a backup. The second bottle was free of that malady.

"Does number 16 have a screwcap?" I asked. I finally see a wine that is showing obvious Sulphur characters on the nose. An empty glass helps out here and the sample is poured back and forth between the two glasses several times and the reduced characters go away. I write in my notes to decant before drinking. There is another sulphurous wine. That one has a cork.

Overall it is a good line-up of wines but a line-up of very different styles. The unoaked wines are fun but is Chardonnay a style that should really be made without oak? I'm not so sure especially with the unoaked styles from 2004, such a great growing season they are perhaps too fruity without enough balancing acidity and savouriness.

And I see why Chardonnay is a winemakers toy, there is so much that can be done to it. Pity that some are not done so well as others.

There was one wine in the tasting that to me was in a class of its own, a wine that stood out above the others, a wine of delicious flavour and balance, a wine you'd be happy to take pride of place on the table on Christmas Day. And that wine is this week's Wine of the Week, the Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay 2003 from Martinborough.

Light golden straw in colour with a vitreous lustre, the fragrant aromas are mealy and nutty with a subtle influence of sweet citrussy fruit. Smoky, spicy oak forms the backbone with a lovely integration of fruit. Dry, savoury and slightly grainy in texture, there is lots of leesy influence to the flavour with a nut, fig and stonefruit aftertaste. A beautifully balanced wine with considerable richness, depth and length. A wine that deserves the accolades it constantly gets.

Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay is a wine I've had some difficulty with in the past prior to 2002, despite rave reviews from other tasters, possibly because some of those earlier vintages have been quite tight on release and taken some time to unfold. But like the mouthfilling 2002 version the Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay 2003 is already delicious and drinking beautifully now.

Crafted by Ata Rangi's Chardonnay expert, Oliver Masters, the hand-picked whole bunch pressed fruit from the low yielding 2003 harvest was fermented with indigenous yeasts in Burgundy barrique barrels of which 30% were new. After malolactic inoculation, which was stopped when the wine reached the flavour and balance that Oliver desired, the wine was aged on lees for a further nine months. The finished wine carries 14% alcohol by volume and is sealed with a screwcap.

Ata Rangi's website says the wine is now sold out, but I know it is still available in retail. Check with your favourite fine wine store and you may be in luck. It should cost around $38 a bottle. Or if you have it in your cellar, do yourself a favour and pull it out so you can enjoy a glass with the ham and turkey - or even the crayfish - on Christmas Day. You won't be disappointed.

© Sue Courtney
5 December 2004

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