Last week, during an unscheduled stay in the South Auckland suburb of Manurewa to help care for a sick relative, we decided to take a break and drive around the south east Auckland coast.
It's called the Pohutukawa Trail because there are magnificent gnarly old pohutukawa trees everywhere and in December and early January the display of red pohutukawa flowers they exhibit is stunning. But because it was March all the trees displayed their typical 10-month-of-the-year leafy green and silver hues.
We decided we would travel from south to north, and would stop first in Clevedon to pick up a bite to eat so we could picnic on one of the beaches.
Clevedon is an interesting place. The tiny settlement, with just a few shops and businesses, has basically grown around a 'Y' intersection where the road forks, one fork taking one north-east then north via the Pohutukawa Coast, the other fork taking one south-east then south via Kawakawa.
If you arrive at certain times of the day, when you have to stop to let the cows cross the road, you might think you were in the heartland of rural New Zealand. So not surprisingly there are not many places to buy a takeaway lunch. We passed a dairy on one side of the road and on the other side, a fish and chip shop - but it was closed. The only restaurant, right on the apex of the fork, had no cabinets along the counter to give the impression there was take-out food. There used to be another restaurant across the car park on the South Road frontage, but this had morphed into a boating shop. If it had been the weekend we probably could have popped into the market in the hall and picked up some yummy goodies there. But not today.
So we joined the tourists from a tour bus wandering through the Country Knit Gallery adjacent to the restaurant. It was right up a tourist's alley with sheepskin rugs, stuffed sheep and other souvenir-like paraphernalia as well as beautiful knitted products and some pottery I was tempted to buy.
Then we walked across the car park to the North Road where there was a more traditional arty-type shop called the Clevedon Gallery. It also doubled as the Clevedon Information Centre. The assistant told us the dairy might have a sandwich or pie, but we would definitely find something or somewhere to eat at Maraetai on the coast.
We wandered around the gallery and to my delight, I found a very attractive display of the region's vinous produce in a little alcove. It was a surprise to see just how many labels are now being produced.
No wines were available for tasting, and we were told none of the wineries would be open either (it being midweek), but the assistant was very helpful in telling us something about each winery.
Arahura is in the Ness Valley, which is a little way along the South Road. They were the first to plant vines in the region. Also from the Ness Valley were Inverness Estate, Villa Northeim and Rannach.
Italian variety specialist Vin Alto, the region's largest vineyard, is high on the flanks of the Hunua Hills on the south side of the Clevedon valley while further down the slope, closer to the village, is Clevedon Hills.
Twilight Vineyard is just to the north of the village while Puriri Hills Vineyard is a few kilometres east on the North Road.
There were also some other wines from greater South Auckland, such as over Karaka way.
"What is Arneis?" asked Neil, who was studying the label of the Clevedon Hills Chiara 2004, a blend of Chardonnay and Arneis.
"It's an unusual Italian grape variety," I whispered in his ear.
"That's Leighton Smith's wine," said the assistant with pride. Leighton Smith, for those that do not know of him, is a popular radio talkback host and his top rating 8.30am to 12 noon weekday show goes nationwide and international via the Internet.
So we bought Leighton's wine. But not because he was a celebrity. First and foremost I had never tried Arneis and wanted to see what it did to the blend. Secondly I knew we were having flounder for dinner and the wine could possibly go quite nicely. Thirdly, with its $25 price tag it was actually one of the cheaper wines in the collection and lastly, because it had a screwcap, I knew the possibility of bottle fault would be minimal.
After making our purchase we continued our journey to the coast, giving up the idea of a picnic and dining instead on an antipasto platter at a seaside restaurant called 'The Bach' - it was very relaxing and worthwhile.
Later (and as it turned out it was a few days later) we gave the wine a short period of chilling and opened it to accompany flounder (fresh fish bought that day) and a green salad into which I had chopped some peaches.
What did I expect? I didn't really know. With its light to medium gold colour it looked liked Chardonnay, with its buttery fruity aromas it smelt like Chardonnay and with its creamy malolactic influence and bright fruity flavours in the citrus / tropical fruit / pineapple spectrum it tasted like Chardonnay. But it definitely wasn't a big toasty oak 'in-your-face style', just very lightly oaked, if it had any oak at all, with lovely poise and balance. It seemed quite crisp and steely at first with a mouthfilling richness mid-palate, a long nutty, lightly savoury, dry finish and the sweetness of ripe stonefruits and pears lingering on the aftertaste.
So what did the Arneis do to it? I think it added a floral nuance to the aroma - honey suckle and a hint of loquat blossom perhaps, as well as an oiliness to the texture and the slightest hint of rose spice to the finish. The nearest I could compare it to would be Viognier.
It certainly blends well with Chardonnay although I'll be looking forward to tasting a 100% Arneis, perhaps later in the year when Vin Alto releases theirs.
Clevedon Hills 'Chiara' Chardonnay Arneis 2004 tasted good on its own and was a fitting accompaniment to the fish while the peach in the salad really worked a treat, adding another dimension to the taste.
Totally intrigued with the wine, I rang the Clevedon Hills winemaker, Enzo Bettio from Vin Alto, to find out more. I learnt it was a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Arneis harvested from both the Clevedon Hills and Vin Alto vineyards. Vin Alto is higher and more exposed and the Arneis grapes from here have more acidity than those from the Clevedon Hills vines, which are in a hotter position further down the slope. There is a smidgen of oak in the blend, but only 10% of the Chardonnay saw it and that was in a 500 litre barrel. The wine underwent full malolactic fermentation and the alcohol percent, as stated on the bottle, is 12.8%.
Arneis to Italy is like Viognier to France, a variety making a comeback from a near point of extinction. Its home is in the Piedmont region where, like Viognier in the Rhone, it is often blended into red wine in small quantities.
And just like Viognier, wine producers around the world are discovering this gem. Especially in the New World where it is grown in tiny quantities in Oregon and Australia as well as in New Zealand at Clevedon.
Clevedon Hills 'Chiara' Chardonnay Arneis 2004 shows the potential of the variety and I highly recommend it. You'll find it at the Clevedon Gallery, at a few independent retailers around town and at Vin Alto which, as well as selling Vin Alto wines, is the Clevedon Hills cellar door outlet. Check out the website at www.vinalto.com.
I forgot to ask what 'Chiara' means. Perhaps it is a girls name.
© Sue Courtney
20 March 2005