"Horses. We have to have horses," I exclaimed. We had just decided on our team name for the First Glass Wine Options National Final and I was excited. The name was good - much better than the name it was spawned from. For the regional heat in June I had suggested the "Grand Cru Saders" - after the fantastic Crusaders rugby team that took out this years Super 12 rugby competition. But we were Aucklanders and two of the true blue team members couldnít support a Canterbury team even if they wore wine-friendly red and black, so we went with a red-black vinous theme and called ourselves, "I'm as Shiraz as I'll ever be". We came 4th that day.
Well, since I've been in this team the name has changed every time we've played the game, so I put forward the "Grand Cru Raiders" as a suggestion for the Final, which had a dress code of all black, all white, or black and white. And, fortunately for me, the others liked it.
"We can dress up as highwaymen and swashbuckle our oversize corkscrews as we gallop on our horses to raid the Grand Cru cellars, " I carried on animatedly.
"I like the name but where are you going to get horses from?" asked Bill.
"I've got horses at home," I said.
"Of course. I should have guessed," said Bill with a bit of a wink.
"They're in retirement. But I'm sure we can bring them out of the pasture and start a breeding program," I said.
So it was agreed.
The two trusty steeds, that eleven years before had carried two of the "Knights in Shining Armagh", were in a bit of a sorry state when we got them out of their stable in the corner of the old back shed. But a nip here and a tuck there soon had them looking like new. And then our lounge floor was converted into a stud for the breeding program to get under way. The gestation was short in horsey terms, more like 330 minutes instead of 330 days but the new steeds were a good reproduction.
Came the big day - Sunday 7th August 2005, and the Grand Cru Raiders, complete with face paint masks, entered the
Grand Cru Cellars competition arena in style.
The Grand Cru Raiders
From left to right - Sue Courtney, Bill Hird, Earl Brookbanks and Steve MacFarlane
Then things had to get a little more serious as the competition started. This was the National Final after all. There were twelve wines in total, eight team wines, four individual bonus wines and 196 points up for grabs.
Wine 1: Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2004 - Marlborough, NZ
Rich, pungent, green and grassy, a little toasty on the nose, a smidgen of asparagus, a ton of gooseberry and nuances of tropical fruit on the long pungent finish. A classic world wine style, but it could only be from Marlborough.
We picked all the questions right except the name because when the options of Cloudy Bay, Astrolabe or Amor-Bendall came up on the screen, we picked the multi-gold medal winning Astrolabe. We were wrong. 18 points out of 22.
Earl picked the single question bonus wine, Shingle Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2004, correctly. 23 points for the team.
Wine 2: Voyager Estate Margaret River Chardonnay 2003 - Western Australia
Light coloured with mealy, grapefruit-driven, barrel-fermented characters, this was dry and hot in the mouth with lots of acidity making it seem a little lean at first but it got richer and richer as it opened up in the glass.
Undoubtably Chardonnay, we then opted for NZ (wrong), correctly answered the Australian sub-region and vintage, but then got the label wrong. 34 points out of 49.
Wine 3: Morton Estate Black Label Chardonnay 2000 - Hawkes Bay, NZ
A monster of a Chardonnay - full, rich, toasty, luscious and creamy with stonefruit, citrus and a nutty, nutty finish with a long dry aftertaste and some developed mealy characters indicating it had a little age.
We got everything right except the label. We didn't go for the Morton Estate as we had tasted it just the Wednesday before and then - from more than one bottle - it appeared tired and ready to drink that week. This was so much fresher. 52 points out of 71.
My single question bonus wine - and easy to pick as Hunters Marlborough Riesling from the three options. 57 points out of 76.
Wine 4: S.A. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese Riesling 2001 - Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany
My individual question and the first question was "Is this Gewurztraminer, Riesling or Something Else?". Now question master Kingsley Wood is famous for the 'something else' option when he has a bit of an unusual wine but I wasn't going to be lured into answering that when I was positive I had a straight up and down, but also exquisite German Riesling in my glass. It had lime blossoms and honey on the nose with a touch of lanolin then apples, then in the palate it had succulence with richness of fruit a little like cherimoya (custard apple), a ton of primary acidity and a chalkiness to the pollen-infused mandarin-honey finish.
We ran with the wine correctly picking country, region, sweetness level and vintage, scoring a possible 22. 79 points out of 98 and now in equal 3rd place at the half way mark.
Wine 5: Cornerstone Cabernet Merlot Malbec 2002 - Hawkes Bay, NZ
Bill thought immediately on his individual question that this was from Bordeaux varieties, and he was right. Dense, crimson red, smelling of cedary oak with mocha and chocolate, rich juicy black plum fruit, and a fragrance to the finish reminiscent of Malbec. Earl picked up a stalkiness which he attributed to Cabernet.
With the options of the Cornerstone, the Craggy Range Sophia and the Villa Maria Reserve Merlot, we had to go with the Cornerstone.
Yes! Another possible 22 points and a total of 101 out of 120. We were now in second place, only 3 points behind the leaders.
Steve's single bonus wine and he correctly picked the Terrace Heights Estate Pinot Noir 2003 - so easy especially as the other two options were Aussie Shiraz. 106 out of 125.
Wine 6: Olssen's Slapjack Creek Pinot Noir 2002 - Central Otago, NZ
Intense cherries on the nose, slightly herbal, silky textured with a lovely savouriness coming through, a touch of forest floor and truffle but with rich grainy tannins and a herbal stalkiness to the finish.
This is the wine we crashed and almost died on, only scoring 11 points. We now had 117 out of 147 but amazingly we were tied for 3rd place, one point off second but a distant 9 points behind the leaders. Seemed like almost everyone else had crashed and burnt on the wine too. We would not be told the scores again until the finish.
Wine 7: Penfolds RWT Shiraz 2001 - South Australia
Deep, inky crimson red. Rich and spicy on the nose with opulent fruit and a hot spicy finish on the first couple of sips, then lots and lots of chocolate as the wine opened up with a savoury backbone, grainy tannins and sweet vanillin oak. A delicious, mouthfilling, sumptuous wine, it reminded me so much of the Penfolds style - in fact it reminded me of the gorgeous Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2001 that our team had practised with on Thursday night. So why didnít we pick the Penfolds option on the day?????? Hmmmmm. 132 points out of 169.
Bill's single bonus wine - Cotos de Hayas 2000 from Spain. "It's strange," said Bill. So he picked the strangest option. Well done. 137 points out of 174.
Wine 8: Rosemount Balmoral Syrah 1996 - South Australia
An older wine, it had lost its inky depth but its strong eucalypt aromas put it firmly in the Aussie camp. Mint and chocolatey oak on the nose, massive tannins in the palate and secondary characters like tobacco and leather coming through and amalgamating with the fruit, with a spicy succulent finish and hot peppermint on the finish - it had to be from one of the great vintages. But we didnít go old enough, picking a 1998 wine.
154 points out of 196.
The competition was over.
It was time to relax with a hospitality wine and take the horses for a gallop as the scores were collated before the announcement of the new National Champions. There was no doubt who that would be - Team 16. They had an unassailable lead going into the Wine 7.
"There's going to be a taste-off", said question master Kingsley. "It's sudden death and the first team to incorrectly answer a question is eliminated. Stewards, would you pour the wine for Teams 8 and 11".
We were Team 8 and Team 11 was the team that was tied for us in 3rd place going into Wine 7. But we didnít know what place we were playing for - 2nd, 3rd or 4th.
"I think it's Aussie Cabernet," I said as soon as I smelled the wine. We had just had two Aussie Shirazes after all, and this was definitely Aussie but definitely different. The question was - "Is this wine made from predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Shiraz". We went Cabernet.
The steward handed Kingsley the answers. "We have a winner," he said. He didnít give the answer. Not until laterÖ.
Bill was a bit nervous. He thought it definitely a Bordeaux variety but the more he mulled over the wine, the more he thought it Merlot. We would have to wait and see. The other team came over and asked us what we went. They told us they went Shiraz.
It was time to announce the place getters.
"The taste-off was for 3rd and 4th," said Kingsley, "and in 3rd place is Team 8 - The Grand Cru Raiders."
Wow, jubilation all round. We won a magnum of Louis Roederer Champagne Brut NV and a Louis Roederer Ice Bucket to put it in.
In 2nd place was a team from Nobilos called "Go for the Obvious". They had 156 points, beating us by two. They won a magnum of Louis Roederer Champagne Brut NV as well a 750ml bottle of the same.
And in 1st place, Team 16 - "If anyone pours Merlot we're leaving. We are not drinking any f***ing Merlot", with a fantastic 169 points. They won a bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal, a bottle of Louis Roederer Champagne Brut NV and for a lasting memory, a Louis Roederer vest.
We were pleased with our effort and thought that 3rd was better than 2nd on the day - the Champagne will be drunk but we have the ice buckets as a lasting keepsake.
But it's all over until next year - when we'll be back. So for now the costumes have been hung up in the wardrobe and the horses have been retired to the pasture and their warm stable in the corner of the old back shed. Perhaps they'll re-appear in another eleven years.
© Sue Courtney
8 August 2005