Today I am a more knowledgable woman. You see I've just passed the Introductory Course to the Court of Master Sommeliers. It was the first time the course had been held in New Zealand, in fact the first time the course had been held in this part of the world - and thanks must go to Master Sommelier Diploma candidate, Cameron Douglas, for tipping the scales in our favour over Australia and Asia.
The course, with lectures given by Brian Julyan MS, Fred Dame MS and Evan Goldstein MS, took me right back to the basics with lectures on the production of wine around the world. There was understandably a lot of emphasis on the European countries of France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Itís little wonder as Italy, France and Spain, in the order listed are the world's three biggest producers while Germany is such a difficult area to understand.
I particularly enjoyed reliving Bordeaux because when I first started getting serious about wine at the beginning of the 1990's, top Bordeaux wines were still available and affordable. Then the NZ dollar dropped and critics, like Robert Parker and others, pushed the prices up, making those lauded wines a distant memory.
Our tour of the world's wine countries, learning about their wine laws, regions and styles of wine, was interspersed with several sets of wine tastings to educate the palate on some of the world's most famous wine styles. Some of the wines were rather obscure because there is very little seen here, like Gruner Veltliner from Austria, but there were also wines that we know and love, like Shiraz from South Australia and of course Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough.
The big difference between the Masters of Wine and the Court of Master Sommeliers is that the Court of Master Sommeliers, as the name suggests, has a major emphasis on the service of wine and other beverages. However at this level, fortunately for me, it is theory rather than practice.
Having mustered the 60% to pass the multi-choice examination at the end of two days of lectures, I practised my service ability at home by opening a bottles of bubbles.
None of the wines I tasted over the course of the weekend has made my Wine of the Week, however. For that honour I am picking a wine that excelled in a tasting of 22 new release chardonnays. 'New release' means they were mostly from 2004, a super vintage for New Zealand Chardonnay as recent wine show results will attest - the vintage earned 16 gold medals at the recent Air New Zealand Wine Awards and 10 gold medals at the New Zealand International Wine Show.
I have been particularly enamoured with the 2004 vintage North Island chardonnays and in fact my top three choices turned out to be from the North Island. It took a lot of tasting and retasting to make my final decision but the gong eventually went to a wine from Gisborne.
Tiritiri Reserve Gisborne Chardonnay 2004 has outstanding fruit focus and delicious winemaking flavours that combine beautifully in the mouth. It's light gold in colour with a star bright lustre and gorgeous legs than run down the glass to show it has a reasonable amount of alcohol in there - as chardonnay should have. On the nose there's creamed nuts, stonefruit and buttered oak that pave the way to the creamy textured palate with sweet ripe fruit - like butter-grilled peaches and nectarines, toasty oak, a touch of citrus to balance the sweetness and a long, creamy, nutty finish with a long, mealy-influenced aftertaste. It's a very smart wine indeed without being over the top.
What is over the top, though, is the price. When I found out that this was $49 a bottle, I have to say I was a little shocked. I think it is the most expensive chardonnay I have ever lined-up in a tasting, two dollars more than the outstanding Kumeu River Matť's Chardonnay 2004 (not in this tasting). So how can they justify the price?
Well, when you hear the story, perhaps you will understand.
Tiritiri Vineyard, in the upper reaches of the Waimata Valley, about 25 kilometres from Gisborne itself, is just 0.27 hectares in size (just over an acre for you non-metric types). It claims to be the smallest commercial vineyard in New Zealand. But is a vineyard commercial when it doesnít produce grapes for wines? No, it isnít.
In 2003 the crops were entirely lost due to frost and in 2005, a plaque of wasps didnít leave many grapes to make wine.
"2004 has been our saving grace," says Tiritiri's Duncan Smith.
Fortunately 2006 is looking good. Early frosts gave them a bit of a headache but their new sprinkler system saved the day.
The Mendoza-clone chardonnay grapes are grown using strict organic methods of production. Grapes are hand picked, whole bunch pressed, fermented in French oak barriques and carefully matured on lees for a year with no animal by-products or dairy products used in the production. Tiritiri Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay 2004 carries 14% alcohol by volume and is sealed with a screwcap. Not surprisingly, it is in minuscule quantities. Just 125 cases were made.
Where do you buy it? I would expect it to be in limited fine wine outlets and perhaps in some restaurants, but it best to dial up the Tiritiri website and investigate from there. It truly is gorgeous wine.
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Top five wines of the tasting - all tasted blind, of course - were Ö..
- Tiritiri Reserve Chardonnay 2004 ($49) - Gisborne
- Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay 2004 ($38) - Martinborough
- Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay 2004 ($30) - Hawkes Bay
- Framingham Marlborough Chardonnay 2004 ($23) - Marlborough
- Wolf Blass Gold Label Chardonnay 2004 ($23) - Adelaide Hills, South Australia.
© Sue Courtney
20 November 2005