There's something quite romantic, quite holistic and quite thought-provoking about drinking wine in the vineyard where it grew and in the winery where it was made, as you accompany the wine with grapes from the new harvest as they start the journey that will transform them to wine.
"We're picking Syrah today," said David Evans-Gander of Passage Rock Wines on Waiheke Island, when we talked on the phone earlier that morning. It was Friday 24th March, so I finished my morning's work and left my car at the park and ride. A 20-minute bus ride to downtown Auckland city, a 35-minute boat ride to Waiheke Island and a 5-minute taxi ride to Oneroa soon had me in the vineyard that David was leasing and doing the pick from that day. It had been cloudy on the mainland and I was glad I had packed my hat as it was a sunny day and hot amongst the Waiheke Island vines.
The elongated bunches of Syrah grapes were ripe and the juice was sweet as I nibbled grapes from a bunch here and grapes from a bunch there. The grapes were at the ripeness David wanted them to be and there was no bitterness at all from the skins or the pips.
When there was enough, the small picking bins were emptied into two 500-kilogram capacity bins on the back of a trailer. I accompanied David as he towed them on the half-hour journey to the Passage Rock Vineyard and Winery at a more remote part of Waiheke Island at Te Matuku Bay.
David has developed an extremely efficient operation at the winery that one person can handle their own. "I should have an assistant to do this work but I love doing it myself," he says.
He manoeuvres his forklift to lift a bin off the trailer then takes it into the winery where he lowers it onto a giant scale. He backs the forklift off, records the weight from an electronic display set on a bench, the picks the bin up again, backs the forklift out, manoeuvres it again and positions it against what looks like a toy crusher.
Once in position, David drops the side of the bin, splits the plastic bag lining the bin, hoes into the grapes with a piece of equipment that is usually used for plunging the cap on fermenting red wine and turns the crusher on.
The crusher turns out to be the perfect size with a screw pushing the grapes into the machine, the juice, skins and pips pumping through a hose into a waiting tank and stalks spitting out the other end. Bees, from the local hives, were having a frenzy.
"Like a glass of wine?" asked David and before I could reply he disappeared into the winery and came back with a bottle of his gold medal winning Passage Rock Reserve Syrah 2005.
David has an envious track-record with Syrah with gold medals for three successive vintages. Passage Rock Syrah 2003 won a gold medal and the Trophy for Champion Syrah at the Air New Zealand Wine awards in November 2004 while Passage Rock Syrah 2004 and Passage Rock Reserve Syrah 2005 both went gold at the Royal Easter Wine Show judged in February.
In 2005 David made two wines, Passage Rock Reserve Syrah from the home vineyard in Te Matuku Bay and Passage Rock Syrah from the leased vineyard at Oneroa. And although the non-reserve was pipped by the Reserve at the Easter Show, it did itself proud with a silver medal.
I sipped on the 2005 Reserve, a wine with a lustrous deep purple-black colour edged with a rim of crimson red, and remembered how it had seduced me at the
Waiheke Island Wine Festival back in February.
It was my Wine of the Day but hadn't been released at that stage. David said the word got out, however, and he had been taking en primeur orders. Those of us that started the whispers were definitely on the right track because the Easter Show judges agreed, bestowing it with gold.
Smelling the wine amongst the earthy scents from the outdoor winery with water on the ground drying in the afternoon sun together with the smell of freshly crushed grapes, added to its allure.
The taste was better than before. Perhaps it was time and place. Perhaps it was more time in the bottle. A rich wine, classically Syrah but not overly peppery. "I associate pepper with under-ripeness," said David, and there were certainly no peppery flavours in the newly harvested grapes.
A finely structured, silky-tannined wine with creamy oak and fruit flavours of blackberry, plum and ripe syrah grapes with oak spice, bitter chocolate, cedar, cigar and violets, and as the wine lingered a spicy, chicory essence character emerged. This is a voluptuous wine, rich and intense with a long, lingering finish and it can only get better and better as it picks up maturity from bottle aging.
Soon David had crushed about six bins. But before we headed back to Oneroa so David could drop me at the ferry terminal then head back to the vineyard to pick up some more grapes, he poured me a glass of the just-crushed juice. I tasted it and I swooned. Literally swooned. But was it a result of the sweet heady juice or the cantankerous bee that attacked me as I pushed the last of the grapes into the crusher? It left its stinger in my finger but fortunately Veronika, David's wife, had driven down to the winery to see how the crush was going. She scraped the sting out with a deft hand, obviously not the first time she had done this type of thing. "Are you allergic," she asked. "I don't know," I replied and sat down before I fell down.
The grapes, pips and skins in the tank will macerate together for several days in a refrigerated tank as tannins and structure from the pips and the skins infuse into the juice to balance the sweetness. They will probably start to ferment spontaneously but David will be monitoring that and as soon as it happens he will add his favourite cultured yeast and let that take over when it happens.
Grapes from the home vineyard for Passage Rock Reserve Syrah 2006 will be picked in a couple of weeks, meantime the Passage Rock Reserve Syrah 2005 gets labelled this week and will be on sale from the winery the last day of March. It carries 14.5% alcohol by volume, is sealed with a screwcap and costs $50 a bottle. Expensive but worth it in my opinion. Just 300 cases of the Reserve were made and they won’t last long.
Find out more from www.passagerockwines.co.nz
© Sue Courtney
26 March 2006