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Wine of the Week for week ending 3 December 2006
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Woollaston Estates Pinot Gris 2006
Nelson, New Zealand

Wineart. It's an unusual name for a collective group of wineries but that's the name the Nelson winegrowers have given themselves. According to the Wineart brochure, "in Nelson winemaking is celebrated as an art". While it could be argued that winemaking is craft, there's no argument in my mind that wine itself is definitely art. Just look at how many paintings over time have wine as the subject matter - and now photographs and digital images too. And when you are seduced by the taste of a beautiful wine, or when you look at the wine in the glass and see the colour and beauty of liquid; the transparency, translucency or opacity of it; the lustre of it and the way light shines through it and reflects from it, it is undoubtably art.

Wine and art go hand in hand. So many wineries now have great pieces of artwork. So many wineries hold art exhibitions. Can you think of any art exhibition where wine is not involved? Perhaps at a children's art exhibition where children are the guests, maybe.

Nelson Wineart particularly prides its support for the Nelson Art gallery - The Suter, Te Aratoi o Whakatu, by providing wine for exhibition openings.

But there's one winery in Nelson, and indeed the one winery in New Zealand, that evokes images of art possibly more than any other - and that is Woollaston Estates. This is because Woollaston is the name of one of New Zealand's great great artists, the late Sir Tosswill Woollaston. "Woollaston is not just about fine wine, it's about fine art as well," says Philip Woollaston, the youngest son of Sir Toss and a minor shareholder, with his wife Chan, in the winery that bears their name.

Philip and Chan Woollaston and Glenn Schaeffer

Now Woollaston Estates is even more associated with art and that's thanks to Woollaston Estate's major shareholder, Glenn Schaeffer, who has donated and pledged a phenomenal amount of money to The Suter as well as backing New Zealand's single richest literary award, the Glenn Schaeffer Prize in Modern Letters.

It's an interesting story how Philip and Chan Woollaston and Glenn Schaeffer (pictured, right, with Toss Woollaston's "Mt Arthur" painting behind them) came to do business together. But not surprisingly it has everything to do with art. In particular one artist, Jane Evans, who was instrumental in bringing them together.

Philip and Chan were operating their boutique-sized vineyard, Wai-iti River Estates, in the Brightwater area just south of Nelson. They were looking for equity so they could develop vineyards in the Upper Moutere to expand their business and move into the export market.
The Brice Family Trust, who owned a sizeable orchard in Mahana in the Upper Moutere, wanted to sell their land.
American Glenn Schaeffer had a dream, and that was to become a New Zealand wine producer.

Jane Evans knew all these people. She heard their stories. She put two and two together and made three. She introduced them. Philip Woollaston and Glenn Schaeffer found they had more in common than wine. They also shared a love of art, literature and the Nelson landscape. They sealed the deal on a handshake. That was in November 2000, almost six years ago to the day.

Now Woollaston Estate has 65 hectares of vineyard and has just opened New Zealand's most state-of-the-art winery. Made from concrete, this multi-level gravity fed winery, with an overall design by Oregon architect Laurence Ferar, is a work of art itself. It nestles into the hillside, has a roof of tussock and is little higher than the existing landscape.

Grapes are hand-sorted, destemmed and crushed at the top level before travelling down a stainless steel chute to fermentation vats on the next level. The wine continues its gravity-propelled journey to the third level, the last of the levels dedicated solely to wine making.

'Seven Corkscrews', a neon installation in the function room

The fourth and bottom level has a wine cellar, tasting area and function space for large parties, such as the degustation dinner that was held after the winery opening last Thursday. The Right Honourable Helen Clark, who is not only Prime Minister of New Zealand, but also Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage was the special guest of honour at the opening, and cut the ribbon.

Art at Woollaston Estate not only features in the function room (see photo left of the neon installation 'Seven Corkscrews') but also in the gallery adjoining the tasting room and offices in a separate building on the top of the hill. The gallery shows works by New Zealand artists, including those from a collection of paintings and works on paper by Toss Woollaston.

But the major piece of art that hits you in the eye when you visit Woollaston Estates is a massive outdoor sculpture made out of 40 tonnes of cor-ten steel, Philip Woollaston and Helen Clark in front of 'Yantra to Mahana' called 'Yantra for Mahana' and made by Hungarian born sculptor, Marte Szirmay. The sculpture incorporates Buddhist and Christian symbolism and is aligned with Mt Arthur, which is visible in the background when looking at the sculpture from School Road, towards the west.

Being privileged to be invited to the winery opening, there was no doubt that a Woollaston wine would be the Wine of the Week - but which one? There was the fabulously versatile Rose which refreshed the palate during the afternoon after the official opening as well as being served to accompany strawberries with marscapone and a wafer thin sweet biscuit at the concluding course of the meal. There was the fresh, punchy Sauvignon Blanc that was also served in the afternoon and as the appetiser to dinner. Then there were the three other wines, served with dinner, the invigorating Riesling, the seductive and leggy Pinot Gris and the savoury, spicy, deeply coloured, full-bodied Pinot Noir.

All were good in their own special way but it was the Pinot Gris that won hands down on the day.

Woollaston Estates Nelson Pinot Gris 2006 had fascinated me at Wine New Zealand at the beginning of October. I had tasted it on day two when I stopped at the Woollaston stand, but the notes I made were scant - " a rich, weighty and textural Pinot Gris," was all I wrote. I made a vow to go back and taste it again the next day, and indeed I did and it was the last wine I tasted before rushing off to the Hospitality Hall for a spot of sommelier judging. Again my notes were scant - "rich and spicy, this full-bodied Pinot Gris is packed with flavour".

It evoked delicious memories when I looked at it, smelt it and tasted it again. Light straw gold in colour and displaying excellent legs after the wine has been swirled, it's lightly honeyed on the nose and rich and weighty to the taste. Spicy and textural and full of delicious bready flavours with poached pear-like fruit and strudel notes, it builds on the palate to a long finish that is full of savoury, winey flavours. A seductive five star wine on its own, even more so with food. And having the opportunity to try this wine with food, a poached pear and warm blue cheese tart with a quince paste between the cheese and the pastry base, and served with rocket and candied hazel nuts, sealed the deal. It was an artful match, the best match of the four course degustation dinner, where all the matches sang. But the Pinot Gris sang sweetest, loudest and longest.

Woollaston Estates Nelson Pinot Gris 2006 carries 14% by alcohol and is sealed with a screwcap. It has been crafted into Wineart by winemaker Andrew Sutherland and should be available in fine wine stores, as well as in Ireland and Las Vegas in the USA. Of course you can buy this delicious wine online in New Zealand for $20 a bottle by dialling up the Woollaston Estates website

Here's my tasting notes for the other wines you might consider buying.

Woollaston Nelson Pinot Noir Rose 2006 - palest of pinks, spinel-like, served chilled this is fresh and crisp with an earthy depth to the strawberry, plum and cherry flavours with a spicy richness to the finish. A clean wine that shows the varietal character of pinot noir well. $18. My rating: 4 stars.

Woollaston Nelson Sauvignon Blanc 2006 - served chilled, this crisp, juicy fruited, herbaceousness wine really hits the spot. It's full of bright, zesty flavours with a lemony undercurrent and a taut steely backbone. Gooseberry flourishes on the finish. $18. My rating: 3.5 stars.

Woollaston Nelson Riesling 2006 - served chilled, this is crisp and fresh yet has a pleasing softness. There's a hint of that Mahana clay on the nose, it's off dry in style with tropical fruit, limes, citrus zest and ginger, and a saline minerality to the lingering finish. $18. My rating: 4 stars.

Woollaston Nelson Pinot Noir 2005 - grown on the clay bound gravels of upper Moutere, this is a powerful pinot noir, deep in colour, smooth in texture and fulfilling to the taste. It's toasty, spicy and just a little earthy, the ripe black plum and juicy black cherry fruit is juicy and the finish rich and savoury. $35. My rating: 4.5 stars.

© Sue Courtney
26 November 2006

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