Last week I went to Antoine's. This is New
Zealand's top restaurant - no argument, end of story. It has been run by Tony and Beth Astle since they opened the doors
in 1973 and some people who have been regular diners for the last 35 years say it hasn't changed at all. There is even a
Nostalgia Menu for these stalwarts. But there is decidedly modern food on the menu as well. What makes Antoine's the top
restaurant in New Zealand is the fine food, the attention to detail and table staff who know their job. They know when to
stay and they know when to walk away.
So when an invitation to dine at Antoine's comes your way, you don't turn it down, not unless you are lying on your
death bed (or feel like you are on your death bed, as was the case when I declined an invitation there last year).
The occasion was the launch of the Church Road Reserve Hawkes Bay Syrah 2006, the very first vintage and what a
great vintage 2006 was to make a debut. But it was not the only wine we tasted. It was the one of five wines in the
gold-labelled Hawkes Bay 'Reserve' range.
But I have to say for all the positive merits of the Church Road Syrah, it was the Church Road Reserve Hawkes Bay
Viognier 2007 that I enjoyed most on the day and thus is my Wine of the Week.
Church Road Reserve Hawkes Bay Viognier 2007 is also a new release yet seems complete. It is a light honey gold
colour and the initial scent of the chilled wine is nutty and mealy while the taste is savoury and crisp and despite the
wine being cold, there is an oily warmth to the texture. It is a wine of power with an aftertaste I can only liken to
full-bodied Champagne. As the wine warms up it is beautifully aromatic with hints of apricot carrying through to the
palate with a touch of lemongrass on the finish and a bright spiciness and just a hint of earthiness to the long and
lingering aftertaste. There's a delicate suggestion of saltiness too. Old oak adds to the complexity of this savoury
mouthful as well as about 25% wild fermentation and partial malolactic fermentation. It has 14.5% alcohol and is sealed
with a screwcap.
I loved this wine on its own, just to sip and savour and later with the food.
Antoine's match was a Tartare of salmon and tuna cured with lime topped with a white anchovy and salmon caviar.
Tony thought the oiliness of the salmon would match to the Viognier - and it did. But for me, the white anchovy was a
little too briney.
But the next course was also resplendent with the viognier too. From the current menu at Antoine's, it was Sauteed
scallops on squid ink pasta with a lemon, saffron and garlic cream sauce. There was something about the butteriness
of the sauce, the earthiness of the pasta and the sea taste of the scallops that just rang all the right bells.
The scallops had been served to match to the Church Road Reserve Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2006. Honey gold
coloured and rich and savoury scented with a nutty creaminess and when quite chilled, as it was on this occasion, the
toastiness of the aroma and the toasty oak taste in the palate is enhanced. As the wine warms up, the funky wild yeast
nuances dominate the aromas and in the palate, fleshy grilled peach and spice flavours emerge. This is a multi-layered
chardonnay, one of the best that has come out of 2006.
The food match, particularly the squid ink pasta, brought out a real smokiness in the wine.
Winemaker Chris Scott, who is responsible for the rise and rise in quality of the Church Road Reserve wines, explained
how he almost lost his job over the chardonnay. He found that the less they did to it, the better it got. Eventually his
boss, Jeff Clarke, said to him, "What are we paying you for?" They are paying for the gold medals and trophies the last
three vintages of Church Road Reserve Chardonnay have won, that's what.
Next up was Church Road Reserve Hawkes Bay Cabernet Merlot 2005. This was one of my favourite red wines of
last year with special mention in my
Best of 2007 and it was good to taste it with another six
months under its cork. It's a deep, plummy almost blackcurrant red with concentrated winey, sweet-fruited, vinous scents
that extol a good Cabernet. Later violets and hints of tobacco with the creaminess of the oak and a hint of chocolate
joining the dried herbs, blueberry and leather - and that's just the scent.
This is the kind of wine to pour into a big glass that you can cradle and swirl and bring up to your nose to let those
aromas seduce you. Cabernet dominates the front palate with forward acidity and a little stalkiness but the wine is deep
and meaty with a subtle mintiness, firm tannins and berry brightness on the finish. It's tighter on the palate than I
remember and a long term cellaring prospect.
To taste this wine with Antoine's food was a treat and the match was Roasted Quail on a mushroom and white
truffle-scented risotto with a thyme-infused red wine sauce.
Now the raison d'etre, the Church Road Reserve Hawkes Bay Syrah 2006. This is a vivid boysenberry red with a
deeply opaque core and an intensely concentrated aroma that release scents of multicoloured pepper corns, rose petals and
The scents carry though to the silky textured palate that has a poised spiciness, chocolate, bright fruit and a fine acid
balance. It's pretty and beguiling up front with alluring violet-like florals lingering on the aftertaste but inside
there is a lean brute of a man with all the signs that it will flesh up magnificently with a bit of body-building age.
Matched to a seared backstrap of venison with ox tongue, black pudding and swede on a chocolate-infused red wine
sauce, the food brings out more meaty characters in the wine. Star potential but I would like to see it decanted for
drinking right now.
To finish this decadent lunch, the Church Road Reserve Hawkes Bay Reserve Noble Semillon 2002 was served. Deep
apricot gold coloured with loads of volatile acidity emanating from the nose, this heady nectar is becoming more and more
toffeed with age. The wine was just a little too rich for the lighter than feather Passionfruit Souffle on its own
but with the accompanying strongly flavoured Rose Water Jelly it worked just beautifully.
All the Church Road wines are line priced at NZ$33.95 a bottle.
Find out more from www.churchroad.co.nz.
© Sue Courtney
19 May 2008