I'm always on the lookout for wine from 'new' regions because this is New Zealand and the whole industry is relatively new and grapes will grow anywhere, right? Almost right because there are some rock types that grapes and other plants will not grow very successfully in, the elements in those rocks being toxic to plants. But that's another story.
So on our travels around New Zealand, any time I see grapevines growing in the most unexpected place, I make a note in my notebook and wait to see if and when those wines surface. One of those places is Richie McCaw country in the Waimate district of South Canterbury in the South Island. Richie McCaw, as most New Zealand readers will know, is the captain of our premier sports team, the All Blacks. He grew up in the fertile Hakataramea Valley, the Haka (colloquially pronounced 'the hakka'), where his parents farmed. Richie went to primary school in the Hakataramea but in Form One he went to school and learnt to play rugby in Kurow, which is on the south side of the hills that delineate the north-south aligned Hakataramea Valley from the east-west aligned, river cut, Waitaki Valley.
The Hakataramea Valley has one of the most beautiful, less travelled roads in New Zealand. It's so far off the beaten track that only the locals, the farming suppliers, the stock truck drivers, the trout fishermen and a few intrepid tourists use it. After about 30 kilometres into the valley from the southern end, the tar seal runs out. Then there's a three-tyre-track gravel road until the last farm, and then a two-tyre-track gravel road interrupted by several fords as it winds up the Hakataramea Pass. When you reach the saddle - and if it is a fine day - a beautiful sight awaits with Aorangi Mt Cook and the Southern Alps seemingly floating above the expansive plains of the more barren looking MacKenzie District.
In 2006 we stayed in the Hakataramea Valley at a farmstay owned by McCaws - relatives of the famous All Black. We had planned to stay just one night, but we loved it so much, we stayed two. It was our base to explore the Waitaki Valley before our second trip up the Haka.
"There's a vineyard here in the Haka too," our host informed us. "I'll show you".
We jumped into his 4WD and he drove us along some back roads on the western side of the valley. We were at a higher altitude than the valley floor and after turning a corner to head back down, the vineyards on the other side of the river came into view. The white netting that shimmered like snow and the frost machines made a striking impression that early April evening, the setting sun bouncing off the blades.
"Frost machines," I said.
"They need them here," our host nodded knowingly.
Now the product of those vines - but not of that vintage - has been released. In fact it rained like crazy just a few days after our 2006 visit.
The attractively packaged Pasquale Alma Mater 2008 is a blend of Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer. It is light yellow gold in colour and has a delicate, perfumed Gewurz-like scent with rose petal florals and a hint of pink bubblegum infused by a brighter aromatic component, no doubt due to the Riesling. Quite-acid driven in the palate with a touch of sweetness and juicy lime and ripe apple fruit, it starts off bright and racy then softens and lingers gently. We liked it, deciding it's the kind of wine to drink when you don't know what to drink. It's moderate in alcohol - just 12 per cent by volume, it's just off dry in sweetness and has a screwcap closure.
It actually did quite well in a little blind tasting we put on to see if we could disguise this unusual blend. Alongside two Pinot Gris, a Riesling and a Gewurztraminer, I picked this as Gewurz from the nose, the actual Gewurz being a little more savoury and a little more restrained - but on reflection that is the nature of Gisborne Gewurztraminer, as the actual Gewurz was. But it was the Alma Mater was so the odd one out when it came to the taste.
Later we accompanied the wine with food - a fillet of salmon, pan-fried with a five spice-crusted crispy skin. The match was okay-ish, the Riesling was better. But the next night the Alma Mater was delicious with a mild, sweet, Fijian-style curry. In fact, the wine was the star.
The vineyard is owned by Italian-born Antonio Pasquale, who now lives in Kerikeri. Since developing the Hakataramea Valley vineyard, he has also developed a vineyard and winery in the Waitaki Valley near Kurow. Orchardists turned viticulturists, Geoff and Murray Turner, manage the cellar door and vineyards and Andy Nicole, formerly of Lincoln Vineyards and Distant Land based in Henderson in Auckland, now makes the wines. Pasquale is the premium brand while the second tier brand, Kurow Village, is being marketed as a more affordable product.
Evidently there is an 'official' launch at the winery adjacent to State Highway 83, a couple of kilometres south of Kurow, the first weekend of November.
Find out more from www.pasquale.co.nz and www.kurowvillage.co.nz.
I recommend Pasquale Alma Mater 2008. It's a fascinating blend, it tastes pretty good and there is the story to go with it - even better if you have actually been there.
© Sue Courtney
13 Oct 2009