Monday, April 26, 2010

Encounters at the Playhouse Wine Festival

Photo: Günther Thies

Günther Thies was the last person I expected to find among the New Zealand wineries at last week’s Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival.

I had my nose in a delightful Elephant Hill 2008 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc when I noticed that name on the identification of the individual behind the table.

The last time I saw Günther was a decade ago at Schloss Schönborn, a 650-year-old German estate winery on the Rhine. He was the general manager of that distinguished producer and had been busily modernizing the cellars and the equipment. I was there to interview him about the estate’s legendary Eiswein.

One of his equipment decisions was to buy modern presses. He sold his older Willmes presses to the Gehringer Brothers winery in the Okanagan, who use those sturdy presses to make Icewine. Günther admitted to a touch of regret at parting with those presses. While his gentle new press was ideal to make clean, fresh Rieslings, the comparative brute force of the old Willmes presses was more efficient at squeezing frozen grapes.

Today, that is not a consideration in New Zealand where no natural Icewine is made. Günther is now the managing director at Elephant Hill, a sparking new winery in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay region.

The winery is owned by German investors Roger and Reydan Weiss. They were enchanted at the beauty of New Zealand during a 2001 visit. By 2003 they had acquired land for a 25-hectare vineyard. And they recruited Günther to manage the winery.

The total Elephant Hill complex is remarkable. It also includes a very fine restaurant and a three-bedroom lodge so luxurious that guests can be picked up at the local airport in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. The winery, which opened late in 2008, is stunningly beautiful as well. The contrast between this and the Schloss Schönborn is dramatic.

The wines, which are piling up awards, are also different. The whites include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier and the reds include Pinot Noir and Syrah. At this writing, none of the wines is listed in British Columbia. Hopefully, some importer is picking them up. The 2008 Syrah Reserve, which sold for $40 in the wine festival store, is worth every penny.

Photo: Maria Cristina Cifuentes

Maria Cristina Cifuentes, the commercial manager of Chile’s Viña Haras de Pirque, is another friend from bygone winery visits. She is a woman of elegant charm and I had the memorable pleasure of sitting at her table during a tour of Chilean wineries a decade or so ago. It was a delight to find her pouring Haras de Pirque’s excellent wines at the festival.

The winery was established in the early 1990s by Eduardo Matte, a successful businessman and perhaps the leading breeder of race horses in Chile. His vast horse farm in the Maipo Valley also includes 120 hectares of vineyards.

The memories of visiting the winery remain fresh not just because of Maria Cristina’s grace but because the winery here is among the most eccentric of designs. It is shaped like an immense horse shoe lying flat, with the claws, which contain offices and tasting rooms, looking out across the farm.

I also recall asking the winemaker what it was like making wine in the horseshoe. He rolled his eyes and said that all that curved plumbing had its considerable challenges.

I was stunned to find that none of the wines are listed in the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch, although I know that some are available in private wine stores. The winery’s Equus 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, only $16.99, is a 90 point wine, full of tropical flavours and exquisitely balanced. The Equus 2008 Carmenère, a steal at $15.99, is soft and juicy and full of spicy plum flavours. The Haras Character Syrah 2007, $29.99, is a dark, concentrated, meaty red.

At the top end of the range is Albis 2004 ($59.99), an elegant blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Carmenère. This wine is made in a joint venture with Italy’s Antinori winery.

Many wineries in Chile suffered damage, sometimes severe damage, in the recent earthquake. Haras do Pirque came through the quake fairly well, losing only a 26,000-litre tank of wine and a few barrels.

Ngatarawa Wines Ltd. of New Zealand is another winery with horse racing in its blood. At the wine festival, managing director Alwyn Corban, who helped found the winery in 1981, was pouring two wines under his Stables label and two under his Silks label.

Here is hoping he has an easier time listing these fine wines in BC that his father Alex experienced about 40 years ago. Corban’s Wines, then owned by the Corban family, was one of the earliest New Zealand wineries to begin exporting to this market.

Alex came knocking on the door when the gatekeeper was still the redoubtable Colonel Donald McGugan, who basically ran the B.C. Liquor Control Board from 1923 until he retired, aged 80, in 1969.

The colonel’s office was in Victoria. Alex had arrived in Vancouver, made an appointment with the colonel and took the ferry over there. The colonel always took his supplicants to lunch at the Union Club, plying them liberally with martinis before, often, turning them down. Corban’s Sherry was turned down by the colonel but Alex had such a skin full of martinis that he stayed overnight in Victoria before coming back to the mainland.

As luck would have it, he was invited to a reception where he met Attorney General Robert Bonner, the minister responsible for the liquor board. Now the Corbans are mild-mannered, none more so than Alex. But he summoned the courage to complain to Bonner about his reception in Victoria. The attorney general took pity on him and listed Corban’s Sherry.

It remains on the list to this day at $13.49 a bottle. Probably no other New Zealand wine has been in this market so long.


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