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Must-Have Wine of the Lunar Year 2009
It's a big call, nailing the single wine of the year that was most impressionable amongst so many good bottles. Moreover with an ever-increasing myriad of high quality, relatively more approachable wines produced around the globe. However, this is wine that stimulated my sensory core, viscera and thoughts most in terms of complexity, compelling quality and sheer enjoyment.
It was my house red for a period; I simply could not get enough of it, drinking the supplier in Singapore dry. I then resorted to hoarding bottles on my travels to Malaysia, where it is on the wine list at the inimitable Datai resort on Langkawi Island www.ghmhotels.com. They import it direct from the vineyard, Langkawi being a duty free port, combined with the hotels very user-friendly mark-ups; it is exceptionally good value drinking in these parts.
I recently satisfied my thirst for it at Four Seasons in Hong Kong at the two-star Michelin restaurant Caprice where it is listed at HK$660, again very fair pricing considering this distinguished establishment. Actually, it was in some measure the faultless experience at Caprice that cemented in my mind this was the wine of the year, partially influenced by how superb the wine was with the roasted whole Bresse chicken – but isn't that's what it's all about; the mood and enjoying good wine with food.
Caprice's head sommelier agreed with my admiration for the wine, in his words, "We are very pleased to be offering a wine of such quality at a very affordable price." He went on to say "This wine is comparable to many red burgundies at several times the price," quite a statement coming from a Frenchman.
I am sure I will get heckled for choosing a New Zealand wine, being a kiwi and all. However, those who know me well enough will sanction that I have a 'wandering' and completely unbiased palate, even if do confess to being a little emotive with all things antipodean. Besides, there is no denying that New Zealand pinot noir is distinguishing itself on the world wine stage with Central Otago center-stage in familiarity, popularity, individuality and arguably the most stunning wine region to visit on the planet.
It is also generally accepted that pinot noir is the red grape showing the most potential in the cooler wine growing areas of New Zealand, yet stylistically diverse between regions. Even though there is a tendency to typecast New Zealand pinot noir and more so Central Otago, it is a totally imprecise generalization if you know anything about the region and the myriad of soils and microclimates, and frankly far more complex in terms of terroir than Burgundy will ever be, just not as convoluted.
If anything, what I like about Two Paddocks most is that it is atypical to what people perceive New Zealand pinot noir to be, in an intrinsically burgundian way yet unique - like Calera is to California or Bass Philip is to Australia – Two Paddocks is more complex and savory than others and resonating in its individual character.
Most significantly, Two Paddocks Pinot Noir has that special quality known in wine nomenclature as
'tension', an attribute Allen Meadows, the leading authority on Burgundy and American pinot noir, describes as the French equivalent of nervosité, encompassing the prerequisite nervy, invigorating natural acidity and taut yet fine-grained tannins that balances wines endowed with intense fruit and propelling the fruit flavours to a persistent length.
A general criticism levelled by some European palates is that New Zealand pinot noirs are too sweet or fruity and fleshy. Even if there is some basis to the debate in terms of their (European) palates being more attuned to more savoury, leaner wines, there is an unquestionable attractiveness to the style with brighter fruits, texturally soft and inviting viscosity, refreshing acidities and a subtle sweetness; a combination of qualities that I find particularly suited to practically every Asian cuisine - whether spicy or not - antipodean pinot noir is most definitely one of the most versatile and well-suited wines for this market and the Asian palate.
There will also no doubt be quibbles about selecting a wine that has been released some time ago, however first you will find this wine on the secondary market if you look hard enough, and on restaurant wine lists, which is probably the best place to discover such wines. Secondly, the genesis of this appraisal focuses on the vineyard's overall merits with an underlying intent that hopefully it inspires thirst and discovery. So if you can't find the 2006, be on the lookout for the equally impressive 2007, available in Hong Kong for a paltry HK$276 bottle through Northeast Wines & Spirits www.northeast.com.hk
The proprietor of Two Paddocks is the New Zealand actor Sam Neill, who began with modest ambitions to satisfy the thirst of family and friends however, by his own admission, has now become "Outrageously ambitious – we want to produce year after year, the world's best pinot noir."
Initially planting five acres of pinot noir in the sub-region of Gibbston in 1993, colloquially referred to as Original Paddock, this is released as 'First Paddock' when bottled as a single vineyard cuvee in appropriate years. A subsequent purchase of seven acres in the Alexandra sub-district was planted in 1998, named Alex Paddocks and released as 'Last Chance', taking its name from an old gold miner's watercourse that runs through the vineyard, dating from the 1860s.
I walked through this vineyard with the General Manager, Mark Field, a few years ago unwittingly commenting on the stream that seemed to appear from nowhere. Putting this in to perspective, this vineyard could serve for a blueprint for viticulture on Mars. Moreover the scent of wild thyme permeating the air on a hot summer's day gives one a disorienting illusion of being in the middle of Provence. Even more impressive, this nuance shows in the wine, which the French pontificate as
garigue, a somewhat metaphysical transposition of earth and plants to the wine itself. Sacrebleu! It looks like we might have some concrete evidence of terroir in Nouvelle Zelandais. Neill facetiously calls this Grand Cru country; to me it is an augury of the potential of Central Otago.
In 2000, Neill purchased a 60-acre farm called Redbank Station, also in Alexandria, formerly a government horticulture research station cropping a number of exotic plants, many of which have been retained. About 14 acres have been planted mainly to pinot noir with a little riesling and referred to as 'Redbank Paddocks', although there is ever-expanding range of crops, fruits including cherries, nectarines, apricots, cumquats, vegetables, truffles, saffron, walnuts, pistachio nuts, olives, lavender, thyme, bay trees, saffron, ginseng, peppermint, clover, St. John's wort, marigolds, poppies and more. Throw in a few sheep, pigs and chickens (for eggs only), if it were not for the fact Neill keeps appearing in movies you would think he has given up his acting career for farming.
The purchase of Redback included a still to which they now enthusiastically distil oils and essences, the lavender oil released under the Two Paddocks label. As described on their website it is purported to "Enliven your day, promotes healing of wounds and helps sleep, repels mosquitoes but also makes you curiously irresistible to the opposite sex." I must purchase some of this when next at the cellar door! I also get the feeling somewhere along the way, in overall scheme of Neill's vision, wine is going to be an exiguous income.
Clearing up any conjecture that the label should be changed to Three Paddocks, there is actually no relation to the number of paddocks he now owns. In fact the name was originally struck along with Neill's friend and film director Roger Donaldson, who planted vines on the land next door with the intention the combined grapes would be made as one wine – Two Paddocks. As it turned out, Donaldson's paddock turned out to be a "slow starter", and subsequently Neill kept the name.
The Two Paddocks wines are made by Central Otago wonder boy, Dean Shaw, at Central Otago Wine Company, but make no mistake; Sam Neill is an auteurist agriculturalist and pinot noir producer. He just knows that to achieve perfection you need the help of the right people. As for Shaw, there is no doubt he is the Olympian of Central Otago. Whether pinot noir is his forte is not in question however, in my last encounter he and I were practicing a sort of techno voodoo celebration of gewürztraminer at 2am. That is a blind tasting of several gewürzt's and dancing at the same time to a background of loud retro music. Genius comes in many different forms.
And the wine, my tasting note on the 2006 Two Paddocks Pinot Noir - a blend of the three paddocks – Original in Gibbston and Alex and Redbank in Alexandra:
There's a whiff of tobacco leaf and leather among enticing deep scents of black cherries, stewed plum and dried fig with an alluring herbal nuance of wild thyme and lavender. It is curious how sometimes you can smell the viscosity in some wines, a sort of creamy-lactose milk chocolate sensation, which this wine has. There are also charred woods and black tea; actually it reminds me of tea tree burning in our fish smoker in the back yard... amongst clove and black pepper spice with a wet slate and rusted iron-like minerality. The palate entry is tart with tamarillo and sharp raspberry, fleshing out to sweeter cherry and roasted beetroot with a soft and ethereal mid-palate, seemingly an easing back in the chair and nosing type of wine with a deceptive lightness – until the tension of tangy acidity and fine black tea tannins carrying intense tangy raspberry-redcurrant fruit reminds you of the wines liveliness enhanced by a lingering savoury herbal-spiciness and damp earth and slate minerality. Such intense carry of flavours in a delicate manner is the hallmark of great pinot noir, of which this wine has. It drinks wonderfully now, having a couple of years in bottle and will develop nicely over five years or more, I suspect holding well up to 2016, maybe longer, given the screwcap closure.
I also sampled the 2006 Two Paddocks 'First Paddock' when it was first released, my tasting note: A rich, sweet nose of stewed plum, prune and black cherry with a distinct nuance of juniper berry amongst clove and five-spice; also complexities of new cigar tobacco, dried thyme, smoky pork fat- lard amongst charred wood characters - overall a very seductive and hedonistically dense and concentrated bouquet. Gorgeously plush and creamy viscous palate entry, layers of juicy sweet red berry fruits although verging on black cherry and blackberry with dark chocolate, nicely balanced though by tart acidity and green olive tannins with an assertiveness and tension that says, leave me alone for a while, although I was looking for the second bottle. This will clearly be the superior wine of the two releases in time, certainly a more weighty and concentrated wine reflecting a warm, dry vintage and carefully selected barrels that I am looking forward to trying down the 10 year plus track.
If I could point out that it is the depth and intensity of fruits leaning towards black rather than red, coupled with overt spiciness that appears to be controversial with Central Otago pinot noir, with some suggesting the wines are overripe or look at little shiraz-like. All I can say is when someone comes up with the definitive description of what pinot noir should be it is time to move to another variety.
Enough said. Visit www.twopaddocks.com for a more detailed account of Neill's Paddocks, one of the better vineyard websites I have encountered.