Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Central Otago

February 13

This morning Kevin drove us back from the Canterbury high country to Christchurch, and we flew from there to Queenstown, which is arguably the extreme-sport capital of the world. Bungee jumping was invented there, and the place is just lousy with opportunities for sky-diving, jet boating, power skiing and otherwise flinging yourself at nature.
I’m guessing at power skiing, but I bet you can do it there.
But Queenstown is also in Central Otago, a region that is gaining acclaim for its Pinot Noir.
That wouldn't have been possible without the flooding of a canyon to create Lake Dunstan as a source for hydroelectric power. As a concession to locals, they were granted permission to use as much of the water in the lake as they liked for irrigation.
That's what Mt. Difficulty winery in Bannockburn has done, and this picture shows the results. See how dry the unirrigated land is compared to the vineyard?
Difficult growing conditions are of course terrific for Pinot Noir, so the cold winters and dry summers of Central Otago are great for the stuff.
We had lunch at Mt. Difficulty winery — named for a mountain that proved impassable to shepherds seeking greener pastures — with Michael Herrick, of the winery, as well as with pavlova manufacturer Trevor Millar and Andee Gainsford, whose company makes pastries and béchamel sauce for foodservice consumption.
After lunch we had separate meetings with Trevor and Andee to learn all about their companies, and then we met Mt. Difficulty winemaker Matt Dicey, who took Bill, Michael Herrick and me down to the cellar for some barrel tastings.
Kevin went with us, but I don’t think he drank, as he was driving. This was an ongoing source of consternation for Bill and me, because we wanted to drink with Kevin.
Bill, who has lived in Oregon for the past couple of decades and so drinks a lot of Pinot, really loved the wines from the 2007 barrels, but I think I actually prefer the warmer-climate New Zealand Pinots of Martinborough and, especially, Marlborough.
Not that I disliked the Mt. Difficulty wines at all, some of which also had great names, like the Roaring Meg line, which is named for a river and other local landmarks which are in turn named after a favorite prostitute of the region's gold rush era.
We went to our hotel to rest and regroup, and so Kevin could arrange a taxi to take us to Arrowtown, where we had reservations at Saffron restaurant. The taxi was important as Bill and I considered it imperative that Kevin have wine with his dinner.
In Arrowtown we started at a really charming bar called The Blue Door, which is owned by chef and restaurateur Peter Gawron, who also owns Saffron and an Italian restaurant in the same alley.
I drank a Monteith’s Ale from the South Island’s West Coast, Bill had a Manhattan, and Kevin had a Hoegaarden, with which the bartender did a fascinating thing: He poured it into a glass, keeping the mouth of the bottle submerged just below the surface of the liquid, slowly raising it so that the beer emptied into the glass but the foam stayed in the bottle, then he lifted the bottle out of the glass, letting the foam stream out and form a nice head on top. I’d never seen that before.
Then we went on to Saffron, which has an eclectic menu including what seemed to me to be fairly traditional New Zealand dishes — or at least dishes with ingredients most Kiwis would be accustomed to, like venison with beet and juniper, which Kevin ordered — but also hard-core Asian dishes, like my Shanghai-style smoked fish, lightly poached and then crisp-fried with soy sauce, ginger, garlic and spring onion on lettuce and fried rice. That in and of itself wouldn’t be interesting, except for the fact that Kevin’s venison dish tasted very traditional and Western, and my dish was full-on, full-flavored Chinese. Bill's trio of curries tasted very much like they might in India and Malaysia.
I don’t know of any restaurants in the United States that can pull that off, or that even try to.
The lighting was bad for taking pictures, and amateur flash photography of food is generally ugly, so I tried to use the company camera’s image stabilization feature to take a picture in the dark. The result’s weren’t great, but I’ve seen worse.
Let me know what you think. To the right is a picture of my fish (which was hapuka, the local word for grouper).
For appetizers we all had white bait prepared three ways: lightly sautéed, flash fried and made into fritters.
Then I had duck and coconut rice fritters with lemon grass, kaffir lime leaf, eggplant and plum sauce.
Obviously we drank local Pinot Noirs with dinner, starting with a 2005 Mount Maude and then a 2006 Cornish Point.
For dessert I ordered an Eton Mess, which is meringue broken into chunks and served with berries and whipped cream. Bill had a crêpe with bananas and caramel and Kevin had deep-fried marmalade.

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