On the Vine

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Right now, the vineyards on the East End are completely dormant, but in New Zealand the vintage of 2009 is already ripening. Having spent a month there in 2000, I take a keen interest in that country’s wines.

New Zealand has produced wine since 1836, starting with early efforts that yielded sweet, oxidized sherry and port style wines, made for local consumption. In 1984, the government subsidized a massive replanting to premium French cultivars, resulting in an impressive increase in new vineyards and wineries, and creating an important new export business for the isolated island nation.

Back in the 1990s, the winemakers of Long Island were visited by a contingent of Kiwi colleagues who were the pioneers of their reborn regions. The wines they showed us at the time were strikingly pure, fresh, and aromatic, but so searingly acidic as to be barely drinkable. From 1995 to 2008, New Zealand’s wine production has increased from 14 million to 52 million gallons, and along the way, local vintners have learned to maximize the freshness of their fruit while balancing naturally high acidity with riper flavors.

Some of this improvement comes from better site selection; some comes from the winemakers’ extensive experience in other wine regions. I have my own theory of what makes Kiwi wines so aromatic: due to the hole in the ozone layer around Antarctica, New Zealand experiences much more ultraviolet radiation than most wine regions. On a scale of 1 to 11+, New York and Oregon are at a high of 7 to 8; California approaches 10. But New Zealand goes to 12 or 13; literally off the charts.

Although the New Zealand sun is bright, the air remains cool, preserving the aromas of the local fruit. Global climate change has thus had as much of an effect on their viticulture as other, more controllable factors.

With vibrant aromas and flavors, whenever New Zealand wines are discussed, the term “food friendly” always emerges as a prime descriptor. Armed with a small arsenal of New Zealand wines, I recently put the term to the test by pairing them with the cuisine of a favorite new dining spot, Dish, in Water Mill.

The creation of two young Culinary Institute of America grads (Merrill Indoe and Peter Robertson), Dish began last summer as a tiny take-out shop, but quickly morphed into a catering-only establishment when the two chefs became overwhelmed with orders for private parties. Now that the catering season is over, the two chefs are cooking a new $35 prix fixe menu for a lucky handful of customers (reservations on a first-come basis at dishamptons@gmail.com) every Friday and Saturday evening, with a BYOB policy.

We brought three New Zealand sauvignon blancs—a Dashwood 2008, Goldwater Estate 2007, and Vavasour 2007—tasting all three side by side throughout the dinner, and then adding in a Vavasour Pinot Noir near the end of the meal.

Our first course of the tasting menu was a mushroom-stuffed fried dumpling with a deeply reduced plum (hoisin) flavored sauce. Both crisp and mellow, it paired well with the Dashwood, the sweetest of the sauvignons, and also the most aggressively “green bean” or vegetal in aroma. That pronounced aroma is what pegs a wine as being from New Zealand, especially if it comes with a big mouthful of acidity.

Our favorite sauvignon was the Vavasour, especially when paired with the next course of butterflied shrimp on a bed of Swiss chard, dotted with pignoli, crisped with panko, and swathed with premium virgin olive oil. Although we wondered at the name “Vavasour,” which made us all want to say “va-va-voom” and think of “sour” flavors, we loved the wine’s intricate lychee/lime/honey qualities; its wonderful mouth feel; its true food friendliness.

Indeed, this friendliness turned into amour with the next course, a dish of pork belly served with aduki beans, cilantro, and fresh lime juice. We thought of shifting to the pinot for this course, but the sauvignon was perfect with those fresh herbs and citrus. And the third sauvignon, from Goldwater Estate, fit nicely here, too. It had a tighter, more minerally quality, which blossomed with the unctuous pork.

Finally, after a romaine salad dressed with provolone, we segued to the Vavasour Pinot Noir with a plate of fresh pasta Bolognese. This deep red wine came on more like cab franc than pinot; it had plenty of pigment, an aroma of ripe black cherries, and smoky wood notes that added a nice patina to the finish. Definitely not Burgundian, but not Californian, either. It opened up beautifully, even while we gorged ourselves on dessert, a banana-rum mille feuille with dark chocolate sauce.

All of the wines paired with this dinner came from Marlborough, at the north end of the South Island. Farther south, where it’s cooler still, Central Otago has emerged as a region producing stellar wines, also under the influence of an exaggerated UV radiation belt. One of my favorite wineries there is Amisfield. Two wines from there, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc show both depth and harmony, with overt fruit and natural balance.

Otago is where the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was filmed. That film internationalized the region. Amisfield’s vineyard crew comes from many nations, including Brazil, France, Italy, Israel, Czech Republic and Japan. Could the real secret to New Zealand wine quality be … hobbits?

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