This past Friday, an Australian wine importer friend came by and we decided to open wines we can’t get readily get our hands on here in NYC. I’ve stocked my wine fridge from travels abroad, so our drinking options ranged from wines like Plavac Mali smuggled out of Croatia; Furmint slogged back from Hungary; and a Roussanne from a small producer in Australia.
However, we decided to dip into the case of wine I brought back this past June from the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia. The Canadians and U.S. have a very cool alcohol import/export relationship; thus, these wines are wholesale, unavailable in the New York market, and, I think, most of the U.S. Such a shame. The Okanagan whites, in particular, the Rieslings, are outstanding. There’s also growing Pinot Noir production up-and-over there (there being the far west of Canada, but still a 5-hour drive east of Vancouver).
The Canadian government handles all wine sales; thus, I gathered my assemblage of vino at the VQA in Penticton. The shopkeeper professed intimate knowledge of the local wineries and wines, so I asked him to help me put together an all-star kit of under $30 bottles, showcasing producers and a variety of grapes. I have nine more bottles left, so I will post commentary and photos once those make their way into my glass. For now, I’ll address the three we consumed. And for you, readers, the best way to enjoy these wines is to visit the source. Between snow-dusted mountains peaks, arctic blue lakes, friendly locals and organic, local food scene, the Okanagan Valley is one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world, setting a lofty bar for the wines to reach. Fortunately, they arc high above it.
TANTALUS RIESLING 2012: YIKES. Scary delicious. Both ripe, yet nervy, full of bright, saliva-inducing acid, citrus-y lemon-lime, but plump full of tropical notes, too. Layers and layers of flavor. 2012 was a warm vintage, and maybe that shows, but there’s plenty of structure to keep this wine focused. And what, exactly, does a “warm vintage” mean in Canada, anyway? Although the Okanagan is one of the northern most winegrowing regions in the world, it’s still an arid, desert-like zone, experiencing warm to hot summers.
MOON CURSER VIOGNIER 2011: Gorgeous bottle, eh? Frankly, my photo doesn’t honor the colors nor art since it’s in black and white; the actual bottle shimmers with golden highlights as though treated to an appliqué of delicate gold leaf (see pic below). The juice inside is equally striking. Compared to 2012 (see above), 2011 was a cooler vintage, which probably helped tip this wine away from the ripeness scale, into a leaner, delicate style that’s uncharacteristic, but wonderful, for the grape. An obvious note of candied ginger pricks the tongue, followed by white peach, white flowers and a lemon-chiffon finish.
STONEBOAT VINEYARDS PINOT NOIR 2010: I wanted to love this bottle after my enchanting encounters with the first two, but the Pinot tasted just a bit too green for my palate. I can normally get behind more delicate wines–this bottle actually reminded me of a red Sancerre from the Loire I had recently–another region that struggles with Pinot Noir ripeness. I know Stoneboat is an excellent producer, so I will give them another shot when I head back to the valley in the spring. Not all was lost, however–this wine had lovely notes of savory wet leaf, a bit of spice and earthiness, with a tea-like quality. The fruit played hide-and-seek, but when it popped out, I tasted a bit of currant, pomegranate and sour cherry. This might be to the taste of some folks out there. Interestingly, I found a number of other Okanagan Pinots swung too far on the richness scale, many of them overoaked (I heard producers are moving away from that style), so kudos to Stoneboat for not resorting to such masking measures.
Above is a photo of Moon Curser bottles, taken this summer near the winery in Osoyoos.
Yes, I know this is a wine travels blog (mostly) but I just returned from a month in Australia chasing vineyards, and tacked on a week in the Outback and Top End of the Northern Territory to both literally and figuratively dry out. The region sees very little foreign tourism, but even Australians, who consider it an iconic, must-see destination, are like New Yorkers and the Statue of Liberty–they’ve never been.
Well, you need to go–here’s why (with photographic evidence).
The Australian Outback endures as a symbol of the rugged, remote reaches of the country; for many travelers, a visit to this iconic region holds romantic sway. Yet few first-timers spend more than a day or two in the Territory beyond Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock). Most pop in via a quick flight, check Uluru off their bucket list, and head back out to Sydney or the reef.
Yet, to truly grasp the rich, textured history of the region’s indigenous people; to witness the contrasts of colors and the changing moods of the landscape; to track, maybe photograph, the well-adapted, predominantly nocturnal wildlife; and to be moved by the rawness of this untrammeled wilderness, one needs to see the NT in its entirety. It can be done in a week, but ten days is ideal. Veering off the path will leave you reflecting on the greatness of the NT, and how valuable it, and the few primordial places left on earth, are. From the Red Center at Uluru, stretching 1800 km to the tropical Top End, no Australian itinerary should leave out the NT.
ENJOY THE OUTBACK IN STYLE
The NT was once the realm of backpackers and campervans, in part due to the anemic lodging options. What choices there were looked like utilitarian cabins reminiscent of summer camp, with insipid food options.
Nowadays, the well-heeled traveler can visit the Outback, but curl up under a duvet at night. Outside Uluru, a recent $30 million overhaul ofAyers Rock Resort’s flagship property Sails in the Desert, breathed new life into a tired space. Rooms and interiors are gorgeous, drawing on indigenous patterns in carpeting, textiles, plush bedding, and wall art. Sample regional cuisine and Australian wines at the property’s fine dining restaurant Mayu; or indulge in a four-course, under-the-stars Tali Wiru dinner (which means “beautiful dune” in local Anangu language.)
Once you’ve reached the Top End, check-in to the Wildman Wilderness Lodge, two hours east of Darwin, and an hour from Kakadu National Park. Safari-style tents are pleasant when the weather is cool, but for the humid shoulder season, opt for the air-con Habitat Rooms, which are wood-and-glass, stand-alone modules on stilts, with a wall of windows from which to observe the wallabies at night. Food at the property is of high-quality (given the location), and nightly menus have local proteins like crocodile ceviche, kangaroo steak, and lamb.
I met several travelers while hiking the 6 km rim walk of Kings Canyonwho confessed to preferring the scenery and lack of tourist traffic of the Canyon to Uluru. It’s true, the Canyon, located inside Watarrka Park, is an undiscovered retreat—most tourists skip to the crown jewel down south. But the beauty of the sandstone cliffs, weathered formations like the Lost City, and desert anomalies like the Garden of Eden, a spring-fed oasis of exotic plants, gum trees, and prehistoric ferns, make it a crucial stop. For lodging, spend the night at the Kings Canyon Resort. Although pricey for what is essentially a 2-3 star motel, it’s the best option close to the park entrance.
ULURU-KATA TJUTA NATIONAL PARK
It’s not just a rock. It’s no longer named Ayers. And it’s spectacular. For tourists who visit this spiritual place on a quickie tour, however, and skip learning about its importance to the Aboriginal custodians; or worse, ignore the wishes of locals by climbing it, they may leave feeling they traveled thousands of miles for a giant monolith. Uluru deserves to be pondered: study the peculiarities of its face, touch the unique surface reminiscent of kiln-fired clay, walk the 10.6 kms around the base, spend an hour in the Cultural Center, and certainly don’t miss sunset and sunrise.
Kata Tjuta is another series of rocks a 45-minute drive further into the park. They are also remarkable in their oddity of location, formation, and sheer size. Often the site of sunset picnics, photographic opportunities abound as the rock’s color changes with the light.
THE GHAN TRAIN
Traversing the length of the NT was once the domain of bus tours, or intrepid independents willing to peregrinate the 1500 km stretch of Stuart Highway from Alice to Darwin, in a campervan. Why not take an overnight train instead; reduce the journey from days of mind-numbing driving, to 24-hours of open bar and white tablecloth dining.
Although the Ghan originates in Adelaide (or Darwin), it stops in Alice Springs to pick-up passengers. The entire transcontinental route is an epic 3-day, 2-night, 54-hour journey, covering 2,979 kilometers. Gold Class guests bunk in small double cabins (singles also available), while Platinum suites offer both a sitting area as well as proper double bed (Platinum is significantly more expensive.) Both fares are inclusive of alcoholic drinks, multi-course meals, and a boat trip into the beautiful Nitmiluk Gorge during a 4-hour stopover in Katherine.
KAKADU NATIONAL PARK
A world heritage site, the park covers nearly 20,000 square kilometers of gorges, flood plains, and wetlands. Visiting in one day is doable (I did it), but the vast space really deserves two or three days. Highlights include the Guluyambi boat cruise on the croc-infested East Alligator River near Ubirr. One of few tours utilizing Aborigines as guides, you’ll spot dozens of crocs, rock art, and learn about local culture. There are heaps of attractions in the park: billabongs, scenic vistas, rock art galleries, waterfalls, and bush hikes. Just remember—don’t swim in the waters of Kakadu. The region is rife with saltwater crocodiles that willeat you.
Kakadu National Park holds one of the highest concentrated areas of rock art in the world. As many as 5,000 Aboriginal sites have been found. Ubirr and Nourlangie are the most famous and accessible galleries in the park, Ubirr providing a veritable retrospective of Aboriginal history through paintings. The art is everywhere: bellies of boulders, the roof of cliffs, and on rock walls. Knowing how history turns out, glimpsing drawings of extinct animals such as the Thylacine or an Aborigine’s first sighting of a white man can make for unsettling viewing.
THE MARY RIVER WETLANDS
This wetlands system is arguably the Territory’s most beautiful; it also has the highest density of crocs in the world. The Wildman Wilderness Lodge sits on the fringe of the region’s flood plains, and is a perfect base for exploring the area. Utilize lodge tours to visit the nearby, permanent billabong. Cruise at dawn to view a wildlife documentary in motion: hundreds of birds fluttering, squawking, and swooping about, while salties (saltwater) and freshies (freshwater) crocodiles lurk beneath the water or sunbathe on the shore. Try to spot a long-legged Jabiru or blue-winged Kookaburra—both make their home here.
LITCHFIELD NATIONAL PARK
Looking for a swim in the wild? Visit Litchfield. Beloved by Darwin locals for an easy outing on hot days, this park, 1.5 hours from the city, features a multitude of waterfalls with plunge pools and rockholes sans the pesky (life-threatening) crocodiles. Rugged sandstone escarpments, spring-fed streams, termite mounds, and bushwalking trails provide a myriad of environments for outdoor enthusiasts to explore. Highlights include the double waterfalls and intimate plunge pool at Florence, set within an atmospheric monsoon forest. Wangi Falls is the granddaddy, and most popular, with a swimmable plunge that feels like three Olympic-sized pools in one.
THE MILKY WAY
Our home galaxy can be seen from many nighttime vantage points across the planet, but at none have I beheld the glow of this white stretch of universe so brilliant. The lack of light pollution in the center of the desert, thousands of miles from civilization, allows for incredible stargazing. Guests at any Ayers Rock Resort can take advantage of nightly viewing sessions with a constellation expert and telescope.
*All photos are original except for the Milky Way and Wildman Wilderness Lodge
Every so often I promote a fundraising event that I think benefits a particularly worthwhile cause, while simultaneously features exciting wines in its charitable pursuit. Working to improve the lives of those afflicted with Down Syndrome and other genetic intellectual disabilities, the Jerome Lejeune Foundation will receive money raised from upcoming November 13, 2013 seated wine tasting and auction hosted by Metrowine, conducted by Sotheby’s. A collection of rare French wines will be offered; the list of wines and further information on the event is provided below. Naturally, if you can’t attend the event, you can always donate directly.
Thinking about Monday on a Sunday tends to induce a range of feelings from anxiety to dread. However, I recently spent a weekend joyously anticipating its conclusion so that come Monday, October 19th, I could spend several hours tasting Ruinart Champagne (tasting, not drinking—it is a Monday, after all). Hosted by Frederic Panaïotis, Chef de Caves at Ruinart, the event was held in a private Greenwich Village loft with renowned Miami Chef Michelle Bernstein orchestrating a beautifully paired lunch.
I have known Ruinart for over a decade, but didn’t realize the brand had only been in the States for the past 6 years (I must’ve been imbibing it in Europe). Considering Ruinart is the oldest Champagne house, established by Nicolas Ruinart in the city of Reims in 1729, and is currently owned by LVMH, it’s hard to believe they have a relatively young presence in our market. And imagine–in 2029, the house will reach 300 years of expertise in the art of Champagne production. Very few wine brands in the world can boast such longevity.
Speaking of art, the house is a great patron of contemporary art and design; for instance, they are the official Champagne of Art Basel. However, Ruinart demonstrates a greater interest in supporting the arts than having “artists” support its wines, particularly whilst gyrating until dawn in a nightclub. The house does not court the baller contingent that has the power to propel brands such as Louis Roeder’s Cristal into becoming a staple reference in hip-hop lyrics and on overpriced bottle service lists. Ruinart’s purported goal is to reach the sophisticated, thoughtful oenophile, which, last I heard, was neither Ke$ha nor the legions of Jay-Z wannabes (although Jay-Z himself has apparently quit Cristal over a case of reverse ‘dis by the brand, which of course depends on whether you view the rap industry’s unique way of embracing the wine, to have been respectful or disrespectful in the first place.)
Back to Monday’s lunch. Four wines were presented: NV Ruinart Blanc de Blancs in magnum, 2002 Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, NV Ruinart Rosé in magnum, and 1998 Dom Ruinart Rosé. Something to note–all Ruinart vintage wines age for 12 years on the lees, followed by at least a year in bottle. The length of ageing shows, producing wines of finesse, intensity of flavor, and fine texture.
Although I had come to Ruinart through their Blanc de Blancs, Chardonnay being the foundation of the house cuvées, and, in their words, “the very soul of Ruinart,” I left smitten with the rosés. The NV is comprised of 45% Chardonnay from the Cotes des Blancs and 55% Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims. Aside from its red berry perfume, the wine had a beguiling note of dried rose petal that left me sniffing as much as tasting. The 1998 vintage rosé Dom Ruinart displayed very different color and character, as you might expect from a Chardonnay-dominant wine with 14-plus years of age (85% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Noir vinified as red wine). Flavors leaned towards the tart red fruit spectrum with citrus and pink grapefruit on the long finish. A superbly aged but not yet mature wine appropriately paired with a final course of cheese.
The friendly and accessible chef, Michelle Bernstein, demonstrated through her dishes how Champagne can be served with every course of a meal. Apparently an enormous fan of Ruinart, she proclaimed “why leave bubbles for special occasions or as an aperitif when they can be paired with everything!” After experiencing lunch with her and her muse Ruinart, I concur.
Below, I have included an image of the menu, shots of the loft and its vintage décor, and, of course, the food.
If you missed my column Unscrewed last week in the Village Voice, here’s your second chance to read my interview with The Musket Room’s sommelier Erin Scala.
Erin Scala, originally from the state for lovers (Virginia), is currently having a love affair with New Zealand, especially the wines. She’s a female force on the NYC sommelier scene and has run the wine show at The Musket Room (265 Elizabeth Street, 212-219-0764), New York’s first restaurant showcasing haute Kiwi cuisine, for the last four months. In the interview that follows, Scala details how subway busking and a job making Mexican tortillas led to her career as a sommelier, and she also expounds upon New Zealand’s vinous state of affairs, strongly suggesting we start cellaring future NZ classics before the rest of the world catches on.
How did you get started in the wine and restaurant industry?
Virginia is a blossoming wine country, and as a kid, I used to run among the vines at my dad’s friends’ vineyards, so I was always in close proximity to wine, quite literally. But in high school and college I was a dedicated musician. I played drums in several bands and got to travel to pretty much every state in the U.S. on tour plus several performances elsewhere in the world.
In high school, I had to raise money to afford a band trip, so I got my first restaurant gig at a Mexican joint making tortillas. When I got my first paycheck I couldn’t believe it–$200 all for me! I was so happy I could afford new drum sticks or a cymbal! But one can barely scratch by on drumming gigs, so from then on I almost always had a restaurant gig on the side. When I first moved to Manhattan, I used to busk on the Union Square L platform, but then I got really serious as a sommelier, and it was just too all-consuming to have the time to play in the subways anymore. But I still play for fun, and I’ll take a studio recording job here or there.
Do you remember your first taste of wine and what it was?
I’m pretty sure that my first taste of wine was out of a box at a party, unfortunately. My first taste of a great wine that made me start studying, however, was Fonsalette; shortly after, I tried a killer Monbazillac. Then it just snowballed, and I became obsessed.
How long have you been with the Musket Room, and what is the focus of the list you’ve built?
The Musket Room opened in late May 2013, and I joined the team in the first week. It’s a brand new restaurant, doing something incredibly unique; we just hit our four-month mark and received a Michelin Star! Our talented chef Matt Lambert is from Auckland, and his food is “Modern New Zealand.” The wine list revolves around high-quality New Zealand selections but has plenty of interesting wines from around the world. We have help on the ground in New Zealand from Cameron Douglas, master sommelier.
How does the list complement the food?
Often in US restaurants, you’ll find cheap New Zealand wine in tandem with low-quality food. People will go to a pub or diner and expect a cheap NZ Sauvignon Blanc to go with simple bar food. But there is a whole other side to New Zealand wine, and The Musket Room wine list is a window into this world. We are doing something completely different by offering the best of New Zealand wine with inventive and inspiring New Zealand cuisine. When you drink these great wines with such great food, it presents what is happening in the New Zealand wine realm in a completely different light. I see people’s faces light up every night when I open some of these interesting bottles. Of course, the Kiwi community in NYC is already in the know, and they come in and are happy but not surprised.
Why have you spent so much of your career focused on the wines of the Antipodes, first Aussie and NZ at Public, and now NZ at the Musket Room?
I’ve always tried to grow and learn in my career. I started off working a French wine list, and then moved to an American one. When the job at Public opened up, I was curious to explore the Antipodes because it was a weak area for me. In music school, you learn that to become better at the performance of a particular piece, you must work on your weakest area until it is your best. If you approach practicing this way–be it music or wine study or whatever it is you do–you will make your base level of performance much higher.
The best way to learn the wines of a country (aside from going there) is to work a wine list predominant in those wines. I was curious and ready for a challenge in my career, so I hit the books and learned everything I could about Australia and New Zealand to prepare for the job at Public. When I left Public, my first thought was to challenge myself again and work perhaps a Spanish or Italian wine list, but then I watched a service at The Musket Room, and I knew that something very, very special was happening there, and I wanted to be a part of it. It’s been a great four months, too. There is always so much to learn as a sommelier; the pool of facts, vintages, soils, and varieties is really endless, but focusing in on New Zealand closer than I ever have before–even at Public–has been a great learning experience.
Even though I just spoke about challenging yourself with confronting weaknesses and focusing on the unknown, there is also something to be said for committing yourself to one thing and getting to know it on a deeper level. Like all great things, learning is a paradox because it asks you to both grow and reflect. At Public I was always playing the New Zealand wines off of Australia, always comparing them to Australia. Australia was always part of the conversation. But at The Musket Room, the New Zealand wines stand alone and rightly so.
|Scala pairs New Zealand wines to New Zealand fare|
Are there any recent movements in the New Zealand wine industry?
All movements in the New Zealand wine industry are recent, and that is what is so cool about it. I feel that I am watching history being made–a history to which not that many sommeliers are paying attention. Though a few people were making wines back in the late 1800s, the wine scene in New Zealand really started in the late 1970s.
Many of the answers that I search for–e.g. the sub-regions of Central Otago, the long-term ageability of Waitaki Riesling, the future of corks in New Zealand–are still being worked out. When asked about Central Otago sub-regions, many winemakers say “It is just too early to tell–our vines are only 10 to 20 years old!” For me, this is one of the most exciting parts of my job. To learn the fine details, we must all stay tuned with open minds.
There isn’t much chatter about NZ wines beyond Sauv Blanc and Pinots. Would you say NZ wines tend to be overlooked here in the States?
I think the wines of NZ are definitely overlooked–the good wines, that is. A lot of it has to do with consumer expectations and market pricing. Many people expect New Zealand wines to be cheap because of the flood of inexpensive Sauvignon Blanc in the 1990s, and a lot of wine consumers demand value; but many of the best New Zealand wines can be pricey, for a number of reasons.
People who are willing to spend $200 on a bottle of Pinot Noir in a restaurant will often lean toward the familiar and choose a Burgundy rather than experiment with an insanely good Pinot Noir, like, for instance, Rippon’s Tinker’s Field. But there are plenty of values out there, especially if you are willing to spend between $20 and $30 per bottle in a wine shop, or $60 to $80 in a restaurant. We’ve watched emerging wine regions earn respect in the past–California, then Oregon. New Zealand is right there.
I think in 15 to 20 years, I will laugh at this interview because these great wineries that are buzzing just beneath the global radar, like Rippon, Millton, and Fromm, will be collectors’ items by that time. It’s funny–I’m pouring some of these great wines by the glass every night, and I think, “I hope people realize what they are drinking!” I think they do. I can see it in their faces.
Outside of Pinot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, what other grapes are, or could be, important to NZ?
This is a tough question for many reasons, and it cannot be addressed solely by addressing grapes. Why? Because within each category of grape variety lies a collection of different clones, making the answer to “which grape” complex. Additionally, clones develop differently in different regions, and in the hands of different producers. To be true to my sommelier beliefs, I cannot just gloss over all of these issues and spit out grape varieties that are doing well in New Zealand. There are many international grape varieties that grow well there. But, as I mentioned, New Zealand is only a part of the equation. I think a grape variety will do well in a suitable climate and make a great wine only in the hands of a dedicated and thoughtful producer.
What capable and thoughtful producers are working with alternative varieties in New Zealand? I can definitely name a few. Nick Mills (Central Otago) at Rippon is making amazing Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Osteiner. James Millton (Gisborne) bottles some of the most sublime Chenin Blanc I have ever had. He also makes great Viognier. Ostler winery (Waitaki Valley) has Pinot Gris and Riesling that never fails to amaze me. Want a big red that will make your head spin? Try the Syrah from Dry River (Martinborough) with some age on it. For ethereal Pinot Gris, take a trip to Ponui Island and see what Man O’ War winery (Waiheke Island) is making. There is so much more–I could write a book! [Editor's note: For further expansion on these topics, visit Scala's blog.]
What can you recommend from your list that gives customers either a good value and/or a sense of place of the regions from which they come?
I have plenty of recommendations. From Gisborne, you must try James Millton’s Chenin Blanc before you die! Period. It’s by the glass at The Musket Room, so stop by and cross this must off your bucket list.
From Marlborough is Fromm’s La Strada Pinot Noir with some age. From Martinborough, I suggest Dry River’s Gewürztraminer and Syrah and the Ata Rangi Pinot Noir. Out of Waitaki Valley, look for Ostler anything! A few from Central Otago include anything from Rippon, Terra Sancta’s Pinot Noir, and Quartz Reef sparkling wine. From Canterburry, anything from Pyramid Valley. Finally, out of Waipara, I like Pegasus Bay “Bel Canto” Riesling and Mountford Pinot Noir.
Moving beyond the NZ wine scope, have you noticed any consumer trends over the last few years?
Pinot Noir is mind-bogglingly popular. It’s always the top selling wine by the glass and by the bottle at every restaurant I’ve ever worked in.
What are your personal drinking habits off the job?
Beer. At the end of a 12- to 15-hour work day, there is nothing else that compares to an awesome, cold, frothy beer, and the alcohol is lower, so it’s better for your liver. I’m addicted to Lagunitas IPA.
Do you regularly keep any specific wines at home?
There is always a bottle of Campari. But I change up the wine. I like to ask the people at the wine shops to put together a case for me–wrapped up–so I can blind taste the bottles. Last night I blind tasted a Sicilian Frapato, and it totally blew me away.
Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing?
I love pairing Gewürztraminer with dishes that have a lavender element. I like Tempranillo with pizza and Cabernet Franc with tacos. Botrytis wines with panna cotta. Old school Rioja with dishes that have a dill element. Funky Poulsard with mushrooms. Chablis can be magical with caviar. Crazy, awesome Riesling pairs best with a book on Philosophy.
If you could be traveling anywhere right now, where would you be?
I would be on a boat somewhere, eating some fresh grilled fish, listening to Bach, and washing it all down with something local and delicious.