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Letter from Gisborne; John Szabo’s New Zealand

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Dateline: Gisborne, New Zealand’s North Island
January 22, 2013

Gisborne. A sleepy little town. I struggle to see signs of civilization as the small prop plane circles out over Poverty Bay before heading back inland to touch down on the small, grass-lined airstrip. The airport is a single, low-slung building. Lots of private, single-prop aircraft line the field, and I get the feeling I’ve landed at some far-flung outpost, which, it seems, I have. I’m struck by the scent of the sea and of wildflowers and of lush, sub-tropical flora as I step out of our small plane onto the tarmac and into the bright summer morning sun. 

Hertz Rental Car Welcome

Hertz Rental Car Welcome

At the Hertz rental car desk I’m greeted by two friendly ladies who know my name before I even open my mouth. “You must be Mr. Szabo”, exclaims one. I nod, weary after 30 hours of travel, barely able to string together a muffled syllable. The longhaired brunette, welcoming and bubbly, informs me of the score of the Leafs game from Saturday night. She’s better informed about the Leafs than I am. It turns out that she has cousins in Mississauga. Damned, it’s a small world.

She leads me to my rental car and opens the right side door. I start to throw my knapsack down onto the passenger seat as I always do, until I realize it’s not the passenger’s side. It’s the driver’s side. Oh yeah, this is a former British colony and they drive on the wrong side of the road. Time to pay attention. I jump into the car and head to the Emerald hotel in ‘downtown’ Gisborne. I pass several roundabouts and a single one traffic light on my way in. I check my cell phone; coverage is still weak in this part of the world.

Nick Nobilo and his GW vines

Nick Nobilo and his GW vines

There’s just enough time to strap on the trainers and head out for a quick run before I’m to be picked up by Nick Nobilo, formerly of the eponymous estate, sold to BRL Hardy’s/Constellation in 2000, and now the proprietor of the boutique Vinoptima Estate winery. I turn left out of the hotel and pick up the nearby trail down by the river that leads out to the sea. Within seven minutes I’m on a expanse of beach that must be 30 meters wide. Several surfers in wet suits are out limping along on modest waves. I can’t resist, and after a few minutes of running on the soft sand, I take off the shoes and jump in the cold, salty water. It’s heaven. Just what you need after 24 hours in a tin can.

Today, Gisborne is known for it’s voluptuous chardonnay, viognier and gewürztraminer. Few reds are grown, though there’s speculation that malbec may prove suitable, and there’s a strong case for chenin blanc, based pretty much entirely on the efforts of Millton Vineyards to date.

I have a fine time with Nick Nobilo. Here’s a dedicated man. After pioneering so many successful wines, including New Zealand’s first commercial pinot noir in 1973, the most popular Muller-Thurgau brand of the 70s and 80s (“Nobilo Muller-Thurgau German Style”) and NZ’s most successful export wine of the 80s, he returned to Gisborne after the big cash-out with Hardy’s in 2000 to nurture his first true love: gewüztraminer. It’s an affair that dates back to the 60s when, after planting a trial vineyard at the family estate outside of Auckland, he fell for the variety’s “strong physiology” and unique, perfumed taste.

Auckland proved not to be the spot for gewürztaminer, but Gisborne is another story. Today, it’s the only wine Nobilo makes: Vinoptima Gewürztraminer Reserve (and very occasionally, tiny quantities of a nobly rotten version of the same). We tour vineyards; we taste a mini vertical of 04, 06, 08, 09, and 10. It’s astonishing how well these wines age.

Foudres at Vinoptima

Foudres at Vinoptima

Usually GW is in the drink-as-young-as-possible category, but the extract and concentration of Nobilo’s wines give them the power to age. Nobilo picks very ripe at 25-26º brix when the skins of the grape are deep pink-garnet. He’s not concerned about low acidity or excessive sugar, as he believes that phenolics (extract from grape juice and skins with a pleasantly bitter taste) provide the balance for the wine’s high alcohol and residual sugar. He approaches winemaking like a chef approaches a dish, combining as many ingredients as necessary to create layers of flavour: some wild yeast ferments, some inoculated, some parcels aged in big old German oak foudres, of different sizes, some stainless components. That’s the attention to detail one can effectively manage when there’s only one grape variety in play. In the end, my favourites are the 06 and 04.

After a welcome spread of patés, terrines, salads, grilled skewered prawns, marinated chicken and bacon-wrapped scallops (pronounced skah-lopes here), and cheese, its time to move on to Millton Vineyards. 

(Vinoptima is Represented in Ontario by : John Hanna & Sons)

John Szabo, MS

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Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008