edited by Sue Courtney
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Matakana, New Zealand
Matching New Zealand wine to oysters should be easy. Just grab a glass of fresh New Zealand sauvignon blanc and it's likely to be a success. It's a proven combination if you go by the successive results of the annual 'Old Ebbitt Grill Wine with Oysters' competition held in the famous American restaurant, the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, DC. New Zealand savvies consistently dominate the Top 10.
But my task was to match Mahurangi Oysters, farmed in the Mahurangi harbour on the east coast north of Auckland, with a local wine. Local, for this exercise, meant produced by one of the winegrowers in close proximity to the Mahurangi Harbour, which in turn meant a producer in the Matakana area. It made my task slightly more difficult because Sauvignon Blanc does best in the cooler climate way way south - places like Marlborough where the hot days and cool nights keep the acids of Sauvignon Blanc in check. Or perhaps it made my task easier, for if I was choosing a Marlborough savvie I could still be trying to make the selection now. At least with Matakana and only a handful of producers, there was not much wine to choose from. But none of them produced a Sauvignon Blanc.
"Perhaps Semillon will work", I thought. And indeed it did for the chosen Matakana Estate Semillon 2000 was just delectable with the sweet briny flavours of the shellfish. The whole down side to this exercise, however, was that the wine was practically sold out at the winery and there was no follow-up ensuing from the poor 2001 northern New Zealand harvest.
But now the Matakana Estate Semillon 2002 has been released and it has definitely been worth the wait.
Pale in colour with just a hint of gold, the perfume is floral, musky, lemony and leesy. It's creamy and full-bodied in the mouth, yeasty and lemony in flavour with a butterscotch nuance and underlying warm, spicy oak. The grassy lemon flavour is quite unique. It's sweetly herbaceous and I think of lemon bread, lemon grass and the delicate scent of lemon thyme that's in flower right now. There's a juicy sweet taste too hinting of stonefruit, apricot and pear. It's warmly textured in the mouth - not silky, not velvety, but more like the fleece of a child's cuddly blanket - and it finishes spritely leaving the mouth quite refreshed with its fresh mown hay and sauvignon-like crispness.
This is undoubtably New Zealand's best Semillon in a dry style. A summer wine that can be enjoyed through winter, it has the freshness of sauvignon blanc but its warm texture and full-bodied richness offers more.
Perhaps it is the northern climate that suits this grape so well, the warmer nights allowing the acids to ripen to an acceptable level.
Notes on the comprehensive back label say the say the grapes were hand picked in three stages to ensure bunches were pricked at optimal ripeness. The wine was fermented and matured in three separate portions - one received simple handling, one was lees-aged and the other was matured in oak. The wine has 12.8% alcohol by volume. It costs NZ$22 from the winery, perhaps just a little more or less in retail.
Matakana Estate wines are widely exported though the Semillon goes only to the USA and Japan.
We don't hear much about Semillon in New Zealand, probably because there is not much of it grown. Semillon rates as just number 5 on the list of white grape varieties, headed off by Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay - which each have at least 10 times more vine land than any other white variety - plus Muller Thurgau and Riesling. And by next year Pinot Gris will also have surpassed it.
Just 224 hectares of Semillon produced grapes in 2002 and most came from Gisborne and Marlborough. The northern area, which Matakana is part of, accounted for just 3.3 hectares of the total. On a national level, the plantings are expected to increase by just a measly 5 hectares over the next two years.
But this 224 hectares produced 3053 tonnes of grapes. That's much more Semillon that Gewurztraminer and just a little more than Pinot Gris, but unlike these two fashionable grapes, Semillon is hard to find as a named variety on the wine retailer's shelves. Where does it all go? I can't say for sure but I would guess much of the Marlborough goes into Sauvignon Blanc as an undisclosed percentage of the blend, which producers are legally allowed to do up to a 15 per cent component. Semillon may also be relegated to cask wine.
If you like good dry Semillon, then seek out the Alpha Domus in the premium "AD" bottling and the Okahu Estate with the "Kaz" on the label or for a fruity spritely number try Sileni. There are also superb late harvest and botrytised Semillons produced in New Zealand, many from Gisborne - but that's another story.
© Sue Courtney
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