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edited by Sue Courtney
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Wine of the Week for week ending 18th May 2003
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Ascension Matakana Merlot 2002
Matakana, New Zealand

Darryl and Bridget Soljan have really set the wine tourism scene 'alive' in Matakana, Warkworth and surrounds. Though grapevines were growing in the district long before they came along and wine tourism was there for those who knew about it, the opening of Darryl and Bridget's Ascension Vineyard was pivotal in the development of the region. They set the alarm bells ringing in the sleepy little northern outlier of the Auckland and gave everyone in the district a wake-up call. Now wine tourism is big business, so much so that a new local tourism organisation has been formed by a group of wineries, cafés, restaurants, activity operators, accommodation hosts and arty craft types. They call themselves Matakana Coast Wine Country (www.matakanacoast.com) and leading the list is Ascension.

Darryl and Bridget work hard at their business but what's makes them special is that they are so much a part of their business. If you call into the winery shop for a tasting and Darryl and Bridget are not on one of their rare breaks away from the winery, they are bound to be close by. They may serve you in the shop or you may see them helping out in the busy restaurant, serving meals and clearing tables. They always have a friendly smile and know many of their customers by name, for customers just keep on returning. Why? Because the food is well priced and good, the wine is reasonably priced and good and the people who work there are pleasant.

There are other attractions too, like frequently changing art exhibitions, theme dinners and photo opportunities amongst the vines. Indeed the vines were looking splendid with the graduation of autumn colours on the neatly trimmed rows headed by rose bushes in their last autumn flush, when I visited the winery last weekend.

Ascension Matakana Merlot 2002 was the star of the mornings tasting. It's attractive from the outset with its brilliant dark red colour and alluring smoky, cedary, vanillin scents. There's a woody smell - sappy wood, smokehouse wood - that combines with cinnamon spice and bountiful red fruits. It's fresh and clean and intensely fruity with plum, raspberry and succulent black cherry-like flavours then some liquorice that mingles with spicy light wood. It develops a smoky meaty flavour too, a little savouriness to balance the fruitiness and perhaps there's a minty nuance, perhaps even a hint of anise. The finish is long and succulent and the tannins, while there, are soft and non-intrusive.

Not too heavy and not too light, and keeping in mind my neighbour's comments that he thought some reds 'too heavy', this is a wine that would be quite user-friendly. So I took a bottle to "Mother's Day" dinner.

The wine fitted the occasion and was a terrific accompaniment to the food, which was an autumn vegetable mix baked with herbs and tomatoes and roast lamb served with red wine gravy, with mint on the side for those who wanted it.

While the Ascension Matakana Merlot 2002 is one I could easily drink on its own, it definitely works well with the right food.

This is the first 100% Merlot that Darryl has produced his vineyard and is the first release of a trio of Merlots from the 2002 vintage. The Ascension 'Ascent' Merlot Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 is due for release in the next few weeks while the Ascension 'Epiphany' Merlot 2002 will be released in November 2003. Just 150 cases of this flagship red were made and, if the Estate Merlot is anything to go buy, I'd place my order for the Epiphany now.

Ascension Matakana Merlot 2002 was fermented in stainless steel and aged in new and seasoned French and American oak barriques then bottled in April 2003. It's sealed with a screwcap, which is another plus in my opinion, and costs $21.95 a bottle at the cellar door.

Check out the Ascension website for more information.

© Sue Courtney
11 May 2003


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