Better all the time
Hunters and Trinity Hill both make great wines but, John Saker is pleased to report, they’re not content to rest on their laurels.
Thank God for wineries that aren’t content for a good thing to remain a good thing, but do everything they can for it to become a better thing.
The latest release Hunters Mirumiru NV, which I’ve tasted on a couple of occasions recently, is the best iteration yet of this consistently fine Marlborough methode traditionelle sparkling wine.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Hunters being in the bubbles game. The winery is rightly proud of its work in this area. It’s not core business (that will always be sauvignon blanc), but it’s obvious the winemaking team and CEO Jane Hunter herself get a lot of kicks from the sparkling programme.
The common threads over the three decades have been Jane Hunter and consultant Tony Jordan, an Aussie with an impressive bubbles pedigree (he established Domaine Chandon in Australia and worked for Moët Hennessy for 21 years). It was at Jordan’s behest that the move was made around seven years ago to use more oak and build more complexity and texture into the wine.
The Mirumiru NV is a blend of all three champagne varieties: chardonnay (which dominates), pinot noir and pinot meunier. Fresh croissant scents, yellow flower flavours, elegant mousse and remarkable persistence are all part of a sophisticated package.
And at $29 a bottle, I’d also rate it one of the top value methodes in the country.
Every bit as intriguing is the evolution that is occurring at Hawke’s Bay’s Trinity Hill with its flagship syrah, Homage, which was first made by Trinity’s founding winemaker John Hancock in 2002. The wine’s name is a salute to the famous Rhône Valley winemaker Gerard Jaboulet, who died a year after Hancock worked a vintage for him in 1996.
The current Trinity Hill winemaking team, Warren Gibson and Damian Fischer, see Homage as an interrogatory exercise. New ideas and techniques are put to each new vintage; the answers come back annually in bottles bearing the Homage label.
The newly released Trinity Hill Homage 2015 ($130) sits on a pedestal with its direct predecessor, the very handsome 2014. Both wines are beautifully structured, largely the result of fermenting some fruit as intact whole bunches. This results in tannins that have amplitude but not heaviness. It also lends a particular lightness and florality to the wine’s aromatics.
The Homage 2015 is a smashingly good syrah – a whisper of pepper, red and dark fruit flavours, a fine acid dance step, the building block to develop well. Trinity Hill has upped the stakes yet again with this wine. And that’s a very fine thing.
It’s often said a restaurant needs 40 seats to be viable, yet the newly opened Rita seats just 28. One solution is to ensure every table is turned at least once each evening, and to this end the owners have instituted a regimen of two sittings, one from 5.30pm, the other from 7.30pm. So you probably need to book.
Rita’s other distinguishing feature is its tiny set menu which, like the staggered sittings, may also seem like a colonial hangover, yet is totally in line with an international trend toward simplicity: Flat Iron, currently the toast of London, offers just one steak, five sides and one dessert.
Co-owner and chef Kelda Hains, already known to Wellington’s entire corporate lunching community from her other restaurant Nikau, here allows her creativity even fuller rein. The menu being so small, she is able to change it constantly according to what’s seasonal and best. Somewhat frustratingly, they don’t even supply a written menu.
Like any good cerebral chef, Kelda embeds a story within her dishes. She’s inspired here both by her historic Aro Valley setting (what has now been converted into a bijoux dolls house began life in 1910 as a workers cottage) and by the Kiwiana cooking of her grandmother Rita, a large graphic quote from whom (“This heavenly place”) forms the sole artwork over these graceful sage green walls.
In many cases the Kiwiana references are oblique, and in some dishes – such as raw mackerel marinated in buttermilk with beetroot and red cabbage – they are totally absent.
FOH and co-owner Paul Schrader (also widely known from Nikau) had to prompt me to recognise Maggi onion soup powder and sour cream dip in the appetiser we ordered as a $3 supplement – a parsnip croquette filled with smoked onion and Mount Eliza unpasteurised cheddar, served on Dijon mustard crème fraiche.
But when two steaming soup bowls were placed before us, the main course that had simply been described as “pork” straightaway revealed itself as quite the poshest boil-up I’ve ever experienced.
The broth had morphed into a heavily reduced consommé, while the pork was now offered both lightly poached and heavily roasted, yielding nuggets of crackling. These doughboys had been revved up with horseradish and the watercress here, naturally enough, was emerald green. And never before have I fished fresh shiitake mushrooms from a boil-up.
The clue to dessert was a dash of DYC Malt Vinegar added to the Italian meringue, a blob of which topped a marvellously dense but smooth plinth of kiwifruit sorbet. To the side was a dollop of whipped vanilla cream. Yes, you guessed it: pavlova!
Given the lack of storage space in a dolls house, a Lilliputian wine list almost seems inevitable. But never mind, this tiny jewel box, crammed with dazzling names like Felton Road, Te Mata, Seresin, Mountford, Black Estate and Francis Ford Coppola, blinds the diner to the restricted choice. A glass ($15) of the Mountford Chardonnay from 2010 meant we were practically drinking library stock, still brimming with fruit and oak but now overlaid with mealy complexity.
Replacing space-greedy waiters’ stations is a nifty innovation: little pull-out drawers at the side of each table, from which you select your own cutlery.
The big drawback of a small set menu revealed itself early in the piece, when my guest recoiled at the prospect of mackerel.
But from her conjurer’s hat our server drew a vegetarian option which pleased everyone: fresh young endive leaves, Jerusalem artichoke slices roasted until crisp, hazelnuts and the mildest, smoothest, least goaty chevre you could imagine.