New wave sauvignons
The recent crop of “alternative styles” will help Marlborough develop from overnight sensation to a respected wine region, writes John Saker.
Twenty years or so ago there were real fears that the Marlborough sauvignon blanc express was headed for derailment. It was not an unreasonable line of thought. When property speculation, rather than the bottled product, becomes a central motivation for investing in a wine region, the words “market bubble” start to resonate.
Questions were being asked about the wine, too. It was embarrassingly easy to make, yet very profitable. How long could such a wheeze last, especially as wine markets are driven by fashions and trends as much as anything?
You only had to look at the example of the popular German white wines of the late 60s and early 70s. Blue Nun and Black Tower, once ubiquitous, crashed and burned almost overnight.
Sorrows certainly came to our largest wine region after the GFC and the unexpectedly large, indifferent 2008 vintage, but ultimately Marlborough sauvignon blanc proved to be a resilient infant. The doomsday scenario never materialised.
How so? Because it has something Blue Nun, Mateus and the like will never have: a distinct sense of place.
It says a lot about Marlborough’s remarkable terroir that this “somewhereness” can shine through despite overcropped vines, chemical-prone farming and recipe-driven winemaking.
Today, Marlborough’s status has shifted from overnight sensation to established wine region. The level of respect it will attain depends on how things evolve from here.
An encouraging development is that more wine producers are showing a more inquisitive attitude towards the grape that made the region world famous. The shorthand for what they are doing is making “alternative styles” of sauvignon blanc.
These are considered wines. They offer a very different experience from the racy, grassy “classic” style of sauvignon. Lower crop levels and techniques such as barrel fermentation give these new wave wines weight, texture and less obvious (but more fascinating) flavour profiles. They also perform very well alongside food.
These alternative sauvignon blancs are deservedly getting a lot of plaudits. Just don’t expect them to take over the region any time soon. The classic Marlborough style still makes too much money for too many people for that to happen.
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This wine is all about texture – a mouthfeel that is both resistant and creamy. It runs tight lines, offering nectarine and yellow fruit notes along the way, and resolves with a dry, mouthwatering finish. A great example of what Marlborough can do.
Christchurch’s concrete box rebuild has not done restaurants many favours. Like so many central city cafes, Japanese restaurant Kumo in Addington is tucked into the ground floor of a nondescript office building. To find the main entrance, you have to walk past its windows and a Pita Pit, and enter the office block’s lobby.
But that entranceway is impressive, flanked by two huge Japanese paintings with a cluster of industrial chic lightbulbs hanging over them. The space looked sleek, polished and sparse, even when the restaurant was full.
As Christchurch’s only sushi train restaurant, the appeal is clear. What’s not to like about being seated alongside a conveyor belt of sushi?
But classics like tuna (maguro) and omelette (tamago) were in the minority. Most were more creative – if that is the word for a Hawaiian roll of avocado, pineapple and bacon, drizzled with mayonnaise or a chicken nugget roll topped with sweet and sour sauce. I wasn’t tempted by either although the teenager with me gave the chicken nugget roll a thumbs up.
Each dish came on a coloured plate that indicated cost, from $2.80 green to $6.50 white.
As well as two-piece plates of sushi, the conveyor belt offered appetisers including edamame, popcorn shrimp and even desserts, along with pots of wasabi and pickled ginger.
Among the highlights were takowasa, raw marinated octopus with a wasabi sauce that delivered a powerful hit of ocean; sweet seared scallops; and shiromi, with a very fresh tasting buttery, local whitefish. But in general the downsides of the conveyor belt’s convenience were all too clear: the food was mostly at room temperature and some of it had clearly been circulating for too long, losing freshness. I would have preferred the edamame to be warm and the raw fish colder.
The other drawback of the conveyor belt running the length of the room was that one side was set up as a bar and the other as booths, meaning those seated at the bar perpendicular to the booths look straight across the belt into the booths. There were plenty of couples on the bar side but it didn’t feel like a place for an awkward first date, or a romantic date at all.
On a Saturday night the restaurant was bustling but the service remained upbeat, if sporadic. It took our server 15 minutes to offer us drinks but since we could help ourselves to the endless loop of sushi, we weren’t worried when it took a long time to place an order for dishes from the kitchen. Our server kept us informed and apologised for the delays. Later that night staff posted on Kumo’s Facebook page that it had been one of the busiest nights since it opened and they hoped they had been able to keep everyone happy.
Our coloured plate count was mounting but having been underwhelmed by the sushi, we ordered some mains. We had our hearts set on the soft-shell crab but it was sold out. Assorted tempura was beautifully presented and instead of the usual dipping sauce, was served with three dipping salts: green tea, curry and rose. They looked lovely but didn’t add much flavour apart from salt. However the serving was generous and varied, with two large prawns, salmon pieces, eggplant, red pepper, courgette, carrot, and pumpkin.
A teriyaki chicken main was excellent, with perfectly cooked thigh meat and steamed vegetables dressed with a light teriyaki sauce, not the thick, cloying gloop all too often seen. An eight-piece California roll was also impeccably fresh and tasty, making me want to return to try other tempting dishes like ramen and a pork belly main.
For convenience and the novelty factor, it is worth getting on board the sushi “train”. But for excellent fresh dishes, order from Kumo’s kitchen.