Wine weekend in New Zealand
Matakauri Lodge resort, located near Queenstown. Picture: Supplied. Source: Supplied
GRANT Taylor holds a glass of pinot noir to his ear and says, "I listen to it." It's 11 in the morning.
I steal a glance at my guide, Mike Stevens, an English ex-pat who's lived in Queenstown for nearly 20 years, and so is very nearly a local. He's brought me here and knows Taylor well. We are all quite sober.
We talk wine and then rugby and then wine again. Taylor, in his quiet way, seems pretty pleased about a certain recent World Cup win and in Central Otago he's known as one of the pioneers of the area's wine industry.
He stands in front of two maps one of Otago and the other Burgundy in France and it occurs to me that all three place-getters at the World Cup are also great wine producers.
Outside, spring sunshine warms the vines: it's mid-November, when the vineyards begin to reveal miniature bunches of grapes about the size of something you might see on one of those novelty bottle stops but also when, in Auckland, the wine growers themselves bunch for the Air New Zealand Wine Awards.
Two nights before, I was a guest at the awards. I sat beside some of the most experienced wine tasters in the world, certainly out of my element but very happy to listen.
Where there's wine, there's language and stories too, and wine description is one of those styles where just about anything goes.
That night, the pinot noir winners are characterised by "game" and "earthy mushroom" flavours, by "silkiness and lace", and even by "discreet power".
Now, Taylor, who has twice won the trophy for best pinot noir at the London International Wine Challenge, lays out two glasses of wine and says I should listen to them. Also, thankfully, smell and taste them. Perhaps the wine will tell me what to say in response. I close my eyes, abandon all thoughts of game, silk and discreet power, and say, "This one seems to have a stronger berry flavour than that one."
"Yes, exactly!" replies Taylor, much to my relief. "And it's all down to what happens out there."
Out there means his Gibbston Valley vineyard, which produces a very different pinot noir from his Bannockburn estate, 20km away. I can tell as much because Taylor has made it easy for me to tell: one beside the other, these wines reveal their regional character.
It's also good to follow them home. Today, the vines are being tended by the solitary figure of assistant winemaker Duncan Billing, who makes measured progress towards Mike's Bentley, our car for the day.
There's power in this dark vessel, too, and precious little of it is discreet. It's brought me here from the outlandishly beautiful Matakauri Lodge, where I am spending two of my three nights in New Zealand. Now we reboard and follow the hillside roads out of the valley.
To gastro porn and property porn I want to add the category of road porn. Every bend in the roads here is a centrefold. Stapled together, they bring us to Northburn Station, the sheep farm and winery of the charmingly New Zealandish Tom Pinckney.
I know it's not an adequate description of him I'm sure New Zealandish isn't a real phrase, even in the more colourful world of wine writing but his quiet, wry wit makes me feel that I could only be here, on a fresh, bright day in the South Island having lunch beside vineyards in the shade of a converted sheep shed.
I want to tell him that his wines exhibit the quiet, wry qualities of his personality. Perhaps I could even mention the wine's discreet power.
Of course, I don't. I'm not quite that stupid and I'm certainly not ready to be a wine critic. But I realise that for a long time I've been ready for this weekend among the vines.
You learn more in a day's wine touring than during 10 years of dinner parties, when, admittedly, I've listened to a lot of wine but much less carefully than I have today.
Our next stop is Pisa Estate, the vineyard of Warwick and Jenny Hawker, who started in the business after Warwick retired from diplomatic service and whose itinerant life included a stint in Adelaide.
Thus, every wine reveals the story of its making, but also the story of its maker, and sometimes even the story of the maker's pets. Pinot the family dog only responds to commands given in French. Be sure to ask Jenny for the story behind that one.
Tomorrow, I make my return to Auckland and a connecting flight to Brisbane. For now, the Bentley crunches back into the white gravel drive of the lodge and at reception I ask to have my dinner served in my room. It's such a fresh evening and I want to spend it outside on my patio.
First I walk down to the lodge's jetty and for an hour contemplate becoming a wine grower, a wine writer or a just a more committed wine drinker anything to extend this weekend. Maybe Mike needs a driver.
At seven, there appears a very fine meal prepared by head chef Jonathan Rogers: my simplified memory of it is pear and blue cheese salad, smoked venison, followed by roasted apple with prune Armagnac ice cream.
It's delivered by two young people who seem to have discovered a not unpleasant way of staying in Central Otago.
"How did you get a job here?" I ask one of them.
"Oh, I came over from Utah," he replies.
Right. I'll give them my CV in the morning.
As evening wears on, the summit of The Remarkables begins to look like the jagged edge of a storm front.
Across Lake Wakatipu, the mountains rust and grey into the same colours that have been used to paint the lodge, and the relationship between the buildings and hillside they inhabit becomes even more sympathetic.
I guess it's gastro porn and property porn all in one moment but for now I leave the camera in its case and instead watch the wild lupine on the far side of the lake as it fades from yellow to burnt orange.
Then the stars appear and the whole thing turns purple. Night is dark in a way that you only get in places like this, remote and folded in by grey-blue mountains. An inferior travel writer might call it an All Black night but with my wine training I now realise it's actually much closer to All-Noir.