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Esk Valley at The Ambeli – Passion Meets Passion

By June 9, 2011No Comments
It would be difficult to think of two people more passionate about their craft than Gordon Russell, winemaker at Esk Valley in Hawke’s Bay, and Shae Moleta, restaurateur of The Ambeli in Mt Victoria, Wellington. The combination of these two intensely positive people and their offerings was bound to be something special, so the Esk Valley Winemaker’s Dinner at The Ambeli was a must to attend. And it did not disappoint. Gordon is one of my favourite speakers on wine, being intense yet humble. He found some vinous treasures – last few bottles from his and Esk Valley’s cellars that would be served as their final outing, along with other wines now unavailable in the market place. This was an opportunity for Shae to allow his team, the kitchen led by chef Josh Evans, to showcase the recently introduced new menu. As it turned out Shae could not attend due to last minute circumstances, but front of house doyens John Robertson and Monique Davey carried the show with the flair that Shae has imbued in them. My thoughts on the wines and food courses served to us follow:
Esk Valley Hawke’s Bay Riesling 2002 – Honey-milk curd and Marcona almonds with Lomo Iberico and truffle oil
Only 75 cases of this were made. Fruit from the Takapau region, 10.0% alc. and around 20 g/L rs. Sealed with screwcap and in great condition. Now just showing some beautiful honied development with a hint of toast. No kero yet, and remarkably so. This comes across much drier than the 20 g/L would suggest, and the acid cut just drives this wine along. This will continue to live another decade. But who has any? The vineyard has gone now, too.

One of those striking appetisers the almonds making the most flavoursome impact and picking up on the toasty wine notes. The saltiness of cured pork was moderated by the sweetness of the wine, but its flavour was highlighted by the wine’s acidity. I’d imagine the curd would normally form the neutral bed for the dish, but seemed superfluous with the wine.

Esk Valley Hawke’s Bay Chenin Blanc 2001 – Pan-roasted line-caught snapper and crispy squid; red wine, pancetta and pearl barley with olive butter
Fruit from old Gimblett Gravels vines, now top grafted to Merlot. 13.0% alc. and a dry 4.0 g/L rs. Sealed with natural cork and there was bottle variation. My glass showing darker colours of gold, with aromas of honey and tropical fruits, and dry, crispy steely stonefruit flavours along with botrytis-like barley sugar. Other bottles in better condition, paler, with florals, wet stones and a fresh linearity, still quite tight.

This course was one of the cuisine highlights, beautifully moist, fleshy fish with the crisp squid as a counterpoint. The jus has a quality bisque-like piquancy and richness that matched the more-aged bottles of the Chenin Blanc superbly. The youthful bottles of wine had the prerequisite cut for the snapper. I plumped for the ‘aged’ Chenin Blanc as the better, more harmonious match.

Esk Valley ‘Winemaker’s Reserve’ Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay 2007 – Sherry-braised free-range pork belly; chargrilled globe artichoke and jamon with spiced pear
Fruit from a special Bayview vineyard, the site recently devastated by spray drift from a nearby property. It is hoped the vines will recover. Extremely youthful and a wine showing great power of nutty, mealy fruit, brilliant oaking, along with complexing sulphides as in the best Puligny-Montrachet white burgundies. This will be a wine that will see its 10th birthday easily. Wine of the evening by the barest margin for me.

A dish of three parts in reality, a general sweetness being the unifying factor. The alcoholic strength, body and depth, along with the acidity of the wine cut through the fat and richness of the pork belly. The char-grilled artichoke and oaking of the wine were suitable partners, as was the ham. I felt the sweetness of the dish and the acid sourness of the wine showed a discord in the match. Interestingly, it was proposed that a Pinot Gris should match this dish, and the sweeter profile may have been better here. But as a wine on its own, the Chardonnay was truly magnificent.

Esk Valley ‘Reserve’ Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2006 – Braised venison shoulder with rocket and goats cheese tortellini, creamed celeriac and preserved lemon gremolata
Fruit from the famed ‘Cornerstone’ vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels, this wine sits at the riper end of the spectrum and has been a prolific award winner in its time. Black-red, impenetrable in colour, and almost the same on the nose and palate, with its super-ripe black fruits. This gives a nod to the Australian liquorice and plum style, but still with vestiges of New Zealand freshness and vitality. Inky and dense, with masses of weight and tannin, but so rounded and approachable. This is capable of another decade and a half of cellaring.

The Ambeli’s take on comfort food here, with the venison densely textured as the wine, but falling apart as the knife and fork got near it, and the accompanying decadent creamy textured celeriac. Weight and texture for wine and meat spot on, the wine’s flavours packed tightly in comparison with the venison and its juices. The tortellini and gremolata designed to provide the light relief, but oddly separate from the wine, which if in the cooler herby spectrum may have come together.

Esk Valley ‘Reserve’ Hawke’s Bay Merlot/Malbec/Cabernet- Manuka scented ‘Leeland’ lamb rack with baba ghanoush, cocoa-braised lamb neck ravioli and cumin totato jus
From the great 2005 vintage and from Gimblett Gravels fruit, the stylishness of this wine is a revelation. The generosity of the Merlot and Malbec plumminess is near voluptuous in character, yet there is no broadness, nor any rusticity. The Cabernet is subtle and provides perfect backbone and structure. Sweetness and restrained richness is the underlining style. The youthful primacy is uncanny.
The perfect combination – lamb with Bordeaux varietals. Spiced with herbs, the interaction of meat and seasoning added to the interaction of the wine, taking it beyond its youth. Savoury eggplant, the hint of chocolate and tomato were all reflected in the nuances of the wine. A classical dish with the Mediterranean input twist that is the signature of The Ambeli.
Then a little break with a twin serving of sorbetpersimmon and feijoa, refreshing, distinctive, little scooped parcels of cold, packed flavour explosions that still cleared the palate.
Esk Valley ‘Reserve’ Botrytis Bunch Selection Chenin Blanc 1993 – Olive oil and poppyseed cake with beurre noisette ice-cream, lime curd and mandarin jelly
Dark, bronze coloured, the nose is one of lozenges, fly-tox and steel. Lush in a sense, especially at the core, but now showing a dryness, this combines the flavours of caramel, cold tea, barley sugar and dark honey and dry roasted nuts. Probably past its best in my books, but very drinkable in a blowsy, burnished and broad way.

A rather unique mix of flavours with the oily, nutty characters alongside the sweet and creamy ice-cream which complemented each other very well, and indeed completing each other in texture especially. Essentially the more developed flavours of the wine bore modest connection with the lighter or fresher nature of the dessert.

Esk Valley Muscat Solera 1/10 15 year
The finishing touch. A few Kiwi winemakers, inspired by the fabulous Liqueur Muscats of N.E. Victoria, have made their interpretation. The wines here are completely different of course, without the ripeness of fruit and lacking the extended aging in wood. Maybe New Zealand will have its own take on the category? This was too acidic and sharp in its first decade, but is slowing coming around. Progressing past just grapes and alcohol, to show signs of wood and woody-nutty maturation complexities. The acidity is still a focus, but adds to the cut and tension. Fine spirit power, without coarseness, this is improving. Don’t drink it all Gordon – it should see at least another decade!


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