The other half of your better half

By Celia Strong

The other half is also a better half, but let’s just keep some confusion around us for a moment. The Better Half is a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that we found about six months ago. And, some of us have been enjoying it quite a bit without any confusion at all.  But, now there’s another wine from the same winery, hence the other half. That makes it the second Better Half, right?  Is it possible to have two better halves?  Sure, two halves make a whole. So, now you know. Phew!  Enough confusion, let’s talk wine.

As a review, the history of New Zealand wines started in the mid-nineteenth century with James Busby. That was 1836. The oldest, still existing, winery in the country was established by the Roman Catholic Church in 1851. It wasn’t until the late1960’s and early 1970’s, though, that their wine industry really got going.  It was three things happening that made a huge change possible. Fair trade laws changed when England joined the EEC in 1973; their restrictions on New Zealand exports had to be lifted. This in turn meant New Zealand meat and dairy products became less popular in favor of  export products with higher profits. And, with better travel advantages available, the younger generation of New Zealanders began to travel to Europe, learned about wine and brought that style of dining back to their home country. Hopefully, it’s  not too boring to remember all this.

Anyhow, as we know, New Zealand made a name for themselves, in the world of wine, with their Sauvignon Blancs. With Pinot Noir, things were not quite as fast or as easy for them. In the beginning, like the late 1970’s, growing red varieties was discouraged because it was thought that New Zealand had a slightly low number of annual sunshine hours. Also, some of their first Pinot plantings weren’t even Pinot Noir. (They were actually Gamay vines, which are the variety that makes Beaujolais wines.) The St Helena 1984 Pinot Noir from the Canterbury region was an exception. It was good Pinot. And, for a while, it was thought Canterbury was where they should grow Pinot Noir. Soon, Martinborough, at the southern end of the North Island, produced some interesting and complex Pinot Noir wines. That was at the end of the 1980’s and into the 1990’s.

About this same time, Central Otago, located about eight hours driving time south of Marlborough, got into the Pinot business also. Central Otago has a long history, for New Zealand, of growing quality stone fruits, especially cherries. (Interesting, considering that is one of the main flavors of Pinot.)  This area is located further south than all the other wine regions in this country and had a history of growing grapes. (Keep in mind, further south in the Southern Hemisphere means cooler, not warmer climates.) Central Otago is also surrounded by mountain ranges which means more temperature variation between seasons and between night and day. We need to  remember how up and down temperatures develop more layers of complexities in wine grapes as they grow and ripen.  In recent years, Central Otago Pinot Noirs have won numerous awards and great reviews. From around the world.

And, a bit more about Pinot Noir in general. This is a much more difficult variety to grown. It is not tolerant of hard or windy or hot and dry or harsh vineyard conditions. It is sensitive to soil types, pruning and yeast strains. Its thin skin makes it very susceptible to rot and fungal diseases. Even its leaves can get viruses and funguses. Yet, it is very reflective of its “terroir,” showing a wide range of flavors and textures depending on where it is grown. All of this has given Pinot Noir a reputation as being a difficult grape. In New Zealand, it was some of these issues that made them think Pinot Noirs were not meant for them. Luckily, as better clones came into New Zealand they made better wines. And better fermenting made much better wines. So much so that New Zealand Pinot Noirs are one of their most sought out red wines.  Typically, New Zealand Pinot Noirs are fruit-forward wines. And, they mature early in their bottles. Alcohol levels are higher than their cousins in Burgundy, France with a naturally low acidity. Many producers leave their grapes on the vines longer. These wines have plummy flavors and heavier textures. They are full-bodied wines compared to most other Pinot Noirs. From the Martinborough region of New Zealand, Pinots are savory and earthy and very complex. Central Otago Pinots are “fruit bombs” with big, soft textures and rich flavors. Marlborough Pinot Noirs are fragrant and round-feeling in your mouth.

The Better Half is our winery for this week. It is owned by a husband, George Elworthy, and his wife, Jules Taylor. She is a winemaker for her own brand, and when they established The Better Half, the name seemed perfect. George, too, is a winemaker, so you can just imagine dinner table discussions at their house. Really? Forget the discussions. Think of the wines.  Mmmmmm.  For the 2014 vintage, the growing season began with lots of sun and rain. Shoot and fruit pruning were essential to concentrate flavors and textures. A cooler than normal summer, with plenty of sunshine hours, gave a crop with full flavors. The grapes were hand picked and sent right to the winery. Selected yeasts were  used for the fermentation. Our Better Half Pinot Noir is youthful and fruit-driven. Full of strawberry and plum aromas with underlying notes of earthy mushrooms. It is vibrant with strawberry, plum and other berry flavors and a hint of white pepper.  From the winery, foods recommended with this wine include grilled lamb, salads with meats, goat cheeses, spicy foods, duck and duck pancakes, salmon – poached, cold, and grilled, game birds, mushroom tarts, Asian dishes, pâté. Quite a lengthy list. And such fun. And, that is our better half. No, I mean the other half. The second half. Oh, you know what I mean. For $15.99. Enjoy.

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