Underground cellar lights the way for tours
"It's just like being in a movie set, it's so beautiful."
After a statement like that I knew I had made the right decision when I booked visiting family and friends in for a cellar tour at Johanneshof.
The magnificent underground cellar at the heart of our afternoon wine-tasting experience was established in 1993 at Warwick Foley and Edel Everling's Johanneshof Cellars, located by State Highway One just before Picton. The cellar was designed and made utilising the skills of West Coast mining experts and, somewhat surprisingly, took only a month to complete.
Once inside it took a minute for our eyes to adjust to the darkness, which is seductively candlelit and looks warmer than the 12-degree temperature.
The stable temperature and high natural humidity of this beautiful cellar provide ideal storage conditions for the maturation of wines in both barrel and bottle.
We were just inside the doors when we were given a brief history of the cellar and the magical process that turns grape juice and yeast into delightful methode traditionnelle - sparkling wine made in the same way as Champagne.
The riddling racks, where the wine bottles sit on an angle after the second fermentation is complete, were fascinating for newcomers to the sparkling winemaking tradition. The bottles are given a quarter turn by hand every day over several weeks until the bottle is sitting upside down in the rack and all the dead yeast cells or lees are collected in the neck of the bottle, ready for disgorging (removal using snap freezing of the bottle neck).
Leaning on the walls of this atmospheric cellar isn't recommended. While listening to the information and stories that abound it's easy to forget there's a fluffy, puffy coating of delicate mould on much of the rock wall and besides, it's a little damp.
As we walked to the end of the cellar the floor gently sloped upwards and at the end we were told we were 50 metres in and 20m beneath a hillside planted in vines.
It would have been far easier for Warwick and Edel to simply carve out a hole in the hillside and install a concrete shell as a cellar. This type of construction is common practice, but it was their love of centuries old wine culture in Europe that led to the establishment of this beautiful place, tunnelled into solid sandstone. If you want to experience a slice of European winemaking, Johanneshof should be on the "must see" list.
We looked through ornate gates at Warwick and Edel's private wine collection, the result of many years extensive travelling to the finest wine regions in the world, and then it was time to walk back past all the methode traditionnelle bottles, stacked against the cool stone walls, quietly maturing into elegant, yet vivacious wine.
Back in the tasting room it was time to sample some Johanneshof wines, including the Blanc de Blancs methode traditionnelle brut with its fine, busy bead, and blend of crisp and rich flavours.
Johanneshof is the producer of one of New Zealand's finest gewürztraminers - the quality is outstanding vintage to vintage - and one wine Peter and I recommend unreservedly. However, on this occasion we took home some Johanneshof Marlborough Pinot Gris 2012 (made entirely from fruit grown in Peter's vineyard) which was widely commented on by my family. This was no light "cougar juice" but rather an intensely perfumed and deeply flavoured wine, with spiciness and rich stone fruit flavours that are complemented by a crisp finish.
One of the more interesting aspects of our tasting was Warwick beginning rather than finishing with the red wine - a 2009 pinot noir. His reason for this turnabout on usual wine-tasting procedure is simple. In France, Burgundy (pinot noir by its original name), is a lighter style red and it could be overwhelmed by the flavour intensity of whites such as sauvignon blanc.
The Johanneshof Reserve Pinot Noir may be Burgundian in style, but it has impressive aroma and flavour - supple and smooth on the palate, it displays subtle fruitiness and some savouriness. As Warwick says, this is not a fruit bomb, and is delightful served with food.
All the wines were of high quality and our wine-tasting experience was unique, not least because of the wonderful stories we heard of Warwick's travels. Not many people would buy Sep and Porcini mushrooms fresh at a French market, then take them back to a posh hotel where a little gas stove is lit on the balcony for a cook up before dinner.
Johanneshof means "John's Estate" although "hof" also means "courtyard". The name was chosen to honour Edel's father, who was a vineyard owner in the Rheingau, a famous winegrowing area in Germany. The Maybern vineyard, which grows the fruit for the single vineyard reserve pinot noir, is a tribute to Warwick's parents, May and Bernard.
Finally, the Johanneshof label bears a striking silhouette scene from Shakespeare's The Tempest. The image with its two characters stuck in a tree with a cask of Sack (dry white wine) dangling from the branches has been used as a tribute to the fact that wine can bring people together congenially, no matter the circumstances. What a great note to finish on.
The Marlborough Express