Little Beauty Comes Home

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“Who’s good at keeping secrets?” was Fleur McCree’s opening address to the Little Beauty devotees who had flocked to the sixth event in the “Bringing the Wine Geese Home” series held in L’Atitude 51 on Thursday 16th May. With a couple of furtive glances around the room, Fleur decided we looked like an honest bunch, worthy of being let in on her “BIG” secret, but it came with a caveat:  “What goes on the Little Beauty Tour stays on the Little Beauty Tour” – possibly the best introduction to a wine tasting I’ve ever witnessed: in an instant, Fleur had us on the edge of our seats, as captive an audience you can get.

This was Fleur’s second visit to L’Atitude 51 – last year she gave a lively tasting of her impressive range of Marlborough wines, which proved so popular that this year’s event sold out immediately. This time Fleur was back in Cork under the guise of Marlborough Wine Geese representative.

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“Are there any Cox’s, Healy’s or O’Donovan’s here tonight?” Fleur asked. Silence. Then a hand went up – “my mother was a Cox”. With that, Fleur proceeded to produce a carefully drawn family tree, tracing her ancestors back to Passage West, where her great-great-great grandfather hailed from. He was the wanderer who left Cork in the 1840’s for the Antipodes, becoming one of the first Europeans to settle in New Zealand. “Ok, so there‘s only one Cox, and no Healy’s, or Donovan’s, but you are ALL part of the Little Beauty Family!”

And so the tasting began. Fleur gave a really informative synopsis on viticultural and vinification practices in New Zealand, animatedly explaining why Kiwi wines are unique. The main reason is that New Zealand is blessed with more than 2000 hours of sunshine per year – to put it into perspective, that’s more hours than the average person works in a year. This allows the grapes to ripen fully and ensures consistency with every vintage. The other major contributor to its individual style is the diurnal fluctuation in temperature, which sees temperatures rising to 30 degrees during the day and then dropping dramatically to 2 degrees at night. To help us grasp the significance of this, Fleur helpfully demonstrated: “Imagine I’m a grape. I’m basking in the sun all day, building up a nice colour and abundance of sugars, then at night, I step into the fridge to cool down and preserve those elements built up during the day.” Bingo! Everyone instantly got it. In a nutshell, New Zealand wines have one common trait that links them all together: clarity of fruit and pronounced aromatics, which can be largely attributed to their inimitable and rather enviable climate.

The first wine was poured: Little Beauty Limited Edition Dry Riesling 2010. Made in minute quantities on less than 2 hectares of her Marlborough vineyard, this wine has a wonderfully inviting nose, fresh and fruity, that just screams: “taste me”. On the palate it’s dry, with a refreshing citrus zing of lemon and lime, an effervescent acidity and a soft grapefruit finish. It has great depth of flavour and a long lingering finish. It was clearly a hit with everyone in the room. And it’s not just us – the Germans have been snapping it up, and more recently, orders have been flying in from Japan.

Despite its complexity, it’s a great everyday drinking wine, or as Fleur so eloquently put it: “it’s like the lager of wine and goes great with roast pork – and”, clearly unable to keep the secret any more “this Little Beauty has just won Gold in the Decanter World Wine Awards!!!” Finally the secret was out! But the good news had to stay within the confines of the room, as the results wouldn’t be announced for another week. It was evident to all present why this wine had brought home gold, but we’d have to wait till the following Tuesday to share the good news.

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Starting a tasting with a wine that has just been awarded best in class is a bold move as it sets quite a challenge for the other wines to follow, but the second wine in the LB family – a Pinot Gris – firmly stood its ground. Fleur explained that Pinot Gris is a vigorous variety whose enthusiasm to produce bunches and bunches of dilute grapes needs to be curbed in order to preserve flavours. A lot of manual intervention is therefore required to remove excess bunches so that the vine focuses its efforts on producing concentrated grapes as opposed to numerous grapes. “This makes it the most pampered variety in the vineyard”. Pampered it may be, but deservedly so – this Little Beauty is ripe and oily and, despite the perception of sweetness, it surprisingly contains less residual sugar than the “dry” Riesling! Tangerine, vanilla and quince on the enticing nose. the palate is full and creamy with flavours of apricot, butterscotch and a hint of spice on the finish. It’s best only lightly chilled so as not to suppress the wonderful aromatics, which can be paired with a variety of flavours from nuts to smoky cheeses and pork. The pecorino and pear that L’Atitude had chosen to pair with it worked a treat.

Wine number three was a delightful Sauvignon Blanc displaying some of the classic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc traits, but without the aggressive MSB aromas that grab you by the nose and throat and leave you gasping for breath. Yes, this wine has passion fruit, mint, some gooseberry and the faintest hint of cat-pee, but all in congruent quantities – in short, this wine oozes class. There are layers and layers of intense fruit flavours, starting with mango and passion fruit, leading to a zesty citrus mid-palate, giving way to a fresh finish interwoven with basil and spearmint. Tomato can be tricky to pair with wine, but Fleur recommended trying these two together: L’Atitude’s savoury goat’s cheese and tomato loaf that was served with it echoed her recommendation beautifully.

The Sauvignon was followed by yet another surprise – a Mystery Wine, brought in especially for the occasion. With its sexy dark bottle and classy black label it certainly exuded an aura of mystery. Intrigued, we tasted, not quite sure what to expect. What followed was a real surprise – creamy, rich butterscotch with textured layers of peach – yet despite the richness, it was laced with an incredible freshness of citrus and mint. The nose was also brimming with butterscotch, but again that freshness, reminiscent of fresh herbs. So what was this mysterious wine? An oaked Chardonnay? A battonaged Pinot Gris? The clue really was in the freshness as it turned out to a barrel-fermented version of the Sauvignon Blanc, cleverly named the Black Beauty Edition. Only 200 cases were produced from a few selected rows. Following a quick harvest, the grapes are fermented in small French barriques that are at least ten to twenty years old, imparting no oak flavours, but bestowing a creaminess and richness that I have never tasted on any Sauvignon Blanc before. Stainless steel plays no part in the fermentation, nor do cultured yeasts – only local wild yeasts are used. The final verdict: Incredible!

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“Hello, you exotic Little Beauty”, Fleur greeted the penultimate wine – a Gewurztraminer bursting with aromas you’d expect from a Turkish bazaar: rose tropical and candied fruits, spice – they were all there. Fleur explained that unlike its vigorous sibling, Pinot Gris, this is a lazy variety that needs a lot of encouragement to produce ripe grapes. But when it does, it produces a wine like this one: luscious, aromatic and fruity, yet balanced by a crisp acidity with a spicy backbone. This is a versatile food wine that will go well with cheeses, Foie Gras, terrines, spicy crab and fragrant curries….and L’Atitude’s signature spicy green olive feuilletés, which provided the perfect accompaniment to this spicy number.

The evening drew to a close with the only red in the Little Beauty Family – the big brother of the clan, so to speak. While Marlborough receives over 2500 hours of sunshine, it is not really hot enough to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz, but Pinot Noir, which is a cool climate variety, fares particularly well here – and boy, does it do it do well in the hands of the Little Beauty Team. Intensely aromatic with raspberry, strawberry and a hint of black cherry on the nose with some smoky notes. The palate was packed with pure red fruits: raspberry, strawberry and red cherry with black cherry coming through on the finish. It is delightfully soft with silky tannins and a vibrant, refreshing acidity with a touch of pepper on the long finish. It is great on its own, but even better with duck, lamb or pork, or the selection of Jack McCarthy black pudding that L’Atitude had paired it with, which picked up on the pepper on the finish. And what a way to finish!

An evening of intrigue, amazing wines and delicious food, magnificently delivered in Fleur’s enchanting style. She took us on an amazing journey of her beloved homeland, embracing us like long-lost relatives – in a few short hours, this honorary Cork lady had worked her way into our hearts, proving herself a worthy wine geese representative.

We’d like to thank Fleur McCree for taking the time out of a very busy schedule to share her story and wines with us; to Maurice O’Mahony of Wine Alliance for bringing Fleur to Cork; and to the staff of L’Atitude 51 for making their Wine Workshop available and providing the wonderful canapés.

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Little Beauty Wines are imported by Wine Alliance and are widely available around the country in independent off-licences – check out the list of stores here: http://winealliance.wordpress.com/stockists/

To find out more on Little Beauty check out their website: http://www.littlebeauty.co.nz