On the Trail

The Best Wine Event Ever Hosted

Ryan Woodhouse

From the very beginning the North Canterbury, New Zealand “Forage” event was far from your average wine industry tasting. The event consisted of around thirty invitees from all around the world including journalists from London, Michelin Star Wine Directors from Hong Kong, sommeliers from Australia, and wine critics from the USA. The group of sixty (including host wineries, families and staff) was divided into smaller “parties” each tasked with activities like: game hunting, deep sea and river fishing, shoreline collecting, picking fungi, and visiting a dairy, orchards/pastures, etc. Each group then had twenty-four hours to “forage” for as much edible bounty as they could. All of this hunter–gatherer activity would then culminate in a dinner, prepared by some of NZ’s top chefs (also flown in for the event) and paired with the regions finest wines. Sounds awesome doesn’t it? Luckily I was in New Zealand this past month to participate in the best wine event ever hosted.

So how did I find myself lying on my back, on the roof of a beaten up old Toyota truck, looking up through a break in the trees, at the dazzling southern hemisphere midnight sky? Thick black forest surrounded us; there was barely a sound to be heard. The truck I was laying on had fallen into a deep, water filled trench on the almost impassible dirt track we had followed into the forest. The entire underside of the truck was bellied on hard gravel, the left side wheels suspended in the air. With no cell reception and no hope of digging the truck free we were forced to wait for help. One of our team had set out for higher ground in hope of getting signal and calling for rescue, and here I was looking out into the night sky wondering how long it would take for anyone to come. 

I seriously could have slept right there on the roof of the truck. After fifteen hours flying from San Francisco to New Zealand, a boozy thirty-six wine and food filled hours in Central Otago, another flight to Christchurch and only six hours sleep in three days, I could have fallen asleep standing up. But it was time to hunt. My friend, host, and hunting partner was Nick Gill “The Vine Tender” (aka the viticulturalist) for Tongue In Groove (one of our direct import partner wineries from NZ). We had been joined on our night mission by a couple young blokes out to hunt wild pigs and were being driven by George, the owner of the 7000 acre farm we were now stranded on. The night had started with a bang, literally, just a couple miles from the farm house I had spotted a Fallow deer with the high powered flashlight wired up to the trucks battery; quick reactions from one of the young guys standing in the bed of the truck alongside me meant we had suddenly bagged 240 pounds of venison for the next day’s dinner and only thirty minutes had passed. In hindsight we probably should have called it a night—something that became all the more apparent as minutes became hours awaiting rescue in the pitch black forest. 

Finally we heard the roar of another truck coming out of the darkness; minutes later we were winched free from the trench, loaded up again, and heading for home. The only problem was we now had just four hours to sleep before setting out again at first light on another hunting expedition. My sleep deprivation wasn’t getting any relief for now, but we did already have some serious meat to contribute to the table. The next morning Nick and I were joined by a larger company of international Somms and wine buyers. This time wild goats were the determined prey. We headed back out to George’s farm but this time on foot through thick scrub. Despite being mid-summer it was grey and thick drizzle soaked everything. We negotiated the side of a steep ravine and saw some goats across on the other side. It was a long shot but Nick thought he had found the target with his 1914 vintage rifle.

As the rest of the group stayed in place to help us spot the potential kill, Nick and I fought our way down through dense gorse and ferns. Right as we started across the creek bed at the base of the ravine to my amazement a huge wild boar came crashing out of the bushes immediately to our left a mere thirty yards away. Nick drew down the rifle and fired; a quick knife stroke later we stood, hearts pounding, over a 350 pound wild pig with three inch, razor sharp tusks protruding from his snout. Yet again, nature and good fortune had provided amazing bounty for our team; the issue now was that we had about a mile of very steep, almost impassable terrain between us and the closest 4x4 access—and we had a massive pig to carry with us. It eventually took two hours for four of us to joint up the pig and carry it in pieces back to where the four-wheeler could access. It was some of the most intense energy exertion of my life and a true team effort to get the animal back to the summit. A gallon jug of water and chocolate bar split between us was just reward and now we set off for home base: Pegasus Bay Estate.

At 3 PM all teams had to be back to present their haul. By the time we got back the table in front of the winery was overflowing with the most incredible array of wild food I had ever seen. It seems every group had exceeded all expectations; the land and sea had been incredibly generous. Things foraged included: crayfish (lobster) eels, perch, wrasse, pāua (abalone), kowhai, octopus, seaweed, coastal orach, nettles, 150 pounds of various wild mushrooms, black truffles, cherry and green gauge plums, numerous berries, sheep and goats milk (and fresh cheese), churned butter, stone ground flower from biodynamically grown barley, edible flowers by the bunch, honey, and on and on—plus now our venison and wild boar offerings. It truly was an incredible sight. The atmosphere was electric, everyone telling their stories from the night and morning before and buzzing with anticipation of what was to come.

With our hard work done, and a couple well earned beers consumed, the foraging teams were off to shower up and taste a few dozen wines from the North Canterbury host wineries (including three that we work with at K&L: Tongue In Groove, Pegasus Bay, and Grey’s Peak). The real challenge now lay ahead for the chefs. They had to take these truly raw ingredients and transform them in them into a dinner for sixty people in the space of four hours. I would have been overwhelmed by such a task, but you could literally see inspiration in their eyes as they perused the hoard spread along the bowing table. I knew we were in for a real treat. 

After a shower and power nap (much needed now working on ten hours sleep in four days) it was down to business. Each winery that collaborated on hosting the forage had brought their full line up. North Canterbury is real pinot country. The soils are largely a clay/limestone mix in which this fickle beauty seems to thrive. The pinots are typically quite exotic with soft texture and very fine, malleable tannins. Aromatic varietals excel here too. Typically planted on the alluvial gravel, flatter sections; the rieslings on offer were exceptional. Most a dry or just off dry style; again notable exotic flavors and expression, quite different to the more strict, linear, schist defined wines of Central Otago from a couple days earlier. A cross-section of the rieslings on offer here showed a broader, weightier style, rounder textures and subtle, well judged hints of botrytis adding extra dimensions and personality.  It was a great tasting; so useful to get a real panoramic view of North Canterbury/Waipara wines on a day when we were all feeling so intimately connected with the land. The generosity and dynamic energy of the region that had provided such abundance during our Forage was also very clear to see here in the terroir of these wines. They are wines of expressive flavor and purity, softness and liberality.

As the sun set we headed back to Pegasus Bay winery, the venue for our upcoming feast. Upon arrival we were presented with the first offerings of what was to be a long and glorious evening. One highlight was a passed appetizer of pickled Yellow Eyed Mullet with sea boxthorn berries and flowers, coastal orach and samphire. Soon it was time for the main event; as we took our seats at each place setting was a menu printed on handmade, artisan paper also made earlier that day. What followed was one of the best and most interesting meals of my life:

Crayfish Ceviche, Green Gauge Plum, Orach Leaf, raw Quail egg, shaved Truffle

Shellfish broth, Fish, Seaweed, wild herbs, Flowers, Saffron

Smoked Kowhai sashimi, Coastal Orach, braised Octopus, Watercress and Cherry Plum salad 

Biodynamic Barley cooked in Goat’s milk with Sheep’s milk Curds and Leek flowers

Baked Fish (Blue Cod, Scarlet Wrasse, Perch) Nettles, Kerengo Butter

Grilled Crayfish, wild cherry plums and tarragon butter

Three Little Pigs, Fallow Venison Loin, Seaweed, beach herbs, wild mushrooms

Honey Cake, Red Wine Vinegar Currants, Berries, Plum Tonic of Kawakawa and Mint

This unbelievable feast was served with an array of library wines from all of the host wineries. Drinking them proved undeniably that as delicious as the new release wines were earlier that afternoon, the best was still to come as they clearly have the potential to age magnificently. Perhaps it was because I was involved so intimately with the creation of the dish, but the stand out for me had to be the wild boar and venison course. Wild pig cooked three ways: braised, roasted over an open wood fire and tender loins trimmed, marinated in pinot noir, wrapped in kelp before being grilled over wood. A seared venison loin medallion was on the plate, too; a rich broth, shavings of liver and heart, rich, earthy roasted mushrooms; it was a dish tailor-made for pinot noir and the Tongue In Groove and Pegasus Bay pinots hit mark perfectly; a truly unforgettable pairing.

Whilst we ate so well and nature provided so generously, there was a huge level of respect and environmental sensitivity that went into this meal. Almost everything foraged was used, the cuts of meat that weren’t (largely the legs/ shoulders of the wild boar/deer) were taken by the host families or salted down and are being cured into prosciutto/charcuterie for next year’s event. Excess vegetables were pickled, fruits preserved; the event is evolving into a multi-annual format so nothing is wasted. To sum up the forage event I would say that it was the perfect union of place, season and people. I truly believe in a broad, holistic, notion of terroir not only including the soil and climate but also the culture, emotion and energy of the people that live on the land. This day proved to me that this terroir of North Canterbury is one of the deepest and most special I have ever encountered.

-Ryan Woodhouse