Through confusion that The Rees Hotel at New Zealand’s Queenstown accepts full responsibility for, Felton Road winemaker Blair Walter is running decidedly late.
But, hey, Mark Rose, the hotel’s chief exec and MC for the night, assures me, we still have a wine dinner: “We have a chef with a very capable team, we have all the wines and between us you and I can wing the commentary.”
Fortunately, Mark gives a sterling performance filling in until Blair arrives and I don’t need to get involved.
And the hotel’s Executive Chef, Ben Batterbury, can obviously take care of himself. He’s quietly spoken but quite prepared to throw a few cats among the pigeons, both commentary-wise and in terms of thinking up a string of dishes that will do full justice to a range of some of the world’s top pinot noirs book-ended by a couple of chardonnays.
The main contention comes from his penultimate dish, designed to accompany the Felton Road 2017 Bannockburn Pinot Noir — no, that has nothing to do with Bannockburn winery in Victoria; rather it’s a sub-region of Central Otago and recognised as one of the world’s leading sources of pinot noir.
He’s made a savoury cheesecake from Kaikoura Tenara, a ripe rather feral ash-coated goats-milk cheese, from further north on the South Island of New Zealand.
I’m loving both the dish and the food-wine pairing, but others at our table aren’t so sure. One, indeed, feels that the dish offends the palate and that it hence does the wine an injustice.
Otherwise, Ben mostly has the diners onside, as he leads them through a string of dishes — first-season asparagus served with, among other delights, torched hake and pink grapefruit; peking duck (breast and confit leg with soba noodles, shitake mushrooms, micro-coriander, etc); and churrasco (grilled beef picanha and cheeks with accompaniments such as chimichurri and farrofa, a tasted cassava-flour mixture from Brazil) — that go famously with, respectively, Felton Road’s 2013 Block 2 Chardonnay, 2014 Cornish Point Pinot Noir and 2009 Block 5 Pinot Noir.
And the night’s final combination has the tables humming — Felton Road 2017 Bannockburn Chardonnay offered alongside what Ben has termed ‘Old School for New School’ — steamed golden-syrup sponge, stewed apples and salted caramel ice cream.
It was, in short, a vinous and culinary triumph, but I really shouldn’t have been surprised.
I’d eaten a couple of nights before in the Rees main dining room — True South — and experienced the delights of Ben’s cooking through small serves of half-a-dozen-or-so specialties selected on the night.
The restaurant, with its view of The Remarkables, is a special place that doubles as a gorgeous haven in which to start the day with a scrumptious breakfast, and Ben’s food is certainly special.
William Gilbert (the given names, as we’ll see, are central in this story) Rees lived from 1827 to 1898 and was an English prospector and explorer who founded Queenstown and, incidentally, played cricket for New South Wales, Otago and Canterbury.
And it’s this love for cricket that makes the given names so important. William’s godson and cousin was William Gilbert Grace, one of the most important names in all cricket. And it was William Rees who presented the young WG Grace with his first cane-handled bat and provided him with the lessons to use it.
Hence, on that score alone, it’s fitting that one of Queenstown’s top addresses — The Rees Hotel, Luxury Apartments & Lakeside Residences — should bear his name.
And what an address 377 Frankton Road is. Stretched along the front of an arm of Lake Wakatipu, the accommodation offers truly fabulous views of The Remarkables from rooms that are large, comfortable and exquisitely fitted out. And while it might take a while for the water to run hot, when it does it’s plentiful and of great pressure.
And the towels are truly plush.
Oh, and a word of warning about flying to New Zealand. The place may be close enough to Australia’s east coast to have once been considered a likely state — heaven help them — but it is an international flight and hence carries many of the associated time constraints.
That means leaving plenty of time to do things at the airport, and I can assure readers that staying at the Mantra Hotel at Sydney Airport on the way there and the way back made things a breeze, especially when the journey involved train travel from and to the country.
I like the Mantra and feel quite at home there. It seems just across the road from the road from the runway and if you score the right room you really do feel part of the action … though efficient glazing ensures that the take-offs and landings barely intrude.
And what a pleasure it is the evening before a flight to enjoy a wine or two and a meal in the hotel’s in-house restaurant. And if you want to economise or have lunch there’s a Maccas just round the corner and well within walking distance.
Talking of walking distance, Mantra is within range of both Sydney’s domestic terminals, but not of the international terminal, which can be reached by easily ordered shuttle bus.
If you’re driving to the hotel, there’s plenty of on-site parking at an overnight charge of $35. If you’re getting a train I’d suggest travelling to Mascot Suburban, then catching a cab from there.
That way you’ll avoid the ire of a cab driver who’s queued at the Domestic Terminal — and probably paid a hefty fee — and also avoid the exorbitant rail fare associated with travelling to one of the terminals.
IF YOU GO
The Rees Hotel: 377 Frankton Road, Queenstown, New Zealand; visit www.therees.co.nz
Mantra Sydney Airport: 3 Ross Smith Ave, Mascot; phone 131 517; visit www.mantra.com.au
John Rozentals was a guest of The Rees and Mantra Hotel at Sydney Airport.