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Cold shivers: An ode to New Zealand's own Cold Duck wine

This column has had occasion to look at unfortunate experiments with alcoholic beverages before. Of the many regrettable libations that litter our past, however, surely none is likelier to induce a sentimental shudder in those who sampled it than the sparkling little number that went by the name of Cold Duck, brought to you by (among others) the house of Montana.

It sits on the nostalgia shelf alongside Blue Nun, Marque Vue and porcupines made out of grapefruit with cheese cubes on toothpicks all over them.

Cold Duck had its origins far, far away. According to legend, one Prince Clemens Wenceslaus of Saxony, desperate for a bevy at the end of a night’s carousing, mixed together all the dregs lying around his banquet hall, called it Cold End and knocked it back.

This evolved into a concoction that was equal parts Mosel, Rhine wine and Champagne and almost certainly tasted nothing like Montana’s Cold Duck, although the local name derives from the German original. The legend is now believed to be untrue.

An American variety was also popular for a long time, but there was no need to aspire to foreign versions when we could make our own Cold Duck perfectly well here. 

When an unopened 1973 bottle was discovered in Blenheim last year, it elicited this febrile report in the Marlborough Express, whose accuracy is hopefully commensurate with its salaciousness, referring to Cold Duck as “the red sparkling stuff that made housewives giddy at 5pm in the 80s… it had the unfortunate nickname of the ‘knicker stripper’.”

Thoroughly derided by most, Cold Duck has at least one respectable defender in Cloudy Bay winemaker Sarah Burton, who understands that wine is not just about hitting the right notes. “My most memorable wine experience [was when] I was at university,” she told website Wine-Searcher. “We stopped for fish and chips and cracked open a bottle of Cold Duck. It made a moment something special. Wine is really cool like that. It’s not necessarily about the wine; it’s what the wine does for a group of friends.”

In 1997, Montana celebrated its 25th anniversary and put Cold Duck back on the market and at centre stage, as the only sparkling wine served at one celebration, to the bemusement of many. As the National Business Review reported, it “was an intriguing choice to showcase. Almost undrinkable in its original form, Cold Duck has been relaunched with a cute 1970s treatment by Saatchi & Saatchi. It’s still undrinkable but less so.”

Montana even drafted in poet Kevin Ireland to come up with a verse called “Cold Duck”. With his characteristic lightness of touch, and a wit much drier than the wine it celebrates, he wrote:

Do you remember
those dazzling times
of dances, parties,
food and wine,
the midnight swims,
the talk, the tunes,
and the corks we aimed
at the summer moon?

More recently, Cold Duck has even become the vinous equivalent of a political scapegoat. In 2014, Prime Minister John Key praised the wine industry’s economic performance and diversification, pointing out how far it had come since the time of his wedding, when all he’d been able to offer guests was Cold Duck and Marque Vue.

He had a point. Like many other unlamented past products of our food and wine industry, Cold Duck may have been most important for convincing consumers – and winemakers – that there had to be something better than this.