One of the considerable pleasures of travel in New Zealand is the chance to try some of the country’s admirable wines. The first wine was made in 1839 by a Scotsman named James Busby. In the ensuing years, little of note happened. A vigorous temperance movement put a damper on most ventures. It wasn’t until the 1960s that wine could be sold in restaurants by the bottle, and then only until 10 p.m.
But the potential was always there. Located roughly equidistant from the South Pole and the Equator, New Zealand enjoys a cool maritime climate, just the kind that grapes favor for gentle ripening. And given the long, narrow shape of the North and South islands, no vineyard is more than 80 miles from the sea. The wine culture of today began to grow in the 1980s, its momentum sparked by the advent of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc. This became a wine that created excitement all over the world. New Zealand now has more than 700 producers making wines from 25 different kinds of grapes.
Sauvignon Blanc remains a star varietal and has been joined by Pinot Noir. Other wines to look for include Cabernets (often in Bordeaux-style blends), Chardonnays and sparkling wines.
Wine production spans almost the entire length of the country, from the top of the North Island all the way down to the southern part of the South Island. It began in the Northland region, smallest of all the wine areas in the country, and spread south to Auckland. Both areas have declined in importance, as has the Gisborne region to the southeast, but all still turn out wines of note. Hawke’s Bay, on the island’s central Pacific coast, is also one of the older wine regions in New Zealand, and now is the second largest. Its most notable wines include Merlots — often part of Bordeaux-style blends — Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. The Wairarapa/Martinborough region, situated at the south end of the North Island, is small but turns out Pinot Noirs of distinction.
The northern end of the South Island hosts two regions: Nelson, which devotes most of its acreage to white varietals; and Marlborough, the largest wine-producing area of the country. In both, the star is Sauvignon Blanc. On the central Pacific coast, the Canterbury/Waipara region makes good Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs, while the Central Otago region, near Queenstown, holds the distinction of being the southernmost wine-producing region in the world. Unquestionably, Otago's Pinot Noirs command center stage, with some Rieslings and Pinot Gris in supporting roles.
When you visit wineries, you will come across the term “cellar door.” I find it an appealing alternative to the prosaic “tasting room” that you encounter in the United States. In New Zealand, the wineries tend to offer more guided tastings and also have some kind of food experience attached, whether food pairings with the wine tastings or a restaurant on the premises.
Here are producers whose wines I think you will find worth trying in the course of your travels:
Finding a wine that surprises is always fun, and Kumeu does just that with its Chardonnay. Although this is a New World country, I find the Kumeu Chardonnays more like white Burgundies with an appealing earthiness, along with notes of walnuts and a rich, palate-pleasing fullness that, for all its power, exhibits a nice finesse. The higher-end Mate’s Vineyard bottling is even more assertive.
This winery, which dates to 1896, has earned a reputation for making some of the finest wines in the country. I especially like the Coleraine, a rich, always rewarding Bordeaux-style blend. Te Mata also stands out for its Sauvignon Blancs, most notably the Estate Vineyards bottling.
My affection for this winery stems from a lunch with the owners when it opened in 1997. I have long been a fan of their Pinot Noir, a superb wine with wonderful red berry boldness, a bit of pepper and just a little earthy note. The surprise for me has been the Le Sol Syrah from the Gimblett Gravels vineyard in Hawke’s Bay. Syrah is not a varietal often associated with New Zealand, but this is a real standout with ripe red fruit character and an elegant finish.
I like the New Zealand Pinot Noirs for their vibrant ready-to-drink qualities when they are young. But, like any other generalization, there are exceptions. While you could enjoy Ata Rangi’s younger Pinots, they are even more attractive when they have aged. Then, they exhibit real elegance and sophistication.
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blancs are probably the best-known New Zealand wine. The nose has a nice dash of citrus, which is always a plus for me with Sauvignon Blanc. I find the palate complex and compelling.
Whenever I have found guests skeptical about New Zealand wines, this Sauvignon Blanc has been the one I’ve poured for them. And I have come to enjoy the Villa Maria Riesling as well, with its pleasant aspects of peach and apricot. It is a terrific accompaniment to Southeast Asian dishes that you often find on New Zealand menus.
The Donaldson family has been engaged with Pegasus Bay winery since the 1970s. Their Pinot Noir has strong red berry character with a touch of black cherry, as well as a pleasant note of spice. The Riesling is also worth trying.
The central Otago region on the South Island makes wonderful Pinot Noirs, and the Wild Earth Pinot Noir 2011 is one of the most noteworthy. Here you find flavors of red berries, with an alluring undertone that seems rich in mushroom notes.