Aside from New Zealand being a dream travel destination for me, it was also a dream wine destination for me, a fairly serious wino. New Zealand has produced some of the world’s best white wines, in my opinion, and tasting as many of them as possible was high on my list for our trip. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has always been a go to white wine purchase and recommendation for me, especially from my favorite producer Cloudy Bay. As we made our way north to south, we stopped in three of New Zealand’s largest wine producing regions: Martinborough on the north island, Marlborough in the north of the south island, and Central Otago on the southern end of the south island.
The two biggest wine producing regions on New Zealand’s north island are Hawke’s Bay and Martinborough. Hawke’s Bay is inconveniently located off the main highway from Auckland to Wellington by a good two and half hours, where as Martinborough is a short hour drive from Wellington itself. We chose to visit Martinborough in the interest of saving gas and time.Unlike the rest of the winemaking areas in NZ, Martinborough is known more for their red wines than their white wines. Pinot Noir is the local gem, though vinified much differently here than other places around the world. The Pinot Noirs from this area tend to be more fruit forward and jammy, with hints of caramel and warmth. An intriguing contradiction to the rest of the world’s pinot noir, which is lightly fruity with earthy flavors. Interesting. Must Investigate.
We visited a few vineyards in addition to a small tasting room in town, sampling wines from Hudson, Schubert, Big Sky Wines, Martinborough Vineyard, and Ata Rangi. Standing out for me were still my standby white wines. The Schubert 2007 Sauvignon Blanc was mild and fruity on the finish, but crisp on the palate – bright and exciting. Another favorite was the Ata Rangi 2009 Chardonnay, which was refreshing and fruity, but balanced by an oaky-ness that didn’t over power the wine. If I had to choose a red to highlight it would be the 2009 Martinborough Vineyard Burnt Spur Pinot Noir. After a toasty nose, it displayed a mature berry flavor that was oddly light but bold.
Once we crossed over to the South Island, I began counting the days until I could visit my beloved Cloudy Bay – the winery that is responsible for my obsession with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Though Marlborough is the biggest wine producing region in all of New Zealand and has almost 80 wineries, only a fraction are exported to the US, making most of the labels unknown to me. The fact that the majority of the vineyards were new made our selection of cellar doors to visit more mysterious, even though I knew it would ultimately culminate with a pilgrimage to Cloudy Bay. Over the few days we spent in Blenheim, we visited almost ten vineyards and sampled dozens of wines. The landscaping of the area is thick with eucalyptus and the small one lane highways are flanked in every direction with right-on-the-road vineyards. Mountains leer over the vines in the distance and the cool sea fog blankets the valleys when the sun sets. Our campsite, which sat across the street from vineyards of course, was cold enough during the night that we had to purchase an extra blanket to keep us warm.
Fromm, Gibson’s Ridge, Forrest, Nautilus – all vineyards we visited, all unknown before our arrival. Forrest hits the nail on the head with their 2007 Chardonnay, a well balanced fruity wine with a slight hint of warm oaky-ness. The 2010 Pinot Gris also excelled with its oily mouth feel and interplay with acidity and sweetness. But, still, nothing lived up to my precious Cloudy Bay. A visit to the cellar door gives you the opportunity to taste wines not exported and wines not available anywhere but at the source. The 2007 Te KoKo Sauvignon Blanc was fantastic. The Te KoKo is a slightly oaked Sauvignon Blanc which finds a new level of balance between crisp citrus flavor and warmth. I could have stayed all day to drink this wine and bought cases of it to bring home had it not been such a splurge into our traveling budget. Instead, we opted to purchase a bottle of a cellar-door only Pinot Noir. Finally – a red! The 2008 Mustang Pinot Noir was the first red I have loved from New Zealand. It’s combination of earthy tones and fruit flavors made it a perfect find for us. And it was a great wine to drink on my 30th birthday, which was coming up quickly (way to quickly!) in Australia.
After a few weeks of meandering through the south island, we landed in Cromwell, the main town within the Central Otago wine region. This is the most southern wine producing area in the world, though it still enjoys hot summers and mild winters. Its high elevation also gives it a stunningly unique type of landscape, which sets it apart from other regions I’ve visited. Gone are the vast open valleys of the mostly flat vineyards of California and Mendoza, gone are the ocean breezes of Marlborough. I’ve not even been to the steep vineyards on the Rhine and the Mosel, but gone are the steep sun-facing mountainsides of the German and Alsatian vineyards. Here, the landscape reminds me of the dry valleys in the American West – eroded hillsides giving way to colored rocks and soils, mountains up close and in the distance. Hills, flat lands, sharp cliffs are all around. Being at a winery here was like being at a vineyard plunked in the middle of Thunder Mountain Railroad, the ride at Disneyland. But with more grapes. And less screaming children.
The wines were good, with only a few that were memorable. Carrick, Bannockbrae, Mt. Difficulty. All set in beautiful areas with sweeping views. Bald Hills, a small winery with little exportation, delivered our favorite – a 2008 Single Vineyard Pinot Noir, which hinted at mushrooms and cherries with good tannins. (This wine won the Wine of the Year award in 2011 from WineState, the oldest wine publication in Australia). Though not a star in the glass, Central Otago was a star of our wine-travel experience and a highlight of mine from New Zealand.
A trip through New Zealand, in my opinion, would not be complete without a serious delve into the wine world. Little pockets of wineries exist all over both islands, which have sculpted the economy, lifestyle, and culture of the country. Though New Zealand still remains mainly a travel destination for outdoor lovers and adrenaline junkies, a little glass of wine at the end of each day makes the Kiwi experience a little sweeter.
Check it out: TravelShus’ Wine Notes