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New Zealand Odyssey
By Rebecca Murphy
Jun 3, 2014
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I’ve just returned from New Zealand, and confess that I’m still jetlagged and absorbing the experience.  I’ve wanted to go for a long time, but it’s so far away, I wondered if I wanted to go all that way for…Sauvignon Blanc?  My husband and I decided to take a two-week break to go halfway around the world for some down time, and to visit a few wineries.  My expectations were modest based upon my lack of knowledge and imagination.  I wasn’t surprised that it was stunningly beautiful.  I’ve seen “Lord of the Rings,” after all.  So happily, my expectations were exceeded.  And, I learned that there is much more to New Zealand wines than Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.  With organizational assistance and guidance from Wines of New Zealand, the trip went exceedingly well.

We started out in Auckland and drove south.  Our first stop, Hawkes’ Bay, is the second largest wine production area with almost 17,000 acres in production representing 11 percent of total national production.  Merlot is the most planted with about 2560 acres and Sauvignon Blanc is next with around 2480 acres, followed by Chardonnay with 2460.  Pinot Gris, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Malbec are also significant plantings.

We saw a couple of examples of very different approaches to wine production and operation of a winery business.  Craggy Range shows what can be done with plenty of money and a desire to create a family legacy (contributed by Aussie businessman Terry Peabody) and extensive viticultural knowledge, expertise and vision (brought by Master of Wine Steve Smith).  The home of the Craggy Range operation is Giants Winery, a grand and beautiful building with all the winemaking bells and whistles sitting in the shadow of Te Mata Peak.  It boasts an elegant visitor tasting room, a fine dining restaurant and several luxurious guesthouses that are available for booking to the public.

Peabody and Smith determined from the beginning to make single vineyard wines based on Smith’s observations of the quality of wines coming from different regions resulting from his extensive consulting experience throughout the country.  That decision has served them well.  We tasted a selection of current wines with Matt Stafford, chief winemaker, and found them to be elegant and distinctive across the board.  Particularly noteworthy was the Martinborough Te Muna Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 ($42), showing savory black cherry fruit with floral highlights gracefully structure with vibrant acidity and silky tannins.  The 2011 vintage of the Gimblett Gravels Syrah ($30 for 2010) and the Syrah called “Le Sol” ($90 for 2009) are not available in the US yet.  The Syrah is a blend of seven different clones while the Le Sol is made from one clone. They are both structured more like northern Rhône Syrahs, powerful, yet light on their feet.  Finally, the Bordeaux-style red blend with 60 percent Merlot, “Sophia” 2011 ($67), shows how impressive that variety can be when grown in the right place.  The fruit is dense with black cherry and cassis with notes of dark chocolate integrated with zesty acidity and polished tannins.  Craggy Range wines are imported by Kobrand Corporation.

Tim Turvey of Clearview Winery is an innovative, DIY, let-nothing-go-to-waste kind of guy.  He bought the property for his Te Awanga vineyards and winery in 1986.  He and business partner Helma van den Berg grafted and planted vines, set posts and ran the trellising wires in the vineyards and pruned the vines themselves, adding three acres per year.  They planted olive, avocado, citrus and bay trees, designed and built the winery.  Today, you can have a delicious meal in the winery restaurant, stay in one of their holiday guesthouses, buy wines from the cellar door, stroll though the gardens or watch the sheep grooming the grass in the vineyards.  It’s a funky, comfortable, laid-back place.

An example of Turvey’s ingenuity is his use of shipping containers as barrel fermenting rooms.  His winemaking space is chock-a-block with stacks of barrels and tanks, some made by him, of all sorts with just enough room to squeeze through.  His wines, especially the aromatic whites are outstanding.  However, Turvey only exports ten percent of his production.  His US importer is Neal Empson, who currently shows only an Unwooded and a Reserve Chardonnay in his portfolio.  We tasted the 2012 and 2013 Reserve Chardonnays, both of which showed rich, round tropical fruit with decisive acidity to keep the tongue begging for more.

The smallest of the wine regions we visited with 2400 acres in production was the Wairarapa, about an hour north of Wellington, the jumping off point to the South Island.  However, it includes Gladstone and Masterton as well as Martinborough, arguably the best region for Pinot Noir.  The town of Martinborough is quite small and can be a difficult place to find dinner after 6 pm, but it is the home of Pinot fanatics.  They were lured here by a report by Dr. Derek Milne of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research published in the late 1970s that identified Martinborough as possible high quality wine country because of climate and soil conditions similar to Burgundy.

Thirty plus years later, half the vineyards in production are planted to Pinot Noir.  We kept hearing about the Martinborough Terrace, but didn’t understand its significance until we were shown areas where the terrace area slopes down to the riverbed.  The terrace, about six tenths of a mile wide and almost two miles long, was created over 20,000 years by the Ruamahanga River.  On the terrace the soils are deep, rocky and very well drained, good for wine grapes.  The Te Muna Valley where Craggy Range has their vineyard has similar terracing above the Huarangarua River.

We visited Martinborough Vineyard, which was established by Milne and a group of investors.  It’s the home of one of the oldest Pinot Noir vineyards in New Zealand.  Mark Field, General Manager, told us that Foley Family Estates has recently taken over the winery.  It may be a bit difficult to find their wines in the US right now, but look for their Te Tera 2013 Pinot Noir; the very thought of it makes me smile.  It has charming cherry, berry fruit with a savory character, bright acidity and silken tannins. It’s a joy to drink.

Palliser Estate was started in 1986 with its first vintage in 1989.  They grow primarily Pinot Noir. And Sauvignon Blanc follows with smaller amounts of Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.  Our host Pip Goodwin, Associate Winemaker showed us their full line of wines, including an excellent sparkling wine, although only their Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are available in the U. S.  The 2013 Sauvignon Blanc ($16.50) is very delicate with well integrated pink grapefruit, blood orange flavors with light herbal notes.  It’s subtle, yet persistent with a graceful structure.  Their wines are imported to the U.S. by Negociants USA.

New Zealand’s largest and most widely known wine region is Marlborough on the South Island.  It represents 73 percent of the country’s wine grapes, with 57,408 acres in production and over 75 percent of those grapes are,--you guessed it--Sauvignon Blanc.  However, Marlborough does have almost 6,000 acres of Pinot Noir, 2500 plus acres of Chardonnay and 2300 or so acres of Pinot Gris. It is also exciting to see vintners playing with Albariño, Arneis, Grüner Veltliner, Syrah and a few other unexpected varieties.

Certainly one of the first New Zealand wineries I heard about was Cloudy Bay.  We had the opportunity to visit with winemaker, Nick Blampied-Lane, who started working with Senior Winemaker, Tim Heath, in 2003.  We tasted their range of wines, some of which are not imported to the U.S., including a lovely sparkling wine, “Pelorus.”  I highly recommend the Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($43).  The fruit is the same that goes into their regular Sauvignon Blanc, but it is barrel-fermented with naturally occurring yeast, then aged for 16-18 months in barrel.  It’s similar in style to a white Bordeaux with the expected citrus herbal aromas and flavors, but layered with vanilla, stone fruit, creamy lemon curd.  It’s round and full in the mouth with vivid acidity to keep all the richness afloat.  The U.S. importer is Moët Hennessy USA.

Across Jacksons Road from Cloudy Bay is Allen Scott Family Winemakers.  Scott was involved in planting Marlborough’s first vineyard in 1973.  After working for a couple of major wine companies he and his wife Catherine, a native of Marlborough, planted a vineyard and grew grapes for others, then started their own winery in 1990.  Their children eventually became involved in the family business that includes a restaurant at the winery.  Importer is Allan Scott Wines USA in Huntsville, AL.

The Brancott Heritage Center, overlooking the Brancott Valley, is owned by Pernod Ricard.  Brancott started life as Montana, the company that planted, with Allen Scott’s help, the first Marlborough vineyard.  The impressive, modern building houses a visitor center and restaurant.  Greg Harris, one of the winemaking team was our guide through the range of wines, including Flight Song, Stoneleigh, and Brancott.  It was an impressive trip.  It’s easy to dismiss large, multinational winery companies as soul-less factories, but Harris showed us that each brand had a style with different quality level goals, and those quality goals were achieved.  Two new wines, a Sauvignon Blanc and a Pinot Gris with the name “Flight Song” ($15) are purposefully grown and made to finish relatively dry with an alcohol level under 10 percent.  In the U.S. they are marketed as low calorie wines.  Each wine is very appealing with appropriate varietal character and pleasing flavors and mouthfeel.

The Forrest winery is owned and operated by Drs. John and Brigid Forrest.  We got to visit their vineyard in Brancott Valley where they are growing Arneis, Albariño, Petit Mansang, and Grüner Veltliner among others.  “The Doctor’s” label gives them freedom to innovate, so that’s where those trial plantings of grapes are going.  It’s also the label that fronts their low alcohol Sauvignon Blanc.  The 2012 vintage sells for $18.  Their importer is Pacific Prime Wines.

Nautilus Estate, owned by the Michael Hill-Smith family of Yalumba in South Australia, is really two wineries in one.  The Pinot Noir winery was built in 2000 to handle and move the finicky grapes by gravity and avoid the use of pumps, which can bruise grapes and extract bitter tannins.  The white winery was completed in 2006 and includes a hydraulic tipping drainer that helps manage skin contact with Sauvignon Blanc.  Winemaker Clive Jones proudly pointed out a state-of-the-art filter that is so smart it cleans its filter when needed.  “We can start the filter on a tank before we leave for the day and the job will be finished when we come back in the morning,” he said.  “You don’t mind completing a task when it’s easy.”  The 2011 Pinot Noir ($25) is a graceful wine with all you want from a Pinot:  Pretty berry cherry fruit with a savory component, crisp acidity and burnished tannins.  Negociants USA markets Nautilus.

So, I’ve learned just enough to realize I have a lot more to learn about New Zealand and its wines.  Can’t wait to go back!