Earlier this year, I got a phone call from the New Zealand Wine Growers association. The Kiwis were on my case. After 20-odd years as a wine writer (some of them more odd than others), I had still never visited this Southern Hemisphere powerhouse, the last remaining wine region in the solar system that hadn’t felt the imprint of my size 10 vineyard-hoppers. They thought it was high time I flew down under and had a first-hand look — with good reason.
First of all, New Zealand is gorgeous. If you’ve seen either installment of Peter Jackson’s film version of Lord of the Rings, which was shot there, you probably have some idea of how far my jaw dropped when I took my first glance at the scenery. Seen up close and personal, the landscape outshines the movie version by a factor of 10. I seriously considered buying a chunk of real estate and retiring on the spot ... until I remembered I had dry cleaning to pick up.
Scenery aside, the real story for wine lovers is that New Zealand has become a hotbed of world-class winemaking. Even though vines were planted in New Zealand by an Anglican missionary in the early 19th century, the country still makes only about a tenth as much wine as Australia. But big things are happening now. Here are three excellent varietals to check out.
Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc Te Muna Road Vineyard Martinborough 2002 ($18)
Craggy Range is one of New Zealand’s newest and most promising wineries, producing only single-vineyard varietals. Terry Peabody was in the hospitality industry in Canada and Australia when he got excited about New Zealand white wines in the late 1990s. He wound up buying North Island property in both Hawke’s Bay (for Chardonnay) and in Martinborough (for Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc). Steve Smith, in charge of winemaking and viticulture at Craggy Range, has the unusual distinction of holding a Master of Wine diploma, a degree usually sought by academically oriented writers and wine-trade insiders.
The 2002 Sauvignon Blanc is the first vintage from these vines in the Te Muna Road Vineyard, planted in the year 2000. As amazing as it is now, this vineyard, with its compositionally unique soil structure, should continue to improve as the vines age. The 2002 has gobs of lush, peachy fruit and lovely, smooth texture backed by mineral tones.
Matua Valley Chardonnay Gisborne 2002 ($11)
Many of New Zealand’s historically important wineries have their homes in the Auckland area, where the country’s wine industry had a growth spurt in the early 20th century, fueled mainly by Yugoslavian immigrants. These days, the grapes are usually sourced from elsewhere, as urban expansion continues to claim former vineyard land and as vineyardists find better vineyard sites in new regions. Matua Valley dates back to 1974 which, considering all the new wineries springing up in New Zealand these days, makes it one of the country’s more venerable producers.
The company is part of the Beringer Blass group of wineries and has a large portfolio of wines, from inexpensive varietals to top-tier offerings. Only a small number of Matua Valley wines are exported to the States at present, but more will be arriving in the near future. The 2002 Chardonnay, from Gisborne, delivers crisp, tangy acidity and smooth, racy fruit.
Villa Maria Reserve Pinot Noir Marlborough 2001 ($37)
The beautiful Marlborough region, on the northeast corner of New Zealand’s South Island, is the biggest and probably the best-known of all the country’s winegrowing areas, mainly because of its excellent Sauvignon Blanc. But Pinot Noir is the up-and-coming varietal here. Even though a good percentage of these grapes still wind up being used for sparkling wine production, Pinot Noir is fast becoming a New Zealand specialty with at least as much promise as Sauvignon Blanc, if not more. Being a Pinot fanatic, I was particularly impressed with these wines on my recent visit.
Villa Maria was founded in 1961 by George Fistonich, the son of a Croatian immigrant. Fistonich is now the managing director of the Villa Maria Group, a large producer headquartered in Auckland but making wines from various New Zealand appellations. Lush and ripe with intense berry fruit and lovely texture, the rich 2001 Reserve Pinot Noir is complex and bright in the way great Pinot Noir should be.
Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc Te Muna Road Vineyard Martinborough 2002
minerally and peachy
perfect with freshwater fish; try it with steaks or chops
Matua Valley Chardonnay Gisborne 2002
serve with summer salads
Villa Maria Reserve Pinot Noir Marlborough 2001
a great match for game