The New Zealand Wine website (the trade group for nation’s winegrowers) describes the Nelson/Tasman region, where some of the country’s best wine is produced, as “slightly off the beaten track“.
I would beg to differ. At the end of an afternoon with Vintage Wine Tours, a company that specializes in wine tasting, I’d have to say that Nelson is at the very epicenter of the action.
Located on the Northern tip of the South Island, this region is blessed with high sunshine hours, a sheltered, moderating coastal climate and free-draining, semi-fertile soil. (Yes, semi-fertile, even gravelly soil is what you want to produce great grapes).
The Nelson area produces outstanding Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and a mix of emerging varieties. These include Albariño, Reisling, Viogier and others.
There’s a century and a half of viticulture in this neighborhood–German settlers first grew grapes here in the mid-19th century. It’s also been a center of production for tobacco, hops and apples ever since. The latter two are still cultivated here.
According to Rod Malcolm, founder of Vintage Wine Tours (who deftly guided us around), the top three wines in the area are Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.
“Both Marlborough and Nelson grow the same grapes,” says Malcolm. “In both places, the cooler temperature is more suited for white wine so other than Pinot Noir, you’re generally not going to find people growing grapes for reds.”
Taking the Tour
Rod picked us up in his van at around noon at our Airbnb in Nelson, the largest town in the area. There were only four guests in his van and this is typical. Rod limits the size of his groups so that he can make a real connection with his clients.
Our first stop was the Whenua Matua vineyard, located in the Moutere Hills region. This is where grapes for the Aronui brand are grown. Whenua Matua translates as “significant land” and has the distinction of being located on Maori tribal land. It’s the only Maori-owned winery in New Zealand and is a place of historic importance and reverence.
We had the opportunity to taste Aronui wine in the midst of their vineyard. Rod pulled up a gravel road, parked the van and carried a refrigerated bag packed with half a dozen bottles which he placed on a picnic table. Informal, it was, but we had spectacular views of the mountains in Kahurangi National Park, including Mt. Pukeone, the ancestral mountain of the tribes of the neighboring town of Motueka.
At the edge of the vineyard Rongo, the kaitiaki or guardian of this land, surveys the vineyard. According to Jonny Hiscox, who oversees operations at the vineyard, the Rongo symbolically connects Papa, and Rangi respectively the embodiment of Earth, Sea and Sky. (Rod mentioned that Rongo has a ‘twin brother’ guarding the company’s other vineyards in Marlborough).
Not only does Rongo protect the grapes but it seems to have enhanced the final product. The wine we tasted from this vineyard was superb.
The first bottle was an Albariño which we had on a least one other occasion (at the Te Awa winery in Napier). This is a fruity grape that in Portugal often ends up as Vino Verde, an effervescent summer wine that is spectacular with grilled sardines. I give the Aronui (2015) version a thumb’s up. The other wines we liked from this winery were the Pinot Gris (2016) and the Chardonnay (2014).
The second stop was Kina Beach Vineyards, a boutique vineyard owned by a Swiss family. It has some amazing views of the Tasman Sea and some nifty couples-only accommodations on the property for at NZ$250 per night in a cottage and NZ$400 in a former 1930s era schoolhouse.
We sampled three white wines– Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and a Reserve Pinot Noir. Of the three we liked the Chardonnay the best. Winestate magazine, a local trade publication, awarded Kina Beach Reserve Chardonnay 2010 five stars.
Kina Cliffs, our third stop, is an 8-acre family owned boutique vineyard. It’s situated near Kina Peninsula cliffs, with great vistas of Tasman Bay and across to the Western Ranges. Both owners, Julie and Alistair Ashcroft, grew up on farms so hard work and getting their hands dirty, were not foreign concepts.
According to the Ashcrofts, the location is a salubrious factor, both for the health of the vineyard and flavor of the wine. The nearby Kina cliff face exposes the Moutere clay gravel subsoil that also lies beneath the vineyard. The sea breeze promotes air-flow around the vines and minimizes frost damage in the winter.
We sampled four of their wines and liked the Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc the best.
Rimu Grove, owned and operated by Patrick Stowe, a native of Napa Valley, was stop number 4. The Vineyard was planted in 1995 and consists of a little over 17 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris vines. It’s easy to like the location, where you can quaff great wine at a picnic table on the north facing slope of the Bronte Peninsula overlooking the Waimea Inlet. The wines produced by this vineyard are yet another product of the ancient glacial gravels of the Moutere Clays.
Simon Thomas, who poured our wine, clearly had an Epicurean side. He discussed each wine’s nuances and how to pair it with food. For example, Gewurtztraminer works well with spicy food and Riesling with fish. “The oak from Chardonnay,” he explained, “should never dominate the taste of the wine.”
Rimu Gove produces a variety of reds and whites. Our favorites were the Riesling, Chardonnay, and, the Gewurtztraminer. It was the only outstanding Gewurtztraminer we had on our visit to New Zealand.
Our final stop on the afternoon of epic wine tasting was at a restaurant called Cellar Door which served us wines from Waimea Estates. The restaurant is also an indoor/outdoor environment shaded by trees in one section and a canopy in the other. In true New Zealand style, it was unpretentious and friendly.
We sampled a number of white wines including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and the most memorable, an unusual offering, Sauvignon Gris (2015). The winery describes it as a “cousin” of Sauvignon Blanc, with a “roundness and intensity of fruit that projects it into a more tropical clime”. Think of it as a New Zealand style Sauvignon Blanc on fruity, tropical steroids. I liked it.
True to its Kiwi conservationist roots the winery also contributes funds to help sustain New Zealand’s Tuatara which is often referred to as a living fossil and is the world’s only remaining living link to the dinosaur.
They have done this by establishing a separate line of Spinyback wines.
Every purchase of a Spinyback bottle provides funding to further education and conservation of the creature. Waimea Estates assists both the New Zealand Department of Conservation and Ngati Koata (pronounced “Narti Ko Arta”, Nelson’s local Maori Tribe) in their efforts to protect this species.
Part and parcel of the tour is a visit to a restaurant. On this day, Rod took us to an informal eatery called Jester House Café. It was packed with customers of every demographic. An indoor/outdoor affair, it also has a playground for youngsters adjacent to the restaurant. A small creek with “pet” eels winds below the restaurant. Entrees are reasonably priced in the NZ $25 range. We had a pan-fried Gurnard, a local delicacy with delicate white flesh. (No, they don’t serve eel).
Our host Rod Malcolm provided a tour de force of Nelson-area wines ranging from large operations, where product is exported overseas to niche boutique wineries that are only distributed domestically.
Not only did we get a cross-section of fine wines from a variety of micro climates, but he offered a primer on local history and culture.
On a practical note, Rod made it easy to appreciate a wine tasting both by providing information and transportation. There is no way an outsider could have navigated the highways and byways of Nelson wine country (whether sober or drunk). Having someone else transport and inform you, was a real blessing and worth every cent. Tariff for visiting five wineries plus lunch was US$133.
(Top photo of Aronui vineyard courtesy of NZ Wine. All other photos by Robert Kay and Philippe Guesdon).