Editor’s Note: This the last in a series of three articles on wine tasting in New Zealand. It’s by no means a definitive work but we think it will at least provide anyone interested in the subject a primer–someplace to start. A big mahalo to the Kiwis we met, all of whom were friendly, gracious and generous. We look forward to returning.
Any New Zealand wine aficionado must make a pilgrimage to Marlborough, located on the northeastern corner of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s not just that this part of Aotearoa is drop-dead beautiful, but compared to California’s vaunted Napa/Sonoma/Mendocino Counties, it’s a sheer pleasure to visit.
Why do I say that?
My last trip to northern California’s “wine country” felt more like a trip to a crowded, upscale mall. The roads were crowded with Mercedes and Porsches, and wine tastings were expensive—as were the wines. I suspect the folks working for the wineries have also become a bit jaded.
Contrast that with New Zealand, where Mercedes are few and far between and parking lots at wineries, much less the roads to reach them, are rarely crowded. Wine tasting is also quite affordable—as are the wines.
Wine making has become a big deal in this little country that heretofore was known for exporting dairy products and mutton.
More importantly, Kiwis are becoming great winemakers. New Zealand wine is equal to and in some cases, better than what you get in California.
So back to Marlborough.
Bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the east and mountains ranges to the north and south, most of the grape growing is done on an alluvial plain. Marlborough put New Zealand’s distinctive Sauvignon Blanc on the map—in fact 85.8% of Marlborough’s wine production is Sauvignon Blanc.
Rod Malcolm of Vintage Wine Tours reckons the top wines of Marlborough he opined were Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and Riesling.
In his opinion Central Otago (another wine growing region on the South Island) gets “too much favourable press for it’s Pinot Noirs.” In WineNZ (the country’s top wine magazine) annual tasting report of 2017 rated seven of the top ten Pinot Noirs, rated by WineNZ as coming from Marlborough.
On a recent trip we explored a clutch of wineries on Marlborough’s Golden Mile, a 6 km or so stretch of pavement through the heart of wine country. Constructed for bicyclists, this also happens to be the focal point for some great wine tasting.
The first winery that we visited was Cloudy Bay, which has become as popular as any winery in Napa or Bordeaux. On any given day, busloads of fans crowd the premises. It’s the most famous winery in New Zealand and arguably put the Kiwi wine industry on the international map.
We went there because we had to. Not visiting Cloudy Bay would be like a trip to southern California without seeing Disneyland.
For that very reason, some wine tour guides make a point of not going there. There are other wineries who produce wine equal to this iconic marque, but no local winery is as well known outside of New Zealand.
Hence the place is crowded. To many it’s an enological pilgrimage on the order of Lourdes.
It’s a classy space with a long bar to accommodate guests and a fine restaurant on the premises.
So what to sample while you’re there?
If you haven’t tried their Sauvignon Blanc, give it a shot. After all, it’s the wine that made Marlborough famous. We tried the 2017 Sauvignon Blanc and it was splendid. Ditto with their Chardonnay Sec from 2015. We also sampled a couple of their Pelorus line of sparkling wines, which are the Kiwi version of Champagne. (Of course it can’t be called Champagne because the grapes are not grown in the Champagne region. However, they are made in the same manner, known as méthode champenoise which requires a secondary fermentation in the bottle).
Nautilus was the second stop on our list. I wanted to visit this winery for two reasons. Number One is that their reputation for excellence. (Like Cloudy Bay, you can get them in the U.S).
The second reason is their environmental culture. They minimize the use of chemicals and compost their grape skins and other remnants of the wine making process back into their vineyards. Commensurate with looking after mother earth, they have linked up with Driftwood Eco Tours, an eco-tourism company dedicated to preserving the environment of the Opawa River basin and restoring New Zealand’s dwindling wetlands.
It’s in the Opawa area that Nautilus produces a separate line of wine called, not surprisingly, Opawa which is grown in a vineyard that was once (before a major earthquake changed its course) the Opawa river bed. The Opawa region is not only rich in wildlife, it’s archaeology harks back to the cradle of Maori civilization.
Now, back to the wine. At the winery, try their Vintage Rose, which is based on a 100% Pinot Noir grape. A good rose is hard to find, and Nautilus has succeeded in making one. Equally wonderful was their Sauvignon Blanc (2017), their Pinot Gris (2016) and their Pinot Noir (2015).
Rod Malcolm of Vintage Wine Tours had a slew of suggested wineries for us to visit, among them the Fromm winery, which has an unpretentious tasting room with picnic tables outside the door. Don’t let the modest digs fool you. The wines here were superb and they are exported to the US.
According to Jamie Goode, a prominent UK wine blogger, Fromm is an important Marlborough winery because they were one of the first to promote single vineyards in the region. They are also unusual, says Goode, because in a white wine-dominated area, their focus is on reds.
Goode says that Fromm “had to cave into export demand by making a Sauvignon that’s fairly typically Marlborough in style.”
One of the most notable distinctions about their wines is that they are all organically grown (certified by Biogro New Zealand’s organic verification org) and hand-picked.
Fast forward to our visit to the property. What was significant about it was the almost austere setting. There were a few picnic tables for tasting and a modest public area. You get the feeling that management puts their resources into their product rather than throwing money at bling. Based on the quality of the wine that we tasted, I’d say that is exactly what happens at Fromm.
We were met by the manager, Stephan Walliser, a charming native of Switzerland, fluent (as you would expect of a Swiss) in German, French and of course English. He poured a number of red and white wines, but our favorites were their Sauvignon Blanc (2016), Pinot Gris (2017) and Chardonnay (2016).
Saint Clair was another Rod Malcolm recommendation.
We sampled several their wines (which are exported to the US) including a wonderful sparkling wine that was 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir. It was created for Dawn Ibbotson, the matriarch of the family, in honor of her 100th birthday. She is still alive and kicking at 103.
Her secret to longevity?
According to the family, it’s a daily glass of wine and a glass of whisky. (I also suspect she is blessed with the “good” variant of the FOXO 3 “longevity gene”, discovered by my friend Bradley Willcox of the University of Hawaii).
But I digress.
In addition, we sampled some amazingly good Sauvignon Blanc (2016), Pinot Gris Reserve (2016) and Chardonnay (2016). You can sip this wine for a fee or if you purchase a meal at their restaurant (Vineyard Kitchen) the wine tasting is free.
Clark Estate is a boutique winery which has a minuscule tasting room in a converted shipping container in Blenheim. We were welcomed by Peter Clark, a former British Army Officer (and product of Sandhurst) who happens to be the father of the winemaker, Simon Clark. Suffice it to say, this is a real family affair. The Clarks purchased the raw land in Awatere, which has become prime vineyard property, 20 years ago. They had good sense.
This alluvial acreage produces grapes equal to any in the Marlborough region including a very good Sauvignon Blanc. They produce a couple of noteworthy products including a sparkling Riesling, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Their “regular” Riesling was also a winner. Both have the distinction of having only 8% alcohol.
So Many Wineries so Little Time
There are a slew of other great wineries in the area if you have the time and stamina to visit. I asked local expert Rod Malcolm, for suggestions and he came up with these:
Mahi is a highly rated Marlborough producer. Winemaker Brian Bicknell, makes two styles of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris, as well as having (usually) three Chardonnays and three Pinot Noirs. The cellar door is only open for private tastings (Monday through Friday) byappointment only. (Rod Malcolm will take visitors there for an extra charge).
Greywacke, owned and operated by is Kevin Judd is also a good option. Previously Judd was the winemaker for Cloudy Bay’s first 25 vintages. All of his wines are reportedly excellent. He loves to have his grapes ferment with the natural wild yeast (as opposed to a commercial variety). Even his standard Sauvignon Blanc has 20% wild yeast. Any tastings must be arranged with Vintage Wine Tours because the winery has no “cellar door”.
Te Whare Ra was founded in 1979, so it has possibly Marlborough’s oldest Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay vines. All wines produced by winemakers husband and wife, Jason and Anna Flowerday, are certified organic. Their Gewurztraminer has always been their most famous wine. They also have a following for their ‘Toru’ which is a blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris.
They get rave reviews for their Pinot Noirs and Syrah.
Both Spy Valley and Lawsons Dry Hills have consistent quality for all their products. Both excel with Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer. Their premium Envoy (Spy) and Pioneer (LDH) lines are outstanding.
Villa Maria, owned by Sir George Fistonich, is a large and highly internationally respected grower. At their Marlborough cellar door, the only wines they have open for tasting are from the premium ‘Reserve’ and ‘Single Vineyard’ ranges. You won’t go wrong with either.
What impressed me the most about my visit to Kiwi wine country was the excitement in the air. It’s palpable. The local wine industry, which has only really kicked into high gear the last few decades, is still growing.
It’s young, muscular and not afraid to break new ground.
From what I could ascertain, a great deal of the outside investment in this industry is coming from France. When it comes to wine, that’s smart money. Think Louis Vuitton and their purchase of Cloudy Bay as one example.
That should speak volumes about where the industry is going.
In short New Zealand is a destination that won’t disappoint the wine lover. Bucolic countryside, friendly people and great wine. You can’t ask for too much more.
(Photos courtesy of NZ Wine, Robert Kay and Philippe Guesdon).
Rob Kay, the author of two titles (Fiji and Tahiti) for the Lonely Planet series, writes for the business and health sections of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and is the editor of Fiji Guide, an online travel guide to the Fiji Islands.