When most Americans think of New Zealand, they tend to think of it as a clean, green land that is largely populated by sheep. While this is not far from reality, there is indeed a thriving wine industry as well. Wine is produced on both the north and south islands in regions with different climates and soil types. However, it was the early success of wines from the Cloudy Bay winery in Marlborough that really focused the attention of the wine world on New Zealand. Marlborough and Sauvignon Blanc have become synonymous with New Zealand wine, but there is so much more to discover.
On the North Island, the major wine growing areas are Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, Martinborough and the Kumeu region near Auckland. All of these areas tend to be a bit warmer than the wine growing regions of the South Island, so we see both white wines and more robust reds, such as Syrah and Merlot.
Kumeu River was one of the earliest wineries in New Zealand, founded in 1944 by the Brajkovich family, who had emigrated from Croatia. Originally called San Marino, it was renamed Kumeu River in 1986.
The Brajkovich family is in the fourth generation on this property. The 2007 Kumeu River "Village" Chardonnay, $18, is made in a medium-bodied style with bright fruit and minimal oak influence. It is designed to resemble the simple village level wines of Burgundy, and it does that very well. This winery also produces lovely oak-aged Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. Cooper's Creek winery is just up the road from Kumeu River, but they have extensive vineyard holdings throughout New Zealand and produce a wide range of wines from different areas.
The 2007 Coopers Creek Chardonnay-Viognier, $15, is a delightful wine that combines the aromatic, tropical fruit of Viognier with the weight of Chardonnay, excellent with any type of shellfish or Asian dishes. This winery also produces a full-bodied, rich Pinot Noir from the same Gisborne area.
Kim Crawford is one of the most successful producers of Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand, but do not overlook their other wines. The 2008 Kim Crawford Pinot Grigio, $22, is produced from fruit grown in the coastal regions of the eastern shore, and it is a beautiful wine, showing lush fruit with notes of melon, fig and citrus. It has great minerality and enough acidity to keep the finish fresh and lively.
Martinborough, at the southern tip of the North Island, is home to excellent Sauvignon Blanc and top-notch Pinot Noir. In the Hawkes Bay region lies a smaller region composed of a dry river bed that has come to be known as the Gimblett Gravels.
This region is blessed with the perfect climate and soil to produce Syrah. During the past few years, wineries in this area have won many accolades. Sadly, production of Syrah in this region is limited, and the Kiwis keep the best for themselves. However, if you by any chance see a bottle of Trinity Hill Syrah "Gimblett Gravels," grab it; you will be in for a treat.
At the northern tip of the South Island, we find the Marlborough region surrounding the quaint town of Blenheim. It was this region that vaulted New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc into the upper echelon of white wines. The characteristic gooseberry and grapefruit character of the wine is distinctive and the wines delicious and refreshing.
My pick for the top produced in Marlborough is Dog Point, whose 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, $20, is simply gorgeous. It exhibits all the qualities one expects in Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc but avoids the green, vegetal notes found in wines from lesser producers. Marlborough is also becoming well known for Pinot Noir. As long as the vineyards are well-placed, it can produce round, full-flavored wines that are very pleasing. The 2006 Tohu Pinot Noir, $15, is such a wine. It has bright, garnet-red color and aromas of ripe cherry, black tea and spice. Medium bodied, it is lovely to sip alone, and it is also excellent with grilled salmon.
The last region to discuss is central Otago, located fairly far south in the South Island. Indeed, it is the most southerly wine producing region in the world. Unlike all the other wine-producing regions of New Zealand, which have maritime climates, central Otago lies inland and has a continental climate. Because of its southerly location, frost is a constant worry in the spring.
This region is very dry, and it is the snow melt coming off the Southern Alps that provides water for irrigation and allows the establishment of vineyards.
This region received early acclaim for Pinot Noir, and it also excels at the production of mineral-laced, dry Rieslings that age well. Vineyard plantings have exploded in recent years and so far, many of the wines produced do not justify their lofty price tags. A combination of young vines and inexperienced winemakers leads to many thin, overpriced wines.
However, the top estates do produce great wines, worthy of world wide recognition. The 2006 Felton Road "Calvert" Pinot Noir, $50, is an elegant, complex, rich Pinot Noir that rivals the top wines of California, Oregon or Burgundy. Supply is small, but Pinot fans should seek it out. Carrick Vineyards has a beautiful winery and a first-rate restaurant that should not be missed if you are in the area. They produce one of the finest dry Rieslings I have tried from New Zealand. The 2005 Carrick Riesling, $15, is infused with lemon-lime fruit, incredible mineral notes and zippy acidity. Enjoy this with any grilled fish. It is also brilliant with sushi.
Now that your eyes have been opened, head out to the wine store and try some of these delicious wines.
Story published Friday, March 5, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 2 )