Thomas Cottrell is Bellevue Club’s wine consultant and the owner of La Cantina Wine Merchants.
Martinborough. Waipara. Central Otago. Ever heard of them? Probably not. Places with funny names don’t exactly linger in the mind, especially when they come from half a world away.
But all wine lovers should know about these prime vineyard areas down in New Zealand—the wines coming from these regions are perhaps the most exciting to be found anywhere in the world. So here’s a quick sketch and a few seductive wines I’ve discovered in recent weeks. Remember, New Zealand is a group of islands out in the Pacific Ocean, some 1,400 miles south and east of Australia, the continent most of us associate it with. The Kiwis tend to disassociate themselves—vehemently—from the Aussies. Their wines are different, too.
Decades ago the New Zealand wine industry was in sad shape. Even the Kiwis themselves didn’t much like the wines. But today there are scores of top-flight producers to be found on wine shop shelves. On the other hand, they sell out quickly because there’s so little to go around—the best producers definitely tend to be small.
The North Island of New Zealand tends to be warmer—remember, everything’s upside-down down there. At Hawke’s Bay on the east coast, south of Auckland, is Clearview Estate. They make a delicious 2005 Unwooded Chardonnay ($25), that goes a long way toward explaining the growing popularity of this style: plenty of fresh fruit flavor unsullied by oak. Its lively style makes it a better companion to most foods than the oaky style you most often taste.
Pegasus Bay Winery
Further south on the North Island, almost to Wellington, the capital, is the Martinborough district. There, a winery called Escarpment turns out tasty, award-winning Pinot Noirs. But I almost like their Pinot Gris even better. The 2004 ($25), for instance, is seductively aromatic, fresh, balanced and very long in the finish. Richer than the Italian Pinot Grigio—the same grape—so popular these days, it reminds me of a lush, and expensive, French version from Alsace. Jumping across the Cook Strait to the South Island, we quickly come to the Marlborough region and Foxes Island. New Zealand has very nearly redefined world-wide taste in Sauvignon Blanc
with wines such as Cloudy Bay (actually owned until recently by an Aussie—oops!). The 2004 Foxes Island Sauvignon Blanc ($24) displays the style beautifully: flinty, with a light touch of grapefruit and a little grassiness, it’s a lip-smacker from the first sip.
About a third of the way down the South Island is the Waipara Valley, just north of Christchurch. There, almost in the shadow of the New Zealand Alps, is Pegasus Bay, a winery that makes a wide array of wines from their estate vineyards as well as a second brand, Main Divide, produced from purchased grapes. The 2004 Pegasus Bay Riesling ($25) is a standout example of this noble grape—a boldly
classic bouquet with citrus, apple and slate notes in a complex blend. These follow on the palate and linger on the polished finish with a touch of sweetness to balance the tart. Wonderful stuff, well worth searching out. The southern-most wine district in New Zealand, and one of the newest and most exciting, is the Central Otago region. It is also the most southerly wine region anywhere in the world, yet on a latitude—the 45th parallel—similar to Bordeaux and Oregon. Pinot Noir is going to be a big part of its future. The 2003 Peregrine Pinot Noir ($38) shows why: charming, vivid strawberry/raspberry fruit touched with light, toasty oak. It’s supple and smooth, with classic Burgundian silkiness to the finish. So there you have it: five grapes, five wines, five wineries—all personal favorites. With more time I could have suggested dozens of others. Think of this, then, as just a starting point for exploring the wines of a region you’ll be hearing a great deal more about in the coming years.