Journey to Middle Earth: News from New Zealand by Janet Dorozynski

Janet Dorozynski

Janet Dorozynski

Although much of the recent attention on New Zealand has been focused on the Hobbit, I managed to visit and escape just before the hordes descended on Middle Earth for the official movie premier. The adventure began as I boarded Air New Zealand, which not only featured a Hobbit-themed safety demonstration video, but an extensive selection of the country’s wines. New Zealand wines are front and center in the mind of the travellers long before they step off the plane.

Astrolabe Province Sauvignon Blanc 2011Villa Maria Cellar Selection Pinot Noir 2009My journey took me to Marlborough and Central Otago, the regions that put New Zealand on the world wine map and are best known respectively for Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. I also had the opportunity to explore, and was inspired by, the lesser-known regions of Hawkes Bay and Gisborne, the second and third largest growing areas after Marlborough.

While Sauvignon Blanc comprises just under half of the total plantings in New Zealand, there are now over 25 different grape varieties grown commercially. The “other” whites – Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, along with Bordeaux varieties and Syrah, have shown that New Zealand is far from being the one (or two) trick pony that some may think. So after nearly two weeks of tasting hundreds of wines, here’s a snapshot, from north to south, of what stood out and what we will hopefully see more of in the Canadian market.


Gisborne, on the western side of the North Island, is New Zealand’s third largest growing area and first region to see the sun rise. Formerly known as a bulk wine producing region, there have been a number of small and interesting wineries who’ve put down roots in Gisborne, while many of the larger wineries like Villa Maria and Cooper’s Creek, continue to source quality fruit from the region’s numerous growers. The region’s calling card is Chardonnay and aromatic whites, with Gewurztraminer having been produced here since the 1970s. Wineries like Vinoptima make Gewurztraminer only, both a Noble Late Harvest and an off-dry, dramatically rich and opulent style, which are among the best in the country and internationally acclaimed. (Vinoptima is represented in Ontario by John Hanna & Sons)

Other whites like Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc and Viognier also do well in Gisborne. James Millton, one of the region’s trailblazers, was the first biodynamic vineyard in the southern hemisphere and makes a stunning array of certified organic wines that we see periodically in Ontario and Quebec. Millton is an ardent proponent of white varieties and produces very good Chardonnay (Crazy by Nature Shortberry Gisborne 2011 and Clos de Ste. Anne 2010), along with a range of superb Chenin Blanc (Crazy by Nature 2012, Millton Te Arai Vineyard 2010 and Clos de Ste. Anne La Bas 2009) and impressive Viognier (Millton Riverpoint Vineyard 2010, Clos de Ste. Anne Les Arbres 2010). He also mentioned that he believes that no other grape is better suited to Gisborne than Albarinho, so keep an eye out for this variety in the future. (Millton Vineyards & Winery is represented in Ontario by : The Living Vine)

Hawkes Bay

Craggy Range Hawkes Bay Sophia 2010CJ Pask Gimblett Road Cabernet Merlot MalbecHawkes Bay first made its name with cool climate Bordeaux red varietal wines; in particular those from the Gimblett Gravels, a 850 hectare parcel of sandy gravelly soil, hence the name, with free-draining, low vigor soils. Fine Bordeaux reds include CJ Pask Gimblett Road Cab/Merlot/Malbec 2009 from one of the Gimblett Gravels’ pioneers, Hawkes Bay Sophia 2010 from Craggy Range, one of New Zealand’s preeminent producers and Crossroads Winemaker’s Collection Cabernet Franc 2010, one of the rare Cabernet Franc that I tasted in New Zealand. Syrah, which requires less heat than Bordeaux varieties, also does well in Hawkes Bay and the region is increasingly known as the heartland of Syrah in New Zealand.

Trinity Hill SyrahElephant Hill Syrah 2010While total plantings remain small, Syrah shines at the Hill wineries with the Trinity Hill Hawkes Bay Syrah 2010, the Deerstalkers Syrah 2010 from Sacred Hill and the Elephant Hill Hawkes Bay Syrah 2010 worth seeking out. Other notable examples include the Gimblett Gravels 2010 and Le Sol 2010 from Craggy Range, CJ Pask Declaration Syrah 2009 and the dynamite La Collina Syrah 2009 from tiny producer Bilancia. There is also a small amount of white produced in Hawkes Bay, with very good Chardonnay and Pinot Gris from many of the above producers.

Curiously, many Hawkes Bay wineries (and throughout New Zealand) have wines from other New Zealand wine regions in their portfolio, be it a Central Otago or Martinborough Pinot Noir or a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. When asked why, several explained the decision was purely market-driven, as consumers and especially buyers, notably from Canadian liquor boards, prefer New Zealand wineries to have everything in their portfolio. This expectation to have it all, or one stop shopping, may work against honing in on New Zealand regionality in the long run, if wineries are expected to make everything, rather than specialize in making what their region does best.


Baby doll sheep at Yealands Estate

Baby doll sheep at Yealands Estate

What’s there to say about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that hasn’t already been said? The success of the region and Savvy, as the Kiwis call it, is nothing short of remarkable, having captured the hearts and palates of many white wine drinkers who were weary of overly-oaked Chardonnay and saw crisp, unwooded Sauvignon Blanc as the perfect antidote. But with success came saturation or the Savalanche as it is colloquially known, when in 2008, increased plantings, over-cropping and an unusually large harvest led to the country’s first major grape surplus in decades.

Sauvignon Blanc remains New Zealand’s most widely exported wine (now at 84% of total exports) though the style of Sauvignon Blanc we first saw in the Canadian market – crisp, dry and pleasantly herbaceous, with an attractive sweaty, tropical/passion fruit character, seems to have been deluded and replaced, in particular for the bigger, well-known brands, by wines with too much residual sugar that are often dull.

Wairau Valley vineyards

Wairau Valley vineyards

While in Marlborough, I met with a good number of wineries who are not content to rest on their laurels and are committed to moving beyond the same old, same old. There is growing interest to produce sub-regional wines, as the three Marlborough sub-regions have different growing conditions and show distinct identities and characteristics in the wines. Wairau Valley Sauvignon (think Nautilus 2012, Wairau River Reserve 2012, Mahi Wine 2012) tends to have riper tropical fruit; Awatere Valley wines (Astrolabe 2011, Yealands Estate Awatere 2012) show more pronounced green and leafiness, while wines from the Southern Valleys have more volume and citrus characters. In addition to the exploration of sub-regionality, wines like the Staete Landt Duchess 2008 and Cloudy Bay Te Koko 2009, utilize partial oak fermentation and/or aging, to add the complexity and creaminess of oak to the bright, vibrant fruit of the Marlborough.

Although best known for the Savvy, wineries here also produce very good Pinot, both Noir and Gris (Seresin Raupo Creek Pinot Noir 2008, Villa Maria Cellar Selection Pinot Noir 2009 and Mahi Pinot Noir 2010; Seresin Pinot Gris 2010, Momo Pinot Gris 2010; Wairua River Pinot Gris 2011, Cloudy Bay Pinot Gris 2011), in addition to a smattering of Chardonnay and other aromatic whites (Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Viognier) worth a taste.

Central Otago

View from "tasting room" at Mount Difficulty

View from “tasting room” at Mount Difficulty

The history of grape growing in Central Otago dates back over a century even though the region’s international reputation as Pinot Central is relatively recent. Pinot Noir is the most widely planted red grape in Central Otago, as well as in New Zealand as a whole, and thrives in the rugged landscape and continental climate of the region. Central Otago is divided into several sub-regions with the Alexandra sub-region being the southern-most wine growing area in the world. If you’re a Pinot lover, then this is the place for you, with well- known producers Felton Road, Mount Difficulty, Carrick, Akarua and Two Paddocks, along with a handful of others, like Quartz Reef and Peregrine, which should be on your radar if they aren’t already.

Many of the wineries here and throughout New Zealand, have been certified through the New Zealand Winegrowers Sustainable Winegrowing scheme, which includes a commitment to protect the place where the wines are made, along with a commitment to improve economic, environmental and social outcomes, locally and globally (New Zealand Wine website for more info). A number of Central Otago producers like Quartz Reef and Felton Road are also seriously committed to organic and biodynamic grape growing and winemaking practices, to protect the fragile soils of the region and because they believe it results in better wines. In addition to Pinot Noir, keep an eye out for superb Rieslings from Peregrine, Mount Difficulty and Felton Road.

Sustainable Vineyard at Carrick Wines

Sustainable Vineyard at Carrick Wines

While Central Otago may be best known for Pinot Noir internationally, other regions make a range of styles, from the black fruit of Central Otago, to the bright red fruit and earlier drinking styles of Marlborough, and everything in between from Martinborough and Canterbury/Waipara. The progress of Pinot Noir has been fuelled by the tri-annual Pinot Noir Conference, where winemakers, media, trade and consumers from New Zealand and around the world converge to get a snapshot and better understanding of the prospects and promise for Pinot Noir. The fifth edition of the Pinot Noir NZ 2013 conference takes place in January with further impressions and stories to follow by David Lawrason and John Szabo in Wine Align.

What’s next for New Zealand?

While still in its adolescence, I definitely got the sense that the New Zealand wine industry has a sense of purpose, confidence and maturity beyond its years. Many whom I met seem determined to figure out what to do next, what to plant where and what the second phase of their international success will look like. While Canada is the fourth largest export market for New Zealand wines, it’s not always easy to sell in our market. Many wineries I spoke with explained how, in comparison to the UK and US, the Canadian market is perplexing and difficult to establish a long term business relationship with liquor boards, in particular for smaller producers who don’t have the volume and find it hard to sit on stocks for a tender they might not get, especially when they can easily sell their wine elsewhere. It’s a familiar lament from small producers everywhere and which the recently launched initiative, to create private, specialized wine stores, would surely benefit both smaller producers and the range and selection of New Zealand wines available in the Canadian market. (For more on the private wine shop initiative, read what my WineAlign colleagues have written on the subject in these recent WineAlign articles: John Szabo’s Vintages Preview and David Lawrason’s Take).

Until the next time:

Janet’s New Zealand Picks
All Reviews by Janet Dorozynski