This is a four-part major series on New Zealand’s wines. Part I incudes a series of spotlight features on some of NZ’s major wine developments, part III visits the South Island, and there’s a tasting of 180 New Zealand Pinot Noirs in part IV.
New Zealand’s grape growing land covers the length of the country. Whilst only a handful of regions enjoy world renown, there is quality across New Zealand, from Northlands at the tip of the North Island (latitude 35° S) down to the wineries of Central Otago (latitude 45° S) on the South Island.
Much to the chagrin of the Kiwis, New Zealand is often lumped in with Australia, yet the twin islands lie some 1,250 miles southeast of Australia’s shores – that’s about the same distance apart as London and St Petersburg in Russia.
The North Island is famed for its volcanic mountains and its hot springs. The Southern Alps extend almost the entire length of the South Island, ending in deep fjords. Though there are huge contrasts – from sub-tropical in the far north, to almost arctic in the highest areas of the south – New Zealand mostly enjoys a temperate, maritime climate.
The sea has a strong influence on the country’s vineyards, which are mostly coastal. Warmth and sunlight is plentiful during the day, whilst nights are cooled by sea breezes. Many areas benefit from a long ripening season, not unlike the vineyards of Alsace.
My grand tour commenced on the North Island. The short flight from Auckland to Napier takes you to the heart of the Hawke’s Bay wine-growing area.
This is New Zealand’s red wine heart, including Gimblett Gravels, one of the first regions of the New World to be designated not just geographically, but because of its special gravely soils and climatic conditions.
Hawke’s Bay grand tasting
Profiles of individual Hawke’s Bay estates follow, but my first stop was Matariki winery, where a tasting of 50 wines from dozens of Hawke’s Bay producers had been arranged. This provided a superb overview of the grape varieties and wine styles that this area has to offer,
for tasting notes on 50 wines from multiple Hawke’s Bay producers
My next stop was at Alpha Domus, a 35-hectare, family winery owned by the Ham family. I was greeted by Paul Ham (Managing Director) and his brother Henri, as well as winemaker Kate Galloway. The logo for Alpha Domus refers to an historic airfield close by, and the Alpha Domus name is derived from founder Anthonius Ham and his four children: Anthonius, Leonarda, Paulus, Henrikus and Anthonius junior.
Alpha Domus’ first wines were released to the market in 1996, having planted their vineyards in 1991 to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. A second family vineyard, Anthonius Hoeve, was planted to classic varieties including Viognier. The team here practice bud thinning and positioning, as well ad green harvesting as just some of the passes made in the vineyard annually in a very hands-on, active operation.
Located on the Heretaunga Plains, west of the town of Hastings, the vineyards lies 20 kilometres from the coast. Hot, dry summers mean vineyard temperatures consistently reach 30C, so ripening grapes is rarely a problem. Whilst this region averages 750mm of rain annually, Alpha Domus’ vineyards are located in a natural rain shadow, so it receives “considerably less”. Alpha Domus is also an accredited member of the Sustainable Wine Growing scheme.
for tasting notes on 10 wines from Alpha Domus
1829 Maraekakaho Road
Phone: +64 6 879 6752
At Te Awa, winemaker Jenny Dobson overseas this single estate winery. The full Maori name given to the site is ‘Te Awa o te atua’ which means, ‘River of God’, a reference to subterranean streams on which it sits. This is the Gimblett Gravels wine-growing area, and Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay are grown – as well as a little Pinotage, which was a surprise. There is also Sauvignon Blanc. Whilst many producers in other regions buy Sauvignon from Marlborough, just to get that magic name on the label, Te Awa, like others in Hawke’s Bay, uses local fruit.
Sauvignon Blanc from Hawke’s Bay is a very different animal from the Sauvignon of Marlborough, typically less flamboyant, but with a more structured appeal. The 50-hectare vineyard at Te Awa is planted in free draining alluvial soils, typical of the area, and different parcels are harvest and vinified separately before blending. Jenny Dobson is passionate about the blending process, saying “In reality the art of blending is to achieve a wine better than the sum of its individual components.”
In 1999 Te Awa opened a vineyard restaurant, where dishes are based on Hawke’s Bay ingredients. This is available in abundance, as Hawke’s Bay is one of New Zealand’s richest farming areas.
for tasting notes on 9 wines from Te Awa<
2375 State Highway 50
Phone: +64 6 879 7602
Every winemaker I met on my trip was misty eyed when I mentioned the name Craggy Range to them. This is the New Zealand wine operation that most would have, if they had the required tens of millions the Peabody family invested to set it up. From the state of the art facilities, to the gourmet restaurant, to the absolutely immaculate vineyards in some of New Zealand’s prime spots, Craggy Range caused a huge stir when it launched in 1999, and is still at the forefront of the NZ scene. Winemaker is Steve Smith, a Master of Wine with extensive viticultural and winemaking experience and credentials.
Steve Smith has vineyards, and sources grapes, from all over the country, though their largest vineyard holdings are in Hawke’s Bay for Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah, and Martinborough, the source of much of the company’s Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. The vineyards are amongst the most meticulously maintained I have seen anywhere in the world, and indeed this whole operation is imbued with an unmissable sense of attention to detail and refusal to compromise.
The Craggy Range wines are from single vineyards, with the ‘Prestige Collection’ representing the best parcels and extra attention in the winery. Wild Rock and Red Rock are separate labels made by Craggy Range, using bought-in fruit from specific sources: Martinborough, Marlborough and Central Otago fro Pinot, Gimblett Gravels for other reds, coastal vineyards in Hawke’s Bay for Chardonnay, and Marlborough and Nelson for Sauvignon Blanc.
for tasting notes on 12 wines from Craggy Range
253 Waimarama Road
PO Box 8749
Havelock North 4230
Phone: +64 6 873 7126
Chief Winemaker Grant Edmonds met me at Sileni’s beautiful estate. Grant and Sileni’s CEO & Owner, Graeme Avery, set this winery up in 1997, after Grant had 20 years making the wines for Esk Valley. Initially the estate concentrated on classic Bordeaux varieties, but Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Gris have been added since. There are 106 hectares of Estate vineyards around Hawke’s Bay. Temperature- controlled steel tanks are used for whites, with open-top fermenters for reds.
Sileni boasts a state of the art winery designed to crush over 1500 tonnes of grapes, with a winemaking team has honed its skills in Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, California, Chile and Oregon.
There are three ranges, beginning with the Cellar Selection, then the Estate Selection, and finally ‘EV’ (exceptional vintage). Prices range from around £7 – £10, £10 – £13 and up to £25 for EV, but the latter is not currently in UK. A few wines under a fourth range, ‘Satyr’ appear to be in some Tesco stores.
Graeme Avery helped establish the Hawke’s Bay Farmers Market and is Chairman of the New Zealand Food & Wine Tourism Network, so it’s no surprise that Sileni is also an epicurean centre. There are alfresco and indoor restaurants, a culinary school and a gourmet food store that showcases Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand and international artisan produce.
for tasting notes on 13 wines from Sileni
2016 Maraekakaho Road
Phone: +64 6 879 8768
One of New Zealand’s most visited estates, a mission was established here in 1851, and the modern day winery and visitors complex is based in beautiful seminary building, around which vines were planted, with records of commercial wine sales dating back to 1870. I met up with shy, but charming winemaker Paul Mooney, and we toured the estate before settling down to taste. A natural amphitheatre of meadowland in front of the winery is a regular and extremely popular concert venue, with Eric Clapton and The B52s amongst the eclectic list of past performers.
Mission Estate is Hawke’s Bay largest independent winery, and is a producer of commercial wines of very good quality. The portfolio consists of three ranges: Mission Estate, Mission Reserve, and at the top of the tree, Jewelstone. Wines are made from estate-grown and contract-grown fruit. This is a massively popular venue for tourism, with a thronging restaurant that spills out onto a large, grassy patio area and the old chapel, that hosts weddings and other events. There is a large, very professional cellar door operation and those interested in history will enjoy the Estate tour.
for tasting notes on 6 wines from Mission Estate
198 Church Road
Phone: +64 6 845 9350
150 miles south of Hawke’s Bay and an enjoyable drive, lies the small town of Martinborough, with its main streets fanning out in a Union Jack pattern from a central square. This is the centre of the Martinborough wine region, New Zealand’s first great Pinot Noir stronghold. I had one day here, which consisted of a visit to the famous Martinborough Vineyard in the afternoon, and an evening spent with Larry McKenna, winemaker and co-owner of Escarpment Vineyards.
Rather than going to a restaurant, Larry, dressed in tee-shirt and shorts, picked me up in his ute and after a quick tour of the vineyards, we returned to his home where we spent an evening sitting in the garden tasting his wines, before a terrific home- cooked dinner with Larry’s kids and his wife, Sue.
I’m afraid the McKenna’s were so relaxed and welcoming that my professionalism went straight out of the window, and I have but a single tasting note from this superb range of wines.
I hope Larry forgives me, but that’s all I have to offer here. Larry’s knowledge and experience of Pinot Noir is second to none in New Zealand, where he spent 13 years making the wines at Martinborough Vineyards. He is one of the world’s acknowledged authorities on the grape.
Escarpment, Pinot Noir 2003
A little bit closed at first, but some really lovely fruit comes through here. Fine, floral and truffle notes to svelte, creamy black fruit. Moderate oak. The palate has elegance and depth, with a silky texture and such a refined tannin structure. Soft, yet has presence. Terrific Pinot.
PO Box 15
Corner New York St & Boundary Rd
Phone: +64 6 306 8305
The Martinborough story begins in 1978, when a government study analysed which New Zealand areas were best suited to classic European grape varieties. The most analogous area to Burgundy was identified as Martinborough, and in 1980 one of the authors of the report, Dr Derek Milne, got together with a group of five other enthusiasts to establish Martinborough Vineyard. The name became synonymous with excellence in New Zealand Pinot, and a benchmark for other winemakers.
My host was winemaker Paul Mason, who after a stint as a flying winemaker in countries as diverse as Italy and Chile, took over the Martinborough Vineyard operation in 2004. Some of New Zealand’s oldest Pinot Noir vines are fashioned using very traditional Burgundian techniques. Whilst the spotlight quite rightly falls on Pinot, Martinborough Vineyard has won acclaim for its Chardonnay, Pinot gris, Sauvignon blanc, Riesling and Late Harvest Riesling over the past few years. Burnt Spur is a separate, single vineyard estate, operated by the same team. Both ranges are available to taste and purchase at the cellar door.
for tasting notes on 11 wines from Martinborough Vineyard
Phone: +64 6 306 9955
Waiheke Island is one of New Zealand’s lesser-known wine regions and a thriving, but very laid-back community on an island in the Hauraki Gulf. Thirty-five minutes by ferry from Auckland, around 8,000 permanent residents and many, many more visitors enjoy its blend of farmland, forest, beaches, vineyards and olive groves. I stayed in the beautiful ‘Winemakers’ Loft’ accommodation of Neil Culley’s Cable Bay estate for three days of winery visits, excellent food and a bit of chill-out time.
Waiheke is a fast-improving wine area, already home to one of New Zealand’s icon wines – Larose from Stonyridge Vineyard – and building an excellent reputation for red wines, particularly Syrah and Bordeaux varieties, which thrive in its warm, continental climate. Look out for superb local olive oils too, at the Waiheke Olive Oil Company, 61 Church Rd, tel: +64 (0)9 337 2239.
CABLE BAY VINEYARDS
Neil Culley has a stunning vineyard setting on the western coast of the island, with views across to Auckland. Here he grows Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, Malbec and Syrah, though he also makes Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot from Marlborough fruit. Neil says his philosophy is to respect the unique characteristics of the individual vineyard sites, and small lots are vinified using traditional techniques.
Traditional winemaking techniques with these small lots include whole bunch pressing, hand-plunged red fermentation and barrel aging. As winemaker and one of 12 shareholders in the company, Neil says he is driven by a desire to understand and accentuate the unique characteristics each of his vineyards contributes to a wine. He blends wines produced from Cable Bay’s different vineyards, describing his winemaking as “low intervention “.
On my visit we drove to a hilltop location where Neil was just starting to build a new complex: not just a winery, but restaurant, conference facilities, tasting room and visitor centre, which are now open for business.
for tasting notes on 7 wines from Cable Bay
12 Nick Johnstone Drive
Phone: +64 9 372 5889
Auckland is a grape-growing region in its own right, with many of the country’s biggest names based here, like Villa Maria, Babich and Montana. Fruit – mostly Bordeaux varieties and Chardonnay – grows in long-established districts like Henderson, Kumeu and Huapai, though these large companies will source fruit from elsewhere in the country, and many will have regional wineries too. New districts, like Matakana north of Auckland city, and Clevedon to the south, show the Auckland wine region is still expanding.
I met with several of Villa Maria’s staff for a full-day visit, as well as its charming and very welcoming owner George Fistonich, who founded the company in 1961. George’s continuing passion and pride in his very successful business was evident as he took me on a tour of their brand new facilities. Tankers of juice or part-made wines are brought to Auckland from other regions for final production and bottling. There is a second winery in Marlborough.
There are around 12 winemakers in group, that also includes the Esk Valley and Vidal estates. All of the winemakers get together for blending sessions. Villa Maria process 1,300 hectares of fruit, one-third contract-grown, one-third leased or owned, and one-third managed by Villa Maria. Contract growers are on a strict programme, with viticulturists visiting regularly.
The company sells huge amounts of its Private Bin label wines, but there is a superb portfolio of reserve and single-vineyard wine too. As George says: “Small parcels present themselves and say ‘I’m a standalone wine, please don’t blend me’, and so the single vineyard labels have evolved.” Villa Maria in Auckland offers an airy vineyard shop, tours and tastings.
for tasting notes on 20 wines from all three estates
Villa Maria Estate
118 Montgomerie Road
PO Box 43 046
Phone +64 9 255-0660
Lincoln is family-owned. Peter Fredatovich is in charge as Managing Director, whilst his son Peter junior, who talked me through their operation, is Marketing Manager. The company does not own vineyards, but prides itself on its close relationships with a network of national growers, with whom it has held long term contracts for many years. Fruit is sourced from Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne and Marlborough, with Wairarapa in their sites as a future source of Pinot Noir.
Winemaker Andy Nicole has worked in New Zealand, Oregon, South Australia, the Languedoc and Italy. Traditional techniques such as basket pressing and wild yeast fermentation in small, open-top fermenters are combined with modern technology like cross-flow filtration and micro-oxidation.
for tasting notes on 6 wines from Lincoln Vineyard
130 Lincoln Road
Phone +64 9 838 6944
I met with Proprietor Andrew Hendry, who established Coopers Creek in 1980. Winemaker Simon Nunns uses local Auckland-grown fruit in his Pinot Gris and Merlot, but vineyards in Hawke’s Bay, plus contract growers in Marlborough and Gisborne supply the fruit for other wines. Andrew says he would like to buy some vineyard in Marlborough, but is not sure of which specific area as yet. 70% of Coopers Creek’s 120,000 cases are exported, with Canada a very important market, as is the USA. The company is hoping to grow its share of the UK market.
Coopers Creek has a tasting room, cellar door and visitor centre, and tours can be arranged as can tutored tastings. Coopers Creek has lovely gardens, and cheese boards are available as well as barbecue facilities for those wishing to enjoy a glass or two over a picnic lunch.
for tasting notes on 5 wines from Coopers Creek
601 State Highway 16
Huapai [north of Kumeu]
Phone: + 64 9 412 8560