(This is one in a series of travel guides to wine regions by people whom I trust mightily. Brian has a great palate and appreciation for the good things in life.)
By Brian Tockman
Wine tasting in New Zealand is a pursuit in the truer sense of the world. You’ve got to really want it. A flight from somewhere in the U.S. to California and then a long flight from the Golden State to Auckland finds you exiting the airport onto a verdent and strangely familiar (to anyone who’s spent time in the UK) island a world away. At least for this author, the allure of New Zealand yielded a second trip — and I’m itching to go back.
There’s so much more than wine. The physical beauty, relatively sparse population, ease of travel (via rented car or camper van) and peace and quiet are worth the long-haul plane ride.
The good news from a wine standpoint is that vineyards are literally everywhere in New Zealand. While some regions such as Marlborough are a bit isolated, there is great wine to be found near Auckland, Christchurch and Queenstown.
Some general recommendations
1) If you’re going to go to New Zealand, then GO! I’d plan two weeks since there’s such a diversity of fantastic things to do (fjords, hiking, kayaking, Maori culture, cities, skiing and, oh yeah, wine). Leverage that airfare; you won’t regret it!
2) Be mobile: Rent some wheels, particularly on the South Island, as the good stuff is well outside of a taxi or bus route.
3) Go slow: There are not many places as pastoral as New Zealand. Find time to hike and breathe.
4) Several wineries have excellent restaurants on site; plan your lunches around these, you will not be disappointed.
5) Call ahead: The wine business in NZ is more Sonoma than Napa. These are smaller producers, at least on the world scale, and particularly for the more highly regarded producers, I would recommend expressing your interest in meeting them. They’re generally flattered that someone from the States is taking the trouble to get all the way down there. We had one-on-one tours and tastings at several stops.
6) Bringing wine back isn’t really an option, and shipping direct comes with Customs difficulty and high costs. So, focus on tasting while you’re there and buy a few bottles to pop while camping. A crisp Sauvignon Blanc with local seafood eaten at sunset in Abel Tasman National Park (left) — try and beat that ambience at McCormick & Schmick’s.
Now, about those wineries “¦ For my tastes and interests (sauvignon blanc and pinot noir), the South Island was the draw, specifically getting up to Malborough and down to Central Otago. Doing both in the same trip means a good amount of travel time, and the winery visits were nice changes of pace and destinations mixed in among more outdoorsy days.
Cloudy Bay: the brand that put New Zealand on the map. Go see them to pay homage as much as anything. It’s not every small company that gets to start an industry! Oh yeah, and the wine is great, too. Try the barrel aged sauvignon blanc and the sparkling, as well as the basics.
Allan Scott: A big variety of wines to try and a killer restaurant on site. I can still taste the seafood chowder from 2007!
Dog Point: The founding team from Cloudy Bay started this.
Chard Farm: Not well known or distributed in the States, the main reason to visit is the drive up. I won’t spoil it for you. Great chardonnay.
Felton Road: Top-notch pinot, meticulous vineyard practices, ambitious and delivering the goods
Amisfield: Its spot closer to Queenstown is good for a lunch stop, but the real wine-geek action is at the other location out past Bannockburn. We had a barrel tasting there with the assistant winemaker and really got a sense for how good Central Otago wine can be. If you like focus and power in your pinot, this is a must.
Carrick: Best meal we had in New Zealand; don’t really remember the wine!
Mt. Difficulty: Another excellent pinot producer.
Dry Gully: In Alexandra, nice people, beautiful tasting room and very nice Otago pinot.
The following recommendations from Tim Byrne, a wine lover whose apple business takes him to some of the most verdant corners of this great country. Tim highly recommends some time in the Hawkes Bay area. Stay in Havelock North and you have great access to the bay, the hills, Napier, and some fine wineries.
For lunch he suggests Clearview Winery in Te Awanga. The vineyards are within a driver and a wedge of the ocean. They have a great restaurant for brunch or lunch and a dandy dinner on Friday nights (reservations advised). The ambience, either indoors or outdoors, is excellent, service is fine and the cooking is spot on. They make a nice range of Bordeaux blends and varietals (the merlot/malbec franc is a favorite of mine with the lamb), plus very nice unoaked chard and a pinot noir of some repute.
If you want to go upscale, hit Craggy Range for dinner: world-class surroundings, fine service and food to match. They offer similar wine selections to Clearview except they make several Syrahs as well. These are Northern Rhone-inspired rascals: blood, tar, beef jerky, black and green peppercorns and broodingly dark creatures that stalk the palate. Go four-legged with these bad boys. The fish is also divine and a fine match for the bone-dry chardonnay.
Tim also recommends Te Mata (originally planted in vines in 1896). It’s a beautiful site and after a leisurely tasting you can head up to the top of Te Mata peak and strap on the para-sail and hang glide over Hawkes Bay.
Te Awa winery is a great lunch option with about 50 acres of vines to admire, plus nice Hawkes Bay cab franc and delicious chow in a great setting.
Take the time to drive the coast highway up to Napier for a riot of great Art Deco architecture. Be sure to catch the National Tobacco Building by the harbor, a classic example of top notch Art deco fantasy.
OK, hop in the car and take Hwy. 2 south toward Wellington. Take the Martinborough exit sign and head to this gem of a wine region. Be sure to hit up Ata Rangi for chard, pinot and sauv blanc (with that great hint of semillon). Dry River and Palliser are also nice stops for pinot and chard.
The capitol city of Wellington is a great spot for a wrap on this caper. Walk the waterfront and people-watch, and check out the botanical garden and historic cemetery on the walk back to town. Spend some time at Te Papa Museum (left) to learn a bit more about New Zealand culture and art. Hit the Cuba Street Mall to pick up a “whiff” of hip urbanite culture.
Lastly, be sure to savor a lunch at the Leuven Belgian Beer Café and slam a whole bunch of moules frites with a Stella “¦ or another glass of wine. The restaurant is in the heart of downtown on Featherstone Street.