Over the course of 28 days in October 2015, our family took a grand tour through New Zealand's North and South Islands. My wife, Lindsay, and I were near the end of a 10 month global sabbatical. My parents, Ron and Karen, who raised me with an appreciation for fine wine and international travel, met us in Auckland to join for three weeks of the journey. If there were an official theme for the country of New Zealand, we discovered it would undoubtedly be “Wine and Adventure”.
We visited an astounding 41 cellar doors across six regions during those three weeks. It was a thorough, and thoroughly enjoyable, crash course in New Zealand wine. The Kiwis have made a big name for themselves with Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, and many American wine drinkers are familiar with ubiquitous imports like Nobilo, Monkey Bay, and Kim Crawford. The scope of New Zealand wine goes well beyond those brands in terms of variety and quality.
As we traveled, I studied the viticulture, wine production, and different expressions of varieties among the regions. For instance, Sauvignon Blanc from Martinborough on the North Island is consistently herbaceous, fuller-bodied and minerally. However, in Marlborough on the South Island, it is more often citrusy, tart, and refreshing. In addition to the widespread Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand yields some incredible Syrah, Pinot Gris, and Riesling deserving of your attention.
Many of the renowned producers you’ll read about in this issue export at least a few of their styles to the United States. We are fortunate that with a national population of only 5 million, New Zealand relies on the demand in foreign markets.
In addition to the high quality of wine, New Zealand is a joy for wine travel. Cellar doors are usually open for walk-ins and span the spectrum from casual to upscale. The Kiwis, as a people, are incessantly gregarious and hospitable. Ultimately, as you travel between cities and regions, you’ll be treated to undeniably the most majestic landscapes on Earth.
A quick day-trip from Auckland by ferry, Waiheke Island is a semi-secluded place reminiscent of New England vacation destinations like Martha's Vineyard. Green rolling hills, steep sandy beaches, and circling yachts lend this island substantial charm. The handful of wineries on Waiheke are spread out, yet accessible by a surprisingly reliable circulator bus.
The Hawke’s Bay region on the South Island’s east coast is home to about 70 wineries which, aided by the warm maritime climate, produce primarily Bordeaux varietals, Chardonnay, and Syrah. Winegrowing areas are centered around the charismatic Art Deco town of Napier. While Hawke’s Bay ranks a distant second for wine production behind Marlborough, expect this region to ascend in prominence rapidly.
The Martinborough wine subregion of Wairarapa is about 80 kilometers east of Wellington, New Zealand's capital city. In the compact, quaint central village of Martinborough, the laid-back vibe carries through to every aspect of the wine industry. Wine tourism isn't overblown or seriously commercialized. Enjoy the chance to taste wines with the winemakers themselves as you pedal rental bikes between cellar doors. Martinborough accounts for just one percent of New Zealand’s wine production by volume, yet the wines are of phenomenal quality. Several distinguished Pinot Noir houses help Martinborough punch above its weight.
This South Island region is the flagship of New Zealand wine, producing 77% of the country’s volume. Sauvignon Blanc is king, with nearly 18,000 hectares (44,000 acres) of it planted, equal to the entirety of Napa Valley under vine and eclipsing the next most planted variety, Pinot Noir, by sevenfold. There are many wineries to explore surrounding Blenheim and Renwick, the two main towns of the region, with luxury and casual experiences to suit anyone’s travel style. Every winery sits somewhere in the vast Wairau or Awatere Valleys, which bless them with lovely green mountain backdrops.
Overshadowed by its neighbor to the east, Marlborough, the wine region of Nelson is home to a small number of boutique wineries. Although Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc dominate the winegrowing acreage, Chardonnay is the most acclaimed varietal coming out of Nelson.
Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand, lies at the heart of Central Otago. After summoning the courage to bungy jump or skydive, you can reward yourself with a glass of extraordinary Pinot Noir. Internationally celebrated wineries, whose Pinots frequently make wine critics’ annual Top 100 lists, are laced throughout the jagged mountains and gorges. Distinctive Riesling is gathering steam here, too.
Bannockburn is a former gold mining town located 60 kilometers east of Queenstown, New Zealand. A different kind of gold is being harvested in the hills these days: premium wine grapes. The Southern Alps mountain range creates stunning backdrops at every turn of the Kawarau River, which runs the course of the Central Otago wine region. With the mountains blocking wet coastal weather, consistent warm, dry summers bestow ideal conditions to nurture the vines.
Buttressed against the arid schist hills is an acclaimed winery named Felton Road. British expat Nigel Greening acquired Felton Road Wines after a successful career in advertising. A job with BMW brought him to New Zealand in 1997, and the local Pinot Noir spoke to his love of red Burgundy. Greening caught the “wine bug”. He soon purchased a vineyard called Cornish Point, and in 2000 purchased the adjacent vineyard - Felton Road.
Almost immediately, Greening decided to convert to organic farming methods. They achieved Demeter certification in 2010, the highest level of biodynamic viticulture credentials. Meticulous vineyard management produces the highest quality fruit, a necessity with a challenging variety like Pinot Noir. The quality of the crop allows winemaker Blair Walter to craft remarkable Pinot Noir with low-intervention techniques. The magnificent terroir of Bannockburn shows through because they use native yeast and wild malolactic bacterial fermentation, add minimal sulfur dioxide, and bottle the wines unfined and unfiltered. Assistant Winemaker Mike Wolfenden says “Our wines are wines of site. Applying similar ‘hands-off’ winemaking techniques across the board allows for site-expression rather than winemaking to define our wines.”
Felton Road annually produces five distinct Pinot Noirs, three Rieslings, three Chardonnays, and a Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, totalling a mere 11,000 cases. Among those, they’ve earned the most acclaim from their vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs. These red wines, in particular, exhibit the influence of terroir which the winemakers strive to preserve. The current release 2014 Felton Road Block 5 is one of the best Pinot Noir wines I’ve ever tasted. It displays floral, vanilla, and cherry aromas with elegant soft tannins. The 2014 Calvert Pinot Noir is quite distinct from the Block 5, powered by raspberries, earth, spice, and stronger tannins. I dare you to find a bottle of Pinot that is more fine, balanced, and smooth as those from Felton Road. Despite the small production and remote location, the Calvert, Block 5, and Block 3 Pinot Noirs have repeatedly made the Top 100 lists of global wine publications. Prominent critic James Suckling ranked the 2015 Block 3 at number 42 on his list of the top 100 wines of 2016. It outranked any red Burgundy.
Zoe, who guided our tasting, was exceedingly hospitable and informative. She showed us maps of the vineyard blocks, explained the soil types, and gave us a few extra special wines to taste. The cellar door itself is a picturesque double-gabled house with a large flower-draped porch with a view surveying the Felton Road estate vineyards. Overall, the casual and personal experience is everything an authentic wine tasting should be.
This winery, tucked back off the eponymous gravel Felton Road, is worth going out of your way to visit when in New Zealand. It's also worth scouring high-end restaurant menus and the internet to try to procure a bottle of the very limited release single-block wines. If not, good luck waiting on the mailing list for years to acquire them.
Visit Felton Road online
Distributed by the Craft + Estate division of The Winebow Group