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.
Highfield Estate winery sits atop a small hill overlooking the Wairau Valley about a kilometer outside the western Marlborough town of Renwick. The Marlborough region has become widely recognized in the U.S. as a source of high-quality, affordable Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. The deeper truth is that Marlborough is in fact a huge growing region composed of multiple valleys with diverse terroir. Highfield’s estate terroir in the Omaka Valley area is ideal for Pinot Noir, with a cooler and drier climate and clay soils. Their fruit grown lower in the Wairau Valley, like Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot, is suited for the warmer days and stony soils found there.
The property that Highfield Estate occupies was originally a farm owned by Irish immigrants who named it after an area near Galway. Their son, Bill Walsh, eventually took over operation of the farm and shifted to wine production soon after the introduction of wine grapes to Marlborough in the mid 1970s. Upon that first planting of German varietal Muller Thurgau, the Walsh family grew the operation for nearly 20 years until bringing in partners Shin Yokoi and Tom Tenuwera. Following Bill’s retirement, Tom helped lead Highfield into the 21st century until his untimely passing in 2012. The loss was as difficult as it was unexpected. He was called the lifeblood of the winery - the tasting room is still adorned with his photos and the staff rattle off fond stories about Tom.
In August 2015, Highfield started the next chapter of their history by merging with TerraVin under the ownership of the two respective winemakers, Alistair Soper and Gordon Ritchie, along with general manager Pete Coldwell. They maintain the two separate brands, but operate as one entity and make all the wines at Highfield Estate’s on-site production facility. Both Soper and Ritchie pride themselves in their natural winemaking techniques. This shared minimal intervention philosophy includes using free run juice, hand-plunged maceration, and bottling wines unfined and unfiltered. Authenticity to traditional methods results in consistently terrific vintages distinct from the mass-produced Marlborough wines most Americans know.
As soon as you drive up to Highfield’s property, the architecture and landscape invokes an Italian summer. Modeled after a Tuscan villa complete with terra cotta roof and repeating arches, the key feature of the property is a three-story Medievalesque tower. A quick climb up the stairs offers sumptuous panoramic views of thriving vineyards and grand mountains, accurately self-proclaimed as the “best view in Marlborough”.
After reveling in the vista, a trip back downstairs to the tasting room brings you to the real reason you visited - for the wine. We wove our way through a full guided tasting of Highfield and TerraVin’s lineups. Highfield’s heavyweights are the crisp, award-winning Elstree Cuvee Brut, semi-sweet Riesling, and classic Pinot Noir. The Riesling was a delight, with the perfect balance of dryness and sweetness, a crisp acidity, and peach flavors with a long finish. The multiple Rieslings we purchased on site paired wonderfully with our charcuterie lunch and a spicy Thai dinner a few nights later, as well as a few to send home.
The zenith of the tasting was TerraVin’s 2011 “J”. A Bordeaux blend, primarily of Merlot rounded-out with Malbec and Cabernet, this wine is perfectly balanced, rich in dark berry flavor, and silky smooth on the finish. Awarded 92 points by Wine Advocate in 2010, the “J” sets the benchmark for a claret, especially as a very unexpected Bordeaux style from Marlborough.
The wine experience of Highfield is accentuated by the offerings of their on-site café, the Highfield TerraVin Vineyard Restaurant. On a perfect warm and breezy Marlborough day, we sipped on Riesling while sauntering through a diverse spread of charcuterie on the sun-soaked patio. Blue-lipped mussels, pork rillette, white bean and chorizo cassoulet, fois gros mousse, and more delightfully gourmet tapas spilled over our table. Scarcely crumbs remained in the aftermath. Small and large plates comprise the menu crafted by chef Stephanie Armstrong - perfect options no matter your level of hunger.
A visit to Marlborough is a search for the lifeblood of New Zealand. Highfield Estate and TerraVin Winery exemplify the possibilities of Marlborough wine made in an Old World method. The authenticity of their style is without question. The beauty of their locale is breathtaking. The experience is one you shouldn’t pass up.
Visit them online at www.highfield.co.nz and www.terravin.co.nz.