My parents met us in Auckland on October 1, 2015 to spend a whirlwind three weeks together traversing New Zealand's north and south islands. If there were to be an official theme for this leg of our round-the-world trip, it would undoubtedly be wine and adventure.
We visited 41 wineries across six regions and tried many other wines at restaurants. It was a thorough (and thoroughly enjoyable) crash course in New Zealand wine. The Kiwis have made a big name for themselves in Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, and most wine drinkers are familiar with big exported labels like Nobilo, Monkey Bay, and Kim Crawford. The scope of New Zealand wine goes well beyond those in terms of variety and quality.
I learned A LOT about viticulture and wine production, as well as how varieties vary in various climates (alliteration intended). Sauvignon Blanc from Martinborough on the North Island is consistently herbaceous and fuller-bodied, which I prefer. In Marlborough on the South Island, it is more often citrusy, tart, and refreshing. In addition to the expected Pinot Noir and Sauv Blanc, NZ produces some incredible Syrah, Pinot Gris, and Riesling. We shipped home 15 bottles of wine, and it was tough to narrow down the competition to fill that case. We focused on sending home wine that isn't available in the U.S. Luckily, many of these producers export at least a few of their styles to the States.
Below are my overall favorites, then read on for a regional run-down of the wineries we visited.
Craggy Range has it all. This internationally-respected winery produces some of NZ's best French varietals. We visited twice! After a delicious dinner at Terroir, their on-site restaurant, we returned the next day for a full-range tasting. This winery was our favorite in the Hawke's Bay region. We brought home three bottles: a 2014 Avery Sauvignon Blanc, a 2013 Le Sol Syrah, and a 2013 Aroha Te Muna Road Pinot Noir.
The Felton Road Block 5 is the best Pinot Noir in the world. That's an outlandish statement to make by a man with an amateur's palate and only a little formal wine education. But I dare you to find a bottle of Pinot that is more fine, balanced, and smooth as this one. This winery is tucked back off a gravel road outside of Queenstown and is worth going out of your way to visit. It's also worth scouring the internet to see if you can procure a bottle of this very limited release wine. If not, good luck waiting on the mailing list for years to acquire a case.
Tucked into an industrial park, this unassuming tasting room and wine production facility exceeds expectations. Owned by an Austrian transplant, this New World wine has Old World character. They create very good Bendigo Estate Pinot Noir, although their top prize is a vintage Methode Traditionelle (champagne). It's one of the best bottles of bubbly I've ever had. Sadly, we couldn't bring any back to the States, but they do have a distributor in NYC.
Highfield Estate winery, in the western Marlborough town of Renwick, sits atop a small hill overlooking the Wairau Valley. This lovely winery also has an on-site cafe, a sun-soaked patio, and a three-story faux-Tuscan tower overlooking the vineyards. Highfield has merged with TerraVin, and both line-ups are available for tasting here. Each label was impressive and had their own standouts. The TerraVin "J" Merlot blend was phenomenal: rich body, smooth tannins, and full of fruits. The Highfield Riesling is a semi-sweet delight on a warm day, as well as a perfect accompaniment to Thai food.
Schubert's winery in Martinborough is located next door to Ata Rangi, one of the most consistently high-rated Pinot Noir producers in New Zealand. Frankly, I enjoyed Schubert's offerings much more. Their Pinots are perfectly balanced, fruity, and interesting. I brought home a bottle of their 2013 Marion's Vineyard Pinot. We also loved their Dolce desert wine, a sweet white blend with low 9% ABV, and bought one of those, too.
A quick day-trip from Auckland by ferry, Waiheke Island is a semi-secluded place reminiscent of New England vacation spots like Martha's Vineyard.
Wild on Waiheke - This is a party spot, with a focus on fun more than quality wine. It's worth a stop for lunch, like we did. They've got tons of outdoor family fun, like archery, horseshoes, and digital trap shooting. Yes, digital trap shooting with fake shotguns and sensor-equipped clay pigeons; it's like single-player laser tag and looks just as dumb. Not only are they a winery, but also a microbrewery. The wine nor the beer are outstanding, but there are some refreshing options like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Ginger Beer and Wheat Beer for a warm day. The gourmet food is excellent: venison salami pizza, fresh oysters, and charcuterie are perfect for sharing. The views aren't anything to brag about, but the setting among vines and hedges buffering the road is fine enough. Wild is a great spot to have casual lunch and some fun, although I'd skip it if you're serious about wine quality.
Stonyridge Vineyard - Stonyridge is a delight, all around. The large tasting area patio faces sharply rolling hills of vines and olive trees. Ample seating and plenty of grassy area for picnicking allow you to take in the perfect views and channeled breeze. The setting truly is unbeatable. Stoneyridge produces a cult-quality Bordeaux blend, the Larosa. This Cabernet-based wine has won countless awards over the years and is extremely pricey. But it is delicious and merits the praise. The Pilgrim, their GSM blend, is also very good. If you visit Waiheke Island, a stop at Stonyridge must be on your list.
Cable Bay - This ultra-modern winery and restaurant sit perched on a hilltop, a few minutes' walk from the ferry landing at the town of Oneroa. Their building is split into a casual tasting room and cafe on one side, and a formal dining room on the other. It's great that they offer two types of experience. The cafe serves mostly tapas-sized plates for sharing and a few mains. The highlight of the property is the wide vista of Church Bay (bet you thought I'd say Cable Bay) and the skyline of Auckland beyond. We visited for dinner at sunset, and I could hardly keep my eyes off the windows. Cable Bay produces a wide variety of wines sourced from their vineyards on Waiheke, in Marlborough, and Central Otago. Although we didn't do a full tasting, we shared glasses of wine over dinner. The 2014 Waiheke Chardonnay and 2014 Waiheke Syrah were our favorites.
Elephant Hill - Set on a coastal road overlooking Cape Kidnapper's, Elephant Hill is a beautiful place to visit in Hawke's Bay. Their modern tasting room with a curving bar is full of natural light from floor to ceiling windows. A large patio surrounded by fountains provides a chance to bask in sunlight with direct views of Hawke's Bay. While the setting of Elephant Hill is charming, the wine is less seductive. They produce a nearly-full range of French varietals. Unfortunately only their lower label wines are available for tasting, and they are fair. Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Pinot, Chardonnay... all were good but none stood out to me. Elephant Hill produces a few high-end wines called the Hieronymus (Bordeaux blend) and Airavata (Syrah). These wines are produced from the Gimlet Gravels subregion, where the best fruit in Hawke's Bay grows, so I'll safely assume these wines are excellent. Elephant Hill exports to the States. If you come across it, pick up a bottle and see what you think. If you are driving around Hawke's Bay, definitely stop in for lunch at a lovely spot.
Craggy Range - As stated above, Craggy Range was one of our favorite wineries. The property is situated across from a unique mountain ridge whose shape lends its name to the winery. If you have more time in the area, you can hike that ridge to enjoy vistas from Te Mata peak. We first visited for dinner at the highly-rated Terroir restaurant at Craggy Range. Oysters, lamb, filet - the classical menu is expertly executed and the Le Sol Syrah paired stunningly with the lamb. After enjoying our experience and the wines thoroughly, we knew we had to return in the daytime for a wine tasting. Both my parents and we walked away with three bottles each the next day. If I had had enough money to splurge, I would've bought a whole case of Le Sol. The ONLY criticism I'll make about Craggy Range is an architectural one. Their facility is located in the flat spot of the valley and is oriented to face some unremarkable hills to the east. You get views of their vineyard from the dining room, but the alternative is much more alluring. I wish they had oriented their restaurant and cellar door to take advantage of the namesake Craggy Range to their west. However, this slight architectural critique should not deter you from spending some significant time there.
Clearview Estate - Located down the road from Elephant Hill, this very laid-back Hawke's Bay winery is nice to visit. It has a shady seating area outside their cellar door and friendly staff. They offer big pours of nearly their full range of wines. Sadly, the quality of wine is not very good, but the price reflects that. Lindsay, who loves rose, was not impressed with the minerally character of theirs. Their signature red, Enigma, is a lackluster Bordeaux blend. I purchased a bottle of Syrah to drink while on the trip because it was a good value for the price, however, not good enough to take up one of my 15 slots in the case to ship home. If you're looking for an affordable buzz on your wine tasting trip, stop at Clearview. If you want a great experience at Cape Kidnappers, go to Elephant Hill. If you're focused on finding New Zealand's best wine, skip Clearview altogether.
Esk Valley - As you approach the Hawke's Bay region from the north Lake Taupo area, you emerge from green mountain passes and arrive at the sparkling blue Pacific. This is the prime real estate that Esk Valley Vineyards occupies north of the city of Napier. Most of their fruit grows in Hawke's Bay, but they do source a few varietals like Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc from the South Island. The tasting was quite the experience, but not for the wine quality. Our tasting guide was a harmless-looking older woman named Sue. For some reason, the pleasant conversation detoured from wine to immigration. She felt compelled to lay out all her thoughts on immigrants in New Zealand - opinionated and borderline offensive. None of the reserve wines were available for tasting, and the estate range were frankly unimpressive. We left without a purchase, only with a satisfaction for leaving an odd situation and the mediocre wine behind. American mega-corporation Ste. Michelle Wine Estates of Washington owns a stake in Esk Valley, so you should be able to find the wines on American shelves regularly. I would only recommend buying them if you promised a friend that you'd pick up New Zealand wine and have no other options.
Mission Estate - One of the oldest wineries in New Zealand dating back to 1851, Mission Estate's name doesn't attempt to hide it's pedigree - it was founded as a Marist mission by French priests. They started growing grapes for sacramental wine and the rest is history. Mission Estate wines are now fairly well-distributed in New Zealand. The tasting room is housed in the old seminary, along with a restaurant. This winery is a big operation - not a hidden boutique place - but the tasting experience is relaxed as you can explore the lobby of the wood-paneled cellar door and museum room next to it. Their Pinot Noir is the most award-winning of their varietals. However, one had an odd nose that our tasting host accurately described as "band aid". It didn't sound good at the time, but you take tasting staff at their word sometimes. Researching the "band aid" smell post-visit, I unsurprisingly discovered that this is not a desirable character of wine, and is in fact a sign of bad aging. Anyhow, we purchased a bottle of 2014 Reserve Gimblett Gravels Syrah which we enjoyed and sent it home. Upon opening it for Christmas dinner, we were disappointed. It was an average tasting wine and probably not worth sending home. We liked the experience at Mission and would go again, but wouldn't spend the extra money to send the wine home.
The Martinborough wine region is about 80 kilometers east of Wellington, New Zealand's capital city. Centered around the small town of Martinborough, this area is compact and quaint. The laid-back vibe carries through to every aspect of the wine industry here. Wine tourism isn't overblown or seriously commercialized.
Te Kairanga - Locally know as TK, Te Kairanga is a winery owned by the American-based Foley Family Wines group. Because my parents are Foley wine club members, we went out of our way to visit TK. It's situated on a beautiful little property with a picnic area. The tasting building is actually the restored cottage home of town founder John Martin, with an warm wood-paneled tasting room. Cellar door manager Paul led us through their range of wines, lacing in plenty of anecdotes and dry one liners. He and my dad hit it off, which led to the tasting dragging on unbearably long. TK boasts of their specialized Pinots, which we found to be average in quality. Overall, TK doesn't shine, but it is a quaint and historic place to visit.
Poppies - On our bike tour of Martinborough, we "popped by" Poppies, and met the eponymous owner - Poppy Hammond. She was delightful and hospitable, and is one of the few female winemakers in this region. Her husband Shane is the viticulturist, so this is a true family operation. This relatively new winery has a farmhouse-chic tasting room and event hall. It's a beautiful building and a popular lunch spot. Poppy specializes in white wines, and offers a Pinot Noir in addition to the spectrum of whites. Despite Poppy's hospitality, we weren't wowed by the wines. It's not necessarily fair, since I am red-biased. But I did really enjoy her Rose of Pinot Noir. We recommend a stop at Poppies, especially if you have time for lunch.
Ata Rangi - Numerous wine reviewers have consistently ranked Ata Rangi Pinot Noir in the 90s, including Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, Bob Campbell, and even a 99 from James Suckling for the most recent vintage. On the international scene, it is Martinborough's most highly-regarded wine. There is no doubt when the praise is so universal, but it does exemplify the difference in palate preference. Ata Rangi was not my favorite NZ Pinot, although it is very good. My father loved it. This is a wine that also benefits from some age. You've got a terrific deal on your hands with this wine for just NZ$75. The tasting room at Ata Rangi is small but cozy, an understatement compared to their presence in publications and the wine's fame.
Schubert - One of our favorites in Martinborough was Schubert. Owned by German transplants, they have mastered the elegant and drinkable Pinot Noir style I love. They are complex and balanced, delicious young but also age-worthy. The Schubert tasting room is in a small, simple building which we visited by bike. There is no pretense to the visit here, just good wine. They don't have much of an ambiance - no outdoor seating area, no food, no fancy art. But who needs the frills when the wine is so good? The woman guiding our tasting was an Italian named Martina, another Old World connection, who was friendly but to the point. We bought 2013 Marion's Block Pinot and a 2013 Dolce, their sweet dessert wine. Other wineries like Ata Rangi and Palliser may get more international attention, but Schubert was my favorite Pinot, and some of the best in all of New Zealand.
Palliser Estate - A member of the famed "Family of 12" premier wine producers, Palliser bottles Pinot Noir and a variety of white wines. They offer an entry-level range called Pencarrow, and a premium range of Pinot Noir called the "Great Dogs", each named after a real-life former vineyard dog. The Great Dogs are a barrel-select wine fermented with native yeast, and only released in exceptional vintages. Obviously it isn't available for tasting! Their standard range Palliser Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are well-balanced and of very high quality.
Margrain - Our friend Corinne, who we shared our 25 day African Safari with, is an Aucklander. When we visited her in Auckland, she said we couldn't miss Margrain in Martinborough. We're glad we took her advice. Owner Graham Margrain still works the tasting room on Fridays, and we were lucky to have him pouring for us that day. The guy is a real side-splitter with an infectious smile and spirit. The tasting room has a nice small patio where you can enjoy your wine with a view of the vineyard. All the wines were pleasant, drinkable, and affordable. We bought a bottle of the 2013 Reserve Pinot Noir, which we recently shared with friends over dinner. It was a delightful Burgundian-style Pinot: light in body, not a fruit bomb, yet aromatic and delicious.
Coming Soon - Part 2 - South Island