New Zealand is known as a premier wine-producing country, boasting some of the southernmost vineyards in the world. Comprising two separate islands and located approximately 1,000 miles southeast of Australia in the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand offers wines with unique characteristics. There’s a lot to discover from this exciting and adventurous country. Although grapes were planted as early as 1819 on the north island, James Busby from Scotland is credited for the first wines, produced in 1839. There are 10 regions scattered throughout the two islands. The northern island includes the regions of Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay and Martinborough. The south island, which has a cooler climate, includes Nelson, Marlborough, Canterbury and Central Otago. The two islands combined would equal the length of California; they lie south of the equator roughly the same distance that France lies north of the equator.
The southern island has a longer, cooler growing season, which results in wines of higher acidity and intense flavors. The wines of New Zealand are typically more crisp and lighter-bodied than those of Australia, France or the United States. More white wine than red is produced. Harvesting of the grapes occurs in months opposite that of the Northern Hemisphere. It starts in March, and ends in late April or early May (the Northern Hemisphere harvest occurs during September, October and November). Winemakers who travel back and forth between the hemispheres are known as “flying winemakers.” Isabella and baco noir are a couple of the original grape varietals planted, but the wines produced were of low quality. Muller –Thurgau was also planted at one time, but since the wines produced were mediocre, it is not as common today. Sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, gewürztraminer, riesling, pinot gris, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and syrah are the modern grapes grown on the islands today. Sauvignon blanc, the most recognized grape varietal from New Zealand, is planted throughout both the north and the south islands. The north island flavor profiles include peach and melon, with a richer and bolder style as compared to the southern island, which offers wines of accentuated acidity and flavors of citrus and passion fruit. Marlborough, the most renowned region for sauvignon blanc, is located on the far northeastern tip of the southern island. Sauvignon blanc vines were planted in this region in the early 1970s, although there are clues that vines were planted here 100 years earlier. The cool climate is ideal for sauvignon blanc, although chardonnay, pinot gris, riesling and the red-skinned grape pinot noir are also planted to this region.
Sauvignon blanc is also a grape varietal that is reflective of its terroir, and therefore the wine will taste different depending upon where it is produced in the world. California sauvignon blanc can be described as grassy and herbaceous, South Africa offers a lemon-lime citrus, while the Loire Valley and Bordeaux of France exemplify a flinty style with a wet stone and mineral component. Grapefruit, kiwi and gooseberries are the common flavors of New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Flavors such as vanilla and toast are not common to New Zealand sauvignon blanc because of limited exposure to oak barrels for aging or fermenting.. With regards to the chardonnay grape, the New Zealand style is often bright and crisp with higher acidity. It is driven by fruit and stylistically different from Burgundy and California wines, which can be described as more intense and typically fuller-bodied.
Pinot noir is the most widely planted red grape in the country. Formerly used in sparkling wines, pinot noir is undertaking significant changes in styles offered today. Acute aromatics, fruit-forward with soft polished tannins, are more common. As with sauvignon blanc, pinot noir will drink dramatically different depending upon where it is planted in the world. With nontraditional characteristics, pinot noir from New Zealand offers a wide variance of flavors that can include red cherry, plum, black cherry, cocoa, spice, earthiness, barbecue smoke, tar and cigar box. Marlborough, Waipara and Central Otago are the best-known regions producing pinot noir, all of them located on the south island. Cabernet sauvignon is better suited to a warmer climate than pinot noir and therefore is planted primarily on the north island. Hawke’s Bay is one region well known for this varietal, and the wines are classically produced in a Bordeaux style. Located on the southeast coastline, it is the largest vineyard area on the north island, receiving the most sunshine for all of New Zealand, with over 7,500 acres planted to vines. Other varietals planted on the north island include syrah and merlot.
Spy Valley winery, located in Marlborough, produces both a sauvignon blanc and a pinot noir. The 100-percent sauvignon blanc has a bright pale straw color. On the palate, a mixture of lemon-lime gives this wine dimension, while the peach and grapefruit notes interplay with the soft texture. Pure fruit and dazzling acidity leave a sustained, dry finish. The wine pairs exceptionally well with a goat cheese-garnished salad, calamari or latkes with caviar. For a real treat, try this juicy sauvignon blanc as a mouth-watering companion to chef Chris Carlson’s “Tuna Chip ‘n’ Dip” at the Sandbar Fish House & Market (Andrew Weissman’s ode to seafood), located at the Pearl Brewery complex near downtown San Antonio. The Spy Valley pinot noir is fruit-forward in style with a long supple structure (100-percent pinot noir). Flavors of red raspberry, sweet cherry, licorice and cocoa combine with underlying notes of spice and dried sage for a fresh and lively wine. Drink it young to enjoy the vibrancy and exuberance of this wine.
New Zealand wines can be described as captivating and exciting. It’s a country to explore the next time you are looking to venture into something new and different, a fascinating and enchanting new wine experience.
By Denise Easdon
Denise Easdon is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine.