The vivid wines of New Zealand have won widespread cheers from critics and consumers in recent years. As Lynn Langway discovers, even seasoned oenophiles find something new to discover in these New World wine regions.
“My husband and I encounter a learning moment while sipping our way through New Zealand. When an English gentleman joins us at a tasting bar, we enthuse about the unoaked chardonnay being poured. He refuses to be impressed: “You cannot possibly take these wines seriously!” he thunders, causing a few drinkers to slosh their samples. “They have screwtops!”
Sorry, old chap, but screwtops are the future of wine and New Zealand is a pioneer in this movement. Most agree the metal closures permit wine to be stored longer and shipped farther without leaking or turning from decaying corks. New Zealand now caps more than 90 percent of its wines with screwtops and other countries are following suit.
Iconoclastic Kiwis are shaking up the Old World of wines with their fresh, fruit-driven whites and reds — often produced from organic and biodynamic grapes — and this trend is easily explored by driving the Classic New Zealand Wine Trail. This route traverses regions where more than 80 percent of the country’s wine is produced, offering opportunities to discover vintages at more than 120 cellar doors, and delight in luxury lodgings where stunning scenery and farm-to-table cuisine are natural extensions of the experience. The wine trail begins in Hawke’s Bay on the eastern coast of the North Island. Terroir ranges from gravelly coast to clay-and-limestone hill country, and 70-plus wineries are acclaimed for producing some of our favorite Bordeaux-style blends of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and malbec. Nearby is the Art Deco town of Napier, as well as the world’s largest and most accessible gannet colony where you can watch thousands of these birds skydiving into the sea.
At The Farm at Cape Kidnappers — an enchanting resort where 22 suites look over a dramatic headland jutting into the Pacific Ocean — a 6,000-acre farm supplies the ingredients for meals such as duck glazed with manuka honey paired with rare selections from its own cellar.
It’s a scenic 170-mile drive from coastal Napier to the inland Martinborough region, where the soil and climate is similar to Burgundy, best known for pinot noir. Since these boutique pinot noirs are not widely available in the U.S., we’re surprised and intrigued by the intense, savory quality found in some of the 54-plus wineries in Martinborough and the surrounding Wairarapa region. It’s possible to compare these unique pinots with the French originals in a master class at Wharekauhau Lodge. Farmers at the 13-cottage lodge still rear heritage sheep and cattle on 5,500 acres overlooking Palliser Bay. Here, homegrown provisions come from the executive chef, Marc Soper, who once cooked at The French Laundry and is known for creative flourishes in dishes like lamb with fennel custard. Just about two hours away lives the largest seal colony on the North Island and the Cape Palliser Lighthouse overlooks the South Pacific.
The Classic New Zealand Wine Trail spans two islands connected by a scenic ferry that delivers us across the Cook Strait from Wellington to Picton. We enjoy the swift drive to sun-drenched Blenheim, the heart of the Marlborough region. As the country’s leading wine area, Marlborough produces 77 percent of the nation’s wine, most of them celebrated sauvignon blancs that helped put New Zealand on the wine map. Beyond the “sauvs,” we also sample spicy pinots noirs now being grown, as well as the elegant rieslings and pinot blancs of neighboring Nelson — plus singular local seafood like green-shelled mussels. Luxurious seclusion exists at Edenhouse, a sanctuary that includes two suites within the main house and one freestanding cottage surrounded by 50 acres of gardens — designed by host Bobbie Martin and her husband, Peter — tucked into a valley outside Nelson. Outdoor adventures range from kayaking and swimming with baby seals in Abel Tasman National Park to cycling the Great Taste Trail to some of Nelson’s 37 boutique wineries.
As this epic driving journey comes to an end, it’s clear that few places in the world can rival New Zealand for its outstanding wines paired with breathtaking beauty and friendly locals who welcome us so wholeheartedly. From vintners proudly pouring their favorite bottle to esteemed chefs matching every dish with sommelier-selected vintages, an immersion into these wine regions offers us a refreshing take on an age-old craft.
Lynn Langway is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post and The Nation, among others. Her former roles include Senior Editor at Newsweek and Executive Editor of Ladiesí Home Journal.